Around the NHL: Metro strikes back

This might be hockey blasphemy right now, but the Metropolitan is quietly becoming the strongest division in the NHL.

I would also like to nominate Peter Laviolette for the Jack Adams award, hand Devan Dubnyk the Vezina, and tab the Sabres as Stanley Cup favorites. They’ll beat the Flames in seven, of course.

Now that’s blasphemy. And not long ago, all of this slander came from the same sneering school of sarcasm. Hate the Metro 101 was everyone’s favorite class.

For as the Western Conference was setting the pace through the first half of the season, the Metropolitan was being lapped. By November, every team in the Metro except for Pittsburgh was looked upon like an undeserving legacy student, only relevant by virtue of their origin. While the rest of the league earnestly toiled away, the Rangers, Capitals, Flyers, Devils and Hurricanes skipped class and got by on the family name.

You don’t belong here, the Metro was told in scorn. And he who turned up his nose was right to do so – the disparity was almost comical. On December 1, the Capitals ranked second in the Metropolitan Division, and 24th – 24th (!!!) – in the league in regulation/overtime wins.

The West had particular reason to feel cheated. On December 4, the Rangers owned the division’s third and final playoff spot with 28 points. Meanwhile, the Predators, with 29 points, found themselves last in the Central. In the Pacific, the fifth place Canucks were on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Their 35 points would have ranked a comfortable second in the Metropolitan.

So the Metro deserved the flak it was taking through the first three months of the season. But then something happened. Perhaps Dad called from home and told son to stiffen up. Maybe Dean Bettman threatened to remove the underachievers from school. In all likelihood though, averages simply started to kick in.

(Look no further than the Capitals for proof of this. After surviving through the first half of the season on shootout wins and overtime losses, luck has caught up with the Caps and they now rank sixth in the Metropolitan.)

It’s almost impossible for a single group of teams to be consistently awful over the course of 82 games. For the entire first half of the season, it seemed, that clump of Metropolitan teams from second to seventh was separated by no more than seven or eight points. (On December 6, the first five teams below the Penguins were within two points of each other.) At some point the pack had to split, giving traditional shape to an 8-team division: two frontrunners, three or four contenders, and a couple bottom feeders.

What makes the Metropolitan interesting though is that everyone “progressed to the mean” at the same time. Right around January, the division just started to win…and win…and win (except for the Caps, whose charade has been exposed.) Instead of the pack splitting apart, it stayed together and picked up the pace, each team making a surge of its own to stay in the mix.

First the Flyers ripped off seven of eight from December 23 to January 8. The Hurricanes followed suit with five straight wins beginning on New Years Eve. Then the heat wave hit the New York area: the Islanders have won 10 of their last 13, the Rangers seven of their last 10 and the Devils have picked up points in seven of their last eight. But the hottest team of all is yourrrr Columbus Blue Jackets, whose seven game win streak is the NHL’s current best.

Right now, every team in the Metro excluding the Capitals has a winning record in the past ten games. The result of all this sizzling play is a division of intense competition. While little has changed structurally – the second place Rangers are just eight points clear of the eighth place Islanders – dynamically things couldn’t be different.

Instead of one great team at the top and seven mediocre teams below, the division is now defined by one frontrunner and seven earnest challengers. Yes, its shape has remained the same, but that’s now what matters. There aren’t any bad teams left in the Metro, and thus no easy wins out there for the taking.

Teams in the Atlantic can pick on the Sabres and Panthers (who, to be fair, have been better of late.) In the Pacific, the Oilers and Flames are divisional punching bags. But along with the Central, the Metropolitan is the only division that’s strong from top to bottom.

The Central, obviously, is still the standard of excellence. There isn’t a sub-.500 team in the division, and the average point total is 61. The Metro lags far behind with an average of 56, but that’s two clear of the Atlantic and only two shy of the Pacific. As Metropolitan teams continue to win, expect that first gap to widen and that second one to narrow.

So if you must have an NHL joke in the coming weeks, consider Austria’s medal chances at the Olympics, or John Tortorella’s coolheaded nature. But be careful what you say about the Metro – that division has been redeemed.