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Off the Post: Five talented teams in the East, only four playoff spots

During this unprecedented NHL season, in the midst of the pandemic, the four realigned divisions have created many interesting and surprising storylines.

The Florida Panthers are, shockingly, tied for the league lead in points. The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be ready to finally break out of the first round of the playoffs. And few would have predicted the Minnesota Wild would be in second place, sandwiched between the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche, on St. Patrick’s Day.

However, the deepest division, as many thought would be the case before the season started, is the Eastern Division. The Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins have been swapping division standings as if they were baseball cards.

Currently, the Capitals are claiming the No. 1 spot in the East. While they have the same number of points as the Islanders, they have played one less game and have lost one less contest.

A couple of Washington’s skilled players, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, are currently on heaters. Kuznetsov has corralled six points in the last five games and Ovechkin has lit the lamp in five of his last six contests, including the last four straight matchups when he has found the back of the net. With their hard-hitting offensive skill set, they are a tough matchup for any team in the league.

The often-overlooked Islanders are right in the thick of things, again. Under Barry Trotz’s defensive-minded coaching, New York is a tough team to go against any given night — they wear opponents down over 60 minutes. And if they are looking for an offensive spark late in the game, few are better at lighting that fire than Mathew Barzal.

Currently in third place are the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a bizarre beginning to their season — that included general manager Jim Rutherford resigning out of seemingly nowhere — it appeared that Pittsburgh could be heading for a down year. But Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin continue to remind the hockey world that the Penguins will be competitive as long as 87 and 71 are in black and gold.

Speaking of black and gold, the significant overhaul to the Bruins’ roster has led to a season riddled with high peaks and low valleys. While they again lack secondary scoring, they sit at fourth in the division. The top-tier talent on the roster is as good as any in the league. Charlie McAvoy, Tuukka Rask between the pipes and of course the best line in Boston: Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have kept Boston in the mix. But the young defensive unit and other three lines will need to step up their game for the Bruins to make a significant run.

Lastly, and currently outside the playoff picture in fifth place, are the Philadelphia Flyers. In his third year in net, Carter Hart has taken a step back. His goals against average has swelled from 2.42 in 2020 to 3.62 this season. And his save percentage has dipped from .914 to .884. It did not help that Sean Couturier, last season’s Selke Trophy winner as the best defensive forward in the league, was out for 10 games. The Flyers have talent up and down their roster, but they need to find consistency soon if they want to compete for The Stanley Cup.

Unfortunately for one of these five teams, its players will be watching the playoffs from their homes. Each division will have four teams reach the postseason. So, either New York, Washington, Pittsburgh, Boston or Philadelphia will get the spring off. Whichever team misses out on the dance will struggle swallowing one massive pill.

Because of game postponements due to the NHL COVID-19 protocols, many teams have a skewed number of contests under their belt. Moreover, points percentage can be a good way of seeing who has had a good season — rather than just looking at total points — which simply means the percentage of points a team has accumulated compared to how many were available.

Currently, there are more than 10 teams in the NHL that have accumulated a points percentage above .590, and five of them are in the East. The Flyers are looking in at the playoff bubble but have a better points percentage than four playoff teams: Chicago, Edmonton, Montreal and St. Louis.

While this playoff race will inevitably leave one team out, the hockey down the stretch in the East will be phenomenal. Not only will every game have postseason intensity, especially if the race gets even tighter, but the teams doing battle all have fantastic players.

So, while each division will have important and entertaining games the rest of the way, the five teams slugging it out in the East will lead to some incredibly spirited bouts.

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