- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2020

Does anything odd about the Washington Capitals’ season thus far jump out at you?

Think about it for a moment. After all the Alex Ovechkin hat tricks, the shootout wins and the prime time tilts with the Boston Bruins, you come to realize: The Capitals have yet to play their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins.

That will change Feb. 2 when the Penguins come to town; All four of their regular-season matchups are coming up in February and March. The bad news for Washington: The Penguins are among the hottest teams in the NHL at the All-Star break.

There’s even worse news: It’s not just the Penguins. The Columbus Blue Jackets have won six in a row. Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders are still a threat. In fact, the Metropolitan Division is home to six viable playoff contenders, making it the top-heaviest division in hockey.

The Capitals have 11 divisional games left to play, so there’s plenty at stake. Even though they lead the NHL standings at the break (33-11-5, 71 points), in position to win another President’s Trophy, there’s no guarantee they finish first or even second in their own division.

With that in mind, it’s a good time to look at the five teams nipping at the Capitals’ tails and how they stack up with the playoff race fast approaching.

⦁ Pittsburgh Penguins (67 points): After an uneven start to the season, the Penguins righted the ship. Even as Sidney Crosby sat out for two months due to a sports hernia, they’ve gone 17-5-1 since the calendar turned to December and certain power rankings around the internet place Pittsburgh at No. 1 or 2.

After games at home on Feb. 2 and Feb. 23, the Capitals will make the trip to Pittsburgh on March 7 and March 22. Those games should tell a well-rounded story of how each club is performing down the home stretch and what holes might be exposed. For instance, it should be no surprise if the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust score at will against Washington’s subpar blue line.

⦁ New York Islanders (63 points): New York raced out to a 4-1 lead after two periods in the Capitals’ final game before their bye week. It looked like a show of force by the Islanders — until their vaunted defense fell apart in the third period and the Capitals scored five unanswered goals to pull off the comeback win.

No, the Islanders are not the hottest team on this list. They might actually be the coldest. Back in the fall, they earned a standings point in 17 straight games to keep pace with the Capitals in the Metro. But in January, if you don’t count an 8-2 drubbing of Detroit, the worst team in the NHL, the Islanders averaged 2.1 goals per game.

Still, a first- or second-round playoff matchup between the Capitals and their old coach would be entertaining, to say the least. Their last regular-season meeting is Feb. 10 in Washington.

⦁ Columbus Blue Jackets (62 points): What’s going on here? The Blue Jackets weren’t supposed to be contenders after leading scorer Artemi Panarin and starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky departed in free agency. Yet Columbus is making things work without any household names.

Take the goaltending. The Jackets didn’t sign a replacement for Bobrovsky in free agency, instead relying on who was already in their organization. Joonas Korpisalo was having a fine season before his recent knee injury. His replacement, Elvis Merzlikins, has come out of nowhere to win nine of his last 11 starts, including three shutouts.

Come the postseason, it’s hard to say how threatening a team like Columbus can be, but with a seasoned coach like John Tortorella the Jackets will never be an easy out.

⦁ Carolina Hurricanes (61 points): The Hurricanes knocked the Capitals out of the playoffs with a seven-game first-round victory last April, and if the season ended Friday, they would draw a rematch in the first round. If that’s not enough to cause Washington fans to sweat, what is?

Carolina just lost their top defenseman Dougie Hamilton to what appears to be a long-term leg injury. On the flip side, one-time Capital Justin Williams returned to Carolina this month after stepping away from hockey before the season began.

The Hurricanes are the only team listed here whose season series with the Capitals is already over. Their aggressive forecheck gave the Capitals problems in their earlier matchups, but Washington beat them twice this month to split the series 2-2.

⦁ Philadelphia Flyers (60 points): They’re not getting the attention of the teams ahead of them in the Metro, but the Flyers are lurking in the Eastern Conference wild-card race. And for what it’s worth, the Capitals have yet to beat them in regulation this season, with two tries left to come.

Goaltending has always been Philadelphia’s downfall in the past, but that doesn’t look to be a problem this year with the tandem of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott working well of late (when Hart has been healthy).

If they can avoid the cold streaks that plagued them in the first half of the schedule and sustain themselves as a solid all-around team, the Flyers could join the playoff race mayhem in the final weeks of the season.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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