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Battle in the Metro: Four's a Crowd

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Things are getting interesting in the division once known as the "Meh"tropolitan...

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With just about a third of the season remaining, we're starting to get a clearer picture of just which teams might be headed for the postseason. But while the separation between playoff teams and non-playoff teams has become wider, the opposite is happening between those still in the fight, with teams jockeying for position down the stretch.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than at the top of the Metropolitan Division, where the top four teams are separated by just four points. It's the tightest of any divisional race to this point, by far - in fact, no other division features a first- and fourth-place team separated by less than 11 points, and only the Atlantic has as tight a battle between the top three teams as there is in the Metropolitan.

No other division features a first- and fourth-place team separated by less than 11 points...

The Caps are right in the mix in the Metro, their win last night keeping them just two points behind second-place Pittsburgh, three behind the Division-leading Islanders and one ahead of the Rangers. And yet, as close as it is now, it's a far cry from where they were just a few months ago.

When the season got underway, the Penguins and Islanders looked poised to run away with the Metropolitan, matching each other win for win while separating themselves from the rest of the pack - all of whom were middling to bad through the first month of the season. By December 1, they were tied atop the Division with 32 points each, ten better than both the Caps and Rangers (who were sporting equally mediocre 9-8-4 records).

But that is when the tide started to turn.

The Rangers lost just three games that month, rattling off an eight-game winning streak in the process; the Caps picked up just five losses in December, but earned points in three of the five (and 18 of 20 overall). Those hot streaks, coupled with the Penguins and Islanders each coming down to earth a bit, led to the deficit being cut in half. That in turn was chiseled away a bit more as we headed into February... which landed everyone here:

Metro Standings

How did they get to this point? Take a closer look at some of the stats and facts that lead to this cluster at the top of the Metro:

GP Pts Pts % ROW L10 L20 PP% PK% 5v5 CF% 5v5 Sv%
Islanders 54 71 65.7% 28 5-5-0 12-7-1 19.7 72.5 53.7 91.4
Penguins 54 70 64.8% 29 5-3-2 9-8-3 21.0 85.9 52.3 92.3
Capitals 55 68 61.8% 27 5-3-2 11-5-4 23.5 80.0 51.6 92.3
Rangers 52 67 64.4% 29 6-3-1 13-6-1 19.6 81.8 50.0 92.8

While they've each gone through hot and cold streaks this season, all four teams are so evenly matched at this point that even the handful of points that separates them doesn't mean a whole lot. All have gotten solid to elite-level goaltending over the course of the year (although it'll be interesting to see how the Rangers deal with the recent injury to Henrik Lundqvist, who carries such a heavy load for them), and all four are fairly strong in terms of puck possession (with the Islanders checking in among the League's top five in that department).

Because they're all so close in so many ways, what will become crucial down the stretch are the head-to-head battles - who wins the games when they matter, when a four-point swing is at stake. Here's what has come before, and what lies ahead:

Season Series vs. H2H Gms Remaining vs.
Islanders 3-1-0 2-1-0 3-0-0 1 1 2
Penguins 1-2-1 0-2-0 1-2-1 1 2 0
Capitals 1-0-2 2-0-0 0-1-0 1 2 3
Rangers 0-3-0 3-0-0 1-0-0 2 0 3

The Caps, in particular, are going to need to focus on these games, with six remaining against the three teams around them in the standings. That includes three against the Rangers, games which will be vitally important - for obvious reasons, but also because the Rangers have three games in hand on the Caps. Lose more than one of those three head-to-head matchups and suddenly the Wild Card spot becomes more and more likely.

How all four teams perform over the next three weeks will be something to keep an eye on, especially with the trade deadline looming and a close battle in the standings getting closer by the day - will the Rangers pick up a goaltender to tide them over until Lundqvist comes back? Will the Caps bring in outside help to play on the top line, or move Mike Green? Will the Pens bolster their defense?

Sufficed to say that with two months to go in the season, things are getting interesting. Grab the popcorn... you won't want to miss a minute.