As NHL teams enter April, the pressure is quickly mounting. The 56-game season is more than halfway through and the trade deadline looms ahead. Within the NHL East Division and its top teams, everyone has different circumstances to contend with. Some are looking to gear up for the playoffs. Others still need to secure their spots. But for all, the decisions, changes, and improvements made in April will help determine the course of the rest of this season. To kick off this high-stakes month, here’s a preview of what the East Division’s top teams will aim to do in the next thirty days. Be sure to check out the bottom half’s goals as well.
Goals for the NHL East Division’s Top Teams
Washington Capitals: Practice and Learn for the Playoffs
Leading the East Division, the Washington Capitals don’t have much to be concerned about. Barring a Sabres-esque losing skid, they’re headed straight for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In April, the Capitals should utilize each game as practice for the postseason.
Washington’s East Division rivals will provide a bevy of unique challenges during the rest of the season. The New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals’ closest competition, will serve as approximations of later-round opponents. The Boston Bruins simulate the kind of teams the Capitals will see in the first round – lower-ranked groups that still have the potential for upsets. And even some of the East Division teams that are not in playoff position have certain dangerous qualities. The Devils’ speed and youth will test Washington’s older, physicality-oriented team. And the Capitals will need to be especially wary of the Rangers, who inflicted a surprise 5-2 defeat in the last game of March. Overall, Washington will see all sorts of styles and levels of play from divisional opponents through the rest of the season. Learning and improving in each game will prepare them for the wide variety of teams they’ll face in the playoffs.
New York Islanders: Find Someone to Replace Lee
At second in the division, the New York Islanders are in a good position to make the playoffs. However, their offence has suffered in the absence of captain and first-line winger Anders Lee. To increase their chances at a deep playoff run, the Islanders need to find someone to take Lee’s place.
Since Lee’s season-ending ACL injury, the Islanders have been testing in-house replacements – namely Leo Komarov and Kieffer Bellows. But it’s become glaringly obvious that neither is capable of filling Lee’s shoes. Komarov is not a first-line-calibre left wing, and Barry Trotz doesn’t seem to like Bellows in that role. With Lee’s seven-million-dollar contract now on long-term injured reserve, the better option for the Islanders would be signing a player. Kyle Palmieri of the Devils, a veteran left wing comparable to Lee, or the Sabres’ Taylor Hall, who recently expressed willingness to waive his no-movement clause, would be good fits. If the Islanders make a move before the deadline rather than relying on their own players to replace Lee, they’ll have a much better long-term outlook on offence.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Keep the Momentum Going
Going into April, the Pittsburgh Penguins sit at third with a decent gap between themselves and the fourth-place Bruins. While a few injuries might hobble them at the beginning of the month, if they maintain their current momentum, they should end up securely in playoff position.
The Penguins ended March with Evgeni Malkin on long-term injured reserve and several other players out with minor injuries. Fortunately, some of them are due to return soon. Goaltender Tristan Jarry is listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury and Kasperi Kapanen and Teddy Blueger could potentially come back in early April. When key players like them return, Pittsburgh will be dangerous – perhaps even dangerous enough to take the division. The Penguins have won four straight games and gained points from their last six, giving them the longest winning streak in the East. When compared with the two teams ahead of them in the standings, the Penguins have the most momentum entering April. The second-place Islanders are on a cold streak after losing two straight to Pittsburgh, and the first-place Capitals are only two points ahead after dropping a surprise upset to the Rangers. If the Penguins stay hot through this month, they’ll make the playoffs easily. And if their competition doesn’t heat up soon, they might even have the chance to top the division.
Boston Bruins: Extend the Gap
This month, the fourth-place Boston Bruins will aim to separate themselves from the rest of the field. That’s easier said than done. To secure a playoff bid, Boston will have to record victories against higher-positioned teams while simultaneously avoiding clunkers against the teams below them.
This season, the Bruins have earned six points in four previous games against both the second-place Capitals and third-place Penguins. Boston’s eight meetings with Washington and Pittsburgh in April should provide ample opportunity for them to record a few more surprise wins. At the same time, though, the Bruins need to make sure no one gets an upset victory against them. Granted, the Sabres aren’t threatening to anyone, and Boston has won all five of its previous games against the Flyers. But with Mika Zibanejad producing at a consistent clip once again, the Rangers could prove dangerous. The Devils, too, pose a surprising challenge – New Jersey leads 4-2 in the head-to-head. Overall, given their precarious position, the Bruins simply cannot afford to leave any points on the table in April.
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