Loaded division suits Pens

Carl Hagelin is not surprised by the strong play in the Metropolitan Division. (AP)
The Associated Press

For once, the hype about a loaded division is true, and it’s the one the Penguins call home

You hear it every year, repeated ad nauseam by coaches, players and executives in every NHL city throughout North America: Our division is so tough.

Toss the Bad News Bears, Little Giants and District 5 from The Mighty Ducks into a seven- or eight-team grouping, and it’s entirely possible – no, likely – you’d still hear about how there are no nights off.

It’s more than a bunch of hot air this season.

The Metropolitan Division actually is providing the stiffest test for the Penguins in their 50-year history, numbers-wise the most competitive division they’ve experienced.

If you take the top four teams from whatever division the Penguins have played in over the past 49 seasons – the Metro, Atlantic, Northeast, Patrick, Norris and West – the .700 points percentage compiled by the 2016-17 Metropolitan stands alone. By a lot.

Second, third and fourth have all come since 2011: .648 (2015-16), .644 (2011-12) and .630 (2014-15), the middle of those the old Atlantic, perhaps all of them attributable to how points are awarded and outcomes are decided these days.

“No surprise,” Carl Hagelin said, “but our division has been so good.”

Beyond the four listed above, you’d have to rewind to the 1983-84 Patrick Division (.619) to find a similar points percentage. (Take it easy on poor Eddie Johnson. He wasn’t tanking for Mario Lemieux. The division was just that good!)

The current climate, though, presents a a bit of a problem.

Because of the NHL’s wacky playoff formula, sticking with division play for two rounds, somebody among the Penguins, Washington Capitals, and Columbus Blue Jackets will go home after the first round. Never mind that those teams had three of the four highest point totals league-wide through Tuesday.

“We’re trying to put our team in the best position to be successful regardless of what the format is,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Certainly, we’d like to win our division if we could.

“We’ll take each game as it comes and do our best to win each game, so, hopefully, when we get down the stretch we’re in a good position.”

Another part of this study showed that this season could be the second toughest to get into playoff position. Metropolitan teams have an average standings place of 2.75, second only to 2011-12 (2.5).

That year, the New York Rangers (.665), Penguins (.659), Philadelphia Flyers (.628) and New Jersey Devils (.622) finished one through four, all eclipsed 100 points and averaged 105.5.

They were seeded first, fourth, fifth and sixth, and three of the four made the conference semifinals, with the Flyers knocking off the Penguins.

The accomplishments this season inside the division have been remarkable. Not only the Blue Jackets’ 16-game winning streak, but it’s easy to forget a host of others:

Washington posting six- and nine-game winning streaks.

The Penguins’ season-best seven-game winning streak and different stretches where they went 7-1-1 and 13-1-2.

The Rangers winning eight of nine and 11 of 13 early on.

The Flyers winning 10 in a row, a streak that looked impressive until Columbus mounted its streak.

“Columbus hasn’t surprised me,” Penguins forward Bryan Rust insisted. “I knew what kind of players they had. They’re talented. They just needed maybe a piece or two here and there, and they could bring it together. They did. Washington and New York have always been good. Even the [New York] Islanders are coming on strong as of late.

“There’s a lot of good teams from top to bottom. It makes every night a little bit harder.”

Enough to make some history along the way.

“We feel like we’re a good team, but we still have to prove it within our division,” Chris Kunitz said. “We know in playoffs you have to win out of your division to go anywhere. It’s going to be a tough thing.

“We’re going to have some battles down the stretch here just to get into a good home-ice position in the playoffs because there are so many quality teams and teams in our division that are playing really good hockey.”