With the 2020-21 NHL season starting on Wednesday, NHL.com is taking a look at the top five storylines in each of the four realigned divisions. Today, the MassMutual East Division, which includes the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
The East features six rivals from the Metropolitan Division, where the Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals became accustomed to the intense battles awaiting them in their new division. The Bruins and Sabres join them to form a powerful group that includes five of the top seven teams in points percentage from the Eastern Conference last season — the Bruins (.714), Capitals (.652), Flyers (.645), Penguins (.623) and Islanders (.588).
“There is a very good team that is not going to make the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs,” Capitals center Lars Eller said. “Every division is good, but there are several teams in this division that have the potential to go all the way.”
1. Crosby against Ovechkin eight times
Every time Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin have played each other it’s been a must-watch game, going back to the first time, on Nov. 22, 2005, when they were NHL rookies, through 51 more regular-season games and 25 playoff games. With only intradivisional games this season, they’ll face each other eight times, with the first two at Pittsburgh on Jan. 17 and 19.
Since they entered the NHL in the 2005-06 season, Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, is first in the NHL with 1,278 points (706 goals, 572 assists) in 1,152 games; Crosby, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, is second with 1,263 points (462 goals, 801 assists) in 984 games. If Crosby doesn’t miss any games, he’s scheduled to play his 1,000th NHL game against Washington on Feb. 14. Coincidentally, Ovechkin reached that milestone against Pittsburgh on April 1, 2018.
2. Young goalies to watch
The East is loaded with talented young goalies who likely will play significant roles in determining the division’s four playoff teams. The Flyers’ Carter Hart, 22; the Devils’ Mackenzie Blackwood, 24; and the Penguins’ Tristan Jarry, 25, each already has experience as a No. 1 goalie. Ilya Samsonov, who will turn 24 on Feb. 22, will take over the top job for the Capitals after he backed up Braden Holtby (signed with Vancouver Canucks) as a rookie last season, and 25-year-old rookie Igor Shesterkin will compete with Alexandar Georgiev to succeed Henrik Lundqvist (contract bought out) as the Rangers’ No. 1 goalie. Georgiev turns 25 on Feb. 10.
The Islanders have high expectations for 25-year-old rookie Ilya Sorokin, who will make his NHL debut after playing in the Kontinental Hockey League the past eight seasons.
3. New York-New York
Could the first playoff series between the Islanders and Rangers since the 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (a four-game sweep by the Rangers) be on the horizon? Last season, the Islanders made their first appearance in the conference final since 1993, losing the best-of-7 series to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games, and will be seeking their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1984.
The rebuilt Rangers got some postseason experience when they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season. They’ve since added 19-year-old forward Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, to a group of young players that also includes forward Kaapo Kakko(turns 20 on Feb. 13), 21-year-old forward Filip Chytil, defenseman K’Andre Miller (turns 21 on Jan. 21) and defensemen Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren, who each will turn 23 next month.
4. Revived rivalries
The Bruins-Rangers rivalry dates to their Original Six days, but they haven’t been in the same division since they were in the East Division from 1967-1974. They’ve faced each other in the playoffs once since 1973, a five-game victory for the Bruins in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2013.
Though the Bruins and Flyers have never been in the same division, they have a storied playoff history that began with Philadelphia defeating Boston in six games in the 1974 Stanley Cup Final. The teams also met in the NHL Semifinals in 1976, 1977 and 1978, and then went 32 years without facing off in the postseason before the Flyers became the third team in NHL history to come back from trailing 3-0 in a series, defeating the Bruins in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Boston got its revenge the following season when it swept Philadelphia in the conference semifinals on its way to winning the Stanley Cup.
5. Hall’s new home, familiar opponent
Taylor Hall couldn’t have imagined when he signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Sabres on Oct. 11 that he’d wind up in the same division with the Devils and face his former team eight times this season. The forward helped New Jersey reach the playoffs in 2018, when he was voted winner of the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. But the Devils traded him to the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 16, 2019, rather than risk losing him as an unrestricted free agent after last season. Hall will play against New Jersey for the first time since the trade Jan. 30 in Buffalo.