FILE - This March 18, 2018 file photo shows Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie, left, fighting Philadelphia Flyers' Travis Konecny during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Philadelphia. A tight race among contenders in the Metropolitan Division should have the top five teams battle-tested and playoff-ready. The Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils could all make it and are already in playoff mode. And the Metropolitan playoff series should be as tight as this season. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

Metropolitan Division madness gets contenders playoff-ready

March 21, 2018 - 2:34 am

The bruises on Travis Konecny's legs are marks of Metropolitan Division hockey.

In the third period of a crucial late-season divisional game, the undersized Philadelphia Flyers forward got in the way of not one but two slap shots from Washington Capitals defensemen. The two points from the victory made it all feel better.

"It's that time of year when those shots are crucial to make sure they're not getting to your goaltender," Konecny said. "I have a feeling that's the way the body is going to feel from here on out."

Konecny's not the only one feeling it down the stretch in a division where the top five teams are separated by just seven points with less three weeks remaining in the season — and they could all make the playoffs.

Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Columbus and New Jersey play six more games against each other down the stretch, too. A postseason with Metropolitan first- and second-round series is sure to bring knock-down, drag-out showdowns with not much separating these teams.

"It kind of depends on the timing of when you play each other," Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "Obviously you want to finish strong and have a good finish to the season."

With the Florida Panthers 10-2-1 in their past 13 games, all the contending Metro teams save for the Capitals and Penguins can't even feel safe. It's why Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux said, "Right now we're just trying to get into the playoffs."

That kind of desperation has paid off for the streaking Blue Jackets, who have won eight in a row to solidify themselves. Five of those victories have come against teams currently in playoff position.

"It's great preparation," Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "Every game's like a playoff game for us."

Teams can lose three of seven playoff games and stay alive. That might not be the case the rest of the regular season for the Blue Jackets, Devils and Flyers, and it's no sure bet the Capitals win the division for the third consecutive year.

A far cry from winning the Metro by seven points last year and by 16 in 2015-16, the Capitals are playing meaningful games in March and April, something that could help them in the playoffs after three consecutive second-round exits.

"I hope so," fourth-year coach Barry Trotz said. "It's going to help not only us, it's going to help Philly, it's going to help all the teams who are in that when you have to play at that level."

The second half of the season was loaded up with divisional games. That means whoever wins the Atlantic between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins will potentially face a battle-tested Metropolitan team. And for the Metropolitan first-, second- and third-place teams, familiarity breeds contemptuous playoff hockey.

"When you have meaningful games down the stretch, that's usually a good stepping stone into playoffs," MacDonald said. "The intensity ramps up and the importance of each game, each shift and each play gets further under the microscope, it makes it that much better for us to be able to be in these situations to be able to adapt to it."

JONES-ING

Columbus is a serious playoff threat in large part because of Seth Jones' development into a do-it-all No. 1 defenseman at age 23. Jones leads the Blue Jackets in ice time at 24:47 per night and is second on the team with 35 assists and 49 points.

"He's elite among the NHL defensemen the way he can join the rush, the way he can skate the puck out of the zone," said Kekalainen, who acquired Jones from Nashville for Ryan Johansen two years ago. "I think his transition game's gotten quicker. I think he's assumed a lot more power-play responsibility this year."

DONATO TIME

When Ryan Donato was leading the United States in goals and points at the Olympics, dad, former NHL forward and Harvard coach Ted didn't want to say when the 21-year-old forward would make the jump to the NHL. Turns out it was as soon as Harvard's season ended as the Bruins signed Donato on Sunday, plugged him in on the second line Monday and watched him record his first goal and assist.

"We have some injuries, we're at the point in the season where every game has a lot on the line and I think his being able to go over and have success at the Olympics this year really started to jumpstart his thought process that he was ready for the next challenge," Bruins GM Don Sweeney said. "I think that sort of gave Ryan a glimpse of what he was capable of doing, albeit he knows that the challenge will be that much greater at the National Hockey League level and certainly coming down the stretch."

GAME OF THE WEEK

The NHL-leading Nashville Predators visit the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday night for their final meeting before what could be a preview of a Central Division second-round series. It's uncertain if Jets star Patrick Laine will be in the lineup after suffering a lower-body injury Tuesday night. Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice didn't provide a specific timeframe for Laine's return, but did say "we don't think it's anything long-term."

LEADERS (through Monday)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington) and Laine, 43; Assists: Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg), 61; Points: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 93; Time on ice: Ryan Suter (Minnesota), 26:49

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