Updated: January 1, 2014, 2:34 AM ET

Just A Thought

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Scott Burnside@ESPN_Burnside: It's been easy to make fun of the Eastern Conference in general and the Metropolitan Division specifically through the first half of the season, and the mediocre play of so many teams has earned all the derision that's been heaped on the group. But you cannot deny the playoff races that are shaping up in the East, and with the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils all winning on Tuesday night, the formerly weak-kneed Metropolitan is starting to shoulder its way into the wild-card discussion, which had previously been the domain of teams from the Atlantic Division. That puts a little more pressure on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings as they head into the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. The Leafs and Wings woke up tied for the two wild-card spots in the East with 45 points, three more than the Rangers and Devils, with all four teams having played 41 games. Washington and Philadelphia are second and third in the Metro with 45 and 44 points, respectively, so you can see how the certainty teams in the Atlantic had about the wild cards has evaporated.


Craig Custance@CraigCustance: The Blue Jackets lost the first game of a four-game road trip Tuesday night, a 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, but we continue to appreciate the effort turned in by Todd Richards' group. This team, one that still is in the early stages of collecting talent under Jarmo Kekalainen, has managed to tread water despite injuries to Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, its most dynamic offensive player in Marian Gaborik and its top free-agent signing in Nathan Horton. Maybe the long wait for Horton's return will give Columbus a push. When I spoke to him on Tuesday, Horton sounded close to returning and eager to join his new teammates. "I'm pretty much healed. During the last few practices, I felt good. I don't have any soreness," he said. "I don't have a date, but it's probably going to be soon."


Pierre LeBrun@Real_ESPNLeBrun: We talked recently about all three California teams contending in the Western Conference, all three worthy of Stanley Cup consideration. But are we seeing one begin to separate from the group? Anaheim's 6-3 win over San Jose on Tuesday night moved the Ducks seven points clear of the second-place Sharks in the Pacific Division, although San Jose has two games in hand. Still, the high-flying Ducks are beginning to build a solid lead atop the NHL's toughest division and at some point might be tough for the Sharks and Los Angeles Kings to reel in. If they can't catch Anaheim, the Ducks' California cousins risk having to face each other in the first round of the playoffs.


Katie Strang@KatieStrangESPN: There appears to be a goaltending controversy brewing out in Winnipeg, with backup netminder Al Montoya pitching a 27-save shutout in the Jets' 3-0 win over the Sabres on Tuesday night. Montoya made his second straight start over Ondrej Pavelec, forcing coach Claude Noel to make some tough decisions in net. The journeyman goaltender, a former first-round pick for the Rangers who also spent time with the Islanders, improved to 8-2-1 in what's been an impressive 2013-14 campaign. In 13 games this season, Montoya has posted a 1.85 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. Meanwhile, Pavelec has given up 11 goals in his past three starts and has markedly worse numbers: 11-16-4 overall with a 3.03 GAA and .902 save percentage. Look for Noel to give the nod to Montoya once again when the Jets begin a three-game road trip against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday.

Picture This

Matt BeleskeyAP Photo/Jae C. HongMatt Belesky's joy and Andrew Desjardins' frustration tell the story of the Ducks' 6-3 win.

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