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NHL Power Rankings: The Penguins are better than they were a year ago

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There seems to be some concern around the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoffs start to get closer. Their penalty kill has stunk for about a month now, they give up too many odd-man rushes and scoring chances, and sometimes because of that they give up more goals than you would like to see from a Stanley Cup contender.

All of that would seem to be concerning at this time of year. Then you look at the fact they are still 7-2-2 in their past 11 games and you start to remember, hey, these guys are pretty good and they gave up a lot of chances a year ago, too.

There is something else that needs to be kept in mind: They are still playing better right now than they were a year ago heading into the playoffs, where they ended up winning the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.

The fact they actually won the Cup a year ago seems to overshadow the fact they didn’t exactly go into the playoffs last season like a dominant powerhouse. They lost eight of their final 15 games (including six of their final 10), finished the season 22nd overall on the penalty kill, and allowed the fourth most shots on goal per game.  They didn’t exactly play great in the first two rounds, either, getting through Columbus and Washington thanks largely to great goaltending carrying them.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

So let’s take a look at their recent performance this season where they are actually playing really well down the stretch, even if it can look a little sloppy at times.

Even with their recent slump on the PK they are still better than they were at the end of last season (17th this season vs. 21st this year) and are giving up the sixth fewest shots per game.

But let’s take a look at a more isolated stretch of games, specifically the past 11, and what they were doing at the same time a year ago.

Offensively they are averaging a full goal per game more, recording more shots, giving up fewer shots, and are one of the best possession teams in the league as opposed to being one of the worst.

The two drops are a slight increase in goals against and a worse penalty kill. It’s easy to blame the penalty kill slump on losing Ian Cole as part of the Derick Brassard trade, but that would also be kind of lazy. The Penguins played without Cole for 15 games earlier this season when he was on the team and never saw that sort of a drop in their play (while using mostly the same players).

The big change is in net where Matt Murray has been up and down at times when he has been healthy, while backups Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry have simply not played well. It is probably not a coincidence that the PK started to fall apart recently when Murray went down with an injury and missed nearly a month and the Penguins had to turn to a career minor leaguer and a pretty good prospect that probably is not quite ready for full-time NHL action.

If Murray is healthy and playing the way he was before his most recent injury (he was 8-0-1 with a .926 save percentage in nine starts before missing a month) they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

It should not be a total shock that they are potentially better team this season when you consider the fact they did not have Kris Letang — their No. 1 defenseman — at this time a year ago, and that they were able to add Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to fill the third-and fourth-line center spots and fix the depth problems they entered this season with.

The question is whether or not all of this is going to be enough to get them another chance at the Stanley Cup.

A year ago it was pretty obvious going into the playoffs that the Penguins and Washington Capitals were probably going to be the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference.

That is not the case this season.

This season there are probably six teams that all have a legitimate shot to come out of the Eastern Conference, whether it be Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, the suddenly surging Blue Jackets and, yes, still the Capitals, too.

The East is absolutely loaded and significantly better than it was a season ago. The Penguins might be better. But so is their competition. Not by a little bit, either.

On to the rankings for this week…

The Elites

1. Boston Bruins — Patrice Bergeron and Torey Krug are back in the lineup. The scary thing is they were still winning without them. Just wait until they get Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara back.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — It almost feels like we’ve forgotten about them a little bit. They are 12-3-1 in their past 16, still have the most points in the NHL, two of the best offensive players in the league, and made two huge additions at the trade deadline.

3. Nashville Predators — They’ve dropped three in a row since their 10-game winning streak came to an end. Nothing to worry about. Still the favorites in the west and one of the best teams in the NHL.

4. Winnipeg Jets — Starting to peak at the right time? A potential second-round matchup between them and Nashville might be the best series of the playoffs. If it happens.

The rest of the contenders

5. Columbus Blue Jackets — For the second year in a row they won at least 10 games in a row. Even better than the results is the fact they are also playing at an extremely high level. Their reward for all of this will probably be another first-round matchup with Pittsburgh.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They really didn’t do anything to drop a spot this week, but there’s just so many good teams at the top right now that it almost just kind of happened by default. A scary good offense that has Auston Matthews back.

7. Washington Capitals — Feeling some pressure from the rest of the Metropolitan Division the Capitals have gone on a 7-1-0 run to strengthen their grip on the division.

8. San Jose Sharks — The best team right now that no one is talking about? Firm grasp on second place in the Pacific Division, 10-2-0 in their past 12 games, entering the week on a seven-game winning streak. And they still might get Joe Thornton back at some point.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins — It is all going to come down to goaltending.

10. Vegas Golden Knights — With wins in just six of their past 14 games they are still sliding a bit. That potential first-round matchup with Colorado seems dangerous for them.

The middle ground

11. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon has kind of overshadowed the fact that Mikko Rantanen is also one of the top scorers in the league this season. Of course, MacKinnon probably deserves a lot of credit for that but having two elite scorers on a line is never a bad thing.

12. Minnesota Wild — They are a pretty good team and should be capable of winning a round in the playoffs, but do they have the firepower to keep up with Winnipeg or the defense and goaltending to shut them down?

13. St. Louis Blues — These guys looked done one month ago, now here they are making a serious run at that eighth playoff spot in the West. Jake Allen is getting hot in net at the right time for them.

14. Anaheim Ducks — One of the great “what ifs” of this season will be what the Ducks would have been capable of with a reasonably healthy roster for most of the year.

15. Philadelphia Flyers — Sean Couturier has officially become a force down the middle. That defense with 30-goal, 70-point offense is one hell of a player.

16. New Jersey Devils — With nine points in his past six games Taylor Hall is still trying to drag this team to the playoffs.

17. Florida Panthers — The games in hand are still their biggest asset in the race for a playoff spot. Still have to win them.

18. Los Angeles Kings — They have not won or lost consecutive games in nearly a month. This perfectly illustrates what this team is at the moment: Mediocre and dull. Neither great, nor bad.

Better luck in the lottery

19.  Edmonton Oilers — It took them most of the season and until they were all but eliminated from the playoffs, but they finally started to play at least a little bit like the team a lot of people thought they could be this season.

20. New York Rangers — Jesper Fast has an eight-game point streak heading into Monday’s game. There is not much else going on here.

21. Carolina Hurricanes — Let’s just say it now: Nobody gets to pick them as their sleeper team next season.

22. Calgary Flames — To make matters worse, their first-round draft pick is going to the New York Islanders as a result of the Travis Hamonic trade.

23. Dallas Stars — How do you bring back Ken Hitchcock and Jim Nill after this? Too much money to spend on an average team that has tanked down the stretch.

24. Chicago Blackhawks — Just about the only positive from this season is that young players like Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz have had really nice seasons. Given the long-term salary cap situation they need young talent to come through.

25. Arizona Coyotes — Derek Stepan has been outstanding lately with 11 points in his past eight games. This young team is still showing a ton of improvement as the season goes on.

26. Ottawa Senators — Everywhere Guy Boucher has gone, whether it is in the NHL or in Europe, his system has worked wonderfully for one season. Then it stops working. Every. Single. Time.

The basement

27. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser, a rookie, is going to miss 20 games and still has a very good chance to finish as the team’s leading scorer. The only reason we moved them up this week is because they have won two out of three and the four teams below them … well…

28. New York Islanders — They have two wins in their past 15 games. During those 15 games they have given up at least six goals four times. Twice they have given up seven goals. Woof.

29. Montreal Canadiens — Their only wins in the month of March have come against the New York Islanders (who have gone in the tank), the Dallas Stars (who have gone in the tank) and the Buffalo Sabres (who have never gotten out of the tank).

30. Buffalo Sabres — During their four-game losing streak entering Monday they have the following goal totals: 0, 1, 0, 1.

31. Detroit Red Wings — They did snap that 10-game losing streak with a shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Then they lost two more in a row. They have not won a game in regulation since February 24. In their past 18 games they have one regulation win, one overtime win, one shootout win. That is it. Two of those wins were against the Carolina and the rebuilding New York Rangers.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blue Jackets’ Matt Calvert scores unusual breakaway goal

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We’ve all see some breakaways go horribly, horribly wrong in the past.

Patrik Stefan reigns supreme here. Devin Setoguchi didn’t fare too well on this one. And then there was this gaffe by Dennis Wideman once upon a time.

But sometimes one screws up, only to rebound quickly and turn a near-blunder into a nice-ish goal.

Columbus Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert did that today, in what’s already being called the best/worst breakaway attempt of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As you can see in the video above, Calvert gets a nice clean breakaway. As he attempts to first a wrist shot, he whiffs on the attempt but manages to corral the puck back, doing the whole spin-o-rama thing, and deposit the puck past Braden Holtby for his second goal of the game.

Sometimes it just all works out.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Lightning, Bruins try to move on to Round 2

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Game 5: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 p.m. ET (Lightning lead series 3-1)
NBC/NBCSN*
Call: Gord Miller, Joe Micheletti
Series preview
Stream

Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets at Washington Capitals, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
NBC/NBCSN*
Call: Chris Cuthbert, Ray Ferraro
Series preview
Stream

Game 5: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET (Bruins lead series 3-1)
NBC
Call: Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream

*Regionalized coverage – Florida markets and WNBC in New York metro area will air NJ-TB on NBC and CBJ-WSH on NBCSN; all other markets will receive CBJ-WSH on NBC and NJ-TB on NBCSN

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]