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Johnny Gaudreau is playing best hockey of NHL career

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Maybe it’s because Johnny Gaudreau has been a productive scorer since day one. Almost literally.

Gaudreau scored a goal in his first NHL game with the Calgary Flames, his only appearance in 2013-14. The slick, undersized forward then generated 24 goals and 64 points as a rookie in 2014-15, and really hasn’t missed a beat.

While there were plenty of questions heading into 2017-18 for Calgary – goaltending, Jaromir Jagr, depth on defense and offense – everyone just assumed Gaudreau would keep scoring. So perhaps that explains why people aren’t making much of a deal about Gaudreau scoring even more than usual.

As of Tuesday, Gaudreau is in a four-way tie for second in NHL scoring with 54 points.

After scoring two goals and six assists for eight points in four games, the Flames forward was named NHL’s first star of the week, ahead of teammate Mike Smith (also red-hot). His point streak actually extends into 2017, a stretch of seven games, five of which were multi-point (two goals, 11 assists for 13 points).

Gaudreau set career-highs in goals (30) and points (78) in 79 games back in 2015-16. While he’s at a solid goal-scoring clip of 15 so far this season, his playmaking is what might make this his best work. Gaudreau is averaging 1.2 points-per game, a pace of about 98 points during an 82-game season.

Upon hearing about Gaudreau’s All-Star nod about a week ago, Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan did a great job summarizing what makes him so effective.

“I think he gets the best looks in the National Hockey League,” Gulutzan said, via the Calgary Sun. “He puts himself into position every game to create and shoot. Just the way he navigates himself on the ice and can handle the puck, it’s pretty amazing. For not a big guy, he can strip guys of pucks and get those kind of opportunities, too. It’s a combination of speed, agility and high hockey I.Q. that allows him to do it. He’s our engine for generating offense.”

This goal Gaudreau scored against the Stars on Nov. 24 is a great example of his ability to “strip guys of pucks,” and why he’s such a nightmare to defend.

Gaudreau and the Flames are currently resting up on a bye week, and hopefully not getting too rusty, as Calgary owns the longest active winning streak in the NHL at seven games. Beginning on Saturday, the Flames will play six of their next seven games at home, so there’s a solid chance that they’ll keep their strong play going.

If so, the Flames – and Gaudreau – will be difficult to ignore.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Power Rankings: Here come the Flames

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Expectations were high for the Calgary Flames entering this season.

They have a promising young core of talent centered around Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Dougie Hamilton, then spent a bunch of money to bring in Travis Hamonic and Mike Smith over the summer. Hamonic, along with Hamilton, Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie seemed to give them one of the better defensive units in the NHL (at least as far as the top-four is concerned) and Smith was expected to solidify a goaltending position that had been a pretty big sore spot the past couple of years.

When we last checked in with our power rankings two weeks ago the Flames were looking like one of the bigger disappointments in the league. They were on the outside of the playoff picture and looking like they were running out of time to make a big move in the standings.

But a six-game winning streak can change a lot.

Entering the week the Flames find themselves in the No. 2 spot in the Pacific Division and have built a four-point cushion over the first non-playoff teams in the West. One of those teams (San Jose) still has four games in hand on them, but the Flames are finally starting to resemble the team they were expected to be over the summer. They are 9-2-1 in their past 11 games.

Gaudreau is blossoming into a superstar while Smith has been on a roll in net over the past few weeks.

They made one of the biggest jumps in this week’s rankings.

Here is a look at where everyone else falls this week.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Losing Victor Hedman for 3-6 weeks is going to hurt in the short-term, but the Lightning have their bye week for the first week of that timetable and have given themselves a huge cushion in the standings. They have the offense and goaltender to withstand that loss for a couple of weeks.

2. Vegas Golden Knights — Yes. Somehow Vegas gets included in the elites now, too. I only saw somehow because this story is still insane. An expansion team. A legitimate Stanley Cup contender more than halfway through the season. Madness. Entering Monday the Golden Knights are 14-1-2 in their previous 17 games, a stretch that includes games against Anaheim, Nashville (twice), Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, St. Louis and Washington. They are going to get a big test here with a four-game road trip including games against Nashville and Tampa Bay.

The Rest Of The Best

3. Washington Capitals — After losing a lot this offseason it was supposed to be a step back this season. That step back still has them on pace for 109 points and another Metropolitan Division title. As the NHL standings sit today, their reward for that would be a first-round matchup against … the Pittsburgh Penguins.

4. Boston Bruins — Given the offseason seasons for Mathew Barzal and Brock Boeser it is going to be tough for him to get a lot of attention in the Calder Trophy race, but Charlie McAvoy has been just as impactful as both. If not more impactful.

5. Nashville Predators — P.K. Subban should be one of the leaders in the clubhouse for the Norris Trophy at this point. His defensive play right now is laughably underrated.

6. Winnipeg Jets — It is really impressive how much offensive talent the Jets have, and how much of it is still young. Kyle Connor is scoring at a 30-goal pace over 82 games as a 20-year-old rookie and nobody even really mentions him much. If the goaltending can hold it together they will be a fascinating team to watch.

7. Los Angeles Kings — Jonathan Quick has at times been a little overrated in his career, but his performance this season has matched the reputation he has built. It’s almost as if he’s been a little underrated this year.

Just A Step Below

8. St. Louis Blues — The Blues need more from Jake Allen. A lot more. Carter Hutton has been really strong in a backup role this season and it’s probably time to give him a few more starts and ride the hot hand.

9. Calgary Flames — What a difference a couple of weeks can make in a team’s outlook for the season.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Jack Johnson wants a trade, but it is hard to see him bringing much of a return. Not only because every team knows he wants out, but because he is probably best suited as a third-pairing defenseman. There doesn’t seem to be a lot for Columbus to gain here and it’s hard to see Johnson getting more playing time on a team that will give him a better chance to win than Columbus will.

11. New Jersey Devils — They enter the week on a six-game losing streak. Time to panic, or just a small speed bump during  a long season full of peaks and valleys? They are still scoring goals so that is a good sign they can turn things around again.

12. Toronto Maple Leafs — They still have flaws, but it is amazing they are a top-five team in goals scored while getting only 14 goals from William Nylander and Mitch Marnrer and with Auston Matthews missing 10 games. Crazy depth up front.

13. Colorado Avalanche — One of the hottest teams in the NHL at the moment. Six game winning streak and 11-3-1 in their past 15 games. They are currently on the outside of the playoff picture, but they are only two points back and have two games in hand on the team they are chasing.

The Middle Ground

14. Pittsburgh Penguins — The Penguins are really on to something with this Sidney Crosby, Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon line. It has also added a lot more balance to their forward lines. With Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all rolling now the Penguins look like the Penguins again.

15. Dallas Stars — Alexander Radulov isn’t getting enough attention this season. He is on track for a career year offensively, is driving possession, and has generally been pretty outstanding for the Stars.

16. San Jose Sharks — Still having a hard time getting a feel for the Sharks. They are not bad, they are not really anything special, they are currently on the outside of the playoff picture … but they also have only played in 41 games and have multiple games in hand on everyone. They are not out of it by any stretch.

17. Minnesota Wild — Eric Staal‘s resurgence in Minnesota the past two years has been a pretty stunning development. He looked like he was done toward the end of his time in Carolina.

18. Philadelphia Flyers — Sean Couturier is on pace for 47 goals while playing dominant, shutdown defense. The goal scoring might end up being a bit of an outlier in his career (he is not a 19 percent shooter every year) but it is still a remarkable season for him.

19. New York Rangers — They have always been dependent on Henrik Lundqvist but right now they are taking that to an entirely new level. The defensive strategy just seems to be “pray that Lundqvist stops everything.”

20. Chicago Blackhawks — Like the trade for Anthony Duclair. Fresh start on a talented team might be good for him, and the Blackhawks could certainly use another young forward to fly around and create offense. But is the defense good enough to get them in the playoffs, especially with Corey Crawford‘s status still in question?

21. Anaheim Ducks — If they get healthy — and stay healthy — they could still be a team to watch out for in the second half. As of Monday they are two points back of a playoff spot. The challenge will be overcoming the five teams ahead of them at the moment.

22. Carolina Hurricanes — Just when it looked like they were ready to make a big move in the East they dropped six out of eight. Still a lot of intriguing talent and the new owner seems like he is fired up and can bring plenty of excitement. There is a core here you can win with.

23. New York Islanders — They might not make the playoffs, they still have to re-sign John Tavares and Josh Bailey, but Mathew Barzal looks dynamite. They fall so low because they are really cold right now and have lost a lot of ground in a short period of time. Still very much in the playoff race, but trending in the wrong direction.

Better Luck Next Season

24. Detroit Red Wings — They enter the week 5-2-0 over their past seven games, trying to show some signs of live. That is good news. The bad news: Even with that nice little run they are still probably out of the playoff race.

25. Florida Panthers — Aleksander Barkov got a much deserved spot on the Atlantic Division All-Star team. A true bright spot for the Panthers and a foundational player to build around for a long, long time.

26. Edmonton Oilers — They won two in a row heading into the bye week but the mountain standing in front of them for a playoff spot is still a massive one.

27. Montreal Canadiens — Don’t look now but Max Pacioretty is starting to turn it around. He has points in four consecutive games, including three straight with a goal.

28. Vancouver Canucks — It’s still the Brock Boeser show in Vancouver.

29. Ottawa Senators — After scoring at least 15 goals in each of the past four seasons Erik Karlsson has only three goals in 37 games this season. That is by far the worst goal-scoring pace of his NHL career. The only other time it was that low was his rookie season when he only played in 60 games as a 19-year-old.

30. Buffalo Sabres — The big thing worth watching now is where does Evander Kane end up before the trade deadline?

31. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes are on track to be one of the worst teams in recent memory. Only 27 points through 45 games and a minus-55 goal differential.

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.

Penn State is growing into ‘Hockey Valley’

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In the shadow of Beaver Stadium stands a sparkling rink with two sheets of ice that Terry Pegula hopes will be the incubator for the growth of hockey in Pennsylvania and across the United States.

Eight years ago, Pegula and his wife, Kim, gave over $100 million to Penn State University to fund the creation of men’s and women’s Division I hockey programs and a facility to make them competitive.

Those teams, which began competing in 2012-13, quickly achieved success. The women’s team won 17 games in its third season, and the men’s team won the Big Ten Tournament title and fell one victory short of reaching the NCAA Frozen Four last season.

When Pegula made the donation to his alma mater, the owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills wasn’t just thinking about trophies lining a case inside Pegula Ice Arena. Beyond football, he wanted Penn State to be proud of a hockey team.

“Part of my rationale was to grow American hockey,” Pegula said. “The Big Ten has a big name, it’s been a national brand, and I thought that would be a good thing for hockey to grow the sport domestically.”

That growth is already happening in what’s affectionately called “Hockey Valley.” Penn State’s Nittany Lion Development Program has grown from 35 children in 2014 to 150 today, and a youth association that had six teams is up to 10. USA Hockey reported almost 1,500 more people have begun playing hockey in western Pennsylvania from 2012-13 to 2016-17.

Ryan Patrick, the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Craig Patrick, played club hockey at Penn State and now runs its youth programs. He understands such growth wouldn’t have been possible without Division I programs and the buzz for children who haven’t thought about becoming college students yet.

“They go to a game and a little kid says to mom or dad, ’Hey, I want to do that,’” Patrick said. “And you start looking at our programs and we’ve got it all laid out from learn-to-play hockey up through travel hockey. It’s a nice progression and kids are jumping in and sticking with it.”

Men’s coach Guy Gadowsky knows Penn State will always be a football school, though traditions are certainly portable. Chants of “We are Penn State” fill the 6,000-seat rink where players wear white helmets with blue stripes down the middle, and fans in the “Roar Zone” get to torment the opposing goalie from close range from a wall that’s as steep as building code would allow.

“The hockey program is just trying to fit in to Penn State, and I think it’s a great addition,” Gadowsky said. “The fans here love physical, fast sports — which hockey is, obviously — and they love passion and hockey is all of that and the students have really taken to it. I think they’ve made Pegula Ice Arena the best atmosphere in college hockey.”

That was by design.

“Acoustically, I know there was some talk about designing the building so they could have graduations and concerts or whatever in there,” Pegula said. “And I said, ‘Ah, we want this place to sound like you’re inside a garbage can and somebody’s hitting it with a stick.’ It’s a loud arena.”

The chance to play in that arena drew leading scorer Andrew Sturtz from Buffalo, Chicago Blackhawks third-round pick Evan Barratt from suburban Philadelphia and top defenseman and Los Angeles Kings prospect Cole Hults from Stoughton, Wisconsin. Penn State has already produced an NHL player in forward Casey Bailey and this year has players from 10 states, three Canadian provinces and two countries — including Nikita Pavlychev, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect from Russia.

“We’ve been fortunate to have some success very, very early, and that will also attract excellent hockey players that are looking to play college in this area and as far as Finland or Russia or Canada or wherever else,” Gadowsky said. “Certainly we want to get the very best student hockey players in our footprint, for sure. That’s a priority. But we’re also looking to get the very best in other regions, as well.”

Pegula thought Gadowsky was “the logical choice” as coach after building up the Alaska-Anchorage and Princeton programs. Penn State also hired longtime Princeton women’s coach Jeff Kampersal to take over for retiring Josh Brandwene. The men’s team was ranked 13th nationally going into a weekend series against No. 7 Ohio State, while the women’s team was 5-8-8.

Gadowsky saw plenty of Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers jerseys when he first stepped on campus and was impressed by the knowledge of local fans. Though Pennsylvania isn’t yet a hockey hotbed like Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota, Brandon Saad, Vincent Trocheck, Matt Bartkowski and Stephen Johns are from the Pittsburgh area.

“I hear from a lot of players that have been successful in the professional ranks that have said things like, ‘Boy, if Penn State had a Division I team, I guarantee I would’ve gone there,’” Gadowsky said. “I think everything Terry Pegula envisioned is starting to happen.”

In line with Pegula’s vision, Patrick said the goal at the youth level is to be a solid Tier II junior program that can play at district tournaments and compete for national championships. With an eye on trying to help speed up the already rapid growth of hockey across the U.S. , Pegula has big dreams about the sport nationwide.

“Maybe someday the Pac-12 will have a hockey conference or the Mountain West,” Pegula said. “Those are logical places (where) main conferences could expand into hockey.”

Penn State’s addition allowed the Big Ten to form a hockey conference, and now the program could serve as a model for others across the NCAA landscape.

In Hockey Valley, Gadowsky is proud of that and thinking about the next steps to add more banners to the rafters to go along with the Big Ten championship.

“I don’t think anybody would’ve thought that we’d be Big Ten champions this early into it,” Gadowsky said. “If we can have more success at the NCAA Tournament level, that’s going to raise the awareness of our program, of hockey in this area, even more. Very easy to say, very difficult to achieve.”

The Buzzer: Mike Smith on fire for Flames

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Player of the Night: Mike Smith, Calgary Flames

While Petr Mrazek pitched a 27-save shutout as the Red Wings lulled the Blackhawks to sleep, Smith deserves recognition for another strong game, but beyond that for defying expectations in 2017-18. He’s been red-hot in particular lately.

This marks Smith’s sixth consecutive win, and he’s faced 30+ shots on goal in all of those victories. Sunday represented one of his best performances of that stretch, stopping 38 out of 39 shots against the frustrated Carolina Hurricanes.

It’s not just a flash in the pan, either. Smith is now 20-13-3 on the season with a sparkling .924 save percentage.

Confession: few of us expected this level of work, and such durability, from the massive 35-year-old.

Highlights of the Night

Pretty sweet stuff from Michael Grabner for the Rangers in a loss to the Penguins.

It’s probably worth seeing Phil Kessel‘s 700th point again, even if it was typical, at least by Kessel’s sniping standards. More on Kessel’s milestone here.

After missing 21 games, Brandon Sutter scored the overtime game-winner for the Canucks against the Wild.

Factoids

Another Kessel tidbit:

Tyler Bertuzzi, like Dominik Simon, scored his first NHL goal. He gets the edge because of this great, very “hockey” photo.

Scores

Red Wings 4, Blackhawks 0
Flames 4, Hurricanes 1
Penguins 5, Rangers 2
Canucks 3, Wild 2 (OT)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Debate swirls around Giordano hit on Aho, fight with Williams

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There are plenty of questions following Mark Giordano‘s hit on Sebastian Aho, and his subsequent fight with Justin Williams.

Giordano was ejected from the game and received a five-minute major for the hit, which didn’t ultimately cost the Calgary Flames much in-game, as they ultimately beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1. The first questions start to swirl about that check: should more punishment come?

As you can see in the video above this post’s headline, Keith Jones and others believe that it was either a clean hit or that the major was enough. The debate goes both ways, however, with others calling for a suspension.

Considering Aho’s rise as a scoring star with the Hurricanes, there are worries that he was injured. As Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters notes, there are worries about a head injury and possibly a knee injury. Peters also noted that there was head contact but didn’t exactly scorch Giordano with his assessment of the check.

“They’re talking about his knee a little bit, too, so there’s lots getting looked at,” Peters said, via Michael Smith of the team website. “I’m sure we’ll know a little bit more later.”

Beyond that, some wonder if the Hurricanes failed in responding to the hit, both in the moment and on the scoreboard.

Ouch.

Either way, this game highlighted the divergent paths for these two teams. On one hand, the Flames have now won seven games in a row. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have dropped two in a row and only have two wins in their last eight contests (2-5-1). Not ideal for a team locked into competitive Metropolitan Division playoff races.

Losing Aho for an extended duration of time would only make matters worse.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.