The Pittsburgh Penguins were showing signs of life after going down 1-0 in Game 3, but to many, it’s only really legitimate when you start putting goals on the board. They did so in the second period as Chris Kunitz finished a nice Paul Martin play to tie Wednesday’s contest with the Boston Bruins 1-1:
The last time the Carolina Hurricanes were in the playoffs, the Black Eyed Peas were on top of the charts and The Hangover was just about to hit theaters. This year, the “bunch of jerks” from Raleigh have a legitimate chance to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.
Postseason hockey was last seen in Carolina in May of 2009, when the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Not one member of that playoff roster remains on the team, except for captain Rod Brind’Amour, who is now behind the bench. Justin Williams, the Canes’ current captain, was traded to Los Angeles in March of 2009 before the playoffs began.
Fast forward 10 years to this March, where with 11 games to play, the Canes are in the first wild card spot in the East. They’re also just three points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division, with two games in hand. That positioning has to do with a recent surge in which Carolina has gone 11-3-1 in their past 15 games, have converted on 21.9 percent of their power plays during that stretch and also killed off 34 of 37 penalties.
Outside of Williams, who has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, Carolina is led by a slew of underrated up-and-comers. Sebastian Aho is in the middle of a career season and is on track to become just the second player in Carolina history (not including the Hartford Whalers) to record 90 points. Eric Staal did so with 100 points in 2005-06. The team’s leaders in time on ice this season are Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined for just 176 wins over the past 11 seasons. And yet, the Hurricanes have the seventh best defense and sixth best penalty kill in the NHL.
Beyond their collective lack of experience, a glance at the roster would probably place goaltending as Carolina’s biggest concern entering the final few weeks of the season, though their netminders have been sensational of late. McElhinney is 11-3-1 dating back to New Year’s Eve with a 2.66 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts. While he struggled in his latest start against Columbus, Mrazek has been terrific over the past month, going 6-1-0 over his last seven starts with a 1.71 goals against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts of his own. Still, performing that well in the playoffs is something new entirely. McElhinney has never made a postseason start. Mrazek took the Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 of the opening round against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, but has never won a playoff series. His latest postseason appearance came last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed two goals on 14 shots in relief during a game that the Penguins won 7-0.
If they can hang on to a playoff spot and snap their nine-season drought, the Canes will most certainly be underdogs in the first round, no matter their opponent. But there is no reason not to enjoy what Carolina has already accomplished this season in their push toward the playoffs.
When he signed with the Hurricanes before the 2017-18 season, Williams made it clear he wanted the team’s culture to change.
“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”
It took a year longer than Williams might have liked, but between making a playoff push and enjoying their viral post-game celebrations, the Hurricanes are relevant once more.
There is not a single aspect of the NHL that is more difficult to evaluate and analyze than coaching.
Want to know how difficult it is and how bad we tend to be at it?
Just look at the past, oh let’s say, 10 Jack Adams Award winners and see how many of them are still with the team they won it with, or how many of them were fired within a year or two of winning it. It is stunning how many of them are gone within two years.
Either they forgot how to coach in that time since winning, or we picked the wrong winners.
The coach of the year usually goes to a coach whose team exceeded expectations and snuck into the playoffs, likely on the back of a superhuman performance by a goalie that carried the team. Pick a Coach of the Year winner and then take a look at how the starting goalie performed throughout the season. There is going to be a fairly strong correlation.
This season the coach of the year award has seemingly been a one-horse race involving New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, only lately getting a little bit of pressure from Rick Tocchet in Arizona.
Given the circumstances around those two teams it is understandable.
But have those two coaches actually been the best coaches in the league this year and done the best job? Maybe, but maybe not.
In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the eight best coaching jobs in the NHL this season, and there are a couple of names at the top you might not be thinking of at the moment. We are not looking for the coach that has benefitted the most from a goalie, or a coach whose teams marginally exceeded expectations.
We are looking for the coaches that have done the best job in the NHL.
You probably will not like it, but hear us out.
1. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues. When the Blues fired Mike Yeo in mid-November they looked like a team that was going nowhere. They had been shutout in three of their previous four games, had only won seven of their first 19, and just had absolutely nothing going for them. They were completely mediocre across the board, and in some cases, completely stunk. Offensively, defensively, goaltending. All of it. It was a dreadful looking team that seemed doomed to a forgettable, wasted season.
Enter Berube and new starting goalie Jordan Binnington.
The easy thing here is to assume that Binnington’s play is key factor driving the Blues’ turnaround, and to a point, he is. He has helped fix what was a black hole in net and is putting together an incredible rookie season. But it’s not just him, and this can not be emphasized enough.
There is real improvement within the rest of the team since the coaching change.
First, some numbers looking at Mike Yeo’s final 53 games behind the Blues’ bench and Berube’s first 53 games.
The overall possession numbers are better. The shot attempt numbers dropped significantly. Their ability to control scoring chances improved. All of that together, plus a solidified goaltending position, has dramatically improved the record.
If you look at the numbers in the context of this season alone the numbers are even more striking.
That is real, team-wide improvement that isn’t just related to the goaltending change.
Keep in mind that Berube also did not have Alex Pietrangelo for 10 games in December and spent two months without David Perron, one of the team’s leading scorers, from mid-January until mid-March. He is also coaching without Vladimir Tarasenko at the moment.
They are simply a totally different team under Berube, and not be a small amount, either.
2. Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins. This is not the NHL’s deepest roster, and we already know this. We already know this because we have been saying “what about their depth?” for two seasons now.
Keep that in mind and then consider how many games some of their top players — the players that have to carry the most weight for this team because they do not have a ton of depth — have missed this season.
• Patrice Bergeron has missed 15 games.
• David Pastrnak has missed 15 games.
• Charlie McAvoy has missed 26 games.
• Jake DeBrusk has missed 13 games.
• Zdeno Chara is 41 years old and has missed 18 games.
• Torey Krug has missed 12 games.
There are more, but these are the big ones.
It would stand to reason that a team that was already thin on depth, and playing in a division with two of the best teams in the league, might struggle a bit.
Not even close. Entering Monday the Bruins have the NHL’s third best record, are a top-five possession team, and probably already giving Toronto Maple Leafs fans nightmares about their inevitable first-round playoff matchup. Cassidy is not getting enough credit for the job he has done this season. Not by a long shot.
3. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning. Cooper is the coach that simply can not win the coach of the year award because his team is too good, which is just plain dumb. As if it’s easy to just win 55 of your first 72 games no matter how much talent you have at your disposal.
He didn’t have his starting goalie for a month and went 12-3-0 with Louis Domingue playing every game (and not playing all that well, I might add) during that stretch. Insane.
We have tried to turn the MVP into an award that a player can’t win if their team is too good (they don’t need you!) or not good enough (they lost with you they can lose without you!) and only seems to go to the best player on a mediocre team that sneaks into the playoffs as first-round cannon fodder for a Stanley Cup contender.
The Jack Adams Award has become the exact same thing. We only give it to the coach of a team that was bad the year before and then barely made the playoffs, whether it was the coaching that got them there or not.
Here is a secret: Great teams can have great coaches, too. The Lightning are a great team with a great coach.
4. Pete DeBoer, San Jose Sharks. Like Cooper, another coach that probably won’t get enough credit because of the talent on his team.
Here is the argument for him: The Sharks have the second-worst team save percentage in the NHL at .893. That is an appallingly abysmal number. It is such a fantastically bad performance by the duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell that this team has no business being anywhere near the top of its division and the top of the Western Conference standings.
They are the only team in the NHL that currently occupies a playoff spot and sits lower than 20th in team save percentage.
Here is where the other teams ranked 20th or lower (in order) sit in the league-wide standings.
4th (this is the Sharks)
Goaltending this bad is supposed to be impossible to win with. I know the Sharks have a lot of talent, but they’re not the only team in this tier with a talent on their roster, and goaltending has sunk all of them.
Oh, and the Sharks have also been without Erik Karlsson for a significant chunk of the season. And they are still steamrolling teams and one point back of the top spot in the Western Conference … with no goaltending to speak of.
DeBoer is like … the bizarro Jack Adams winner. Instead of being a coach whose team has climbed to the top of the standings on the back of his goalie he has climbed to the top in spite of his goalies.
5. Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes. If I were a betting man I would say that if the Coyotes make the playoffs that Tocchet is going to win the coach of the year award, and probably by a wide margin. This is what Jack Adams Award votes live for. The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago, have missed the playoffs six years in a row, and have been absolutely decimated by injuries all season, crippling what was already a thin roster. Heck, even losing just starting goalie Antti Raanta could have been enough to ruin their season, even without all of the others.
But here they are, holding a playoff position in mid-March and seemingly in the driver’s seat to take a Wild Card spot. Darcy Kuemper deserves the bulk of the credit for that, but the injury situation has definitely been a huge hurdle, and it would have been really easy for this team to just pack it in and self destruct. They haven’t, and the coaching staff deserves credit for that.
6. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders. Trotz deserves a ton of credit for taking over what looked to be a sinking ship of a franchise at the start of the season and, quite frankly, not allowing it to completely sink.
They missed the playoffs a year ago, lost their best player to free agency, entered the season with three of their top-four returning forwards in contract years, and there really wasn’t any reason for anyone to believe in this team. So far, they have proved a lot of people wrong and made a pretty stunning turn around to go from one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era to what is, currently, the best defensive team in the league when it comes to preventing goals.
That is worth a lot.
But this goes back to what we talked about up at the top. How much of that is the coaching of Trotz, and how much of that is the result of the Islanders’ two goalies producing the league’s best save percentage? And if that is the result of coaching, how much of that is Trotz and how much of it is the work of goalie coaches Piero Greco and Mitch Korn? I am not saying that Trotz hasn’t had a positive influence on the team, because he almost certainly has. He is a great coach and his resume in the league speaks to that. I just don’t know that he or the Islanders would be having this kind of season without stunning play of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.
They are the true difference-makers this season.
7. Bill Peters, Calgary Flames. In most years Peters would be the type of coach that would be a slam-dunk Jack Adams winner. A first-year coach, taking over a non-playoff team a year ago, and driving them to the top of the Conference standings. But with teams like the Islanders and Coyotes exceeding expectations, Berube helping to turn around the Blues, the Hurricanes becoming relevant again, he just seems like he is going to be lost in the shuffle. It is unfortunate because his team has been legitimately good, and I almost wonder if this is what the Hurricanes would have looked like the past few years with a couple of more finishers and some decent goaltending on their roster.
8. Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes. There is definitely a different vibe around this team, and not just because of the storm surge celebrations that are driving some people mad.
It just finally feels like everything is starting to click for a team that always had promising young talent but could never really put it together.
The thing about the Hurricanes’ climb up the standings is there’s not really much difference in their actual performance from an analytics standpoint.
They have always been one of the best possession teams in the league, and they still are.
They have always been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league, and they still are.
The two things that always sunk them were goaltending and not enough forwards that could actually finish. The big change this season is that Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to give them competent goaltending they needed to actually look like the good defensive team they have always been, and they found a couple of forwards with real finishing ability in prized rookie Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Neiderreiter, who they stole from the Minnesota Wild.
Brind’Amour has done a great job, but even with all of the losing in recent years there was still a strong foundation in place. They just needed the right move or two to bring it all together.
It looks like the Boston Bruins are on the verge of getting one of their top players back from injury. On Monday morning, winger David Pastrnak was back on the ice with his teammates, according to NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty. He was skating on the right side of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, which means one of the top lines in hockey could be reunited as soon as tomorrow night.
Pastrnak has missed the last 16 games with a thumb injury he suffered after a team function in Boston. The 22-year-old was having a career year before going down, as he had 31 goals and 66 points in 56 contests with the Bruins in 2018-19.
The scary thing is that the Bruins hardly missed him while he was out of the lineup. Without Pastrnak, Boston went 12-3-1, and all three of those regulation losses came last week.
“We’re in a good stretch, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go the other way,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier this month, per Boston.com. “We have to work hard to get our goals and to feel that we’re consistently a threat to get a good number of goals, but we need to stick with it and make sure we don’t get away from it. Some of it has to do with Jake [DeBrusk] getting hot and hopefully we get a few other guys going and we’ll go from there.
“You know, Pasta [Pastrnak] should add offense. He’s done it consistently in the league. He did it last year in the playoffs. So you know, when he comes back we hope he finds it quickly, but again that’s not an automatic either.”
Assuming Pastrnak returns to the lineup tomorrow against the Islanders, that will give him 10 full games of action before the start of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Haggs also had an update on some of the Bruins’ other injured players:
Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.
The Arizona Coyotes have overcome several hurdles this season. They’ve been hit hard by injuries, but that hasn’t stopped them from being in a playoff spot during the final stretch. Heading into tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the ‘Yotes have a one-point lead and a game in hand on the Minnesota Wild in the race for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
They could have given up when they lost their starting goalie, Antti Raanta, back in late-November, but they didn’t. They also traded away Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini to Chicago earlier this season for Nick Schamltz, who has been out since the start of 2019, and only recently has Jason Demers returned to their lineup from a knee injury.
The Coyotes are 10-2-1 in their last 13 contests, which has increased their odds of making the playoffs by a wide margin. As well as they’ve played lately, they’re going to have to sustain that during a tough upcoming road trip that will see them travel to Tampa, Florida, New Jersey and New York (Islanders).
“McDavid is an elite player, and anything can happen 3-on-3. I’m proud of the guys, with five games in the last (eight) nights,” head coach Rick Tocchet said after Saturday’s OT loss to Edmonton, per NHL.com. “I thought the guys gave us juice (on Saturday). We’re fine. We got a point. We’re OK.”
They’ll have their work cut out for them tonight, but they’ve been playing so well that it’s difficult to count them out, even against the best team in the league.
IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Islanders vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues
TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Coyotes at Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Canucks at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Jets at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET
Golden Knights at Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET
TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS
• The Lightning (55-13-4, 114 points) will clinch the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference and Presidents’ Trophy if they defeat the Coyotes in any fashion.
• The Sharks (43-21-8, 94 points) will clinch a playoff berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they get at least one point against the Golden Knights.
PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 99.9 percent
Capitals — 99.6 percent
Islanders — 99.6 percent
Penguins — 98.5 percent
Hurricanes — 92.8 percent
Blue Jackets — 81 percent
Canadiens — 23 percent
Flyers — 4.6 percent
Panthers — 1 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated
PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey-Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Sharks — 100 percent
Predators — 99.8 percent
Golden Knights — 99.7 percent
Blues — 98.1 percent
Stars — 87.3 percent
Coyotes — 61.2 percent
Wild — 25..9 percent
Avalanche — 14.7 percent
Blackhawks — 11.7 percent
Oilers — 1.2 percent
Canucks — 0.4 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Out
JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Canucks — 6.5 percent
Sabres — 6 percent
Oilers — 5 percent
Avalanche — 3.5 percent
Blackhawks — 3 percent
Wild — 2.5 percent
Panthers — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*Senators pick belongs to the Colorado Avalanche)
ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lighting — 117 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 103 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 99 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 92 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 91 points
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — 91 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche — 91 points
ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 40 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals