NHL Power Rankings: The Lightning, then everybody else

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A little more than one month into the NHL season and we are starting to see which teams are good and which teams are … well … not.

We are still at a point where one or two teams could emerge from the bottom of the pile or fall from the top, but once the NHL season gets to Thanksgiving there typically is not much change in the standings. At least not much of a significant one.

With that said, there should be no question at this moment as to who the best team in the NHL is. It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, and really, there might not be anybody close to them.

At times this season the Lightning have looked like an on-ice version of the Harlem Globetrotters and have just been toying with their opponents. Entering the week the Lightning have the best record in the league (three points ahead of the next best team) and own a plus-25 goal differential. That is 11 goals better than any other team in the league.

Two of their four losses have come on the second end of back-to-backs (with one of them coming against a team that had been rested for three days). Their current four-game winning streak includes a perfect road trip through California that saw them beat the Kings, Sharks and Ducks (two of those teams are excellent at the moment) by a combined score of 12-4. The fourth win in that streak is against Columbus, another likely contender in the NHL this season.

They have the NHL’s leading goal-scorer (Nikita Kucherov has a three-goal lead over John Tavares) and the top-two point producers (Steven Stamkos and Kucherov), both of whom are at least seven points ahead of the No. 3 scorer in the league (Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler).

As if the talent up front is not enough, their starting goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .930 save percentage in 15 starts.

Right now in the NHL it is Tampa Bay, then everybody else fighting for second.

So where is everybody else at the moment? Let us take a look.

Positively terrifying

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They are, quite simply, the best team in the NHL right now for all of the reasons mentioned above.

The rest of the best right now

2. St. Louis Blues — I had little expectation for the Blues heading into this season, largely due to their injury situation, but they still have the second best record in the league, the second-best goal differential, and one of the best lines in hockey.

3. Los Angeles Kings — Dustin Brown has found the fountain of  youth. He has topped 30 points just once in the past five years with 36 being the high point during that stretch. He is pretty much halfway to that total just 18 games into this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — They hit a little bit of a rut a couple of weeks ago but have come back strong with four straight wins. What is truly impressive is three of those wins heading into the new week came without Auston Matthews.

5. New Jersey Devils — The Devils are … fun?! Seriously, what is this? Who is this team? Fifth in the league in goals scored and coming off of a 7-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Brian Gibbons, out of the NHL for two years, somehow has eight goals so far.

6. Ottawa Senators — Everybody complains about watching them play but all they do is collect points. It is not pretty, but this is pro sports. Teams don’t have to apologize for doing what they need to do to win.

Teams on the rise

7. Winnipeg Jets — Could this be the year the Jets finally turn all of that individual talent into something good?

8. New York Rangers — What a difference a couple of weeks can make. After a disastrous start the Rangers have ripped off six wins in a row. Big time move in this week’s rankings.

9. Nashville Predators — No team improved more in the big Matt DucheneKyle Turris-Colorado trade than the Predators thanks to the addition of Turris at the expense of nothing significant from their roster. The defending Western Conference Champs enter the week 7-3-1 in their past 11 games.

10. San Jose Sharks — Entering Monday the only team that has beaten them over their past seven games is the Tampa Bay juggernaut. Just when you think the Sharks are going away they always find a way to still be hanging around in the Western Conference.

11. Washington Capitals — Don’t look now but here come the Capitals! After a slow start they are starting to look like the team that has dominated the regular season the past two years. Entering the week 6-2 in their past eight games while only allowing 16 goals during that stretch.

12. Montreal Canadiens — The overall record still stinks, I get it, but like the Rangers the Canadiens are starting to erase all of the memories from a miserable start to the season with wins in seven of their past 10 games. That qualifies as a team on the rise even if there are a lot of teams in the league that still have a better overall record.

Teams still looking good

13. New York Islanders — Nikita Kucherov’s start has kind of hidden the fact that John Tavares is scoring goals whenever he feels like it as well. Mighty fine time for a contract year, eh?

14. Calgary Flames — Mike Smith is giving the Flames exactly what they need in net. If he can continue to do that they are going to be a tough out in the Western Conference with that defense and that young talent up front.

15. Dallas Stars — I may have underrated them a bit a couple of weeks ago. They are solid, and in a bizarre twist from recent Stars teams are 20th in the league in goals scored and third in goals against. John Klingberg is playing fantastic hockey right now.

Teams on the decline

16. Columbus Blue Jackets — I still like this Blue Jackets team an awful lot and think they can be right there at the end of the season when it comes down to winning the Eastern Conference, but they have slipped a bit in recent weeks with just five wins in their past 12 games.

17. Vegas Golden Knights — Being down to their fourth and fifth goalies is not helping, but they are starting to expansion team results in recent weeks. They still have a lot of forwards playing really well and producing.

18. Philadelphia Flyers — Brian Elliott has started to look better in his recent starts. With their top forwards going the way they are this could still be an interesting team if they can get that goaltending spot solidified.

19. Chicago Blackhawks — After starting the season 3-0-1 with 21 goals in their first four games the Blackhawks are just 5-8-2 with only 32 goals in the 15 games since.

20. Anaheim Ducks — Injuries have decimated this team this season and they just keep getting worse with Ryan Getzlaf being sidelined for another two months.

Still need some work

21. Pittsburgh Penguins — The schedule with all of these back-to-backs is hurting them. So is the bottom of the roster. The depth problems that plagued them from 2010 through 2015 are back in a bad way.

22. Minnesota Wild — It has been the Jason Zucker and Devan Dubnyk show lately, but other than them nobody else is really doing much of anything to help the cause.

23. Carolina Hurricanes — Everything about this team looks good. They are exciting. They play hard. They once again have dominant underlying numbers. But there is still something missing.

24. Vancouver Canucks — They had a great start to the season that seemed to have them exceeding expectations but things are starting to return to normal for the Canucks. The early start was a mirage.

25. Boston Bruins — A very top-heavy roster. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are great, but where else is the offense going to come from?

26. Detroit Red Wings — Anthony Mantha has been a nice bright spot so far this season with a team-leading 16 points. He has been especially strong lately with eight points, including four goals, in his past seven games.

27. Colorado Avalanche — They picked up some intriguing young players in the Matt Duchene trade but an already bad team ended up getting worse in the short-term.

28. Buffalo Sabres — They have scored more than two goals just twice in the past seven games.

29. Edmonton Oilers — Not to keep hitting this same point over and over again, but Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have more points than every player on the Oilers not named Connor McDavid.

30. Florida Panthers — Only two wins in their past nine games with 37 goals against.

31. Arizona Coyotes — In their first 19 games of the season the Arizona Coyotes have exactly zero wins in regulation. Their only two wins, as of Monday, coming by way of overtime or a shootout. That is … really something.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.