NHL Power Rankings: Bruins contenders again

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If you were starting to get worried that sports fans in Boston didn’t have enough good things to be happy about lately I am here to bring you some good news: Their hockey team is looking like a legitimate contender again. Especially now that they are healthy.

The Bruins enter play on Tuesday on a 15-3-2 run over their past 20 games, are one of the best possession teams in hockey, and have three of the best forwards in the league (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak) at the top of their lineup to drive the offense.

One of biggest developments though are the fact they have rebuilt their defense over the past couple of years with an infusion of young talent, including one of the league’s top rookies in Charlie McAvoy. He is not only playing more than 23 minutes per game, but is also playing them at an extremely high level. Once the strength of their roster, the Bruins defense took a significant hit in recent years due to age, the salary cap, and some trades that depleted their depth. With Torey Krug taking a big step forward and the development of McAvoy and Brandon Carlo that unit is once again a formidable one for a contender.

Then there is the resurgence of starting goaltender Tuukka Rask.

It’s not that Rask was necessarily bad the past two seasons, but he wasn’t really the same player we saw when he was helping lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and was one of the top goalies in the league. After posting some league average numbers the past two seasons Rask is back to performing like one of the top goalies in the league and has been nearly unbeatable during the Bruins’ recent hot streak.

Entering play on Tuesday he is 10-0-1 in his past 11 decisions, a stretch where he has allowed just 15 goals. He has allowed more than two goals just once during that stretch and more than one goal just four times.

The Bruins crack the top-five in our power rankings this week.

Let us check in and see where everyone else fits in.

The Best Of The Best

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — The Lightning are running away with the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They enter Tuesday with a seven-point lead over the Capitals and have still played two fewer games. What is not to love about this team right now? They deserve their own category at the moment.

The Elites

2. Vegas Golden Knights — At this point they are not just the best expansion team in NHL history, they are on their way to becoming the best expansion team in any of the four major sports. Another long winning streak, 9-0-1 in their past 10 games. Simply the best NHL story in decades.

3. Washington Capitals — Here come the Capitals. After winning just 10 of their first 20 games they have stormed back over the next 20 by going 14-4-2. They enter Tuesday a point ahead of the Devils in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

4. New Jersey Devils — If it wasn’t for what Vegas is doing these guys would probably be the biggest surprise in the league this season. The biggest individual player surprise? Brian Gibbons is tied for the team lead in goals at the moment.

5. Boston Bruins — Starting to look like a contender for all of the reasons mentioned above.

6. Los Angeles Kings — Still having a great season but have cooled off a bit since we last checked in on the power rankings. The top of the roster is great, but still some questions about the bottom half.

The Strong Contenders

7. Nashville Predators — Their depth is going to be tested for a bit here without Filip Forsberg. He was on pace for another 30-goal season before he landed on injured reserve.

8. Winnipeg Jets — I feel like Patrik Laine isn’t getting enough attention this season. He is on pace for 37 goals and if he gets there would have two 35-goal seasons before his age 20 season in the NHL. That has only been done by four players in NHL history: Brian Bellows, Jimmy Carson, Sidney Crosby and Dale Hawerchuk.

9. St. Louis Blues — They have hit their first slump of the season, winning just three of their past 10 games.  Not time to panic yet. It happens over the course of an 82-game season.

The Rest Of The Best

10. New York Rangers — They don’t always look great, but they keep stacking up points. Their upcoming schedule though is absolutely brutal and is going to be a huge test.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs — We’re back the wild, high-scoring games that have to be driving Mike Babcock crazy. Their recent road trip was not particularly kind to them, but they get a lot of home cooking over the next few weeks.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They have given up at least four goals in six of their past 10 games, including five games where they have surrendered at least five. Not what we are used to seeing from this team the past couple of seasons.

The Middle Ground

13. San Jose Sharks — Joe Pavelski is on pace for what would be (on a per-game basis) the worst goal-scoring season of his career. Shot volume has taken a bit of a dip, but not as big as the drop in shooting percentage. Little bit of bad luck at play? If that corrects itself could be a huge development or the Sharks in the second half.

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are right on the playoff bubble with what is, once again, one of the worst team save percentages in the NHL. How does this keep happening every single season no matter who the goalie is? They are so, so, so close. It is almost painful how close they are.

15. New York Islanders — Josh Bailey is on pace for more than 100 points. This probably is not getting the attention it deserves.

16. Dallas Stars — Very hot and cold team. Still should probably expect more given what the top of their roster looks like and how many big moves they make every summer.

17. Minnesota Wild — They are finally getting Zach Parise back. Getting him back healthy, as well as Nino Neiderreiter, could make this a interesting team. They have hung around despite those two major injuries.

18. Chicago Blackhawks — Corey Crawford‘s injury problems are starting to become a concern, especially as the team has only won two games this season with him out of the lineup.

19. Philadelphia Flyers — Very quietly Claude Giroux is on pace for what would be a career high in points. His career high was 93 points (in 77 games) in 2011-12. He is currently on track for 99 if he is able to play in all 82 games this season (and maintain this same pace).

Running Out Of Time To Make A Move

20. Florida Panthers — The Panthers have won five in a row and are trying to make a little bit of a move in the Eastern Conference. But is that winning streak a case of too little, too late? Even with it they are still five points out of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them.

21. Anaheim Ducks — Getting their centers back healthy might make a pretty big difference. They have won four out of five and are, as of Tuesday, back into a playoff position.

22. Calgary Flames — Johnny Gaudreau is amazing but this really is not the way the Flames envisioned this season going, especially after their big offseason moves.

23. Colorado Avalanche — Exciting offense plus bad defense and goaltending can at least make for some fun hockey. If you’re going to miss the playoffs again you should at least be entertaining. Nathan MacKinnon alone has been worth the price of admission this season.

24. Pittsburgh Penguins — The “played a lot of hockey the past two years” excuse is starting to get old. It is simply a flawed team that has too many empty roster spots (like, for example, the entire fourth line and a big part of the third line) at the moment. Out of their 13 games in December they only won two of them in regulation.

25. Edmonton Oilers — They showed some signs of life with a four-game winning streak in mid-December but then followed it up with a three-game losing streak. That gap between them and a playoff spot really is not getting any smaller.

Not Too Early To Start Looking To Next Season

26. Detroit Red Wings — At this point it’s just a matter of watching to see when — or if — they start making trades. Mike Green would probably be an attractive player. Could they find a taker for Jimmy Howard?

27. Montreal Canadiens — Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value.

28. Vancouver Canucks — It was fun for a little bit in Vancouver this season, but it is just not their time yet.

29. Buffalo Sabres — Hey, at least the Bills are going to the playoffs!

30. Ottawa Senators —  Since starting the season 8-3-5 the Senators have gone 4-14-3 and completely fallen apart. Things are looking grim.

31. Arizona Coyotes — Tough situation. Extremely young team that has some talent that you should be excited about but is just overmatched on most nights.

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.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.