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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.

How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Golden Knights enjoying ride to Stanley Cup Final, but remain unsatisfied

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Eastern Conference Final in 2008, captain Sidney Crosby and his teammates decided to stick to superstition and not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. It didn’t work as they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. A year later, as well as in 2016 and 2017, they put their mitts all over it and success followed in those Cup Finals.

So after the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in their first year of existence, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a part of those Penguins teams, told de-facto captain Deryk Engelland to pick up the trophy.

This entire Golden Knights season has been unbelievable, so might as well tell superstition to be damned, right?

***

The ride continues for the “Vegas Golden Misfits,” as they so affectionately have dubbed themselves. It’s May 20, 2018 and an expansion franchise will be competing for the Stanley Cup within the week. No one saw this coming. Not after the expansion draft last June. Not after the team finally started playing together during training camp. Not even after their hot start in October.

When did the Golden Knights starts believing this year could be something special?

“I think once we hit Christmas we had the belief in the room,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt told NBCSN afterward. “We knew we had the guys, it was whether or not we could continue to do it. We believed that we could do that. We believed in that room, all the guys it took, and however many lineup changes, that we had the guys in there that could pull something like this off.”

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

Head coach Gerard Gallant started to believe during a back-to-back road trip to Nashville and Dallas in early December. 

A 2-0 lead against the Predators on Dec. 8 evaporated with Nashville firing off three straight and taking the lead with 5:04 to play. Doubting Vegas would be a mistake all season, which explains Erik Haula tying the game with 40 seconds to play and Reilly Smith winning it in the sixth round of the shootout. The following night was another tough win, with the Stars keeping things tight until the very end and the Golden Knights coming out on top 5-3.

“We come out of those games, we outplayed both of those teams, played great hockey,” Gallant said. “That’s when I said to myself, this is a special team, the character on this team, they believe they can beat anybody. Going into those two buildings at that time was a big, big boost for us. It was a confidence builder for me, too.”

Those two victories were part of an 11-1-1 month to close out 2017 as the questioned about the Golden Knights’ legitimacy began to disappear.

***

“There’s no partying with me,” Gallant said after Game 5 when asked if he’s going to celebrate this accomplishment.

The quest isn’t over. The Vegas Golden Knights have evolved from bunch of expansion “misfits” to a nice story to a playoff team to a legit Stanley Cup contender over the course of six months. No one saw this coming, but the players inside the dressing room developed a belief over that period of time and that belief has manifested in reality. 

Vegas will now have a few days off as they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. After 82 regular season games and 15 playoff games, it’s time for some rest as the mission is far from accomplished.

“It’s been an awesome ride so far. We’ve won three series. We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, but this isn’t what we want,” Gallant said. “We want to win.”

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT’s Three Stars: Reaves’ goal helps Golden Knights reach Cup Final

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1st Star: Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights

A year ago, “Ryan Reaves scored the goal that helped send the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final” is totally the sentence we all expected to read in May 2018. Well, here we are after Vegas eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 with a 2-1 victory.

2nd Star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

Fleury continued his march toward the Conn Smythe trophy with a 31-save effort as he helped ensure his chance to win a third straight Stanley Cup.

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

3rd Star: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

After a tough couple of games, Hellebuyck did all he could to keep the Jets in Game 5. He finished with 30 saves, including  a pair late in the third period that helped keep the Jets’ deficit to one goal.

Highlight of the Day:

Thank you, Deryk Engelland, for touching the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl:

Factoid of the Day:

Monday’s schedule: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Lightning lead series 3-2)

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final

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Want to capture the unlikely story of the Vegas Golden Knights advancing to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their first season? Consider that Ryan Reaves was the person who scored the goal to punch their ticket.

(It’s OK if you need a second just to stare at your screen in disbelief.)

Remarkably, the Golden Knights only needed one chance to dispatch the Winnipeg Jets, who sported the NHL’s second-best record (and who eliminated the top team, Nashville, in the previous round). With a 2-1 win in Game 5, Vegas beat Winnipeg 4-1 in the series.

[PHT’s Three Stars.]

Quite a few storylines carried over from earlier games in the 2018 Western Conference Final.

As usual, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s work was just about spotless. Fleury won his fourth consecutive game, and he needed to make 30+ saves for the fourth time in a row as well, stopping 31 out of 32 shots.

It says a lot about how excellent Fleury has been that Connor Hellebuyck‘s absorbed all sorts of heat during this series, as Hellebuyck’s rarely allowed bad goals, even amid relative struggles during this third round. Hellebuyck made some key saves down the stretch of Game 5, but it wasn’t enough.

Game 5 felt a little different than Winnipeg’s last few losses because Fleury didn’t need the same Herculean effort during the third period. You can get away with making a bad joke about the Jets running out of gas/fuel, because at least compared to previous pushes, it seemed like Winnipeg sputtered a bit after that Reaves tally.

Winnipeg had generated a shots on goal advantage for six straight periods (the last two of Game 3, all three in Game 4, and the first in Game 5), yet the two teams were tied at 32 shots on goal by the end of this one, as Vegas took the final 40 minutes from that standpoint. You wonder if Fleury’s excellent play truly “broke” Winnipeg, at least once it became clear that they’d need to fight back from another deficit following that Reaves-winner.

The Jets were dominant at times during this series, yet it’s sobering for this mighty group to realize that they didn’t just drop four games in a row … they also failed to grab a single lead after Game 1.

Speaking of remarkable stats, consider this: the Golden Knights still haven’t faced elimination during this Cinderella run. They swept the Kings in the first round, beat the Sharks in six games, and then passed by the Jets in five. Now they’ll get to watch Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final to see if the Tampa Bay Lightning advance or if the Washington Capitals force a Game 7 (thus giving Vegas a nice rest advantage, as well).

The Golden Knights may root a little extra for that East series to go the distance if Fleury’s a bit hampered by injury issues, as some speculated during Game 5. Fleury wasn’t bothered enough to allow Winnipeg to get back in the contest, and chances are, he’s not too worried about that right now.

Really, the biggest concern is trying to top Elliotte Friedman’s joke:

Ante up.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.