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NHL Power Rankings: The Panthers are not going away

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Let’s hop in our time machine and go back one month when the Florida Panthers were just starting to string together a couple of wins.

That little surge, combined with the fact that they still had a ton of games in hand on every team in the Eastern Conference, sparked a bit of a conversation that maybe they could still make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference.

So I looked into a bit and concluded that, while not totally out of it, it may have been a case of too little, too late (then I went and doubled down on it a few days later).

It seems I may have underestimated their chances.

All the Panthers have done since then is go 9-2-0, win six in a row, and climb to within a single point of a Wild Card spot entering play on Monday.

Let’s take a look at that race now, and notice not only the games played column, but also the fact the Panthers have more regulation/overtime wins than every team they are competing with, which would be very important for potential tiebreaker situations.

So maybe I was wrong.

This doesn’t mean they are going to make the playoffs (again, games in hand are not necessarily wins in hand) and they still have to maintain at least a similar pace the rest of the way (and probably get some help), but I was definitely wrong to underestimate their chances because they are still very much in it.

Their hot streak helps them make a big leap in the Power Rankings this week.

We also have a new team in the top spot as well as a new team in the basement.

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — They have the best points percentage in the NHL, they enter the week having won eight games in a row, they just added Ryan Hartman and Mike Fisher to a team that was already loaded. Find a better team in the NHL right now. You can not.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — They didn’t get Erik Karlsson, but Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller are two pretty big additions to a team that is already as good as it gets on paper (and on the ice). Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are crushing everybody right now.

3. Boston Bruins — That 8-4 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins was pretty impressive. Even more impressive: They did it without Patrice Bergeron.

4. Winnipeg Jets — One of the best offensive teams in the league managed to get a little more powerful after adding Paul Stastny without giving up anything off of its roster.

5. Vegas Golden Knights — They hit a little bit of a rough patch recently and lost their hold on the top spot in the Western Conference, but they are still running away with the Pacific Division crown.

The rest of the contenders

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are 13-3-2 in their past 18 games and are currently without their best player, Auston Matthews. Scary deep offense and a fun team to watch. As long as Frederik Andersen keeps doing what he is doing (maybe rest him a bit?) they will be a tough team to knock out.

7. Philadelphia Flyers — How will the goaltending hold up is a question that always gets asked regarding the Philadelphia Flyers. It is still true this season. Elite skill players up front and a lot of good young talent on this roster. This team has been on a roll for the better part of the past three months.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — Without a healthy Matt Murray in net they are in trouble. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith are not going to get them through a playoff series the way Marc-Andre Fleury did in relief a year ago.

9. Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin is closing in on 600 career goals, another 50-goal season, another goal-scoring crown. He very well could be the greatest goal scorer of all time. Tell me why I am wrong.

10. Minnesota Wild — I think, just like the Capitals just ahead of them, they are probably a little worse than their record might indicate, but you can not change the results that already happened. And hey, Eric Staal is incredible again.

All of these teams seem the same

11. Florida Panthers — Aleksander Barkov is one of the best two-way players in hockey.

12. San Jose Sharks — It is a little surprising they are as high up in the standings as they are. Neither goaltender has been great (nor have they been bad; they have  just been pretty good), their top players are not having great seasons offensively, and Joe Thornton has already missed more than a quarter of the season. Yet here they are, second place in the Pacific Division, on their way to the playoffs (probably).

13. Dallas Stars — John Klingberg should be getting more consideration for the Norris Trophy. He is having a stellar season for the suddenly defensive Stars.

14. New Jersey Devils — It is the Taylor Hall show in New Jersey. He is, quite literally, carrying the team to a playoff spot. They should send the Edmonton Oilers a big thank you card.

15. Anaheim Ducks — The two-headed monster of John Gibson and Ryan Miller has been nothing short of sensational in net for the Ducks this season. They have matching .925 save percentages and played a big role in keeping the team afloat while they dealt with injury after injury earlier this season.

16. Los Angeles Kings — Sometimes they look like a force. Sometimes they look boring and dull. This is what they are. A mediocre, middle of the pack team that has a good system in place but just lacks talent beyond its top four or five players.

17. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon is having one of the best offensive seasons of the past 10 years. Even though he has been around for a while it is important to keep in mind he is still only 22 years old.

18. Columbus Blue Jackets — Overall they have been a disappointment this season. One player that has not been a disappointment, however, is Artemi Panarin. Electrifying every time he has the puck.

19. Calgary Flames — Since Mike Smith went out of the lineup they are just 3-6-1 and falling back in the playoff race.

20. Carolina Hurricanes — With only two wins in their past nine games they are hanging on by a thread in the playoff race.

21. St. Louis Blues — The Blues are falling apart. They are losing games, they traded one of their top players at the deadline, they lost two more players to injury on Monday.

Lottery time

22. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist won back-to-back games where he had to make 50 saves. This is the 2017-18 New York Rangers in a nutshell.

23. Detroit Red Wings — Sometimes I look at their team page on CapFriendly and wonder how in the world they will get better in the coming seasons.

24. Chicago Blackhawks — They have only won four of their past 16 games. The only reason I do not have them lower is because so many teams below them have been even worse.

25. Arizona Coyotes — Hey, give them some credit, they have gone on a bit of a roll here recently with an 8-2-1 mark in their past 11 games. Young team gaining some confidence? Just a blip on the radar at the end of the season that doesn’t really mean anything? That is all still yet to be determined, but they definitely have played better recently.

26. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser will not win the rookie of the year (Mathew Barzal has that locked up, let’s be honest) but he is still the one thing on the Canucks worth watching right now.

27. Buffalo Sabres — They might actually be the worst team in the NHL, but they have won managed to win three of their past five games, including games against the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning. So points for that.

28. Ottawa Senators — The good news is Senators fans get a few more weeks to watch Erik Karlsson before he gets traded this summer. So at least they have that going for them.

29. Montreal Canadiens — They have three wins in their past 11 games. Two of them came against an Islanders team that is circling the drain. The other came against a Rangers team that was in the process of trading most of its roster.

30. Edmonton Oilers — Milan Lucic has one point — an assist — in his past 17 games. That is an ugly, ugly, ugly contract.

31. New York Islanders — Are they actually *the worst* team in the NHL?

No, they are not. But my goodness are they tough to watch right now and deserve to be in the basement this week. Stick with me here for a second: They have lost six in a row. They have only won four of their past 16 games. They have given up 50 shots in a game four times during that stretch (only one other team in the NHL has given up more than 50 shots in a game more than twice all season) and Doug Weight seems to be, I don’t know, totally out to lunch behind the bench.

After Saturday’s loss in Pittsburgh he called out rookie Mathew Barzal by name for staying on the ice too long during a power play in overtime (even though he had called a timeout just before that power play started, presumably to give his top players a rest so they could be on the ice for that power play). When asked about another 50-shot debacle he wrote it off as being no big deal because of where the shots were coming from and referenced a 5 p.m. ET start time after playing at 7 the night before and called it a “good effort by the guys.” The reality is had it not been for rookie goalie Christopher Gibson, making his first start of the season, standing on his head for most of the game they would have been obliterated on the scoreboard. The only two goals the Islanders scored that day were because the other team’s goalie literally fell on his butt while a weak shot was sliding toward the net and then later because an opposing defender accidentally kicked the puck in his own net.

It was not a good effort.

Plus, it just makes me mad they have wasted such great offensive seasons from John Tavares, Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle.

Worst team overall? No. A deserving spot in the basement this week for the way the past few weeks — and the season as a whole — have gone? Yes.

————

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.

What’s driving the Coyotes’ hot streak

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To steal Zoolander parlance — only appropriate for a team that once employed Martin Hanzal — the Arizona Coyotes are so hot right now.

The Coyotes are on a four-game winning streak following Tuesday’s overtime win against the Rangers, and are 5-0-1 in their last six, erasing the discomfort from an 0-2-0 start where they only managed a single goal.

If the playoffs began right now, the 5-2-1 Coyotes would be the second wild-card team in the West. Could this be a sign that this is finally the year?

Let’s look at what is working so well so far, and how much of it is sustainable, with help from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

Glorious goaltending

Darcy Kuemper played at such a high level from January on in 2018-19, it seemed like he might just drag the wounded Coyotes to a playoff spot. Even so, it seemed a little hasty when the Coyotes handed Kuemper a two-year, $9 million extension in early October.

Well, if the 29-year-old can stay anywhere near the level he’s been at lately, that could be a mega-steal.

Kuemper’s only allowed 10 goals over six appearances, going 4-2-0 with a sparkling .944 save percentage to begin the season. He’s the first goalie in Coyotes franchise history to allow two or fewer games in 13 consecutive starts, carrying over last season’s red-hot work.

Delightfully for the Coyotes, Antti Raanta‘s shown signs of the sharp goalie he was pre-injury nightmares, as Raanta’s 1-0-1 with a .926 save percentage through two games.

Even if Kuemper is the real deal, one would expect the Coyotes’ league-leading team save percentage of .9388 to cool off; last season, the Islanders topped the NHL with a .9247 mark that would already be tough to match.

It’s plausible that goaltending could remain a strength for Arizona, though, particularly if they maintain their strong start when it comes to possessing the puck and limiting high-danger scoring chances against.

Luck and other peculiarities

As always, it’s important to take any eight-game sample with a grain of salt.

Nick Schmaltz is a good example, alongside goaltending, of “could be good, probably won’t be that good.” He already showed signs of flourishing in a bigger role in Arizona after being traded from Chicago last season (14 points in 17 games before injuries derailed things), but Schmaltz’s nine points in eight games is inflated by puck luck, including a 21.4 shooting percentage. There’s evidence that he might be a strong shooter in general (14.2 shooting percentage in 187 career games), but he’s likely to cool down to some extent.

It will also be interesting to track their power play. Last season, their 16.3 power-play percentage ranked sixth-worst in the NHL. Of course, they added Phil Kessel during the summer, and he’s been part of a unit that’s scored seven goals on 27 opportunities, good for a 25.9 percent success rate that ranks seventh overall.

PDO is a helpful metric for measuring luck (it’s merely save percentage plus shooting percentage), and so it’s worth noting that the Coyotes’ 1.030 mark ties them for fourth-highest at all strengths in this young season.

There’s at least one way where things could get tougher if the Coyotes are perceived as more of a threat.

Five for Howling recently pointed out an interesting trend: so far in 2019-20, the Coyotes have frequently faced opposing teams’ backups. That might be a coincidence, but if it continues to even a subtle extent, it could be helpful in a league ripe with parity.

Fewer trips to the trainers

Last season, the Coyotes were absolutely ravaged by injuries, to the point that it’s tempting to give them a mulligan. So far in 2019-20, Arizona’s been healthier, although it remains to be seen if they can can continue to thrive so much defensively with Niklas Hjalmarsson on the shelf.

Like with most NHL teams, injury luck (or a lack thereof) could be pivotal for Arizona.

***

Yes, it’s too early to know for sure, but which way do you lean: could this be the year the Coyotes put it together, or will 2019-20 end in another disappointment?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Avs get mostly good news about Rantanen’s injury

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When you first see footage of Colorado Avalanche star Mikko Rantanen‘s injury from Monday, you’ll probably say “gah!” and maybe feel a little sick to your stomach. Then you’d assume that he will be out for quite a long time.

All things considered, then, the Avs’ Wednesday update is about as close to good news as you could reasonably expect.

Coach Jared Bednar announced that Rantanen is week-to-week with a lower-body injury, and that the Avs might know more about the 22-year-old’s status early next week.

Losing Rantanen for days is rough, so this isn’t necessarily cause for a full-on party, but worthy of a sigh of relief. Especially when you recall this gruesome sight:

/appetite loss warning

via Sportsnet/Youtube

“Week-to-week” is obviously a vague window, so this additional bit of insight from Avalanche play-by-play announcer Marc Moser provides comfort:

It’s never ideal to lose a star like Rantanen, but the Avalanche are positioned reasonably well to weather the storm. They’re off to a strong 7-1-1 start for 15 standings points, leaving them a four-point edge over the Predators for the Central Division lead. It’s early in the season, so hopefully Rantanen will get to heal up completely for when the games matter the most — and with the Avs off to such a blistering start, they must be thinking about the playoffs a bit already.

And, actually, that might provide another silver lining: Colorado is being forced to look at different combinations beyond Rantanen + Nathan MacKinnon (and usually Gabriel Landeskog).

Could someone like Andre Burakovsky or Joonas Donskoi flourish on the top line? Finding out could provide highly useful intel for the future. If the Avs run into a team that can slow their dynamic duo (maybe an opponent like the Blues with Ryan O'Reilly?), it might be good to have a Plan B where MacKinnon and Rantanen can run their own lines.

It’s been understandable that the Avalanche haven’t run such experiments in the past, as they made it into the playoffs in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 by slim margins. This strong start might just afford them the luxury of testing some hypotheses.

… But don’t get me wrong, it’s still bad to lose Rantanen for weeks.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

Max Domi continues to excel in year two with Habs

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When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Max Domi from the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, they were landing a player that had nine goals and 38 and 45 points in his two previous seasons. But in his first year as a Hab, he took his game to another level. He finished the season with a career-high 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games while playing down the middle. What does he do for an encore in year two?

Usually, the leading scorer on a team will get to play with some of the better players on the roster, but Domi’s in a bit of a unique spot. Montreal’s “first” line is made up of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who have played together since last season. They’re a very effective line and head coach Claude Julien likes having them together.

The “third” line is made up of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia (when healthy) and Jonathan Drouin, who spent a considerable amount of time playing with Domi last year (they weren’t overly effective together). So that doesn’t leave many options for the 24-year-old, who opened the season with offensively-challenged winger Artturi Lehkonen and rookie Nick Suzuki.

Lehkonen is a responsible winger while Suzuki struggled to get his footing early on. Paul Byron, Drouin and Jordan Weal have all spent time on that “second” line at five-on-five. Now that Suzuki has started producing on a different line, Julien is promoting him back to Domi’s line ahead of Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. How have the rotating players affected Domi’s on-ice performance in 2019-20? It hasn’t affected him negatively at all.

As of right now, he’s picked up three goals and nine points in nine games. He has a CF% of 56.36, a SCF% of 57.14, a HDCF% of 63.41 and a very reasonable PDO of .994.

The Habs forward has also contributed to an improving Montreal power play that ranked 30th last season. He’s currently tied for the team lead in power-play points, with four. This is a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs by three points last year. If they can continue to get solid production from their special teams unit, that could be the difference between staying home in April and making it to the postseason.

[MORE: Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs]

The once controversial trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk is no longer being questioned in Montreal. Domi has been so much better and healthier than Galchenyuk that this has become one of the biggest steals of general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the Canadiens.

What makes his time in Montreal even more impressive is that he’s putting up these numbers while transitioning from wing to center. Yes, he struggled with defensive-zone coverage at times last year and he won just 44.9 percent of his face-offs, but those are two things that should improve as he gains experience. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but he’s already winning 50 percent of his draws through nine games.

If he had 72 points last year and he continues to improve, it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Can he become a point-per-game player on a yearly basis? That’s entirely possible. Another interesting storyline to follow will be his next contract (he’s going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year). When he was acquired by Montreal, he signed a two-year bridge deal worth $3.150 million per year. If he builds on last season’s numbers and stays healthy, it’s entirely possible that he could fetch upwards of $7 million or $8 million annually on a long-term deal.

Whatever the price ends up being, Bergevin will probably be happy to pay it given how well this trade has turned out for an organization that has been dying for a talented center like Domi for more than decade.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.