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.

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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.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.