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PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of the nonsensical Minnesota Wild

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Take a look at the NHL standings and look at the top-four teams in each conference. Do it right now. Here they are. Go look. Take a look at the teams you see in those groups.

A lot of the ones you expect to see, right? A lot of the teams we have talked about all season.

Nashville. Tampa Bay. Boston. Vegas (yes, Vegas). Winnipeg. Pittsburgh. Toronto. Teams like that.

Then there is the Minnesota Wild. A team that almost nobody is talking about or has talked about it, mostly because they are decidedly average in just about every major category, sitting with one of the 10 best records in the league.

Nothing about their actual play on the ice really points to a team that should be that high in the standings.

They are one of the worst teams in the league in shot attempt percentage during 5-on-5 play.

They are in the bottom 10 in shots on goal for and shots on goal against per game. They are a middle of the pack team on the power play and the penalty kill. They are getting okay goaltending, but not really the type of out-of-this world performance that typically lifts a mediocre team this high up in the standings.

They do have a fairly decent shooting percentage (both overall and during 5-on-5 play) but like the goaltending it is nothing so out of the ordinary that it should lead to such a significant bump in the standings.

Along with all of that they really haven’t been a terribly healthy team this season and have had to deal with some pretty significant injuries to some pretty significant players. Nino Niederreiter has missed 19 games. Zach Parise has missed 39. Charlie Coyle has missed 16. Mikael Granlund has missed five.

Even with all of that here they are with one of the better records in the league.

None of it makes sense. Based on everything mentioned above they should probably be one of the worst teams in the league.

The two things they have going for them this season are the fact they have, for whatever reason, been nearly unbeatable at home with a staggering 24-5-6 record at the Xcel Energy Center.

They also have a couple of key forwards in Eric Staal, Jason Zucker (two of the top forwards that have been healthy all season) and Mikael Granlund having some huge years offensively.

Staal remains a remarkable story based on the way his career has rebounded since arriving in Minnesota before the start of the 2016-17 season. He looked like he was a shell of his former self during his last year in Carolina, but after a nice bounceback season a year ago he has come back this season and producing the way he did in his prime when he was one of the best players in the league.

Zucker has already shattered his previous career high in goals, and has once again helped form a pretty strong duo with Granlund when they have been used together. Since the start of last season Zucker and Granlund have spent more than 1,400 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together (via Natural Stat Trick), during which time the Wild have outscored teams by a 74-45 margin and controlled more than 51 percent of the shot attempts (an impressive number considering how bad the rest of the Wild’s possession numbers are).

Those three players deserve a ton of credit for the Wild’s current standing.

They are are also another nice reminder that sometimes a lot of what happens in the NHL in any given season can be completely random and not make any sense. It is the beauty of the sport sometimes. No other sports lends itself to that sort of performance for teams the way hockey can.

On to the rankings!

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — They are 10-0-1 in their past 11 games entering the week and have no weakness on paper or on the ice. The best team in hockey.

2. Boston Bruins — They fact the have won six of their past seven games and are averaging more than five goals per game during that stretch without Patrice Bergeron for all of those games and Charlie McAvoy for five of them is remarkable. A scary team in the Eastern Conference.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning — Speaking of scary teams in the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay is 9-0-1 in its past 10, has already hit 100 points on the season, and has two of the top scorers in the league. Honestly, any of these top three teams have a legit argument to be in the top spot.

4. Winnipeg Jets — Patrik Laine has 15 goals in his past 11 games. That is an absurd run. The Jets have a lot of great offensive weapons. He is the most dangerous.

The Rest Of The Contenders

5. Vegas Golden Knights — They have cooled off a little bit recently but enter the week having won three out of four on their current road trip.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have not always looked great, but they enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division, have won three out of four, and are still playing without their starting goalie.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — They had a pretty miserable four-game road trip recently but returned home with a big win over Pittsburgh. Given the number of shots they give up their playoff success will still largely be determined by how well Frederik Andersen plays in net.

8. Minnesota Wild — Not really sure how they are doing it, but they have one of the top records in the league. Eric Staal is getting most of the attention for his season, but let’s not overlook Jason Zucker’s 28 goals.

The ‘could go either way’ group

9. Philadelphia Flyers — Being a fan of this team has to be quite a trip. So far this season they have lost 10 games in a row, won six in a row two different times, and then lost five in a row over the past week and a half before snapping out of it by shutting down one of the best offensive teams in the league over the weekend.

10. Florida Panthers — They have the inside track for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. They enter the week on a nine-game point streak and have been on a roll for a couple of months now. I wonder what the narrative surrounding this team and its front office changes the past two seasons would look like had they not lost Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Nick Bjugstad for more than 114 man-games a season ago. Think that had something to do with their decline? Think their healthy this season has something to do with their improvement?

11. Washington Capitals — If Braden Holtby does not get back to playing like Braden Holtby it could be an awfully short spring in Washington. Shorter than usual, that is.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They are starting to pick it up at the right time but they still have very little margin for error in that race with New Jersey and Florida.

13. San Jose Sharks — Brent Burns is on track to finish in the top-three in shots on goal for the third year in a row. For a defenseman that is unheard of. Bobby Orr used to do that. That is about it.

14. Colorado Avalanche — If you are going to lose, lose in overtime. The Avalanche have lost five of their past 10 games. Not great. But four of those losses have come in overtime or a shootout which means they’ve earned 14 of a possible 20 points over that stretch. That will keep you in the playoff hunt.

15. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall is still doing amazing things but he needs some help. The Devils have lost six out of 10 entering the week and are still waiting for trade deadline acquisition Michael Grabner to record his first point with the team.

16. Anaheim Ducks — When healthy Ryan Getzlaf is still an incredible talent. He has 50 points in 44 games this season. With a healthy lineup they would not be a fun first-round matchup in the playoffs for anybody.

17. Dallas Stars — They are trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time of year. Maybe that’s not the worst thing. They still have a hold on a playoff spot and at the moment would sneak into Pacific Division playoff bracket as the first wild card team, avoiding a first-second round gauntlet that could include Winnipeg and Nashville. So … a strategic tank? Doubtful, because it still seems like something is holding them back, but it could work out that way.

18. Los Angeles Kings — Just when it looked like they were going to make a nice little push they get obliterated at home by a Blues team that had been falling apart.

19. Calgary Flames — Mike Smith‘s absence was a big problem for them. His return did not go well for him or the Flames as they dropped a big game to an Islanders team that had lost eight in a row.

20. St. Louis Blues — The only reason they are not firmly in the lottery at this point is because they had such a great start to the season. They have been awful for weeks, though.

Hope the ping pong balls go your way

21. Edmonton Oilers — They are 7-4-0 in their past 11 games, mostly because Connor McDavid has gone from “best player in the world” to “superman” mode.

22. New York Rangers — Ryan Spooner has 12 points in seven games since being acquired from the Boston Bruins in the Rick Nash trade. He is a restricted free agent after the season and making a nice argument to be a part of the Rangers’ immediate future.

23. Chicago Blackhawks — Not sure I fully understand the front office’s apparent plan to stick with the same defense that has, for the most part, stunk this season.

24. Carolina Hurricanes — Maybe next year will be the year it all comes together for them, he said for the eighth year in a row.

25. Arizona Coyotes — They might still have the worst record in the league but they are not playing like the worst team in the league at the moment, and have not for several weeks. The schedule has softened up a bit but they have still beaten some really good teams during this stretch (Minnesota twice, Anaheim, San Jose).

26. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser‘s unfortunate injury means there is literally no reason for anybody to watch their games for the rest of the season, unless you are contractually obligated to.

27. Buffalo Sabres — It is still inexcusable they are this bad this far into their rebuild, but at least they have won a couple of games recently.

28. New York Islanders — I put them at No. 31 a week ago mainly because they had just been on such an unspeakably bad run and looked so awful for so long. I didn’t really think they were the worst team in the league. But I am not sure they are far from it, either. They have allowed 50 shots on goal in six different games this season. Since the start of the 2015-16 season no team in the NHL has allowed more than 50 shots in a game three times. In nearly three full years. The Islanders have doubled that in less than 70 games this year.

29. Ottawa Senators — The fans deserve a break and if they are going to lose Erik Karlsson this summer (or next summer) I hope for their case they get some good fortunate in the draft lottery and get a chance to pick Rasmus Dahlin to one day (hopefully) replace him. The owner probably does not deserve that same good fortune, though.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Henrik Zetterberg is a Hall of Fame talent that played on some of the best teams of the modern era. Now he is going out on this team. It seems to be getting to him. How could it not?

31. Montreal Canadiens — They have only won five of their past 20 games and I am not sure I trust Marc Bergevin to dig the franchise out of the hole he has helped put it in.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: ‘No easy fix’ for emergency backup goalie situations like Ayres’

David Ayers NHL tries to fix emergency backup goalie situations EBUGS
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bill Daly told reporters that there “are no easy fixes” for the NHL regarding emergency backup goalie situations like David Ayres suiting up for the Hurricanes. Ah yes, the league definitely must do something about the scourge that is getting a feel-good story that landed on outlets such as “Today Show” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Why would any league want scores of cheap attention if it comes with even an ounce of embarrassment? Preposterous! (Sportsnet)

• You’d think hockey people didn’t need to hear this, but stories like Ayres’ is why we love sports. (The Portage Citizen)

• Great stuff from William Douglas on memorable former NHL player Mike Grier, who ranks among four black assistant coaches in the NHL. Grier explains that his father Bobby Grier inspires his work ethic, as the elder Grier once was an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. (NHL.com celebrates Black History Month)

• Plenty of big names for the U.S. roster heading into the women’s world championship, including Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Brianna Decker. If a familiar face isn’t there, it might be due to them having children. (Olympic Talk)

• Great news for the Blues, and really for hockey: Vladimir Tarasenko may return sooner than expected. As in, before the end of the regular season. (NHL.com)

• Blues GM Doug Armstrong explains why the team was quiet at the trade deadline. Frankly, Armstrong’s made enough splashes over the years that it’s understandable to sit one out. Plus, the Blues can make people roll their eyes by saying Tarasenko is their “trade deadline acquisition.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• If you only look at points, John Carlson ranks as the next Erik Karlsson when it comes to seemingly easy Norris Trophy calls. That said, the Capitals experienced a high-scoring blueliner getting downgraded before when Mike Green was at his fauxhawk’d peak. Could it happen again? Kevin Klein went into deep, fascinating detail on that question. (Japers Rink)

• Speaking of Capitals-related no-brainers, what about Alex Ovechkin playing a game in front of a Russian crowd? Daly says the league is working on it. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Adam Gretz argues that Conor Sheary can score enough to stick with Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ top line. Pittsburgh showed off its new look in a narrow loss to the Kings on Wednesday. (Pensburgh)

• When Viktor Arvidsson is rolling, the Predators often roll with him. Amid a turbulent season, it seems like Arvidsson is finding his way. That’s extremely promising for Nashville’s chances. (A to Z Sports Nashville)

• Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman lays out his plan, explaining that the draft and young players are “the lifeblood of your team.” (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Senators fans waved goodbye to key players in multiple trades now, from Karlsson to Mark Stone to now Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Could Pageau be the end of that line? (TSN)

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.

The Buzzer: Fleury’s shutout helps Golden Knights win 7th in a row

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury is starting to get on a roll for the Golden Knights and continued that on Wednesday night with his fifth shutout of the season in a big 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers. The win extend stheir lead in the Pacific Division. Fleury has now won each of his past five starts and is starting to get back on track after a mid-season slump. Vegas acquired Robin Lehner just before the NHL trade deadline to give the team some goaltending depth, and with Fleury playing the way he has lately they should have one of the best duos in the league going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Golden Knights’ winning streak now sits at seven consecutive games.

2. Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings. Petersen was the difference in the Kings’ 2-1 win over the Penguins on Wednesday, extending their losing streak to four games. He stopped 35 shots in the win including some great scoring chances in the closing seconds to secure the win. With Jack Campbell now in Toronto, Petersen is going to get an opportunity to be the primary backup for the Kings and he put on a great show against the Penguins. Read more about the Kings’ win right here.

3. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. With the Avalanche’s current injury situation they need their depth to come through. It did so again on Wednesday night in a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, and it was Compher making the biggest impact with a goal and an assist. His goal late in the third period ended up being the game-winner to help the Avalanche extend their winning streak. Read more about their win right here.

Highlight of the Night

Avalanche rookie Martin Kaut scored his first NHL goal in their win over the Sabres.

Blooper of the Night

Dustin Brown accidentally crushed his own teammate.

Suit of the Night

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar really got into the spirit of military night in Denver. This camo, though, seems more suited for duck hunting night.

Factoid of the Night

Scores

Colorado Avalanche 3, Buffalo Sabres 2
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Edmonton Oilers 0
Los Angeles Kings 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

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.

Kings hold on to extend Penguins’ losing streak to 4 games

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The Los Angeles Kings played the role of spoiler on Wednesday night by stealing a 2-1 decision from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Blake Lizotte and Trevor Lewis provided the offense for the Kings, while goalie Cal Petersen was sensational in net by turning aside 35 out of 36 shots, including two great chances by the Penguins in the final seconds.

The Kings have won only four games since the start of February, but all four have been against teams either in a playoff spot or in direction competition for a playoff spot — Colorado, Calgary, Florida, and now Pittsburgh.

Los Angeles got off to a fast start on Wednesday by capitalizing on an early power play to jump out to a 1-0 lead with Lizotte’s goal, and then added some insurance in the closing seconds of the second period.

They also got a little bit of help from the goal post, including late in the first period when Penguins forward Sidney Crosby thought he had tied the game only to have a review overturn it because the puck did not completely cross the goal line.

It has to be a frustrating result for the Penguins. Not only because it is their fourth loss in a row and prevented them from gaining ground on the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division race, but also because it is the second game in a row during that streak that they probably played well enough to win only to have nothing to show for it. They outshot the Kings 36-22 on Wednesday and dominated every possession category.

Bryan Rust finally got them on the scoreboard midway through the third period to cut the deficit in half, but the Kings did a really good job locking the game down after that. It was not until the Penguins pulled goalie Tristan Jarry in the final minute for an extra attacker that they started to tilt the ice again, and it was then that Petersen stood tall and made a couple of huge saves to preserve the win.

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.

Avalanche stay hot with win over Sabres

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The injury situation is not slowing down the Colorado Avalanche.

Their 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night was their fourth in a row and improved them to 12-3-1 in their past 16 games to help them keep pace in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.

What makes this current run so impressive is the number of players they have out of the lineup, currently playing without Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert, and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. It is a testament to the way general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche front office has improved the team’s depth over the past year.

That depth was on display on Wednesday night.

J.T. Compher scored the game-winning goal with just under nine minutes to play on Wednesday night, while 20-year-old Martin Kaut scored his first career goal earlier in the night.

The big star of the game for the Avalanche, though, had to be goaltender Pavel Francouz. He continued his outstanding season by stopping 31 out of 33 shots. He helped keep the Avalanche in the game early in the first period, and then made a handful of highlight reel saves late in the third period with the Avalanche trying to protect their one-goal lead. The 29-year-old has been a great find for the Avalanche and earned a two-year contract extension earlier this month.

As for the Sabres, this was their first game after a busy trade deadline that saw them add Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun in an effort to play meaningful games down the stretch, and maybe hang around in the Atlantic Division playoff race. While their recent hot streak has helped bring them closer to the Toronto Maple Leafs for that third spot, they still have almost no margin for error the rest of the way. By failing to gain a point on Wednesday they remain eight points behind the Maple Leafs.

 

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.