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NHL Power Rankings: The Penguins are better than they were a year ago

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There seems to be some concern around the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoffs start to get closer. Their penalty kill has stunk for about a month now, they give up too many odd-man rushes and scoring chances, and sometimes because of that they give up more goals than you would like to see from a Stanley Cup contender.

All of that would seem to be concerning at this time of year. Then you look at the fact they are still 7-2-2 in their past 11 games and you start to remember, hey, these guys are pretty good and they gave up a lot of chances a year ago, too.

There is something else that needs to be kept in mind: They are still playing better right now than they were a year ago heading into the playoffs, where they ended up winning the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.

The fact they actually won the Cup a year ago seems to overshadow the fact they didn’t exactly go into the playoffs last season like a dominant powerhouse. They lost eight of their final 15 games (including six of their final 10), finished the season 22nd overall on the penalty kill, and allowed the fourth most shots on goal per game.  They didn’t exactly play great in the first two rounds, either, getting through Columbus and Washington thanks largely to great goaltending carrying them.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

So let’s take a look at their recent performance this season where they are actually playing really well down the stretch, even if it can look a little sloppy at times.

Even with their recent slump on the PK they are still better than they were at the end of last season (17th this season vs. 21st this year) and are giving up the sixth fewest shots per game.

But let’s take a look at a more isolated stretch of games, specifically the past 11, and what they were doing at the same time a year ago.

Offensively they are averaging a full goal per game more, recording more shots, giving up fewer shots, and are one of the best possession teams in the league as opposed to being one of the worst.

The two drops are a slight increase in goals against and a worse penalty kill. It’s easy to blame the penalty kill slump on losing Ian Cole as part of the Derick Brassard trade, but that would also be kind of lazy. The Penguins played without Cole for 15 games earlier this season when he was on the team and never saw that sort of a drop in their play (while using mostly the same players).

The big change is in net where Matt Murray has been up and down at times when he has been healthy, while backups Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry have simply not played well. It is probably not a coincidence that the PK started to fall apart recently when Murray went down with an injury and missed nearly a month and the Penguins had to turn to a career minor leaguer and a pretty good prospect that probably is not quite ready for full-time NHL action.

If Murray is healthy and playing the way he was before his most recent injury (he was 8-0-1 with a .926 save percentage in nine starts before missing a month) they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

It should not be a total shock that they are potentially better team this season when you consider the fact they did not have Kris Letang — their No. 1 defenseman — at this time a year ago, and that they were able to add Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to fill the third-and fourth-line center spots and fix the depth problems they entered this season with.

The question is whether or not all of this is going to be enough to get them another chance at the Stanley Cup.

A year ago it was pretty obvious going into the playoffs that the Penguins and Washington Capitals were probably going to be the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference.

That is not the case this season.

This season there are probably six teams that all have a legitimate shot to come out of the Eastern Conference, whether it be Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, the suddenly surging Blue Jackets and, yes, still the Capitals, too.

The East is absolutely loaded and significantly better than it was a season ago. The Penguins might be better. But so is their competition. Not by a little bit, either.

On to the rankings for this week…

The Elites

1. Boston Bruins — Patrice Bergeron and Torey Krug are back in the lineup. The scary thing is they were still winning without them. Just wait until they get Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara back.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — It almost feels like we’ve forgotten about them a little bit. They are 12-3-1 in their past 16, still have the most points in the NHL, two of the best offensive players in the league, and made two huge additions at the trade deadline.

3. Nashville Predators — They’ve dropped three in a row since their 10-game winning streak came to an end. Nothing to worry about. Still the favorites in the west and one of the best teams in the NHL.

4. Winnipeg Jets — Starting to peak at the right time? A potential second-round matchup between them and Nashville might be the best series of the playoffs. If it happens.

The rest of the contenders

5. Columbus Blue Jackets — For the second year in a row they won at least 10 games in a row. Even better than the results is the fact they are also playing at an extremely high level. Their reward for all of this will probably be another first-round matchup with Pittsburgh.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They really didn’t do anything to drop a spot this week, but there’s just so many good teams at the top right now that it almost just kind of happened by default. A scary good offense that has Auston Matthews back.

7. Washington Capitals — Feeling some pressure from the rest of the Metropolitan Division the Capitals have gone on a 7-1-0 run to strengthen their grip on the division.

8. San Jose Sharks — The best team right now that no one is talking about? Firm grasp on second place in the Pacific Division, 10-2-0 in their past 12 games, entering the week on a seven-game winning streak. And they still might get Joe Thornton back at some point.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins — It is all going to come down to goaltending.

10. Vegas Golden Knights — With wins in just six of their past 14 games they are still sliding a bit. That potential first-round matchup with Colorado seems dangerous for them.

The middle ground

11. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon has kind of overshadowed the fact that Mikko Rantanen is also one of the top scorers in the league this season. Of course, MacKinnon probably deserves a lot of credit for that but having two elite scorers on a line is never a bad thing.

12. Minnesota Wild — They are a pretty good team and should be capable of winning a round in the playoffs, but do they have the firepower to keep up with Winnipeg or the defense and goaltending to shut them down?

13. St. Louis Blues — These guys looked done one month ago, now here they are making a serious run at that eighth playoff spot in the West. Jake Allen is getting hot in net at the right time for them.

14. Anaheim Ducks — One of the great “what ifs” of this season will be what the Ducks would have been capable of with a reasonably healthy roster for most of the year.

15. Philadelphia Flyers — Sean Couturier has officially become a force down the middle. That defense with 30-goal, 70-point offense is one hell of a player.

16. New Jersey Devils — With nine points in his past six games Taylor Hall is still trying to drag this team to the playoffs.

17. Florida Panthers — The games in hand are still their biggest asset in the race for a playoff spot. Still have to win them.

18. Los Angeles Kings — They have not won or lost consecutive games in nearly a month. This perfectly illustrates what this team is at the moment: Mediocre and dull. Neither great, nor bad.

Better luck in the lottery

19.  Edmonton Oilers — It took them most of the season and until they were all but eliminated from the playoffs, but they finally started to play at least a little bit like the team a lot of people thought they could be this season.

20. New York Rangers — Jesper Fast has an eight-game point streak heading into Monday’s game. There is not much else going on here.

21. Carolina Hurricanes — Let’s just say it now: Nobody gets to pick them as their sleeper team next season.

22. Calgary Flames — To make matters worse, their first-round draft pick is going to the New York Islanders as a result of the Travis Hamonic trade.

23. Dallas Stars — How do you bring back Ken Hitchcock and Jim Nill after this? Too much money to spend on an average team that has tanked down the stretch.

24. Chicago Blackhawks — Just about the only positive from this season is that young players like Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz have had really nice seasons. Given the long-term salary cap situation they need young talent to come through.

25. Arizona Coyotes — Derek Stepan has been outstanding lately with 11 points in his past eight games. This young team is still showing a ton of improvement as the season goes on.

26. Ottawa Senators — Everywhere Guy Boucher has gone, whether it is in the NHL or in Europe, his system has worked wonderfully for one season. Then it stops working. Every. Single. Time.

The basement

27. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser, a rookie, is going to miss 20 games and still has a very good chance to finish as the team’s leading scorer. The only reason we moved them up this week is because they have won two out of three and the four teams below them … well…

28. New York Islanders — They have two wins in their past 15 games. During those 15 games they have given up at least six goals four times. Twice they have given up seven goals. Woof.

29. Montreal Canadiens — Their only wins in the month of March have come against the New York Islanders (who have gone in the tank), the Dallas Stars (who have gone in the tank) and the Buffalo Sabres (who have never gotten out of the tank).

30. Buffalo Sabres — During their four-game losing streak entering Monday they have the following goal totals: 0, 1, 0, 1.

31. Detroit Red Wings — They did snap that 10-game losing streak with a shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Then they lost two more in a row. They have not won a game in regulation since February 24. In their past 18 games they have one regulation win, one overtime win, one shootout win. That is it. Two of those wins were against the Carolina and the rebuilding New York Rangers.

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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.

The Buzzer: Red Wings snap skid; hats off to Panarin

Artemi Panarin Hat Trick Rangers
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Three Stars

1. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks probably had no business winning this game. They were badly outshot, outplayed, and needed to rely on their goalie to keep them in it. Fortunately for the Canucks, Markstrom was up to the challenge and played one of the best games of his career as he stopped all 43 shots he faced in a 1-0 overtime win. He held on just long enough for Elias Pettersson to score the game-winning goal thanks to a fluky assist from an unlikely source. Read all about it here.

2. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers spoiled Bob Boughner’s San Jose coaching debut with a 6-3 win that was highlighted by another huge game for Panarin. He scored three goals and added an assist in the win to continue his incredible 2019-20 performance. His first year with the Rangers has been everything the team could have hoped for as he is now up to 18 goals and 41 total points in 31 games. The Sharks, meanwhile, are now 0-5-1 in their previous six games.

3. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. His point streak is now up to 15 consecutive games thanks to a two-goal effort in a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators. It is the second game in a row that Eichel has scored a pair of goals as he continues to climb the NHL’s scoring leaderboard. He is unstoppable right now and trying to carry the Sabres to a playoff spot all by himself.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • The Detroit Red Wings’ losing streak has finally come to an end. They were winners for the first time since Nov. 12 thanks to a 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets to snap what had been a 12-game losing streak. Robby Fabbri continued his strong play since joining the team with a pair of goals while Filip Zadina recorded three points.
  • The Calgary Flames improved to a perfect 7-0-0 under new coach Geoff Ward thanks to a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Johnny Gaudreau scored a pair of goals as part of a three-goal third period for the Flames to get the win.
  • Tristan Jarry recorded his third shutout in his past four starts for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they were 1-0 winners over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus coach John Tortorella had no words for his team’s lackluster performance. Read about it here.
  • Clayton Keller scored a pair of goals for the Coyotes in their 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks to put them back in sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division.
  • Eric Staal was in the lineup after a scary injury on Tuesday and scored a goal in the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
  • Oskar Sundqvist had a goal and an assist for the St. Louis Blues in a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Another strong start for Jonathan Quick as he stopped 36 out of 37 shots for the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Steven Stamkos scored twice for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a huge 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins.
  • Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee each had a pair of points in the New York Islanders’ 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers.

Highlights of the Night

It came in a losing effort, but Nashville’s Matt Duchene scored an absolute beauty of a goal in Buffalo.

Check out this quick tic-tac-toe passing by the Islanders to set up Mathew Barzal for a power play goal against the Panthers.

 

Eichel’s goal to extend his point streak was an absolutely perfect shot.

Blooper of the Night

The puck ended up getting lost in Markstrom’s equipment and he needed a lot of assistance in finding it.

Factoids

  • Panarin’s hat trick on Thursday was the third of his career, all of them coming with different teams. [NHL PR]
  • Joe Thornton played in career game No. 1,600 on Thursday, making him and Patrick Marleau the first set of teammates to have 1,600 games played in their careers. [NHL PR]
  • The Islanders’ points percentage of .733 is the second highest in franchise history through the first 31 games of a season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 4, Nashville Predators 3
Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Boston Bruins 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 1, Columbus Blue Jackets 0 (OT)
Detroit Red Wings 5, Winnipeg Jets 2
St. Louis Blues 4, Vegas Golden Knights 2
Minnesota Wild 6, Edmonton Oilers 5
Calgary Flames 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Chicago Blackhawks 2
Los Angeles Kings 2, Anaheim Ducks 1
Vancouver Canucks 1, Carolina Hurricanes 0 (OT)
New York Rangers 6, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Pettersson gets lucky assist from abandoned stick on OT winner (Video)

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Sometimes you need a little bit of luck to win in the NHL.

The Vancouver Canucks received a healthy dose of it on Thursday night.

They were 1-0 winners against the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to an incredible goaltending performance from Jacob Markstrom and an overtime goal from emerging superstar Elias Pettersson. Markstrom’s performance gave them a chance, but it was a stroke of good fortune and a filthy finish from Pettersson that put them in the win column.

While the stat sheet will officially give the assist on Pettersson’s goal to Brock Boeser, the real assist came from an abandoned stick that previously belonged to Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin. As the Canucks controlled play in the offensive zone, Slavin lost his stick in a battle for the puck with Boeser.

It would prove to be costly for the Hurricanes because, well, watch for yourself in the video above.

Maybe Pettersson still ends up collecting the puck and scores the winner anyway if that stick isn’t sitting there. But Slavin’s stick sitting in the exact perfect spot made it significantly easier for him to score the winner.

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.

Tortorella has no words to describe Blue Jackets’ ugly loss

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PITTSBURGH — The Columbus Blue Jackets need points right now, and they managed to at least get one in a 1-0 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

But even more important than individual points, they need wins.

They need to take advantage of every possible situation that presents itself for them to get wins, and they seemed to have a prime opportunity sitting in front of them on Thursday night against an undermanned team that was playing without its top-two centers and a collection of players that combined for $35 million in salary.

It also should have been an opportunity to build on a promising 5-2 win in Washington — the best team in the league! — in their most recent outing and win consecutive games for just the second time since the start of November.

It did not go that way at all.

They not only failed to collect the all-important second point, but they only managed a season-low 17 shots on goal (while allowing 32) and were consistently outworked and outplayed by a Penguins team that was without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, and Brian Dumoulin.

They were unable to generate any sustained pressure in the Penguins’ zone, and on the rare occasion that they did they were unable to solve goalie Tristan Jarry as he recorded his third shutout in his past four starts. It was only the second time this season they failed to record at least 24 shots on goal in a game (previous low: 19).

The Blue Jackets’ locker room remained closed longer than normal after the game, and once it did open there didn’t seem to be any answers for what had just happened on the ice other than the fact they had just been thoroughly outworked.

“They just worked,” said Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno. “They knew they were banged up. They just worked extremely hard. Early on we did not match that intensity at all. That is unacceptable on our part. We had moments, but not enough sustained pressure, not enough of what we bring. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that is not going to be the recipe for winning, especially in this league with how hard it is.

“We need to make sure that is never the case again where we are getting outworked by a team that knows its backs against the wall with the situation they are in. We are no in position, with the situation we are in, to take anyone lightly or thinking it’s going to be an easy game. I don’t think that was the case tonight, but it just didn’t look like we had the jump tonight. It is unacceptable.”

When asked if anything changed going into the game for Columbus knowing that the Penguins would be without Crosby (sidelined for four weeks) and Malkin (late scratch due to being sick), Foligno was quick to say the team’s mindset was to “just jump on them.” He said their inability to do so was what made their slow start so disappointing.

Head coach John Tortorella was not quite as in depth with his post-game responses and, quite literally, had no words to describe what he saw.

When asked about Thursday’s performance overall: “I don’t have any words to describe it.”

On whether or not he knew what to expect from this team on a game-to-game basis: “I don’t have any words to describe it.”

If he thought the performance in Washington would lead to a positive carry-over for a game like this: “I don’t have any words to describe it. I don’t know what to tell you guys. I hope you asked [the players] the same questions. I hope they answered you honestly.”

When asked if he was disappointed in the low number of shots, he sarcastically quipped, “I’m just thrilled with it,” before adding “that’s a great question, too.”

And that was it.

This always seemed like it was going to be a tough season in Columbus following the offseason exodus that saw Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel bolt in free agency. But the Blue Jackets remained bullish about their chances and the team they were bringing back, and there were certainly reasons for optimism. Whatever optimism existed, however, is quickly fading. After Thursday’s loss in Pittsburgh the Blue Jackets remain in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, are 10 points back of a playoff spot, and are now near the bottom of the league in nearly every major statistical category.

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.

Report: Sabres’ Bogosian requests trade

Zach Bogosian Trade Request
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With the Buffalo Sabres dealing with a logjam of defenseman, the team has been active in NHL trade rumors as general Jason Botterill tries to make a move to help address the team’s depth at forward.

It is not hard to connect the dots and assume a defenseman could be the player eventually on the move. And it seems veteran Zach Bogosian might be making the decision on which one to trade a little easier. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Bogosian has reportedly requested a trade out of Buffalo.

He is also not in the lineup for their game against the Nashville Predators and will be a healthy scratch as the team dresses seven defenseman, including second-year standout Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin will be making his return to the lineup after missing the past eight games due to a concussion.

As for Bogosian, he has been limited to just 10 games this season while injuries have been a constant issue for him throughout his career. That has been especially true during his Sabres tenure where he has never played more than 65 games in a season. He is in the final year of his current contract and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Sabres have 12 defensemen in the organization with NHL experience and are currently carrying eight on the roster.

As far as a potential return is concerned, expectations should be kept within reason given his contract status and inability to stay in the lineup over the past few years. It might be worth noting the Sabres have been rumored to be one of the teams interested in Pittsburgh Penguins forward Alex Galchenyuk as he continues to struggle to fit in with his new team.

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.