Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Ovechkin makes his move

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When we last checked in with our Conn Smythe Power Rankings before the start of the Stanley Cup Final I argued that it was still Marc-Andre Fleury‘s award to lose, and that barring a total collapse in this series he might have a case to win it even if the Vegas Golden Knights end up losing to the Washington Capitals.

Given that the series is tied one game apiece as it shifts to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday night it would be way too premature to say that has happened. Still, through the first two games of the series Fleury has given up seven goals on 54 shots and has an .870 save percentage. Some regression was inevitable given the super-human level he played at through the first three rounds of the playoffs, but Vegas isn’t winning this series with .870 goaltending from their starting goalie.

With that said, for the first time since our initial look at the Conn Smythe race way back in the first-round we have a new leader in the clubhouse.

The new leader is…

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He has been everything for the Capitals in these playoffs and has not only scored a ton of goals and recorded a ton of points, he’s scored — and been a part of — quite a few big goals, the type of moments that can forever chance a tired, lazy narrative about a player’s big-game ability. He assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s series-clinching goal in the second round after scoring a game-winner of his own earlier in the series in the final minute of regulation. He set the tone early in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final by scoring what would be the eventual game-winner. He already has 13 goals in the playoffs — including the two aforementioned game-winners — and gave the Capitals a second period lead in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final with his fifth power play goal. He has at least one point in 16 of the Capitals’ playoff games and is the engine that makes what has been an historically good power play unit work. Only one player has scored at least 15 goals in a single postseason run over the past 20 years (Sidney Crosby for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2008-09 playoffs) and Ovechkin has a very real chance to not only match that number, but perhaps even exceed it.

2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. If Vegas ends up winning this series Fleury is going to win it, there is no doubt about that. But as we sit here right now after two games in the series his stranglehold on the award (the one where he wins the award whether his team wins or loses the series) has slipped just a little. As I mentioned before the series even though he has been on the winning side of his two previous postseason matchups against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals they have been able to get to him. So far in this series they have done the same thing. If that continues it will all come down to the goalie at the other side of the rink.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. This is probably not his best postseason performance, but man has he had his moments. Back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to help the Capitals come from behind in the series? That save on Alex Tuch in the closing minutes of the third period of Game 2 in the Stanley Cup Final? If the Capitals go on to win this series that save will be talked about in Washington forever.

[Related: Save of the playoffs highlights Holtby’s tremendous Game 2]

4. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights’ top line has been driving much of their offense this postseason, and Marchessault is the player that makes the line go. When the line of Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Golden Knights have controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts and outscore their opponents by a 19-12 margin. When none of them are on the ice the Golden Knights still have strong goal advantage (12-6) but their territorial advantage all but disappears (only 48 percent of the shot attempts) which makes things a lot more difficult for their goaltender. When Smith and Karlsson are on the ice without Marchessault, an admittedly small sampling of only around 20 minutes the Golden Knights attempt just 40 percent of the shot attempts. He drives play, he is their leader in every major offensive category, and he is their best player.

5. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals. I want to put him higher. He should probably be higher given his production, the big goals he has scored, and the fact he took an 11-game point streak into Wednesday’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. His injury situation and the fact we do not really know his status for the rest of the series leaves him here in the fifth spot.

He won’t win, but worth a mention: Lars Eller, Washington Capitals. When it comes to the Capitals’ Conn Smythe candidates Eller is behind the obvious choices in Ovechkin, Holtby, and Kuznetsov, but do not overlook his value. Not only does he have 16 points (an impressive total on its own), but he has been incredible in stepping up for both of the Capitals’ top centers (Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov) when they have been out of the lineup and has played an excellent two-way game. He has the points, he has the big goals, he has great possession numbers.

Related: Capitals’ Lars Eller excels once again with increased responsibility

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Flyers need more from Nolan Patrick

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s been a miserable year season for the Flyers, as they’ve accumulated just 40 points in 46 contests. Only the Ottawa Senators are below them in the Eastern Conference standings right now. Many players have failed to live up to their potential, including second-year forward Nolan Patrick.

The Flyers made Patrick the second overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He was able to crack the lineup in his first year, but he put up a modest 13 goals and 30 points in 73 contests. Coming into this season, the Flyers expected him to take a big step forward.

The 20-year-old has gone through some lean times this season. Heading into last Monday’s game against the Minnesota Wild, Patrick had gone 24 games without a goal. During that stretch, he managed to pick up just two assists. But on Monday night, he came up with a huge performance, as he managed to score two goals and he added two helpers in 14:02 of ice time.

“To be honest, it weighs on you quite a bit,” Patrick said after the game. “It’s something you think about when you go through a slump like that. You just have to believe in yourself and do things to help the team if it’s not scoring…I was just trying to play a good two-way game. I knew it would eventually come. I didn’t think it would take that long, but it happens.”

Even though the Flyers are out of the playoff picture, they can use the second half of the season to lay the groundwork for 2019-20. Patrick, Travis Konecny, Carter Hart, Ivan Provorov are just a few of the younger players that need to have strong performances down the stretch.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Interim head coach Scott Gordon may have to win to keep his job, but leaning on his young center should be one of his priorities. Assuming he can build off of his last performance, Patrick should start seeing more ice time. Through 39 games, he’s averaging just 14:35 of ice time.

“I think the biggest change for him will come as soon as he identifies, and he actually said the term, get to fifth gear,” Gordon said, per NBC Sports Philadelphia. “A lot of times he’s playing in third gear. He’s got another speed and we saw that. When I show him video or we talk about his game, let’s make sure we’re playing in fifth gear tonight.”

In his short career, Patrick has picked up a goal and an assist in four games against the Bruins.

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top NHL-affiliated prospects; Rookie dinner stories

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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.

• TSN hockey analyst Craig Button released his list of top 50 NHL-affiliated prospects. A couple of Russians are at the top of this list. (TSN.ca)

• Find out of Devils defenseman Damon Serverson became a fan of rodeo and bull-riding. (NJ.com)

• The Islanders have received some solid contributions from their fourth line, which is made up of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck. (Newsday)

• Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt did a little digging to find out what some players’ rookie dinner looked like. (Sports Illustrated)

• Coming into this season, Rasmus Dahlin was expected to be the top rookie defenseman in the NHL. Let’s just say that Miro Heiskanen is giving him a run for his money. (The Score)

• Where do the Minnesota Wild go from here? (The Hockey News)

• NHL.com had a sit down with Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators should look into trading for Panthers forward Mike Hoffman. (Predlines)

Patrick Maroon going home to St. Louis was a nice story, but it hasn’t worked out for either side. (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Over the course of the 1,000 games Brooks Orpik has played in his career, he’s had to adjust his game. (NBC Washington)

Jake Gardiner and Larry Murphy have a few things in common. First of all, they’ve both been booed by their home crowd in Toronto. (Canadian Press)

Matt Duchene plays “What’s in the Box” against Paul Bissonnette:

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.

The Buzzer: Pro Niemi; Odd night for the Blues

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Three Stars

1. Antti Niemi

After floundering with the Stars and flopping briefly with the Penguins, it sure seemed like last season would be Niemi’s last in the NHL.

Niemi even played two forgettable games for the Panthers team he frustrated tonight, so you can forgive his former teammates for wondering where this guy was. (Stars management might be doing that, too, if they’re not cursing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for losing to the Lightning.)

Niemi set a new career-high with 52 saves against Florida, with only Mike Hoffman‘s Forsberg-like goal beating him.

That performance stands taller than some other great goalie performances that should get at least honorable mentions. Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched a 35-save shutout against Benn and those Stars. Laurent Brossoit continued his brilliant work as Winnipeg’s gem of a backup, making 43 out of 44 stops. But Niemi’s 52 saves fell one short of tying a franchise record for the NHL’s most storied franchise. Seems fair to give him the top spot.

Not bad for a guy who legitimately seemed to be done last season.

2. Mika Zibanejad

As much as the Rangers’ opponents from Carolina rank as a team to watch at the trade deadline, the Rangers are no slouches themselves in sell mode.

It would be surprising to see Zibanejad go in such a liquidation, at least if the Rangers don’t want this to be a lengthy rebuild. He’s a prime-age scorer, with Tuesday’s two goals and two assists pushing his season total to an impressive 41 points. Zibanejad only had 47 points all of last season, and 2015-16’s 51 represent a career-high, so he could really set a new bar for himself. The talent’s seemingly always been there, so it’s pretty exciting to see such growth, and it must be painful to compare his work to that of trade partner Derick Brassard.

Mats Zuccarello collected three assists in this one as well, including a truly brilliant one to set up one of Z’s goals. Zuccarello now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game run.

The Rangers really dominate the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden, apparently.

3. Viktor Arvidsson

Arvidsson was one of two players to collect a hat trick on “National Hat Day,” with Tomas Hertl being the other. Arvidsson gets the nod for two reasons: 1) one of Hertl’s three goals included an empty-netter and 2) Arvidsson managed a GWG in his efforts.

(Joe Thornton scored the game-winner in what was his 1,000th game with the Sharks.)

Some of those Arvidsson goals included some great moments from his teammates, much like Zibanejad was boosted by Zuccarello. You can see a great outlet pass from Mattias Ekholm and a falling helper from Ryan Johansen in the highlights of Nashville’s one-sided win against Washington.

Strange, tough night for St. Louis

The Blues lost in overtime to the Islanders, with Jordan Binnington suffering his first defeat. But that wasn’t what made this an unusual night.

Early in the game, Oskar Sundqvist continued his unlucky 2018-19 by losing his edge and falling into an on-ice official, needing help off of the ice. Luckily, he would come back later in the game.

It wasn’t the only unusual reaction between a Blues player and someone other than an Islanders player, as a trainer helped a struggling Zach Sanford to the bench:

Here’s hoping Sanford ends up OK. David Perron extended his point streak to 12 games, but that’s about where the good news ended for St. Louis on Tuesday.

One more great highlight

Click here for that Hoffman goal. It was pretty ridiculous.

Also ridiculous: Hertl’s effort on this tally. The Czech winger grew up idolizing Jaromir Jagr, so it must have felt great to emulate number 68 in overpowering Evgeni Malkin on his way to this tremendous goal:

Apparently Hertl’s hat-trick goal pushed him to 100 career tallies. So not a bad consolation prize for Hertl.

Factoids

Another sign that, yes, scoring is way up this season.

The Islanders are the first team since the 2011-12 Flyers to have eight players score at least 10+ goals through 45 games.

PHT’s Scott Billeck notes that Laurent Brossoit’s 26 saves in the second period set a new Jets franchise record for saves in a single period. So, yeah, Brossoit has a strong argument for a three stars nod, along with quite a few others from a busy Tuesday.

Scores

NYI 2 – STL 1 (OT)
NYR 6 – CAR 2
CBJ 4 – NJD 1
MTL 5 – FLA 1
DET 3 – ANA 1
NSH 7 – WSH 2
MIN 3 – LAK 2 (SO)
WPG 4 – VGK 1
TBL 2 – DAL 0
SJS 5 – PIT 2

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.

Wild get crucial, tough win against Kings

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It wasn’t always pretty against the Kings on Tuesday, but if Bruce Boudreau was looking for some fight from his team, the Wild showed quite a bit of it.

Ultimately, Minnesota gritted out a 3-2 shootout win against Los Angeles, improving to 23-20-3 in 2018-19. The Wild are currently ranked as the West’s second wild-card team with 49 points in 46 games, managing a two-point edge against the idle Canucks and Oilers, and also two points ahead of the sprawling Ducks.

[Who has the edge in these races?]

If you’re scrolling through the scoreboard alone, a 3-2 (SO) win against lowly Los Angeles doesn’t seem so impressive, and that’s fair enough.

But for the Wild, it’s encouraging. After all, Minnesota was closing out a back-to-back set after a painful 7-4 loss to the Flyers on Monday.

Fatigue must have been weighing Minnesota down, and it must have been frustrating early on, as Jonathan Quick did not make things easier. The Wild weren’t able to score in the first period despite a 14-8 shots on goal edge, and they ended up needing a shootout despite a SOG advantage of 42-33 overall.

Both teams showed a lot of effort on each of their regulation goals, with Alex Stalock stopping 31 of 33 shots, as he’s playing in place of a quietly struggling Devan Dubnyk, who’s not necessarily putting up All-Star numbers.

The Wild got goals from some key players who’ve struggled this season. First, Nino Niederreiter finally broke through midway through the second period on a nice second-effort:

Not long after being the target of Boudreau’s ire, Eric Staal was credited with the Wild’s second goal after Ryan Suter‘s shot/pass/shot-pass bounced off of him:

Grinding out a win like this won’t really “wow” many people, and it is unlikely to silence the Wild’s critics.

[Pondering Boudreau’s future in Minnesota.]

Still, it says quite a bit about this team that, instead of giving in to frustration and fatigue, they found a way to eke out this win. As much as postseason runs hinge on beating other bubble teams and contenders, it’s also important to win against teams that are languishing lower in the standings, and the Wild put the work in to do just that on Tuesday.

For all we know, getting those extra two points could end up making all the difference as these tight races go along.

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.