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PHT Power Rankings: Wild still stuck in wrong division

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Before the start of the season I had what was, admittedly, an overly harsh assessment of the Minnesota Wild (No. 5 on the list here) that talked about how they just kind of exist as a franchise, and how I don’t really have any overwhelmingly strong opinions, positively or negatively, about them as a team. Mostly because for as good as they tend to be, they just never really go anywhere.

Every year you know exactly what they will do, where they will finish in the standings, when they will exit the playoffs.

They have a lot of really good players, but they don’t really have any true superstars.

They are a consistently good team (sometimes really good!), but no matter how good they are, there always seems to be that one team they inevitably meet in the first round that is just always a little bit better than them.

The result is a team that consistently finishes with 100 points, is usually in the top-10 in the overall league standings (top-eight the past two years; top-three this season as of Monday), but can never make a serious postseason run. You know they are going to be there in the playoffs and probably near the top of the standings, but deep down you just know they have no legitimate shot of winning the Stanley Cup. At least that is the way it seems.

Look at it this way: During the five-year stretch between 2013-14 and 2017-18 the Wild were 10th in the NHL in games won. That is a pretty good team. You would think with that much regular season success, and that many trips to the playoffs (all five years), that something might have come together for at least one decent run deep in the playoffs.

For most teams, it does.

For most teams, it did.

For the Wild, it didn’t.

They were one of just two teams in the top-12 in total wins during that stretch that did not make at least one Conference Finals appearance (the Boston Bruins, sixth in wins during that stretch, were the other).

Eight of the teams in the top-12 made at least one Stanley Cup Final appearance (St. Louis, Boston, Anaheim, and Minnesota were the ones that did not).

This season, the Wild are once again a good team. A really good team. A really good team with a great coach in Bruce Boudreau that is doing what he has done for every team he has coached — win. They dominate five-on-five goal-scoring. They dominate five-on-five scoring chances. They have a great penalty kill and an outstanding goalie.

If you are a Wild fan there should be every reason to look at this team and think “maybe we have a chance!”

For everyone outside of Minnesota, you can’t help but look at the situation and the division and the potential path through the playoffs and simply say, “there is no way they are beating both Nashville and Winnipeg in the first two rounds. It just doesn’t seem probable.”

This is the story of the Minnesota Wild in a nutshell. In any given year there may only be two or three teams in their conference that are better than them, and those teams will almost always — always! — be in their division, and be their likely first-or second-round opponents.

The same is true this season.

For years that team was always the Chicago Blackhawks during their mini-dynasty run.

This year — just like last year — it is Nashville and Winnipeg. The two teams they will almost certainly have to go through to go on a run and get out of the Central Division bracket.

It takes a lot of luck and good fortune to win a Stanley Cup. That luck can be anything and everything from getting the right bounce in the right moment, to having all of your key players healthy at the same time, to getting the right matchups along the way.

When it comes to the Wild, they almost never seem to get the latter. Every year it is a brutally tough draw in their division. That does not seem to be changing.

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — Just an incredibly deep team that is dominating everybody. They have only allowed seven goals on their current five-game winning streak. In four of those games they allowed either one goal or zero goals.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — Ryan McDonagh seems to have found the fountain of youth in Tampa Bay, and as if they weren’t already good enough, Victor Hedman is now back in the lineup. The Atlantic Division should be theirs for the taking once again.

3. Minnesota Wild — Once again stuck in the wrong division.

They are who we thought they were 

4. Boston Bruins — Jaroslav Halak has been a huge surprise this season. What has not been a surprise has been the domination of their top line. It is almost like a cheat code when they are on the ice. I don’t mean to exaggerate here, but splitting that trio up should be a fireable offense.

5. Winnipeg Jets — After recording a pair of points in their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night, Blake Wheeler is now on a 10-game point streak. He has 19 points during that streak.

[Related: It is time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated]

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are still picking up wins even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, but their loss over the weekend to Boston should concern them from a big picture outlook. They still have no answer for the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line and if the Maple Leafs are going to be anything other than a team that loses in the first-round they are probably going to have to get through Boston this season. Are you convinced they can do that?

Exceeding expectations, but the jury should still be out

7. Vancouver Canucks — This team still strikes me as a house of cards (that defense and goaltending … woof!), but Elias Petterson is a legit top-line talent and one of the league’s must-see players right now. I give them credit for winning early, because that matters, but I am still not ready to buy this team, this season. Yet.

8. Montreal Canadiens — Just about everything Marc Bergevin touched this offseason seems to be turning to gold. At least for now. How long that good fortune lasts will determine the success or failure of this year’s team.

9. Buffalo Sabres — Whether it is from Buffalo or somebody else, Jeff Skinner is putting himself in a position to collect a lot of money at some point over the next few months. He is still only 26 years old and it seems like he has been around forever.

They are who we thought they were, part 2

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — They enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division despite the fact their goalies, for the most part, have completely stunk this season. They need Sergei Bobrovsky to be Sergei Bobrovsky again.

11. Philadelphia Flyers — How does anyone that follows this team have a healthy blood pressure? They either look great or horrible and they seem to spend equal time on both sides of that spectrum. Lately, the great version has been here (at least offensively). Give it time, though, because the horrible version is probably lurking around the corner just waiting to appear again.

12. Dallas Stars — Middle of the pack seems to be the perfect way to describe the Stars. In any year and every year. Losing John Klingberg for a month is going to hurt, though. He is one of the game’s best blue-liners and should be in the Norris discussion once again.

13. Calgary Flames — The Flames are off to a pretty good start and one of the biggest contributors has been … David Rittich? The backup goalie is 5-1-0 with a .935 save percentage in six starts. Now if they could just get something out of James Neal

Hey, wake up, you are better than this

14. San Jose Sharks — Erik Karlsson has been better than his box score numbers would indicate, but zero goals in 18 games to start the season is not what anybody expected.

15. Washington Capitals — The defending Stanley Cup champions have won back-to-back games once this season. They have yet to win more than two in a row. They have also yet to lose more than two in a row.

16. Pittsburgh Penguins — The general manager was right to call out his team. But he also is the one that built the team, so he has to look in the mirror a little bit, too.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

17. St. Louis Blues — Three of their top-five scorers right now (Ryan O'Reilly, David Perron, Tyler Bozak) were acquired over the offseason in an effort to boost one of the league’s worst offensive teams. They fixed the offense just in time for the goaltending to abandon them.

Making their move … but is it already too late?

18. Florida Panthers — Entering the week they are 5-2-0 in their past seven games, but another slow start to the season may have been enough to bury them.

19. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their eighth game of the 2017-18 season until December 22, so they are more than a month ahead of last year’s pace. There is a lot to like about this team, especially the way they play defensively and on the penalty kill. They are not an easy two points for anyone.

20. New York Rangers — Honestly, not sure I expected this team to put together a six-game point streak at any time this season, but that is exactly what they have done over the past two weeks as part of a 5-0-1 run. Only two of those five wins came in regulation (the other three were shootout wins) so it’s probably not something that is going to sustain itself, but you can’t fault the effort.

21. Detroit Red Wings –– Same story as the Rangers. The effort is there, and it’s resulted in a nice little hot streak here recently (for the Red Wings, it is wins in six out of the past seven games, including three in a row where they have had to overcome a two-goal deficit) but even bad teams get hot at some point during an 82-game season.

The mystery teams

22. Colorado Avalanche — Two of the top-three scorers in the league, a top-three offense overall, top-10 in goals against per game … and they are, at the moment, a fringe playoff team that has lost six out of eight games.

23. New York Islanders — The argument in favor of the Islanders is that they are balanced, and getting contributions from everyone, and they are the definition of a team with a good system and a good coach in place. The reality is they are 21st in the league in goals per game, 30th in shots on goal per game, and are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to possession and scoring chance differential. Unsustainable goaltending has masked all of those flaws for now.

24. Vegas Golden Knights — I still think this team is capable of putting together a run here if they get their goalies straightened out. But maybe they’re just not going to get the goaltending this season? Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t young anymore and the jury is still out Malcolm Subban.

25. Carolina Hurricanes — Such a promising start, too.

26. Edmonton Oilers — No forward depth. Bad defense. Cam Talbot is not playing well in goal. Everyone in charge of this team should remain on the hot seat.

27. Ottawa Senators — Young players like Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk have been great this season. That is the important thing for this team.

28. New Jersey Devils — After starting the season with a four-game winning streak the Devils are just 2-8-1 since then.

[Related: Struggling Devils]

29. Anaheim Ducks — Their strong start was always a mirage given the way they were actually playing. They have just one regulation win in their past 11 games. This has all the makings of another team destined for an in-season coaching change.

You probably fired the wrong person

30. Chicago Blackhawks — Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster is not particularly good.

31. Los Angeles Kings —  Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster stinks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Comeback, OT goal helps Great Britain avoid relegation at Worlds

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Ben Davies’ name will be sung forever in hockey circles around Great Britain.

The 28-year-old forward scored the overtime winner in a 4-3 victory over France Monday at the 2019 IIHF World Championship that will keep the Brits, who were facing relegation, in the top flight for next year’s tournament.

With the loss, the French move down to Division I-A for the 2020 event in Switzerland after an 11-year run. Great Britain will compete in back-to-back- top tier IIHF World Championships for the first time since 1950-51.

The historic game started very poorly for Great Britain, who entered the the tournament 22nd in the IIHF world rankings, as they fell behind 3-0 midway through the second period. But the turnaround began with a strong end to the middle frame when Robert Dowd and Mike Hammond scored 3:05 apart to cut France’s lead to 3-2.

The momentum stayed with Great Britain, who had been outscored 38-5 heading into the game, following the intermission as Robert Farmer tied the game with 14:46 to go, forcing overtime.

It was in the 3-on-3 overtime period that captain Jonathan Phillips was knocked to his feet after chasing down a loose puck in the French zone and found a streaking Davies for the winner.

“It’s pretty surreal right now,” Davies said afterward. “We were three down and everything seemed against us but it’s not our character to give up and we stuck with it. Things started going our way and the goals started to go in while [goaltender Ben] Bowns was incredible. I’ve never scored a bigger goal than that and I’ll remember it forever.”

The celebrations featured plenty of hugs and one humorous chant from the British players knowing they’ll be back in the top division for the 2020 tournament.

Great Britain, which hadn’t been in the top division since 1994, finished the tournament with one win in seven games after competing in a group that featured the U.S., Canada and Finland. The roster is made up of mostly players who ply their trade in the Elite Ice Hockey League, as well as Liam Kirk, the Arizona Coyotes’ seventh-round pick in last year’s draft who is attempting to become the first British-raised player to make it to the NHL. In 63 games this season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes, he scored 26 and recorded 47 points.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Karlsson’s health will dictate Sharks’ chances

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If you are a San Jose Sharks fan the current situation might seem a little bleak.

Your team was just dominated on home ice on Sunday afternoon and is heading on the road, facing elimination in the Western Conference Final, and needing to win the next two games to continue its Stanley Cup pursuit.

The odds, it would seem, are stacked against you.

If you are looking for something to be optimistic about it should be the fact Sharks have already been in a worse position this postseason and managed to overcome it. In Round 1 they trailed the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the series, needed to win three games in a row, and then found themselves with a three-goal deficit in the third period of Game 7 after crawling back to tie the series. Sure, they needed one of the biggest breaks in Stanley Cup playoff history to complete the comeback, but they still found a way to do it and take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.

There is one very big difference this time around that might hold them back, and it is the health of top defender Erik Karlsson.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson is one of the many Sharks players that exited Sunday’s game due to injury, logging just 10 minutes of ice-time in the team’s 5-0 loss as he continues to deal with a nagging groin injury that has limited him all season. Head coach Peter DeBoer refused to offer any update on his status (as well as the status of injured forwards Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski) or if he would travel with the team.

His health is going to be a major determining factor in what happens for the Sharks over the next two games.

The Sharks acquired Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators just before the start of the 2018-19 season with the hope that he would be the missing piece on a Stanley Cup contender. When he is healthy and at his best, he is one of the best players in the world and on an elite tier of superstars. He is a difference-maker, and when the Sharks have had him at anything close to full health this season he has played like it.

Putting him on a defense that already has Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic gives the Sharks one of the best defensive groups in the league.

When the Sharks overcame their Round 1 deficit against the Golden Knights, Karlsson was a huge factor in that result.

He played more than 92 minutes (more than 40 percent of the total ice-time in those games), had four assists (tops on the team), and was on the ice for nine of the 12 goals the Sharks scored in their Games 5, 6, and 7 wins. Only two other players on the team (Hertl and Logan Couture) were on the ice for more than six goals in those three games. He had at least two points in every game the Sharks won in that Round 1 series. He was at the center of everything and one of the biggest reasons they came back to win.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, the groin injury has resurfaced and he has been obviously limited over the past few games. Not only in terms of his lack of ice time and early exit in Game 5 (as well as the extended stretch in Game 4 where he did not see the ice), but just in watching him play. He is clearly not where he — or the Sharks — want him to be from a health standpoint.

That is going to be a problem because even if he does play in Game 6, there is no guarantee that he is going to make the kind of impact we are used to seeing from him.

The Sharks have overcome the absence of key players in these playoffs, whether it was Joe Thornton‘s suspension in Round 1 or the Pavelski injury that sidelined him for all but one game in their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche. But for as good and important as those players are, having to replace a player like Karlsson is an entirely different animal.

The Sharks have other forwards that can step up and impact a game if they lose a player like Pavelski, or Hertl, or Thornton.

But a No. 1 defender does so much more on the ice given the minutes they play, the number of times they touch the puck, and the way they can control the pace of the game and where it is played. Everything starts with the blue line, and you need those players on the back end that can move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. When he is healthy, there is nobody in the NHL that is better at that than Karlsson. It is not just his point production that makes him a superstar and a top-tier player — it is the way he can essentially be a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger when there are no passing options available.

There is nobody else stepping into his spot and doing that.

Yes, they still have a Norris Trophy winner (and a finalist for the award this season) in Brent Burns on the roster, but having Burns and Karlsson is what makes the Sharks such a fierce team to contend with.

Take one of them out of the lineup, or at least limit their ability to make an impact, and there is a major drop in how the team performs.

We have seen that over the past two games with Karlsson.

If the Sharks are going to come back in another series there may not be a bigger determining factor than Karlsson’s health and what he is able to do. It is going to require a significant turnaround from what we have seen over the past two games.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Bruins seek balance between enjoying rest, staying sharp ahead of Cup Final

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When the puck drops next Monday for Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBC), the Boston Bruins will have had 11 days of rest.

Following their seven-game Round 1 series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins have only needed nine games to reach their third Cup Final since 2011. All that rest will certainly bode well for a team with an average age of 27.3 and seven players north of 30 years old. 

But will it be too much time off?

The Bruins and Tuukka Rask have won seven in a row and played dominant hockey over the last two rounds. They would love to maintain that level of sharpness, but that will be difficult to do so with a week and a half between games. Bruce Cassidy gave his players Friday and Saturday off following their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, but it’s since been back to business as they await to find out their Cup Final opponent.

“We have a plan on how we’re going to go through this week, balancing practices with days off,” Cassidy said on Sunday. “We are going to meet with the veteran guys who’ve been through it. We talked about scrimmaging. Will we do it at night? Prepare like a game or have it in the morning? We’ll talk to people outside the organization.”

Some of those outside people include the New England Patriots, who know a thing or two about winning championships after dealing with lots of downtime between games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Zdeno Chara, who missed Game 4 due, was back at practice on Monday with “no issues,” per Cassidy. While he keeps himself in great shape, his 41-year-old bones certainly have welcomed the extended time off. Cassidy said the injury that forced him to sit wasn’t serious, which was a relief for a Bruins team that has relied on him to play over 22 minutes a night this postseason.

A nine-day break between Rounds 1 and 2 allowed John Tortorella to organize a full scrimmage for his Columbus Blue Jackets players after they earned the time off by sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning. That could be an option for the Bruins to not lose their edge.

“In the short term, it’s really beneficial for our group,” Cassidy said. “We’ve been pedal to the metal here, mentally and physically, for a while. I do believe in the short term it will help us a lot. Then it’s incumbent upon us to simulate the best we can with what’s going to be required going forward.”

One player the Bruins desperately need to maintain his sharpness is Tuukka Rask, who’s posted a .945 even strength save percentage and two shutouts in 17 games this spring. They longest he’s gone between starts this season was from Jan. 19 to Jan. 31 after suffering a concussion against the New York Rangers. His recovery time was aided by the fact that the Bruins had their bye week right after the injury occurred, so the 31-year-old goaltender only missed one game.

The Conn Smythe frontrunner has been locked in this postseason and playing at a level that is reminiscent of the Bruins’ 2013 run to the Cup Final.

“When he was concussed, I think he missed quite a bit of time then came back and played well,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “He’s in a really good place, a really good place mentally and physically and his routines. He’s gone out game days. In the past, he hasn’t. He’s gone out for specific reasons. I think he’ll continue to do those things. It’s just the game, to get into the flow of the game and speed of the game you can’t ever simulate, so there will be challenges, certainly. Tuukka is in a really good place, and I expect him to return there.”

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Pro women hockey players form union in step toward league

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More than 200 of the world’s top women’s hockey players have formed a union, saying they must ”stand together” if there is to be a sustainable professional league.

The Professional Women’s Hockey Association said Monday the paperwork was filed Friday to help push for the creation of a ”single, viable women’s professional league in North America.”

The women had announced this month their pledge to sit out the upcoming season in North America after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League abruptly shut down this year. That leaves only the National Women’s Hockey League, which took back control of the Buffalo Beauts on May 8.

The PWHPA said in a statement the association also will help players coordinate training needs and opportunities and develop sponsor support.

”We are fortunate to be ambassadors of this beautiful game, and it is our responsibility to make sure the next generation of players have more opportunities than we had,” Kendall Coyne Schofield said in a statement. ”It’s time to stand together and work to create a viable league that will allow us to enjoy the benefits of our hard work.”

Coyne Schofield won Olympic gold with the U.S. in 2018 and was an NWHL All-Star with the Minnesota Whitecaps this past season.

The new union’s members include players from Europe along with the U.S. and Canada.

”We might play for different teams, and come from different countries, but we’re united in our goals,” said goaltender Noora Raty, who has won two Olympic bronze medals with Finland. ”This is about protecting ourselves, protecting our future, and making hockey a better place for women and girls.”

The PWHPA made it clear the union wants a league that provides health insurance, money and infrastructure along with support for training programs.

”We are prepared to stop playing for a year, which is crushing to even think about, because we know how important a sustainable league will be to the future of women’s sports,” Canadian national team goalie Shannon Szabados said. ”We know we can make this work, and we want the chance to try.”

Liz Knox, former co-chair of the CWHL Players Association, said the players are uncertain about what happens next.

”But we move forward united, dedicated, and hopeful for our future and the future of this game we love so much,” Knox said.

The NWHL stresses that not everyone is boycotting the lone remaining women’s professional league.

The league announced a couple player deals, notably one featuring Madison Packer. Packer, who tied for most goals in NWHL history, signed for $12,000 to play the upcoming season with the Metropolitan Riveters. The NWHL previously announced players also will receive a 50 percent cut of revenue and 15 percent apparel sales with their names this upcoming season.

”I’m coming back for a fifth season because I am passionate about continuing my playing career and to advance the game and our league,” said Packer, who is tied for the NWHL’s most career goals.

”I’m confident in the direction our sport is headed, and in the plan the NWHL has laid out for a strong season and positive experience for players and fans. It’s important to build off the momentum created by the league’s success last season, and my body feels good enough to continue playing.”

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