PHT Power Rankings: No one is close to Lightning right now

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The 2018-19 NHL season is almost at its halfway point and the Tampa Bay Lightning are rolling into the holiday break with what has been the best team in the league this season.

There is no one really close to them, either.

A quick look at where they stand compared to the rest of the league…

  • They have a six point lead over every other team in the league, one of the largest leads any team has had at this point in the season in recent history
  • They are on pace for 128 points this season. The NHL’s second best team at the moment is on pace for 115.
  • Their plus-48 goal differential is 11 goals better than any other team in the league, while there is only one team (the Toronto Maple Leafs) that is within 20 goals of that mark.
  • Their 28 wins are tied for the most of any team through the first 37 games of a season in the salary cap era.
  • Over the past 25 years only two teams (the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2005-06 Ottawa Senators) have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 154 through 37 games.

Needless to say, they are in the top spot in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

On to the rest of the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Just a stunningly great hockey team right now. An offense that no one can slow down, an outstanding defense, and great goaltending. Put it all together and you have a team that is 16-2-1 in its past 19 games and is six points ahead of every other team in the league heading to the holiday break.

2. Winnipeg Jets — The Jets have one of the best records in the NHL and they haven’t really received great goaltending from Connor Hellebucyk yet. Kind of scary to think about how good they could be if he starts to get back closer to the level he showed a year ago.

3. Washington Capitals — After winning just seven of their first 16 games the Capitals have gone on a 15-4-0 run in the 19 games that followed and Alex Ovechkin is scoring goals at a pace that is ridiculous even for him.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs —  Talk of them losing any of their young stars to an offer sheet is a waste of time (it is not going to happen) but they are still heading toward a truly fascinating offseason with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Both players have been absolutely sensational this season, with Marner already topping the 50-point mark just 36 games into the season.

The Playoff Teams/Contenders

5. Columbus Blue Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky has won his past four decisions with two shutouts. That is just what the Blue Jackets need right now.

6. Calgary Flames — The biggest surprise on one of the biggest surprise teams is still the play of Elias Lindholm. With 17 goals and 39 points on the season he has already matched his career high in goals and is just five points away from matching another career high.

7. Nashville Predators — The injuries are really starting to catch up to them, but it is nothing to worry about at the moment.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — They are starting to look like the Penguins again. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are scoring almost every night, Kris Letang is playing at a Norris Trophy level on defense, and the goaltending is starting to perform like they need it to.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — Early on it looked like the Golden Knights were headed for a big year two regression. Even though they are unlikely to match their year one point total they have gone 12-5-3 in their past 20 games. They are just three points out of first place in the Pacific Division.

10. Boston Bruins — They have managed to keep winning and maintain a playoff spot despite some significant injury issues. They are starting to get healthy again with the recent returns of Charlie McAvoy and Patrice Bergeron.

[Related: Patrice Bergeron grabs four points in return to lineup]

11. Colorado Avalanche — The top line is as dominant as it has been at any point over the past two years. At some point, though, the Avalanche are going to need another line to become somewhat of a goal-scoring threat.

12. San Jose Sharks — They went on a roll by winning seven out of eight and looked like they were starting to become the team we expected them to be. Then they dropped three in a row going into the break, including games against the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes. Erik Karlsson is starting to look like Erik Karlsson again, which is great news (he also received a two-game suspension … which is not great news).

13. Buffalo Sabres — Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel have not cooled off, but the rest of the team has. Fortunately for them that early season winning streak and great start gave them a nice cushion so this recent slump has not hurt them too much.

The Bubble Teams

14. Montreal Canadiens — Carey Price had a couple of good games this past week but he is still way below what they need from him. It is actually kind of remarkable they have won as much as they have this season with the level of goaltending they have received from Price and Antti Niemi.

15. New York Islanders — They keep hanging around, especially impressive when you consider Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey have only combined for 12 goals at this point.

16. Anaheim Ducks — They occupy a playoff spot at the moment but I am still skeptical they will hold on to it. The team is too dependent on goaltending and has been outscored by 14 goals on the season. Not a good sign!

17. Edmonton Oilers — After the initial surge that followed the coaching change the Oilers have started to look like, well, the Oilers again. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can only carry this team so far on their own.

18. Vancouver Canucks — They have put together a little run here in recent weeks to get back closer to a playoff spot. They’ve been an extremely hot and cold team this season, but the two constants have been the play of Brock Boeser (when healthy) and rookie forward Elias Pettersson. They are great building blocks.

19. Dallas Stars — They backed into the break by losing six out of eight. Getting John Klingberg back will help a lot in their push for a playoff spot, though.

20. Minnesota Wild — The offense has dried up and now they are without one of their top defenders in Mathew Dumba for the foreseeable future.

[Related: Bad news for Wild as Dumba to miss significant time]

The Lottery Teams

21. Carolina Hurricanes — Andrei Svechnikov looks like he has a bright future ahead of him. Sebastian Aho is a star right now. These are the positives for the Hurricanes at the moment. They also played really well in the Hartford Whalers uniforms.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — The Carter Hart era has officially started. Will he be the one to finally solve the decades long problem in net, or will he be doomed to whatever it is that happens to goalies once they put on a Flyers uniform? He has won two of his first three decisions. The Flyers have already used six different goalies this season.

23. Florida Panthers — Aleksander Barkov finally got whistled for his first penalty of the season this past week. He has drawn more than 20. He has taken one. Just one of the under-the-radar things that makes one of the league’s most under-the-radar stars so dominant on the ice.

24. St. Louis Blues — I still wonder what this season would have looked like for the Blues with better goaltending. A flawed team for sure, but they should not be this far down in the standings.

25. Los Angeles Kings — Points in five out of their past six and a three game winning streak to head into the break. Ilya Kovalchuk is back in the lineup and played his best hockey of the season with three points, including an overtime goal, in his first two games back.

26. Chicago Blackhawks — They had their first three game winning streak of the season with wins over Nashville, Dallas, and Colorado. A nice little stretch, but not enough to make much of a dent in the deficit they face for a playoff spot.

27. New York Rangers — It has been a tough month for the Rangers with just two wins, and only one of them coming in regulation. Kevin Hayes is having a strong season and could be an attractive trade chip as we get closer to the trade deadline later in the season.

28. Arizona Coyotes — After a promising start to the season the Coyotes have really struggled in recent weeks with losses in seven of their past 10 games.

29. Detroit Red Wings — What will this team look like if — or when — they trade Jimmy Howard? He has been one of the few bright spots on the roster this season.

30. Ottawa Senators — Just what the Colorado Avalanche, owners of the Senators’ 2019 first-round pick, want to see happening this season.

31. New Jersey Devils — Other than Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri there just is not much going on here with this team. Goaltending is a massive issue right now as it looks like Cory Schneider might be completely done.

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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.