PHT Power Rankings: 10 people who will impact NHL playoff race

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 players, coaches, and general managers who are going to have a significant impact on the playoff race in the second half of the 2018-19 NHL season.

The playoff race in the Western Conference is a jumbled mess where pretty much every team outside of the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks still has reason to believe they can make the playoffs, while the Eastern Conference is, with one or two exceptions, down to deciding seeding and division leaders.

Goalies, as they usually do, will play the biggest role in what happens for several teams, but do not forget the general managers that have some huge decisions to make when it comes to their rosters.

Basically what we are looking for this week is which individual people will be the most impactful on the second half playoff race, whether it be due to their play on the ice or the decisions they have to make.

To the rankings!

1. Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets — This has to be the most fascinating and maddening position of anyone in the NHL right now.

On one hand, Kekalainen has a really good team in a wide open division that should have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs. They should be serious contenders right now. They should be a team that has its eyes on the Stanley Cup this season.

But two of his best and biggest name players (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) are free agents after this season, and one of them (Bobrovsky) has not played particularly well and already seems to have one foot out the door. All of this complicates things because there are several different directions where this could go.

He has to balance the long-term outlook of the franchise in securing his top players, whether to try and get something for them in return if he can’t secure them, or putting all of his chips on the table and going for a run right now. It’s a lot of power to be holding and could potentially impact not only his team, but several teams around him depending on what he and the organization decide they have to do.

[Related: Blue Jackets winning despite drama surrounding biggest stars]

2. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens — The Canadiens have exceeded every expectation so far and barring a late season collapse look to be headed back to the playoffs. It is an impressive accomplishment considering how bad their offseason looked (at least from my little corner of the Internet — I didn’t like any of it!). What makes it even more surprising is the fact they have done it while their best and most valuable player, Price, had what was a mostly sub-par start to the season season.

Not only by his own standard, but among any goalie in the league. He just was not good early on.

That, however, has started to change over the past two months.

Since the start of December Price’s save percentage has jumped up to .933 (to go with a 13-6-0 record) and has put him back among the league’s top performing goalies during that stretch. The only goalies that have appeared in at least 10 games since the start of December that have a higher save percentage are Robin Lehner and Matt Murray. When Price is at his best he can be one of the most impactful players in hockey because of his ability to mask whatever flaws his team may have defensively. Goalies in general can be season-changers, and Price has done it before for this very team. If he returns to form and continues on the path he has been on since the start of December the Canadiens are going to have a chance to win every single night. No one player can carry a team like a great goalie can, and Price at his best is as great as any goalie in the business.

3. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — Yes, the Oilers look like the ruins of a smoldering dumpster fire after firing their coach and GM while having no depth to speak of around their top-three players. Yes, they are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third time in four years and the 12th time in 13 years. Yes, they have real problems that will require more than a quick fix.

But do you know what else they have? They have the best darn player in the world that can take over any game, at any time, on any day. They are also playing in what is an historically weak conference at the bottom for playoff teams where almost everyone is still in it, including them. Given the current state of the team it would require a herculean effort by McDavid to drag this team to the playoffs but if there is any one non-goalie in the league that is capable of doing it, this is the guy.

4. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks — Entering the second half of the season and the Canucks, the team that had won fewer games than any other team in the NHL over the previous three seasons, is thinking about the playoffs instead of the draft lottery.

It is a stunning turnaround and no one person has been more responsible for it than the rookie forward.

He has completely changed everything about the organization in just half a season and makes them a different team when he is in the lineup. The Canucks needed a cornerstone player to rebuild this thing around, and they found one. They are a different team when he is there.

5. Chuck Fletcher and Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers — I am going to combine these two together because Simmonds could be a huge addition for any playoff team in the league, and Fletcher is ultimately going to decide which team that is going to be. It is just one of the many big decisions he has to make over the next few months as he attempts to overhaul a team that went from a playoff berth a season ago to the bottom of the NHL standings.

Let’s start with Simmonds. Even if his play has declined a bit in recent years he is still an excellent power forward that every playoff team in the league would love to have him on their roster going into the playoffs. You can still put him in front of the net on the power play, let him cause havoc, and get some of those garbage goals he’s been so good at collecting throughout his career. He can still play, and on the right team with the right players around him he could once again be a force.

As for Fletcher himself, his big decision is going to be whether or not he stops at Simmonds or really starts to sell of some chips as part of a complete rebuild. He has to decide if this is just a re-tooling that can be corrected with a solid goalie and the right coach, or if the whole thing needs torn down.

6. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders — Every team that outperforms its shot-metrics things it has stumbled upon the secret formula for success. Almost every team that thinks that eventually gets punched in the face by reality. As long as the Islanders keep getting the level of goaltending they are getting they are going to keep winning, and while I think that is ultimately the driving force behind their success this season there is still something to be said for the job Trotz has done and is doing. The Islanders’ defensive play and structure has improved under his watch. They are playing better hockey. But can Trotz keep what is, on paper, an undermanned roster (at least in relation to the other teams in their division) playing the way it has?

[Related: Islanders’ Barzal impresses All-Star teammates]

7. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins — There were a lot of reasons the Penguins’ quest for a three-peat came to an end in the second round against the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and goaltending was probably near the top of the list. It just was not up to the same level it was the previous two seasons when they were winning the Stanley Cup. Goaltending was also one of the big reasons they had such a slow start at the beginning of the 2018-19 season and put them in a spot they are still trying to climb out of. Everything started to change for them this season when Murray returned from an injury in mid-December and almost immediately started to play some of the best hockey of his career. Since returning to the lineup he has been one of the best goalies in the league and is playing at or above the level he was at when he was backstopping the team to championships during the 2016 and 2017 playoffs. If he continues that the Penguins are going to be one heck of a tough out in the playoffs given the talent they have throughout the roster. They should be contenders. They will be if they get even average to slightly above average goaltending.

8. David Rittich, Calgary Flames — Given the way they are playing and the impact talent they have at the top of their roster the Flames look like a team that can win the Cup.

They have an MVP candidate in Johnny Gaudreau, a Norris Trophy front-runner in Mark Giordano, and they have all of the underlying numbers to suggest they are a championship caliber team.

The only thing they are lacking is a true No. 1 goalie. That could be a problem.

Mike Smith has simply not panned out the way they expected when they acquired him last season, and the goaltending job has slowly been taken over by the 26-year-old Rittich, a goalie that played in just 22 NHL games prior to this season. So far he has been able to handle the duty. But we are talking about a 30-game sampling this season and the jury is still very much out on what he can or can not do as a starter.

It might be overstating it a bit (but then again, it might not be given the importance of the position) that the Flames’ Cup chances could rest not on the shoulders of Gaudreau or Giordano, but on Rittich.

9. Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators — They hold all of the cards here and it really all comes down to whether or not they are willing to re-sign with the Senators after this season.

The Senators are going to have to pay somebody next season, and Duchene and Stone are probably going to be better than anything they could get on the open market or acquire in a trade with whatever assets they are willing to part with. It will almost certainly result in an overpay to get them to stay, but again … who else are they going to pay?

But that is if they are willing to re-sign. The Senators are in the very early stages of a scorched earth rebuild and are probably at least couple of years away from being a legitimate contender. Duchene and Stone are not getting any younger and will never have an opportunity to be more valuable on the open market and to have the freedom to pursue a team that has a real shot to win. That has to be enticing, and if they are not willing to re-sign in Ottawa because of that the Senators would have no choice but to shop them, move on, and get what they can in a trade.

They are both point-per-game, top-six forwards that would make any contender instantly better the second they arrive.

10. John Chayka, Arizona Coyotes — Given everything this team has dealt with this season from an injury standpoint they should probably already be long eliminated from playoff contention. No one would blame them or give it a second thought if they were.

But they’re not.

They’re not because the second half of the West playoff field is wide open, and because Rick Tocchet has them playing a strong, defensive game that is limiting chances in front of a surprising goaltending performance from backup Darcy Kuemper. And that might complicate things for general manager Chayka because he now has to decide whether or not to buy, sell, or stay the course.

They are not in a position to be serious buyers quite yet, but you also don’t want to punt on the chance to make the playoffs when you have not been there in several years.

Related: Coyotes hanging around in playoff race as injury list grows

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 Playoff Buzzer: Coyle plays OT hero; Tarasenko puts on show

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  • The Boston Bruins brushed off a 13-second disaster in the third period as Charlie Coyle scored the game-tying goal and then the game-winner in OT against the Blue Jackets
  • Blues picked up right where they left off in Round 1 thanks to Vladimir Tarasenko, Jordan Binnington and others. 

Boston 3, Blue Jackets 2 [OT] (BOS leads 1-0)

Everything looked breezy for Boston before Brandon Dubinsky and Pierre-Luc Dubois scored 13 seconds apart in the third period to turn the tide of the game. That was until the Charlie Coyle Show made its second-round debut. In the first episode, Coyle played hero, scoring the game-tying goal and then the winner in the ensuing overtime frame. The Bruins deserved it based on metrics and they ended up winning it on merit.

Blues 3, Stars 2 (STL leads 1-0)

The Blues needed Tarasenko to get going and they needed to rally around the same defensive structure that helped them see off the Winnipeg Jets. Job done in Game 1. Tarasenko had scored a brace. The Blues held the line and Binnington took care of the rest. The Blues were also able to penetrate a penalty kill that had gone 15-for-15 in Round 1, so there’s more joy to be had in Joyland for St. Louis.

Three stars

1. Charlie Coyle, Boston Bruins

Depth. It matters.

Coyle scored his fourth and fifth goals of the postseason, a game-tying goal late in the third period to force overtime and the game-winner off a slick feed from Marcus Johansson in the extra frame.

Boston was dangerous with their two top lines. If they’re getting continued scoring their bottom six, watch out everyone.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

The Blues needed more from Tarasenko if they were going to taste success in their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

Tarasenko had two power-play goals in Round 1 but didn’t get much-done five-on-five. Tarasenko scored once again on the power play in Game 1 against the Stars and then extended a third-period lead to 3-1 with his first five-on-five goal of the playoffs.

This is a good start.

3. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

This guy. On Jan. 6 he didn’t have a win in the NHL, now he has five playoff wins under his belt spread across two rounds.

Binnington couldn’t care less about his likely snub in the rookie of the year race. He’s got a much bigger trophy on his mind. Binnington made 27 saves in the game, including 16-of-17 in the third period as the Stars searched for a tying goal. Something about Binnington’s calmness…

Highlights of the night

OT winners are always better:

Don’t give this man this kind of space:

Factoids

Friday’s games

Game 1: Hurricanes at Islanders, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live stream)
Game 1: Avalanche at Sharks, 10 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live stream)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Tarasenko takes over, Blues snag Game 1 vs. Stars

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If you needed a star player to score a big goal in a playoff game, who would you pick?

Most hockey fans would tab Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and other players who’ve already won at least a Stanley Cup. Maybe you’d lean toward Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, or Nikita Kucherov, if you wanted to mix things up.

St. Louis Blues fans would insist that Vladimir Tarasenko should be on the tip of your tongue, and in a tight 3-2 Game 1 win (and 1-0 series lead) for the Blues against the Dallas Stars, he added to his robust big-game resume.

(Game 2 airs on NBC at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday; stream here.)

While Ben Bishop will be haunted by allowing the Blues 1-0 goal early in Game 1 via Robby Fabbri, you wonder if there’s only so much anyone could do to stop Tarasenko on both of his goals. In particular, Tarasenko showed why his nickname is “Tank” on his second goal, as he absolutely powered his way past Miro Heiskanen and roofed a fantastic goal by Bishop. Tarasenko simply would not be denied:

At the time, Tarasenko’s second goal of Game 1 made it 3-1, but with Jamie Benn scoring a strange 3-2 goal that survived a goal review after an ill-timed whistle, the Blues needed every one of those Tarasenko tallies. Tarasenko’s nicest goal of the evening ended up counting as the game-winner.

With this result, Tarasenko now has an outstanding 26 goals in his last 50 playoff games. That ties Tarasenko with Sidney Crosby for the fourth-most postseason goals since 2013-14, and Crosby hit that mark in 82 playoff contests. None of that is meant to insult Crosby; instead, the point is that Tarasenko’s been an absolute superstar in the postseason.

Interestingly, Tarasenko was pretty quiet in Round 1, only managing two goals in six games against the Winnipeg Jets. The Blues were carried by other players like Jaden Schwartz with Winnipeg’s top line carrying the way, but on Thursday, it was the Tarasenko show.

***

While it was a tough night at times for Bishop (who took a scary puck to the head), Jordan Binnington was a mix of brilliant and a touch scrambly. Binnington also felt some content during Game 1, as this scuffle began when the rookie goalie was bumped by Blake Comeau:

Binnington gave up a juicy rebound or three in Game 1, yet he really locked it down when Dallas tried to wage a comeback; Binnington stopped 16 out of 17 shots in the third period alone.

This loss stings, but the Stars can feel comfortable that they weren’t merely facing a struggling Predators team. Dallas was absolutely able to hang with a St. Louis squad that was a buzzsaw at times down the stretch this season, and honestly, the Stars sometimes looked flat-out better.

The Blues found a way to win Game 1, which in this case, meant riding Tarasenko’s dominant scoring and Binnington’s brilliant netminding. If this one was any indication, more wins against Dallas won’t come easy, so the Blues might need more of that from their biggest star, and their rising star in net.

The Stars will try to even up the series against the Blues as Game 2 takes place at the Enterprise Center on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET (NBC; stream here).

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.

If Bruins keep getting secondary scoring, look out

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The Boston Bruins have long been considered a “one-line team,” and that’s not such a bad thing when that one line features Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.

You’d think that the Bruins would have lost Game 7 against the Maple Leafs and Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, what with that one line essentially being held scoreless.*

Nope. The Bruins won both of those games, which leaves them with a 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets to begin Round 2.

[Read all about the Bruins’ 3-2 OT win here.]

* – Bergeron scored an empty-netter in Game 7, but it was a 5-1 goal that barely beat the buzzer and meant even less to the outcome of that decisive contest.

Consider some of the less-obvious players who’ve come through for the Bruins lately, and we’ll ponder how likely it is that they’ll be able to continue to contribute.

David Krejci

But first, an obvious player, as Krejci is a player whose play (73 points this season, tying a career-high) screams that the Bruins really haven’t only been a one-line team, in the first place. It’s probably true that Krejci isn’t quite the pivot who topped all playoff point producers in 2012-13 (26, seven more than anyone else) and 2010-11 (23), but he remains worthy of more attention than he gets on a team with justifiable spotlight-takers in Bergeron, Marchand, and Zdeno Chara.

The Bruins might end up needing even more from the supporting cast members below if Krejci needs to miss some time. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Krejci is considered day-to-day, and it’s possible he got hurt here.

Even if Krejci plays, there’s the chance he wouldn’t be at full-strength, so these players may need to continue to step up as the series moves on to Game 2 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC; stream here).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Charlie Coyle

The headline-grabber, naturally, is Coyle. He was already heating up during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Game 1 was his masterpiece, as Coyle scored the goal that sent Game 1 to overtime, and then tapped home the 2-1 OT-winner.

If you ever want a snapshot of how dramatically luck can shift from terrible to incredibly friendly, you could do worse than to look at Coyle right after the trade deadline versus Playoff Coyle.

Through 21 regular-season games after being traded to Bruins: two goals, six points, a pitiful 4.8 shooting percentage on 42 SOG.

Through eight playoff games: five goals, six points, an absurd 35.7 shooting percentage on 14 SOG.

Obviously, the truth about Coyle is somewhere between the guy who couldn’t buy a bucket during the regular season with Boston, and the player who’s scored a goal on his last three shots on goal.

Coyle finished 2018-19 with 34 points, but he generally strikes as a 40-50 point player, and has shown a decent ceiling with a career-high of 56 points in 2016-17. You can’t really expect spectacular scoring from Coyle, but if this run really heightens his self-confidence, he could really give the Bruins a chance to win the depth battle, at least some nights. That’s not as spectacular as scoring OT goals, but in the likely event that the top line starts scoring again, it makes the Bruins frightening.

Marcus Johansson

Goal scorers are the guys who “hit the long ball” to a great passer’s Maddux, but you merely need to watch replays of the two Coyle goals to see that Marcus Johansson was just as instrumental in those tide-changing tallies.

It’s tough not to root for a player like Johansson. When he was traded from Washington to New Jersey, it seemed like the Capitals got cap-crunched, and the Devils were really building something. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to a bad hit by Johansson’s now-teammate Brad Marchand, Johansson suffered serious health issues, and really hasn’t been the same player.

The Bruins were smart to give Johansson a shot via a rental, though, and the B’s could really be onto something if he finds chemistry with Coyle. Johansson’s 30 points in the regular season are actually a lot more impressive when you consider that he was limited to 58 games played, and if he can stay healthy, the Swede could put together a stellar contract year (er, contract playoff run?).

Again, don’t expect Coyle and Johansson to do Game 1 things during the rest of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the chemistry and confidence could start soaring at this rate.

(And, hey, Coyle’s contract ends after 2019-20, so really, they’re both more or less playing for their futures.)

Jake DeBrusk

As the Bruins’ frequent second-liner alongside Krejci, DeBrusk quietly put up 27 goals despite being limited to 68 games. He had some memorable moments during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and remains a strong contributor for Boston. In fact, if Krejci misses time, DeBrusk could show how much havoc he can create on his own.

Sean Kuraly/Noel Acciari/Joakim Nordstrom

OK, these guys weren’t exactly high-scorers during the regular season, and their contributions might not be super-dependable. Acciari’s goal on Sergei Bobrovsky to start the scoring in Game 1, and Kuraly’s big 3-1 goal against Frederik Andersen in Game 7 of Round 1 were both goals that the netminders really should have had. Still, if those guys can get the occasional goal and avoid being deep underwater on tougher nights, that could be big. (Some nights will be easier than others.)

Kuraly, in particular, shows a nice burst that can cause headaches for opponents, and his possession stats have been positive so far now that he’s managed to get healthy enough to appear in the playoffs.

***

Don’t let some hit-posts and other near-misses fool you; the Bruins are still going to lean heavily on their top trio, and barring health issues or a truly profound cold streak, they’ll likely deliver.

You need another players to pick up during the grind of the postseason, particularly against teams that are gameplanning to stop Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak. The Bruins have been getting needed contributions from their supporting cast, and while that luck is almost certain to eventually cool off, there’s a solid chance that Coyle and Johansson could be bigger contributions than they were during the regular season.

That makes the Bruins a scary postseason opponent, especially if Krejci’s issues are short-lived.

The Bruins hope to build on their 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets in Game 2 at TD Garden at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBC; stream here).

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.

Coyle’s clutch as Bruins take 1-0 series lead vs. Blue Jackets

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Some deadline deals never work out for teams once they hit the playoffs. Others take a little time to find their stride.

And then there’s some that make an immediate impact.

While Charlie Coyle‘s arrival in Boston earlier in the year wasn’t much to write home about, his presence in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been nothing short of sensational.

And the Boston Bruins can thank Coyle for a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven Round 2 series against the Columbus Blue Jackets after he scored two monumental goals for the Bruins in a 3-2 overtime win on NBCSN on Thursday.

Coyle’s wasn’t the biggest name to get a plane ticket to a new destination. He was added depth for a Bruins team were bolstering their lineup for a run at Lord Stanley. But sometimes depth plays a crucial part for a playoff team, and Coyle now has five goals and an assist in eight playoff games with his new club.

Coyle came through in the clutch not once, but twice on Thursday.

Boston had jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first period on a shorthanded goal by Noel Acciari (more depth) as Boston tried to deliver the knockout blow in a flurry of offense in the opening period.

The Blue Jackets withstood the storm, much like they did against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. As the game progressed, Columbus slowly found its stride. They hadn’t played in a week after sweeping the Lightning in the biggest shocker of Round 1. They looked, perhaps, too relaxed.

But when the third rolled around, a gift of manna emerged from the heavens in the forms of a 13 stretch where the Blue Jackets turn the game on its head.

Boston will probably say this one was just a blip on the radar after the win. Columbus, meanwhile, will say they stuck with it and use some solace.

Both statements have some semblance of truth embedded in them, but in a race to four wins, it only matters that the Bruins found a way.

And that way was directed by Coyle.

The former Minnesota Wild forward tied the game with less than four minutes remaining to ultimately send the game to overtime, where he’d write the conclusion to the story as he tapped in a perfect pass from fellow trade deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson to seal the victory.

Boston probably deserved to win, truth be told. The possession numbers and expected goals favored them heavily and they were able to rebound from the 180 that happened. The playoffs are as much about rebounding from adversity as they are about trying to avoid it altogether.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck