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PHT Power Rankings: The unexpected rise of the Islanders

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Expectations were understandably low for the New York Islanders at the start of the 2018-19 NHL season. They were coming off of a non-playoff year, had just lost their best player to free agency, spent the offseason filling the roster with fourth-liners and depth players, and three of their returning best forwards (Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Brock Nelson) were all entering the final year of their contracts making their future with the team up in the air (and they still are).

Add to that the fact they were an historically bad defensive team a year ago and were entering the season with a couple of question marks in net in Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

On paper this team looked more likely to be competing for the top pick in the draft than the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Here we are now in mid-February and the Islanders are in first place in the Metro with a five-point lead (with a game in hand still) on the defending Stanley Cup champions and are one point better than the Toronto Maple Leafs team that signed John Tavares away from them.

There are reasons to wonder how long this run can last beyond this season — or even throughout the rest of this season — especially given the contract situations with Eberle, Lee, and Nelson, and that is to say nothing of any possible regression from the performance of the goalies. But for right now they are here at the top of the league, they are almost certainly going to the playoffs, and they are probably one of the most improbable success stories in recent NHL memory.

Heck, if you go back over the past decade or more they might be the second most improbably success story behind last year’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season.

There have been a lot of teams that have experienced rapid turnarounds in one year. Last year’s Colorado Avalanche went from the worst record in the league to the playoffs. The 2016-17 Ottawa Senators went on an unexpected run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. That season’s Edmonton Oilers also made their first playoff appearance in a decade and were a Game 7 away from being in the Western Conference Final.

But none of those teams were facing a situation quite like this year’s Islanders where they were not only bad, but also lost their best player.

None of this should be working. But that is kind of the beauty and unpredictably that the NHL can provide.

The very nature of hockey lends itself more to these type of stories than almost any other sport because of the role luck can play, or how much a goaltending performance can alter the trajectory of a team or a season. The Islanders have had a lot of that go their way this season, and when you add in a top-tier coaching addition behind the bench you have the perfect recipe for an unexpected rise to the top of the league.

We can poke at their success all we want and look for flaws and wait for the bottom to fall out (and I definitely have this season), but for right now they have one of the best records in the league, are still white-hot over the past few weeks, and are giving their fans something to be legitimately happy about for the first time in years.

They crack the top-three in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does everyone else in the league fit this week?

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — There is just no knocking the Lightning out of this spot. They enter the week riding yet another five-game winning streak, have shut out their past two opponents, and have a forward in Nikita Kucherov who is having a Lemieux or Gretzky type of season offensively. They are 15 points ahead of the next closest team in the standings. Just give them the Presidents’ Trophy now.

2. San Jose Sharks — They still went 6-3-0 without Erik Karlsson and now he is back healthy. Still think they are a solid goalie away from being an absolute force of a team.

The Strong Contenders

3. New York Islanders — This has got to be one of the more memorable and satisfying seasons Islanders fans have had since … well … the 80s?

4. Boston Bruins — There are still serious concerns about the scoring depth on this team because one line will not take you very far … but the results are there right now, and they keep climbing the standings.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs — Frederik Andersen is still the unsung hero of this team. His ability to play almost every night and at a well above league average level is huge for a team that isn’t great defensively. Just like last year, though, I worry about that workload during the regular season having a negative impact when the playoffs roll around. That is a grind of a season.

6. Calgary Flames — They hit what was one of their first real rough patches of the season recently by losing five out of six including four in a row. Snapped out of that, however, with an impressive win in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

7. Winnipeg Jets — I feel like this is a team where the results are not matching the process behind them right now. But the results are still kind of good.

The Middle Of The Pack Teams

8. St. Louis Blues — A 10-game winning streak and a 16-4-1 record since the start of the new year has rocketed them up the Western Conference standings, into a solid playoff position, and with still three games in hand on the Predators could even find themselves with a shot — a long shot, yes, but still a shot — to maybe steal home ice advantage in the first round.

9. Columbus Blue Jackets — What a maddening team. They win four in a row, then lose five in a row, then win four in a row, they might trade their best player, they might be in the market to add Matt Duchene. Chaos. All of it. But when they play at their best they can be really, really, really good.

10. Nashville Predators — They’ve set an incredibly high bar for themselves over the past two years that their record of 34-22-5 entering Monday, and their recent play, seems like a little less than what it should be. They are still great. Just seems like there is more there waiting to come out.

11. Carolina Hurricanes — This bunch of jerks is 16-5-1 in its past 22 games and playing like one of the best teams in the league. And it still may not be enough to secure a playoff. How you start a season matters.

[Related: Hurricanes keep winning, celebrating like bunch of jerks]

12. Washington Capitals — They are just like the 2017-18 version of the Capitals. A really good team that is capable of going on an incredible hot streak where they can be almost unbeatable. The key this year will be if they go on one of those runs at the right time again.

13. Montreal Canadiens — On paper the roster does not look to be anything special, but they are well coached, have strong underlying numbers to suggest their success this year is not a fluke, and they have a goalie that can change a game on any night.

14. Pittsburgh Penguins — Evgeni Malkin is starting to get on a roll. That is exactly what the Penguins need right now.

15. Philadelphia Flyers — The playoffs will not happen this season, but Carter Hart might be the most important player to enter the organization in a long, long, long time. His debut this season is probably good enough to change the short-term direction of the franchise.

16. Vegas Golden Knights — With only five wins — and only three in regulation — over their past 14 games entering the week this might be one of the longest slumps in the brief existence of the Golden Knights.

17. Dallas Stars — The offense is still revolving around only four or five players and a bunch of hopes and prayers that somebody else does something. They might make the playoffs because Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are great and because the rest of the teams immediately around them mostly stink.

[Related: After CEO criticism, Seguin leading Stars’ turnaround]

18. Chicago Blackhawks — They are making a late season push, and the West might just be bad enough to give them a shot they probably wouldn’t otherwise have.

19. Florida Panthers — They have been decent lately, but the real intrigue around this team is what they do over the next week, presumably in a quest to go after the big fish in free agency this summer.

20. New York Rangers — They have been very competitive lately, probably to the detriment of their lottery chances, but I suspect once the trade deadline comes and goes this roster will probably look a lot different and the winning will probably slow down a bit.

21. Minnesota Wild — Bruce Boudreau has never coached a full season in the NHL and missed the playoffs (he spent the 2011-12 season split between Washington and Anaheim and missed the playoffs that season). He is in danger of experiencing that this season, even if he is confident in his team’s chances.

[Related: Boudreau confident about Wild’s chances to earn playoff spot]

22. Buffalo Sabres — I realize you can’t take away a 10-game winning streak, but there were a lot of smoke and mirrors behind that success and outside of those 10 games where they won a bunch of one-goal games in overtime and shootouts they have been the same old Sabres.

23. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely on the right track and have some great young cornerstone pieces to build around, but they are still not a great — or even very good — team yet. 

The Lose For Hughes Teams

24. Arizona Coyotes — A terribly unlucky season on the injury front. Can not question the effort of the players, though. They have been competitive and a thorn in the side of opponents all year.

25. Colorado Avalanche — Simply put, they have been awful for more than two full months now.

26. New Jersey Devils — One positive to come out of this lost season is the development of Nico Hischier. He has been good.

27. Los Angeles Kings — Is Ilya Kovalchuk really done or is he just stuck on the worst possible team for offense? Maybe a little of column A and a little of column B? I would be interested to find out at the trade deadline, and I am sure the Kings would like to be rid of that contract.

28. Detroit Red Wings — Work those phones, Ken. Sell! Sell! Sell!

29. Ottawa Senators — By this time next week the roster could be unrecognizable. Even more than it already is.

30. Anaheim Ducks — Winning two out of three is progress, I guess?

31. Edmonton Oilers — They actually have a worse points percentage under Ken Hitchcock than they did under Todd McLellan. Goodness gracious what a mess.

MORE: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Islanders still hot; Oshie still a shootout wizard

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Three Stars

1. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators

What has gotten into this guy? Is he trying to make it so we can’t call him just a pest any longer, like a lower-tier Brad Marchand, or something?

Either way, Pageau’s absolutely on fire. While, yes, one of his goals did come on an empty-netter, it’s still impressive that he generated the first hat trick of his career on Wednesday, especially without any time on Ottawa’s power play. JGP (who might need some sort of J.C. Penny-inspired nickname at this point?) was responsible for the game-winner to boot.

Pageau now has eight goals in his last six games, and at least one point (eight goals, one assist) in six of his last seven contests. Overall, he has 11 goals and 15 points through 18 games this season, although it’s this recent torrid pace that’s especially impressive. More on that in the factoids …

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Pageau’s career-high for goals is 19, and points is 43, both recorded in 2015-16.

2. Derick Brassard, New York Islanders

It’s been a nightmare for Brassard basically from the moment he was part of the trade that sent Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers (and a higher draft pick to the Rangers than to the Senators, oh my). The once-useful forward couldn’t find his footing while bouncing around the NHL.

When the Islanders made a $1.2 million investment in Brassard for 2019-20, it felt like a low-risk move with the potential for a heartwarming turnaround. That seemed like a slim possibility when Brassard managed just a single assist through his first eight games for the Isles, but now he’s really picking up steam.

Brassard has 10 points in his last nine games after generating a one-goal, two-assist night as the Islanders thwarted John Tavares and the Maple Leafs on Wednesday. Avoiding the “we don’t need you” debate regarding Tavares, allow this: any team could use a resurgent player at just $1.2M in AAV.

3. Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks

Speaking of inspirational stories. Strome just never could really find his footing — or true opportunities, depending upon your perspective — as the third pick of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Arizona Coyotes. He’s found a new lease on life with Chicago, and while he’s suffered through some dry spells as the bounces slowed down a bit in 2019-20 vs. his 2018-19 run, Strome is hot again.

He scored two goals and one assist for three points on Wednesday, helping Chicago stun Vegas. Strome now has eight points (one goal, seven assists) in his last four games, representing a significant chunk of his 12 points in 17 games overall in 2019-20.

Strome’s teammate Patrick Kane ranks among other players with three goals (Kane also had 1G, 2A), if you prefer other choices.

Highlight of the Night

The Devils suffered another painful loss, but it will be more difficult to ignore Wayne Simmonds‘ sneaky-strong start to the 2019-20 season after he scored a goal like this:

Also, with Carter Hart vs. Braden Holtby being the focus of the Flyers – Capitals recap, there was the risk of this runner-up getting lost in the shuffle.

Factoids

  • Remember T.J. Oshie‘s epic shootout performance for the U.S. during the 2014 Winter Olympics? It turns out he still rules at that skill. The Capitals note that Oshie has scored on 44 of his 83 attempts, giving him the highest percentage (about 53) of any player with at least 60 shootout attempts.
  • Casey Cizikas is the 11th different Islanders player to record a game-winning goal so far this season (they have 13 wins overall). NHL PR notes that such a figure (11 different players with GWGs) leads the NHL at the moment in 2019-20. It’s a nice stat that drives home how everyone is pitching in for the Isles, right?
  • The Stars congratulated Corey Perry for his 1,000th NHL regular-season game. Not sure how many goalies he’s “bumped into” or people he’s angered during that span, but I’d wager “more than a few.”
  • Both the Islanders and Capitals pushed their point streaks to 13 games on Wednesday. Via NHL PR, this is the sixth such streak in Washington’s history, while the Isles have managed it five different times.
  • Sportsnet points out that Toronto’s special teams (17.6 PP percentage; 75.3 on the PK) have been far, far worse than recent years. Could that come down to coaching, bad luck, or other factors?
  • Pageau’s nine goals ties with Leon Draisaitl for most in the NHL since Oct. 23, according to Sportsnet.

Scores

OTT 4 – NJD 2
NYI 5 – TOR 4
WSH 2 – PHI 1 (SO)
DAL 3 – CGY 1
CHI 5 – VGK 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blackhawks add to Golden Knights’ troubles

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During a hectic stretch during an overall hectic game, it looked like the Vegas Golden Knights might end their losing streak by beating the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday.

The game turned on its head during a dizzying second-period sequence during what was overall a pretty dizzying game. Ultimately, the biggest takeaway is that the Blackhawks won 5-3, pushing the Golden Knights’ losing streak to four games.

Rough night/nights for the Knights

The Golden Knights opened up the game with a 2-0 goal lead 6:29 into Wednesday’s contest, but it (obviously) ended up being insufficient.

Things really tumbled out of control during what had to be a maddening sequence in the second period.

3:54 in: It seemed like Alex Tuch expanded Vegas’ lead to 3-1, only a review determined that the goal was not over the line. So the score remained 2-1 in Vegas’ favor.

4:09: About 15 seconds later, Calvin de Haan tied the game up 2-2.

4:54: One minute after that Tuch goal didn’t count, Erik Gustafsson gave Chicago a 3-2 lead.

If that wasn’t enough to make things miserable, the Golden Knights’ fear of a messy goalie situation – particularly if something happens to their starter – came to the forefront when Marc-Andre Fleury was shaken by a collision with Alex DeBrincat. It seems like MAF was OK, although it’s tough to overlook Vegas losing so convincingly despite generating a 42-26 shots on goal advantage.

Again, this pushes Vegas’ losing streak to four games in a row, and the headaches extend beyond that. The Golden Knights have only won one in their past seven games (1-3-3). Getting some charity points could end up being crucial if these struggles persist (and it’s worth mentioning that they’ve only won twice in their last nine, going 2-4-3).

[More on the Golden Knights’ worries in net.]

Scraphawks

With an eight-game homestand to begin the season, it seemed like the Blackhawks had a chance to start 2019-20 on fire. Instead, they limped to a 2-4-2 record during that span.

That’s bad, but they’ve been reasonably scrappy since then, as they’re now 7-7-4 after following that homestand with a fairly tough schedule. No, it’s not world-beating stuff, and this franchise probably isn’t comfortable shooting for “respectable” … but, hey, the Blackhawks might at least be a tough out at times this season. Five of the Blackhawks’ next seven games take place in Chicago, so maybe this time they can take advantage of some home cooking?

Young guns

Perhaps the most exciting development for Chicago is the work of developing players.

Yes, Corey Crawford was great (39 saves), as was Patrick Kane (one goal, two assists), but hopeful forwards of the future factored heavily in this win, too. Kirby Dach authored his first multipoint game with a goal and an assist. Dylan Strome is heating up; he generated three points on Wednesday, and now has eight points (one goal, seven assists) in his last four games. DeBrincat also pitched in two assists.

***

While the Blackhawks have the weapons to at least occasionally put up a decent fight, you could probably still mark this as an upset for the Golden Knights. That said, it will be upsetting for MAF & Co. if Vegas cannot right the ship soon.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Capitals break Flyers’ streak, but both teams stay hot

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The Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers entered Wednesday Night Hockey as two of the hotter teams in the NHL. While something had to give, it’s fitting that the two rising clubs needed a shootout to settle things.

Overall, it was quite the goalie duel between Braden Holtby and Carter Hart, with the Capitals ultimately taking the 3-2 (SO) win.

Climbing starters

There are also some parallels between Holtby and Hart, specifically.

Each goalie carried four-game winning streaks into this game, showing signs of getting on track despite slow starts (Holtby had a .898 save percentage before the bout, while Hart lagged behind even further with a mark of .893).

Holtby ended up prevailing, improving his winning streak to five games, and he hasn’t been dinged with a loss since Oct. 10. Despite individual struggles, Holtby is now 9-1-3 in a crucial contract year for the 30-year-old.

Not nearly as much money hinges on how Hart fares in 2019-20, being that the 21-year-old still has two seasons remaining on his RFA deal. That said, Hart generated hype with Philly late last season, and Flyers fans are always eager to see a goalie actually deliver — to the point where it has to really heighten the pressure for netminders who might be vulnerable to such attention.

[More: reasons for optimism for Philly fans.]

Again, both goalies delivered. Holtby stopped 30 out of 31 shots and got the W, while Hart earned the Flyers a point after making 35 of 36 saves.

Not cooling off yet

At this rate, the Capitals’ quiet dominance might build to a roar. They improved to 14-2-4, continuing an 11-0-2 point streak that began on Oct. 14. With their next game coming against the Canadiens on Friday (Nov. 15), that means Washington is now on a month-long point streak. Impressive stuff.

The Flyers finished the night at 10-5-3, which is quite impressive after a 2-3-1 start to 2019-20. Their winning streak stopped at four games, but their point streak is growing, as it is now at seven games (5-0-2).

Both teams are showing some ability to adapt to nightly situations to get wins, or at least a standing point, for their troubles. In Philly’s case on Wednesday, they should absolutely thank Hart.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blackhawks vs. Golden Knights livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks and Golden Knights will meet Wednesday night for the second time this season. The two teams met on October 22 in Chicago where the Knights rallied from a late one-goal deficit in the third period to win 2-1 in a shootout and keep their undefeated streak against the Hawks alive. Hawks forward Kirby Dach scored his first career NHL goal in the loss, while Knights defenseman Nick Holden scored the equalizer with 1:33 remaining in regulation.

Patrick Kane set a career high in points last season with 110 (44G-66A) and has shown no signs of slowing down in 2019-20. Kane is currently riding a six-game point streak and has tallied 11 points (5G-6A) over that span. He leads Chicago in scoring with 20 points (8G-12A). Kane recorded three points (2G-1A) on Sunday as he helped the Haws defeat the Maple Leafs. His two goals were his first multi-goal effort of the season.

After a home-and-home sweep of the Sharks to open the season, the Knights looked like one of the clear favorites out West. But that no longer seems to be the case as Vegas has now dropped five of their last six games (1-2-3) overall. The Knights ended a four-game road trip on Sunday by losing to the Red Wings 3-2. Vegas squandered a 2-1 lead midway through the third period and Wings forward Anthony Mantha scored the winner with 31 seconds remaining in the game.

Knights forward Mark Stone currently leads the team with 18 points (8G-10A) but was held scoreless during the teams recent four-game road trip. Stone began the season with four multi-point performances in his first five games of the season but has tallied just one multi-point game since. In Stone’s scoring absence, Max Pacioretty has stepped up by scoring a goal in three straight games. The former Canadiens captain has six pts (4G-2A) in his last seven contests.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks at Vegas Golden Knights
WHERE: T-Mobile Arena
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 13, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Alex DeBrincatDylan Strome – Patrick Kane
Brandon SaadJonathan Toews – Kirby Dach
Andrew ShawDavid KampfDominik Kubalik
Alex NylanderRyan CarpenterZack Smith

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Calvin de HaanBrent Seabrook
Olli Maatta – Adam Boqvist

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith
Max Pacioretty – Paul Stastny – Mark Stone
Alex TuchCody EakinCody Glass
Tomas Nosek – Nicolas Roy – Ryan Reaves

Brayden McNabbNate Schmidt
Shea TheodoreNicolas Hague
Jon Merrill – Nick Holden

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Darren Dreger. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk  and Pierre McGuire will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.