Getty

PHT Power Rankings: The unexpected rise of the Islanders

7 Comments

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.

NHL announces 2020 All-Star Skills participants

Leave a comment

The NHL’s All-Star Skills event takes place on Friday night (coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN) and the league has announced what players will participate in each of the events.

Below is the official lineup from the NHL for each skills challenge.

FASTEST SKATER
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
Chris Kreider, New York Rangers
Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators
Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers
Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

From the NHL:

Eight players will compete in the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater™. Each skater will be timed for one full lap around the rink. The skater may choose the direction of their lap and can be positioned a maximum of three feet behind the start line located on the penalty box side of the center red line. The skater must start on the referee’s whistle and the timing clock will start when the skater crosses the start line. In the event of a clock malfunction, the official time will be recorded by the referee’s stopwatch. The skater with the fastest time is the winner of the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater™, and if there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will skate another lap to determine the winner.

Defending champion: Connor McDavid

SAVE STREAK
David Rittich, Calgary Flames
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins
Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

From the NHL:

A minimum of four goalies and all 36 skaters will participate in the Bud Light NHL Save Streak™, a shootout grouped by division where goalies compete to make the most consecutive saves. Each goalie will face one opposing division and a minimum of nine scoring attempts. Each scoring attempt is officiated in accordance with NHL shootout rules and begins on the referee’s whistle. Players from each division will shoot in numerical order, lowest to highest, with the divisional captain shooting ninth. A goalie’s round at the Bud Light NHL Save Streak™ cannot end with a save – if the divisional captain’s shot is saved, the goalie will continue to face shooters until a goal is scored. If the goalie makes a save on the divisional captain’s shot, the order of shooters to follow is the same as the original order. The goalie with the longest consecutive save streak during his time in net is the winner of the Bud Light NHL Save Streak ™. If at the completion of the event there is a tie for the longest “save streak” the winning goalie will be determined by the total number of saves made in their round. If two or more goalies remain tied based on the total number of saves made then the tied goalies will compete in a sudden death round of “Goalie Goals.”

2019 champion: Henrik Lundqvist

[MORE: NHL All-Star Game 2020: Rosters, schedule, jerseys, more]

ACCURACY SHOOTING
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
Tyler Bertuzzi, Detroit Red Wings
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils
Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

From the NHL:

Eight players will compete in the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™, a timed event where a shooter is positioned 25 feet from the goal line and shoots pucks at target images that appear on an LED screen placed on the goal line. Time will start at the referee’s whistle and each player will shoot pucks at the target images, which will disappear from the screen after being successfully hit. The clock stops when the player has successfully hit all target images. The player that hits all target images in the fastest time will be crowned the winner of the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™. If there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.

2019 champion: David Pastrnak

ELITE WOMEN’S 3-ON-3 (new)
Two teams — American All-Stars and Canadian All-Stars — each comprised of nine skaters and one goalie, will go head-to-head in the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 presented by adidas™. The 3-on-3 game will consist of two 10-minute periods, with a running clock. Teams will switch ends after the first period. All penalties will be “served” with a penalty shot being awarded to the player specifically fouled.

American All-Stars
F Alex Carpenter
F Kendall Coyne Schofield
F Brianna Decker
F Amanda Kessel
F Hilary Knight
F Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson
F Annie Pankowski
D Kacey Bellamy
D Lee Stecklein
G Alex Rigsby Cavallini

Canadian All-Stars
F Meghan Agosta
F Mélodie Daoust
F Rebecca Johnston
F Sarah Nurse
F Marie-Philip Poulin
F Natalie Spooner
F Blayre Turnbull
D Renata Fast
D Laura Fortino
G Ann-Renée Desbiens

HARDEST SHOT
Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens (three-time winner)
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
John Carlson, Washington Capitals

From the NHL:

A minimum of four players will compete in the Enterprise NHL Hardest Shot™. Each player will attempt two shots measured in miles per hour (mph), with the highest speed of their two shots recorded. For each attempt, a single puck is positioned on the ice 30 feet from the center of the goal. Starting no further than the nearest blue line, the shooter may skate towards the puck and shoot it from its positioned spot into the goal. Shots must be on goal to be calculated and all shots are recorded by radar in miles per hour. If a puck enters the goal uncalculated due to a malfunction of the radar equipment, the shooter will be allowed an additional attempt. If the player breaks his stick he will be given another attempt. The player who records the fastest speed is the winner of the Enterprise NHL Hardest Shot™. If there is a tie for the fastest speed, the tied players will shoot again to determine the winner.

2019 champion: John Carlson (102.8 mph)

SHOOTING STARS (new)
Women’s Elite All-Star (CAN) — TBD
Women’s Elite All-Star (USA) — TBD
David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators
Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
David Perron, St. Louis Blues
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

Here’s how the NHL explains how this trick shot competition will work:

Ten players — eight NHL All-Stars, and one American Elite Women’s All-Star team member and one Canadian Elite Women’s All-Star team member — will compete in the Gatorade NHL Shooting Stars™. Players from the American and Canadian Elite Women’s All-Star teams will be selected by social media vote. Players will be positioned on an elevated platform behind the goal, approximately 30 feet above the ice surface, where they will shoot pucks at a variety of targets located on the ice, with each target possessing different point values. One at a time, each player will attempt seven shots and earn points for each target hit.
· Pucks that do not hit a target will earn no points.
· Pucks that bounce, deflect, or otherwise ricochet onto or into a target will be counted for the highest scoring value they hit.
· A puck that hits the face of a target then falls into the center will be scored as if it went directly into the center.
· A puck that hits the center and bounces out will be scored the point value of the center.
· A puck that bounces off the ice then up onto or into a target will be awarded the corresponding value.
· A puck that hits the base of the target will not be awarded any points.
· Players may hit the same target multiple times.
All scoring denominations will be decided by the on-ice officials. If at the completion of the event there is a tie for the highest score, players will shoot three pucks each to determine a winner. If the players remain tied after the three pucks, a sudden death “score-off” will occur.

Please note that special protective netting will be installed at Enterprise Center for the Gatorade NHL Shooting Stars™.

The 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 24 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2020 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 25 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE NHL ALL-STAR GAME COVERAGE:
All-Star Game rosters
NHL All-Star Game captains
All-Star Game coaches
Pass or Fail: 2020 All-Star Game jerseys
Alex Ovechkin will not play in 2020 All-Star Game
NHL Skills Competition to feature women’s 3-on-3, pucks shot from stands

Sharks stick with GM Doug Wilson — for better or worse

Sharks Doug Wilson vote of confidence
Getty Images
1 Comment

The San Jose Sharks are sticking with GM Doug Wilson despite a huge letdown of a season.

Majority owner Hasso Plattner gave Wilson a vote of confidence on Thursday. While it makes sense to comment on a disappointing season, it’s interesting to see it in an official release.

“While we are all very disappointed in the team’s performance thus far this season, Doug has a long history of leading our team to success,” Plattner said as part of the statement. “The last time we failed to meet our winning standards in the 2014-15 season, we were able to quickly rebound and re-establish a winning culture for the next several years. I am supportive of Doug’s plan to get our team back on track.”

Wilson has overseen a long run of Sharks success

Wilson deserves credit for a remarkably strong and consistent run since being named GM in May 2003. The oft-tanned executive must make other GMs feel like he’s a shark smelling blood at times. While the Joe Thornton trade is Wilson’s masterstroke, he often wins other trades — sometimes by a lot.

The Sharks have also won a lot since he took the reins.

The Sharks won four Pacific Division titles in a row from 2007-08 to 2010-11, grabbing the 2009 Presidents’ Trophy along the way. Those peak years ended with heartbreak, yet a run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final silenced a lot of the “choker” claims.

Each time the window appeared ready to close on the Sharks, Wilson would pull a rabbit out of a hat, drafting gems like Logan Couture or trading for key players such as Brent Burns.

Sharks seem stuck

Unfortunately, the 2019-20 season might represent Wilson running out of magic.

Strangely, the Sharks are so stuck that they might just be better off sticking with Wilson, though.

An incoming GM would only be able to do so much about an aging, expensive defense and other concerns. So, again, hoping Wilson has some tricks up his sleeves ranks as an understandable gamble.

Back on Jan. 13, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported (sub required) that the Sharks are looking more at a “reset” than a tear-down, trades-wise. LeBrun points to sensible pieces to auction, such as defenseman Brenden Dillon and defensive-leaning forward Melker Karlsson.

Maybe Wilson could pull off a sequel to getting a bucket of picks for marginal players, like he did with Ryane Clowe and Douglas Murray in 2013? If anyone can pull that off again, it’s Wilson.

The Sharks see little incentive to tank since Ottawa owns their 2020 first-rounder anyway. Taking baby steps seems like the only reasonable option, really.

How Wilson must succeed where he once failed

For all of the smart (and/or “smart at the time”) moves Wilson made, goaltending continues to doom the Sharks. Navigating that problem with better results should be Wilson’s top priority, even if it’s a tricky challenge.

Martin Jones served as a nice answer for a while, but the Jones – Aaron Dell tandem has been a disaster for some time. The Sharks could no longer outscore such problems in 2019-20. Jones and/or Dell show up on the wrong end of far too many charts like this GSAA one from Charting Hockey:

Jones, 30, stands as one of the more cringe-inducing Wilson contracts. He’s been abysmal, has a no-trade clause, and the $5.75M AAV runs through 2023-24. (You just cringed, didn’t you?)

(Did I mention that a different GM would face a huge mess if they wanted to blow this up? Yeah, it’s a dicey situation.)

Whether it’s making life easier for Jones or finding a different answer in net, the Sharks need to fix this. Doing so quickly is crucial, too, with an aging core.

Honestly, many of us — probably Wilson included — figured that this team would hit a wall eventually. It’s just that the wall popped up faster than expected, and the Sharks went splat.

It’s up to Wilson to make sure that the Sharks leap over that hurdle next time around, kind of like a … well, a killer whale.

Otherwise it could be, you know, crushing.

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.

‘Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour’ billboard starts popping up in Edmonton

Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton
via CJAY 92
1 Comment

Fans must wait about a week for the next round in the “Battle of Alberta,” but if they need a reminder, the “Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour” billboard began showing up in Edmonton on Wednesday.

Calgary radio station CJAY 92 made it happen, and also helped to make this Tkachuk-centric trolling effort turn into a boon for charities. The billboards hype up the next meeting between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, which happens in Edmonton on Jan. 29. Deliciously enough, the two teams then meet again in Calgary on Feb. 1. Think of all of the opportunities for friendship.

Take a look at the Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton

CJAY 92 shared photos of the billboards that began sprouting up:

You may, however, notice an omission. The final version includes Tkachuk’s name, the amusing “friendship tour,” and his jersey number. It does not, however, feature Tkachuk making a face like he smelled something rancid, or really didn’t appreciate that pun.

Yeah, that bitter beer face plus the heart background did kind of tie the billboard together.

That said, there’s the real fear of Oilers fans defacing the image in Edmonton. Heck, there’s the risk of someone getting injured trying to vandalize a billboard with Tkachuk’s actual face on it. Maybe it was also a rights issue with getting that picture?

So … yes, it’s a very, very mild letdown. Nonetheless, this adds another wrinkle to this fun, silly rivalry within a rivalry.

Recap of feud with Kassian

As a reminder, the ball got rolling as a feud formed between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian. Tkachuk delivered multiple hits — ones that Kassian found dirty — and then Kassian ragdolled the pesty winger. You could say that Tkachuk got the last laugh, as the Flames scored the game-winning goal during power-play opportunities stemming from Kassian’s penalties. The two also traded trash talk after the game.

After letting the two-game suspension sink in, Kassian warned that Tkachuk “messed with the wrong guy.” Kassian implied that the previous outing was merely a skirmish in a larger war (or, you know, “Battle of Alberta”).

This feud would rank as one of the most glorious in hockey if it stayed onto the ice. Yet, off ice moving and shaking really brings this to another trolly, splendid level.

Tkachuk billboard becomes a boon for charities in Edmonton and Calgary

Once CJAY 92 took care of the more fun aspects of the Tkachuk billboard, Mohamed Elsaghir’s Go Fund Me drive instead focused on raising money for ALS. Between that drive and a $10K donation by entrepreneur W. Brett Wilson helped bump the total contributions above $20K.

While that charitable run came via Flames fans, Oilers devotees made waves for a good cause, too. What started with a fun tweet and $25 donation from Oilers fan Samantha Costa ended up being a boon, too.

Brown Bagging It, one of the benefiting charities, summed everything up nicely:

***

Overall, great stuff. It makes you wonder: could enterprising Oilers fans come up with a billboard idea for the next game on Feb.1? Maybe something along the lines of, “Thanks for James Neal?”

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.

Most dangerous lead in hockey? This season, it’s all of them

Leave a comment

Joel Quenneville remembers years past when NHL teams leading going into the third period could feel comfortable chalking up two points. A win was a pretty sure bet.

Earlier this season, his Florida Panthers erased a four-goal deficit to win a game. And then they did it again. Even the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach didn’t see that coming.

”We didn’t envision coming back either game,” Quenneville said.

It’s becoming easier than ever to envision. There have already been five four-goal comeback wins this season, tied for the most in NHL history. And the 18 three-goal comebacks are the most through the same number of games in 30 years.

No lead is safe.

”Used to be the dreaded, two-goal lead is the most dangerous in hockey, but now it seems like the four-goal lead’s the hardest one to hold on to,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”Teams believe they can come back at any time.”

Coaches and players point to a number of different factors for all the rallying going on, ranging from rules designed to create more offense to better power plays, more skill and talent, and human nature when it comes to holding a comfortable lead or facing a difficult deficit.

”It’s very difficult to hold leads now just with some of the rules that have been added,” said coach Todd Reirden, whose Washington Capitals recently erased a three-goal deficit to beat the New York Islanders. ”Just different little nuances that have helped scoring increase in the league. It’s just the way that penalties are called, too, and the league wants offense and they love that aspect of teams coming from behind like that.”

Those rules include more penalties called for obstructing, hooking, holding and slashing and increased advantages on faceoffs for the offensive team. Just like the standings that are set up to be neck-and-neck down the stretch to the playoffs, the modern game is designed for no team to be out of a game.

When David Quinn’s New York Rangers went down 4-0 at Montreal this season, the second-year coach considered it a little unfair based on their effort. They won 6-5 in regulation.

”One of the things we talked about in between the first and second period was: ‘Don’t play the score. If you do the right thing over and over again, the game will reward you,”’ Quinn recalled. ”And I thought that’s what happened. Within a game, you’ve got to be mentally tough, and you’re going to have to have resiliency.”

See the Panthers, who stunned Anaheim and Boston with those four-goal comebacks. Quenneville has been behind an NHL bench for a long time and doesn’t have a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.

”You get a fortunate break on a bounce here, and it can really shift the momentum,” Quenneville said. ”There’s been a lot of offense in this year’s game, teams going for it. You’ve got a 4-0 lead, whether you take your foot off the pedal and all of a sudden you maybe relax a little bit, but the other team’s pressing, they’re pinching, they’re taking more offensive zone chances and thinking that way. You get a couple of breaks and all of a sudden, the other team’s on their heels.”

Much of it is psychological. Players after building a big lead could naturally think their heavy lifting is over for the game. Those on the other side are just getting started.

”The team that’s ahead, as much as you fight it, there’s a natural instinct to just ease off the gas a little and give (up) opportunities,” said Matt Niskanen, whose Philadelphia Flyers recently beat the Bruins in a shootout after trailing by three goals. ”Mentally, you tell yourself, ‘Don’t let up, keep playing the same way because we’re having success for a reason.’ It’s a really hard thing to fight.”

After reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins lead the Atlantic Division at the All-Star break despite a penchant for blowing leads.

”We’ve got to bear down,” Boston center Patrice Bergeron said. ”You can’t just have a good effort, be satisfied with that, and then just play for a half a game.”

Half a game isn’t enough, especially since hockey has moved toward more offensively skilled players and away from those tasked with keeping the puck out of the net. There’s also the fact that 25 of 31 teams are either in or within 10 points of a playoff spot, and it’s hard for teams to dominate a whole game — let alone a season.

”It just shows the parity of the league and that on any given night, everybody can beat somebody else” Reirden said ”It’s extremely competitive.”