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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.

Bruins hope to have a healthy Chara for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — The Bruins were able to sweep Carolina in the Eastern Conference final without captain Zdeno Chara.

Now they’re hoping 10 days off before the start of the Stanley Cup Final will be enough time for the defenseman to return.

The title round begins May 27 when Boston will face San Jose or St. Louis, with that conference final 2-2. The Bruins completed their sweep Thursday with Chara out with an undisclosed injury.

”We have a lot of time to make the absolute right decision to give him the proper time to get over something that’s been nagging him,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Saturday. ”And we’ll cross our fingers that will be the case. But we’re confident it will be.”

Sweeney stopped short of guaranteeing Chara’s return for Game 1.

”I’m not living in how or where Zee feels. I expect he’ll be fine,” Sweeney said. ”But I’m not going to sit here and make a proclamation in terms of promises. I do believe that time will be used effectively and he’ll be fine. But sometimes those are out of your control.”

Defenseman Kevan Miller and forward Chris Wagner are doubtful for Game 1 of the Final. Miller hasn’t played since April 4 because of a lower-body injury. Wagner injured his right arm blocking a shot in Game 3 against Carolina.

Patrick Roy set to interview for Senators’ coaching vacancy: report

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Interested in seeing more of this?

Or maybe some of this?

Well, you just might be in luck.

Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch reports that Patrick Roy is set be the last interview done by Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion as the search for the next bench boss in Canada’s capital continues.

Roy has most recently been coaching the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He last coached in the NHL in 2016 with the Colorado Avalanche, a job he resigned from following that season. Two years earlier, he won the Jack Adams Award for the NHL’s best coach after the Avalanche went from last to first in the Western Conference.

Roy is 130-92-24 during his 246-game coaching career in the NHL.

“Those close to Roy believe he’d like to return to the NHL in the right situation and initially the only pressure in Ottawa will be to develop the young players,” Garrioch wrote. “The Senators have the potential to have 17 picks in the first three rounds of the next three drafts and finding the right fit is paramount.”

The Senators, according to Garrioch, have already interviewed several candidates, including fellow former Avalanche coach Mark Crawford, along with former Senators coach Jacques Martin and Dallas Stars assistance Rick Bowness.

Roy’s experience coaching young players, as Garrioch points out, would be appealing for a team as young as the Senators, who also have a litany of draft picks coming their way over the next three years.

Can Roy work under Senators owner Eugene Melnyk? Can he work with Dorion? Roy didn’t exactly have the best professional relationship with Joe Sakic and Roy would likely want some level of control of the direction of the team.

It remains to be seen, but Roy has a decent track record that is appealing, certainly.


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

Has Erik Karlsson’s lingering groin injury resurfaced?

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It plagued him for most of the second half of the season.

A good chunk of January, a good chunk of February, and the entirety of March, to be exact.

And now Erik Karlsson‘s Game 5 status is up in the air after he appeared to aggravate a lingering groin injury, one Karlsson said had only progressed in the right direction throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs after Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

“I don’t have anything for you there,” said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer when quizzed on Karlsson’s health following a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues that evened the best-of-seven series 2-2 on Friday.

DeBoer quickly swept that question under the rug.

As did Brent Burns, who just said, “He’s doing good” followed by a “How’re you doing?” when a reporter probed Burns about his teammate.

You may not have noticed it, initially at least.

Normally guys who play 24:33 in a game don’t miss significant stretches. But from the 10:36 mark to 18:05 of the third period, Karlsson didn’t see the ice. With the Sharks trailing 2-1 at the time, you’d expect one of the game’s best offensive defensemen to be on the ice. Instead, Karlsson was grimacing in pain, coming out during commercial breaks to test whatever was ailing him.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Somehow, he played the final 1:55 of the game — nearly two minutes of madness where the Sharks tried, ultimately in vain, to find an equalizer. Karlsson bit down hard on his mouthpiece and bore the pain, but you could see its effects.

PHT’s James O’Brien wrote on Karlsson’s playoffs prior to Friday’s game.

Karlsson limped into the playoffs and said himself that he could barely move in Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Still, and as James pointed out in his story, it’s been hard to notice with two goals and 14 assists in 18 postseason games. Karlsson has played big minutes and produced at nearly a point-per-game pace in the playoffs, essentially everything the Sharks envisioned he would do when they brought him in last summer.

What they didn’t want was a nagging injury that force Karlsson to missed 29 games during the regular season and now, perhaps, some at a critical juncture for a team that’s hoping they’ve finally put it all together this year.

Maybe it’s nothing. But those painful faces that Karlsson wore in Game 4 weren’t exactly inspiring confidence in the “maybe it’s nothing” part.

If Karlsson can’t play, it’s only going to mean more minutes for guys like Burns, who is already averaging nearly 29 minutes a night. Karlsson has played an instrumental role in these playoffs for the Sharks.

A loss, even for a game, would be a massive blow in what’s now a best-of-three series.

[MORE: Blues handling adversity like champions]


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

Blues handling adversity like champions

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How many times have we thought the St. Louis Blues were dead in the water?

Was it in Round 1 when, after jetting out to a 2-0 lead against the Winnipeg Jets, they lost two straight as it appeared the Jets finally got their act together?

Was it after Games 4 and 5 in Round 2 where the Dallas Stars took a 3-2 series lead and we figured that was the end of their miraculous run?

Was it after the San Jose Sharks benefitted from a hand pass by Timo Meier that found the stick of Erik Karlsson to end Game 3 in overtime to give the Sharks a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Final?

For a team that sat plumb last in the NHL on the morning of Jan. 3, are we really all that surprised that they’re still alive and kicking?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a rookie goaltender is now 11-2 following a loss in the regular and postseason combined, throwing up an incredible .936 save percentage when his team needs a win.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be miffed when a team as resilient as the Blues, given all they’ve been through, have outscored opponents 14-9 after a loss in these playoffs.

Embrace the grind, as they say.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

And the Blues have, particularly in Game 4 where they could have imploded after losing in such terrible fashion one-game earlier.

“We just talked about… you’ve got to just move on,” said Blues head coach Craig Berube, saying he went into the room after Game 3 to talk that loss over with the team. “The call, you can’t change it now. It is what it is. I think we talked in terms like that game we had a one-goal lead, we could have closed it out then and we didn’t. We let it go to overtime, and the only difference tonight, we closed it out with a one-goal lead.”

Indeed, the whole overtime crisis of Game 3 could have been averted if the Blues could have held onto a 4-3 third-period lead. They trailed 2-0 and 3-1 in that game but led after a four-goal second period. Only Logan Couture‘s magic 6-on-5 prevented the win in regulation and we all know what happened from there.

Resilience will only take a team so far. It’s an intangible. At the end of the day, that resilience needs to bend but not break and the players have to ultimately get the job done. It broke in Game 3. In Game 4, however, the Blues adjusted.

They didn’t have to play from behind — an Ivan Barbashev goal 35 seconds in solved that issue in short order. Tyler Bozak‘s game-winner was scored later on in the same frame.

The Sharks certainly attacked, finishing the game with 73 shot attempts — more than double that of St. Louis.

But St. Louis held the line.

The final 1:55 of the third period was frantic — madness, as Jordan Binnington put it following the game. A big save from Binnington was followed up by a big block of Alex Steen. Brayden Schenn then did the only thing he could do amidst the onslaught as he iced the puck. With no times outs, the Blues couldn’t get a breather until Joel Edmundson‘s desperate attempt to clear was just short of being an icing call.

The Sharks came back, only to have a shot blocked by Bozak and eventually cleared. Ryan O'Reilly then won a key draw in the neutral zone and Oskar Sundqvist thwarted the final attempt by the Sharks.

“We’ve fought through adversity all year,” Bozak said. “We usually play our best when we have to respond to something.”

Full buy-in from a team that’s done nothing but since Jan. 3. And a 2-2 series stalemate after four games with a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup on the line.

This is simply expected from the Blues at this point.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT Conference Finals predictions


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