PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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 Wraparound: Maple Leafs get chance to exact revenge vs. Bruins

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

They couldn’t get it done in 2013 when an epic third-period collapse ended in disaster in the ensuing overtime period in Game 7. Five years later and a second Game 7 catastrophe, another third-period collapse, and a finish that this time didn’t require an extra frame.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will get a chance to finally atone for those slip-ups when they face the Boston Bruins on Easter Sunday (3 p.m. E.T.; NBC; Live stream).

A third-period effort in a tight Game 5 produced two goals and that was enough to fling the Bruins onto the ropes with a 3-2 series lead.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

To do so, they’ll have to complete one of the hardest tasks in hockey.

“The hardest game to win is the fourth game to put the other team out, especially a proud group of guys (like the Bruins),” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “It is something that we haven’t been able to do in the last three years… Now it is the process of learning how to do this. That is all a part of growing the group. It’s not easy, as you can see in the league. It’s not easy. We will get prepared to really push.”

For Boston to force a Game 7, they’ll need their top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak to produce. In games where the line combines for two points or fewer, they’ve lost. In the two games they’ve won, the trio has put up 10 points total.

“I think they’re doing a good job of keeping us to the outside,” Bergeron said. “We have to find a way to get to the inside a lot more. The goals we’ve scored have been from the inside… also some rebounds, some really in tight.”

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights, 7 p.m. ET (VGK leads 3-2): Martin Jones remembered how to stop pucks and the Sharks remembered how to score facing elimination in Game 5 three nights ago. They’ll have to combine that effort two more times, beginning tonight if they’re to continue their season. The Sharks scored early and often as Tomas Hertl found twine twice. When Jones has posted a save percentage above .900 in these playoffs, he’s won. In the other games, he’s been chased twice and allowed six in another loss. Jones is the key, as is stopping Vegas’ dominant second line. (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info


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

Avalanche moving on in playoffs for first time since 2008

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DENVER (AP) — The brief message on social media from Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov was rhetorical in nature: ”How is your bracket ?”

Because obviously, it’s pretty messy.

The eighth-seeded Avalanche certainly played a big role in that. Colorado knocked off the Calgary Flames – the top team in the West – in five games for its first playoff series win since 2008. It’s on to the second round, where Colorado faces the winner of the Vegas-San Jose series. The Golden Knights lead the Sharks 3-2.

While others may be surprised, Nathan MacKinnon and his teammates have been asserting that this postseason would be entirely different. This time, unlike a year ago, they wouldn’t be content with merely making the playoffs. This time, they wanted to make some noise even if they again entered as an eight seed and faced a No. 1 seed.

”We’re not just happy to be here,” said MacKinnon, whose team was eliminated in the opening round by top-seeded Nashville in six games last year. ”We’re here to win the Cup.”

Colorado actually has been in playoff mode for about a month, needing to go 8-0-2 down the stretch to earn the last spot. Despite the Avalanche’s surge, they weren’t exactly a trendy pick to spring an upset on a Flames squad that amassed 107 points. But they outscored the Flames by a 17-11 margin and outshot them 205-164.

”Now we can rest before the second round,” forward Mikko Rantanen said Friday after a 5-1 win in Game 5. ”That’s going to be huge.”

And just like that, another top seed exited. Tampa Bay, the Presidents’ Trophy winner with the league’s best record, got swept out of the playoffs by Columbus.

Dating to expansion in 1967-68, this marks the first time the top two teams in each division or conference or the teams with the two best records have been eliminated in the opening round, according to the league.

”We told you going into the playoffs that we had a different feeling, a different mindset this year, that we’re here for a purpose,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. ”Our guys believe it … Our guys are hungry for more.”

Rantanen turned in quite a series, with five goals and four assists. He has at least a point in four straight games, which is one away from tying the Colorado/Quebec franchise mark held set by Peter Stastny in 1982 and equaled by Peter Forsberg on three separate occasions.

This after Rantanen missed the last eight games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He shook off some rust in Game 1 and then spent the rest of the series shaking free of defenders. He scored the overtime winner in Game 4.

”He came back and he looked amazing and dominated,” MacKinnon said. ”It’s so nice to have a guy like that on your team.”

The same can be said for goaltender Philipp Grubauer, whose play down the stretch got the Avalanche into the postseason and whose play now has kept them rolling. Grubauer posted a 1.90 goals-against average against the Flames.

”He was a wall for us,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog, whose team went 0-3 against San Jose during the regular season and 2-1 versus Vegas. ”He was really important for us. He’s been really solid this whole series.”

Grubauer believes this team can reach an even higher level.

”If we can manage to play that way for a long time, we’re going to set ourselves up for a good chance here,” said Grubauer, who won a Stanley Cup title with Washington last season. ”Guys are stepping up in the right moments.”

Like recently signed rookie defenseman Cale Makar , who made his NHL debut in Game 3 and scored a goal. The 20-year-old signed a three-year deal with Colorado last Sunday, a day after his college season ended when Massachusetts lost in the Frozen Four championship game.

Makar, who is from Calgary, grew up a big Flames fan. He just played a role in eliminating them.

Matt Nieto had two short-handed goals in the series, while Tyson Barrie added five assists and logged the most ice time among Colorado skaters.

In the clincher at Calgary, Rantanen, Colin Wilson, MacKinnon and Barrie all had at least three-point performances. This marked the first time in the team’s history that four players had at least three points in a series-clinching game.

That comes as no surprise to Landeskog.

”We wouldn’t be here,” Landeskog said, ”if it wasn’t for every single guy in this room.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Canes’ Svechnikov hopes to play in Game 6 after concussion

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes rookie Andrei Svechnikov hopes to play in Game 6 against the Washington Capitals on Monday after suffering a concussion in a fight with Alex Ovechkin a week earlier.

Svechnikov took part in his first full team practice on Saturday during the Hurricanes’ morning skate before Game 5 of their first-round series. The 19-year-old Russian winger wore a yellow non-contact jersey and would need to clear the NHL’s concussion protocol before he returns to game action.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour was noncommittal about Svechnikov’s status for the remainder of the series. Svechnikov is one of three Carolina forwards out with injury, along with Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook.

Ovechkin knocked out Svechnikov with a right hook during a fight in the first period of Game 3. Both players has said the other asked to fight.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues eliminate Jets; Capitals, Stars take leads

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  • The Blues advanced to Round 2, and while the Jets made the final score look respectable, it wasn’t a great, complete effort by Winnipeg.
  • The Stars’ top line was downright dominant for Dallas in taking a 3-2 series lead, putting the Central-winning Predators on the ropes.
  • Washington’s biggest names flexed their muscles, and the Capitals took a 3-2 series lead by blasting the Hurricanes.

Blues 3, Jets 2 (St. Louis wins series 4-2)

Jaden Schwartz scored all three of the Blues’ goals, and he gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead in doing so. After a pitiful, 1-shot second period, Winnipeg did make things more interesting in shrinking that 3-0 deficit to 3-2, but that final push was pretty late, and the overall (lack of) effort could stick with Jets fans and management for quite some time.

St. Louis gets to rest up and prepare for the winner of the series right below …

Stars 5, Predators 3 (Dallas leads 3-2)

It would be frustrating for Nashville if this all came down to Pekka Rinne struggling. Instead, Rinne was often quite sharp on Saturday, particularly when the game was close but the Predators seemingly couldn’t get anything going. Dallas dominated much of the proceedings. The top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov was the most overwhelming, yet other players are stepping up for the Stars, who’ve carried much of the play lately in Round 1. The Predators have some serious work to do, or they’ll be another division winner who will hit the golf course far earlier than most expected.

Capitals 6, Hurricanes 0 (Washington leads 3-2)

To be fair to Carolina, this game was closer than the score seemed … at least early on. They even kinda, sorta had a chance through most of the second period, at least before that much-discussed Dougie Hamilton icing gaffe opened things up for the 3-0 goal. Still, the Hurricanes couldn’t score a goal in this one, and players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin really imposed their will on Game 5. So far, the home team has taken all five games in this series, so the Hurricanes must maintain that trend in Game 6, and then hope they can flip the script if they force a Game 7.

Note: Isabelle Khurshudyan and Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post report that T.J. Oshie suffered a broken collarbone, and will miss the remainder of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. An official announcement is expected, possibly as early as Sunday. PHT will monitor that situation.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are only five games into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet Backstrom already has many goals (five) as he had during all of their Stanley Cup run. He’s also only one behind his career-high for a single postseason of six. Backstrom’s known for his passing, and that’s still generally how he leans when attacking, but he’s absolutely on fire sniping-wise lately, and that will only make him tougher to contain.

Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, including the game-winner to help Washington off to a blazing start, and also chipped in two assists for a four-point game. That’s the most of any skater on Saturday.

(Alex Ovechkin deserves consideration for player of that game and of Saturday, too, as he was a domineering physical presence, along with scoring one goal and two assists.)

2. Jaden Schwartz

You could make an argument that Schwartz’s strong Game 6 was just as important as Backstrom’s performance, even if Backstrom gets the edge in total points at four.

Schwartz scored all three of the Blues goals to claim a hat trick, and that’s coming off of scoring the Blues’ Game 5 winner with about 15 seconds left to stun Winnipeg, and maybe partially explain why the Jets seemed to lack a spark on Saturday.

Personally, Schwartz has been one of those Jonathan Huberdeau-type players who’s always signaled serious talent, but has sometimes been lost in the shuffle, in part because of bad injury luck. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a high-quality player such as Schwartz get his moment in the sun, and Schwartz is absolutely shining in the spotlight.

3. Jamie Benn

Consider this a collective Stars’ first line award if you’d like, as Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov were too much for the Predators to handle, too.

Benn had the most points of the trio, generating three assists, with two of them being primary.

Jim Lites’ “blanking horse-blank” roast of Benn and Seguin seemed to ignore a number of realities, such as the impact the aging curve can have on any star player, particularly a power forward such as Benn. Yet, Benn was that irresistible force at times in Game 5, particularly when he used his size and senses to muscle the puck away from Ryan Ellis to set up one of Dallas’ goals. (Benn’s three assists all came during a single period, a rare feat.)

The Predators will try their best to find an answer for Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, but performances like these make you wonder if they can be denied.

More Factoids

Sunday’s games

Game 6: Bruins at Maple Leafs (Toronto leads 3-2), 3 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream)
Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights (Vegas leads 3-2), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream)

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.