PHT Power Rankings: Golden Knights emerging as West’s best

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The only thing crazier than an expansion team reaching the Stanley Cup Final in its first year of existence would be that same team showing that it wasn’t a fluke and doing it again in year two.

The Vegas Golden Knights still have a long way to go before they do that, but they are not only starting to look perfectly capable of going on such a run, they are starting to look like they might be the team to beat in the Western Conference.

Overall, their record is not going to be the best one in the West, and they are probably going to win fewer games than they did a year ago. That should not overshadow the fact this team is looking outstanding at the right time of year, and especially after adding Mark Stone at the trade deadline.

Just look at what they have done over their past 20 games dating back to early February.

  • Their 12-6-2 record during that stretch is the second best in the West, trailing only the St. Louis Blues.
  • Their underlying numbers are as good as any team in the NHL since then, currently sitting third in Corsi Percentage (53.7 percent), third in scoring chance percentage (54.1), and first in high-danger scoring chance percentage (57.6).
  • Their newly formed line of Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Paul Stastny has been dominant and gives them three scoring lines that are capable of beating any team on any night.

It is also not just about what they are doing that makes them such a strong contender. It is also about the rest of the teams around them because, honestly, who else is looking great right now in the West?

The San Jose Sharks should probably be the top contender, but their goaltending is a mess and might just be bad enough to sink a potential Cup team.

The Calgary Flames are the only team in the West that has underlying numbers that compare to Vegas’ over the past 20 games, but their playoff chances seem to be resting on the shoulders of a relatively unproven goalie in David Rittich. There is a risk there.

The Nashville Predators have not looked right for more than a month now.

Pretty much every other team in the playoff mix seems to have some sort of major question mark around them.

They may not have the best record, but with the way they are playing right now it is hard to find a team that looks tougher than the Golden Knights.

They reach the third spot in this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings.

Where does everyone else sit this week?

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Whether they end up winning the Stanley Cup or not they might be one of the best single season teams the NHL has ever seen, at least based on what they have done during the 2018-19 regular season.

2. Boston Bruins — It almost seems like their dominance this season has slid under the radar. They have been one of the best teams in the league despite being consistently crushed by injuries. Maybe their depth is better than we gave them credit for at the start of the season? Bruce Cassidy should be in the Jack Adams Award discussion.

3. Vegas Golden Knights — They have been dominant since the trade deadline. A lot of their success will simply depend on the health of Marc-Andre Fleury and how he plays in the playoffs.

4. Calgary Flames — Johnny Gaudreau should be a top-five vote-getter in the MVP race and Mark Giordano might be the Norris Trophy winner. Those two are a big reason why the Flames are on their way to winning just their second division title over the past two decades.

5. Winnipeg Jets — Maybe starting to play their best hockey at the right time of year. Getting Dustin Byfuglien back would be a huge lift, as would a goal scoring binge from Patrik Laine.

6. Washington Capitals — They have looked like a championship caliber team since the trade deadline. Losing Michal Kempny will hurt, but the additions of Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen have really helped their overall defensive play.

[Related: Carl Hagelin is just what the Capitals needed]

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — If Matt Murray keeps playing the way he has been since mid-December this is going to be a very difficult team to beat, especially once Evgeni Malkin returns to the lineup.

8. Carolina Hurricanes — They are 25-9-2 since Dec. 31. The addition of Nino Niederreiter has been significant, but now No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov is starting to emerge as a big-time goal-scoring threat.

9. St. Louis Blues — Don’t look now but they have a really good chance of snagging home-ice advantage in the first-round of the playoffs. Who saw that happening after the way they started the season?

10. San Jose Sharks — When it comes to their forwards and defense they might be the best team in the Western Conference, especially when Erik Karlsson is healthy. They should be the runaway favorite to win the West given their roster and the way they are capable of playing. But they have lost five in a row and there is no way you can trust their goaltending right now against anybody.

[Related: Sharks’ goaltending is historically bad for Stanley Cup contender]

11. Toronto Maple Leafs — There seems to be a real “sky is falling” mentality around this team  as of late, only further showing how much pressure this team is going to be under to win. Another first-round exit in the playoffs, no matter who they have to play, will not be viewed as acceptable.

12. New York Islanders — They are still in contention for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division but have only been a .500 team for more than a month. That said, if the goaltending holds up they will have a chance to win every night.

13. Nashville Predators — The Predators have not looked right for a while now, and that 5-0 loss to Winnipeg with what was probably their best shot at the Central Division title on the line was concerning. Also concerning: What in the world has happened to Kyle Turris this season?

14. Colorado Avalanche — The Gabriel Landeskog injury seemed like it might be the end of their playoff chances, but Nathan MacKinnon just wanted to remind everyone that he is one of the league’s best players and can carry a team.

15. Montreal Canadiens — Here is a nightmare situation for the Lightning: You dominate the entire regular season and your reward is a potential first-round matchup against a goalie in Carey Price that could easily ruin a season in seven games if he gets hot. Not saying it will happen, not even saying it might happen. But it could happen.

16. Dallas Stars — The more this season goes on, the more ridiculous team CEO Jim Lites’ comments about Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn seem. The Stars only have three forwards with more than 27 points this season — Seguin, Benn, and Alexander Radulov. That trio, along with the play of goalies Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, are going to carry this team to the playoffs.

17. Minnesota Wild — They looked like they were going to show some surprising fight to make the playoffs after some big trades that no doubt made them worse in the short-term, but they have since gone in the tank with only three wins in their past 11 games. They are still, somehow, only two points out of a Wild Card spot as of Monday.

18. Chicago Blackhawks –– The win on Sunday against Colorado kept their slim playoff hopes alive, but they are a real long shot at this point.

19. Columbus Blue Jackets — If they had lost to the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night their season might already be over. The fact it has reached that point after all of the moves they made at the trade deadline is stunning. If they do not make the playoffs it is going to be fascinating to see what happens to the general manager (who is apparently not happy with how the team is playing) and the coach, and how future teams in a similar situation handle the trade deadline.

20. Arizona Coyotes — The offense has failed them at the worst possible time. They have lost five games in a row, scoring only six goals during that stretch. They have wasted some great goaltending from Darcy Kuemper.

21. Florida Panthers — Honestly, they might only be a goalie away. I just don’t know if the goalie they seem willing to throw the bank at this summer (Sergei Bobrovsky) is the right goalie to get them there at this stage of his career.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — Carter Hart looks legit, and their overall record under Scott Gordon is very good, but I think that record is a mirage. They can not think everything is fine just because they have won some games in the second half of the season. The process behind the results matters, too, and the process is not good enough.

23. Anaheim Ducks — Some discouraging news as it relates to Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves this week. In less discouraging news, John Gibson has been outstanding lately in net.

24. Vancouver Canucks — Excluding the Golden Knights, who have only played two seasons in the NHL, no team in the league has won fewer games over the past four years than the Canucks, and they once again will still not be bad enough to have a great shot at the No. 1 overall pick. It is truly an incredible accomplishment to be that consistently bad but not quite be bad enough to get yourself a position to get the top pick. If any fan base deserves some lottery ball luck this year, it is this one.

25. Edmonton Oilers — There is no other team in the NHL that could have had a situation like the Tobias Rieder-Bob Nicholson one. Sure, there was another team’s CEO that threw a handful of players under the bus this season and blamed them for the team’s struggles, but blaming a fourth-liner? Total insanity.

[Related: Rieder responds to CEO criticism]

26. New York Rangers — In a season like this you have to look for the small victories anywhere you can get them. Beating the Toronto Maple Leafs over the weekend was one. Pavel Buchnevich maybe reaching the 20-goal mark while missing nearly 20 games would be another.

27. Los Angeles Kings — Jonathan Quick‘s .891 save percentage is one of the absolute worst in the NHL this season. Jack Campbell and Calvin Petersen in 31 games between them, playing behind the same team, both have a save percentage of .923 or better. What is most shocking about that is those two are still only 12-17-2 on the season even with their great play in net, a strong indication that the team is just badly flawed all over the roster. Also their big free agent acquisition does not seem to fit with the current coach.

28. Detroit Red Wings — Bringing back Jimmy Howard for another season is not the worst decision in the world, but at some point they are going to have to find a long-term solution in goal. That player does not yet seem to be anywhere in the organization.

29. New Jersey Devils — There was reason to be skeptical of this team being as good as it was a year ago, but the injury situation has absolutely not helped. Just a tough year all around.

30. Ottawa Senators — They still have the worst record in the league, they will still likely finish there, and there is a very real chance their draft pick, which now belongs to the Avalanche, will be the No. 1 overall pick which will be another level of embarrassment on what is already a difficult rebuild for Senators fans. That said, the players that are still there are playing hard and it has produced a couple of impressive wins over the past week, shutting out the Blues and a four-goal win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

31. Buffalo Sabres — On November 27 the Sabres won their 10th game in a row and had the best record in the NHL. Since then they are 14-28-7 and that is the NHL’s worst record during that stretch. That is how you have one of the league’s longest winning streaks of the season and still find yourself 17 points out of a playoff spot in late March. That is deserving of the bottom spot this week.

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.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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Jeanine Leech/Getty Images
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”