NHL Power Rankings: The quiet dominance of the Capitals

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Maybe it is because we are so used to seeing them at the top of the NHL standings.

Maybe it is because they already won their Stanley Cup and there is no longer any pressure on them to shake their postseason disappointment label.

Or maybe it is because there are so many other intriguing stories around the NHL that are dominating headlines (Edmonton and Vancouver off to surprising starts, the Islanders winning 10 in a row, Boston and St. Louis looking like they can get back to the Stanley Cup Final).

Whatever the reason, it seems like the Washington Capitals are getting a little overlooked this season and it is kind of amazing given just how dominant they have been. Entering the week they are 13-2-3 for the season, are one of the highest scoring teams in the league, have the best points percentage in the league, and have recorded at least a point in 11 consecutive games (10-0-1). What stands out the most about this start is they are doing it while getting mostly sub-par goaltending from Braden Holtby. If he gets back on track there is the potential for another championship parade in Washington D.C..

Because of all of that the Capitals climb to the top spot in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does every other team sit this season?

To the rankings!

1. Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin at 34 years of age is off to the second best goal scoring start of his career. He just keeps going and completely disregarding the normal aging curve of players.

2. St. Louis Blues. The defending champs were 3-2-3 after eight games and lost their best player for what will probably most — if not all — of the regular season. All they have done is go 9-1-0 in their past 10 games. Lot of overtime luck in there, but they are building themselves a nice cushion.

3. New York Islanders. After starting the year 1-3-0 they are entering the week on an 11-0-1 run, with the only loss coming in overtime after surrendering a three-goal third period lead.

4. Boston Bruins. Eventually somebody other than David Pastrnak or Brad Marchand will have to start scoring some goals. They have time to figure it out.

5. Philadelphia Flyers. Very quietly the Flyers have one of the top points percentages in the NHL (sixth best) and have won five out of their past six. Five of those six games have gone to overtime or a shootout so they are not really decisive wins, but their underlying and possession numbers paint the picture of a team that might have the right process.

6. Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Drasaitl are doing exactly what is expected and exactly what they always do. The big difference-makers this season, though, are Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen playing great in net. Those two are the players that will determine what this team is able to do.

7. Colorado Avalanche. They slumped recently but am going to give them the benefit of the doubt due to the injury situation. When healthy they showed they can dominate, and they showed against Nashville and Columbus they can still score goals even without Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins. Just when it looked like they were starting to get fully healthy Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist all exited the lineup with injuries. They are still playing extremely well despite all of the players they have been missing but the absence of Crosby will be a huge test.

9. Montreal Canadiens. Shea Weber can still be a great player and change a game when he is healthy.

10. Florida Panthers. If Sergei Bobrovsky would start playing like the goalie they paid him to be they would really be on to something this year. There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around and if/when he does this could be a sneaky dangerous team.

11. Nashville Predators. Filip Forsberg has five points in five games since returning to the lineup. The offense has been great, but they need more from the goalies, specifically Jusse Saros.

12. Dallas Stars. Ben Bishop got back on track and so did the Stars. They still need to do something to find some more offense because no goalie is great enough to allow one goal every game.

13. Winnipeg Jets. Paul Maurice deserves a lot of credit for keeping this team competitive given the state of the defense. But do you know who deserves more credit? Goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning. They are starting to show some signs of getting back on track, but something still seems a little off here.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs. Everybody wants the Maple Leafs to change the way the play, but what if the change they need to make is to become more aggressive offensively, and not less?

16. Calgary Flames. They are starting to get back on track after a slow start. Matthew Tkachuk is the engine driving this machine right now.

17. Arizona Coyotes. They are definitely on the right track but still need to learn how to finish games.

18. Vancouver Canucks. The offense has gone cold during their four-game losing streak, but there are still a lot of encouraging signs here with this team.

19. Vegas Golden Knights. They have lost five out of six and still have not found a competent backup goalie to give Marc-Andre Fleury some rest. That is an under the radar problem that is going to need to be addressed.

20. Carolina Hurricanes. I still believe when all is said and done this season they will be a contender in the Eastern Conference, but they look out of sorts right now across the board.

21. Buffalo Sabres. The competition has started to get tougher and the losses have become more frequent. Not a good sign. After starting the year 8-1-0 the Sabres are 1-5-1 since with the only win coming against a lousy Detroit Red Wings team.

22. New York Rangers. Adam Fox has been the most impressive rookie on this team. That is not a knock on No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko, just a statement on how good Fox has been.

23. San Jose Sharks. Starting to show some signs of life, but how far are they really going to go with that goaltending?

24. Chicago Blackhawks. They are finding ways to collect points every other game, but there is not really anything impressive about their play.

25. Ottawa Senators. They may not have a ton of talent but they play hard and are not throwing in the towel on this season.

26. Anaheim Ducks. If John Gibson and Ryan Miller are not flawless this team has no chance. Both goalies are having outstanding years and the team is still trending toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

27. New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, is starting to look more comfortable.

28. Minnesota Wild. Their big rally against Arizona was a nice break from the overall disappointment that has been the 2019-20 season.

29. Columbus Blue Jackets. My sleeper team for the season is turning out to be exactly what everyone thought it would be.

30. Detroit Red Wings. After losing 12 out of 13 they managed to beat Boston and Vegas in back-to-back games. Even with those two wins they are still just 3-11-1 in their past 15 games. That is bad. What is not bad? Robby Fabbri scoring two goals in his first game with the team.

31. Los Angeles Kings. Time to start selling off whatever they can.

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 plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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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.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.