PHT Face-Off: Hungry Sharks; Caps are road warriors

Before the start of the regular season, most expected the top three spots in the Atlantic Division to go to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. The order of the three teams was up for debate, but those three were pretty much locked in as the favorites to earn those spots.

As of today, not only do the Atlantic Division standings look nothing like what we expected, but two of the three teams aren’t even in the top three. Credit to Boston, who could’ve had a Stanley Cup Final hangover. Instead, they’ve come out and they’ve been flat-out dominant for the most part this season. Tampa and Toronto are very different stories.

The big difference between the two, is that the Bolts are showing signs of life. The Maple Leafs aren’t.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on going forward:

• Schedule sets up nicely for Bolts:

The Lightning won their two games against Buffalo in Stockholm, Sweden and they managed to annihilate the Rangers, 9-3, in their return to North America. They dropped a 4-3 decision to the Jets this weekend, but their schedule should allow them to continue having success. They’ll play back-to-back road games in St. Louis and Chicago this week, but 14 of their final 21 games of 2019 will be played at Amalie Arena.

What also helps is the fact that Nikita Kucherov is also starting to come around. Kucherov, who led the league in scoring last year, had three multi-point performances in the first eight games of the season, but he was kept off the scoresheet the other five games. Now, he’s riding a four-game point streak and he’s picked up at least one point in seven of his last nine outings.

The Lightning just need Brayden Point to find his footing, which is a little silly to say considering he has a respectable 12 points in 14 games. The 23-year-old has just two assists in his last five contests.

This offensive machine is starting to get going. 17 games into the season, they lead the league in goals-per-game (3.71). The issue is also that they need to start keeping the puck out of their own net, as they’ve allowed 3.47 goals-against-per-game which is seventh-worst in the league.

• Falling Leafs: 

Earlier this month, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock made some interesting comments re: his team’s identity.

“When we changed our lineup as much as we did we knew it wasn’t going to be Day 1…you plan every day to be successful – that’s just what you plan for – and when it’s not as good as you want you have to work towards it and you gotta keep trying getting better,” Babcock told the Ray and Dregs Podcast. “I think that’s the mode we’ve been in. When you come into the year, you want to get out of the first 20 (games) with an identity. And it’s not last year’s identity because that doesn’t happen. It’s reinventing yourself so you know what you are. You say to the players, let’s do what we do and they know what that is…so I would say after 14 games, we don’t know what that is yet…”

Not much has changed since those comments were made. The Maple Leafs have dropped five games in a row (four in regulation) and they’re coming off a 6-1 shellacking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yes, the team has had to deal with injuries to John Tavares and now Mitch Marner, but something just doesn’t look right. Scoring goals isn’t a problem. Through 22 games, they’ve managed to score the sixth-highest amount of goals of anybody in the league, but they can’t keep the puck out of their own net. They currently rank 30th in the NHL in goals against, with 77. Only the Detroit Red Wings have conceded more goals.

Their defensive zone coverage and their commitment to defense in general is a disaster right now. Babcock needs to find an identity for his team. Will they give him enough time to find it?

Sharks can win:

After an ugly start, the Sharks have rattled off six wins in a row. It probably helps that they haven’t had to leave the state of California since the beginning of the month, but you can’t take anything away from their way they’ve accumulated the results.

The Sharks have been better in a lot of aspects, but two players in particular have stepped up their game offensively in a big way. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl have been particularly impressive during this recent run. Couture had just one goal in his first 16 games of the season. He’s now scored twice in his last five games. During the streak, he’s racked up 11 points and he’s put together four multi-point efforts.

As for Hertl, he saw his point streak snapped at five games on Saturday night, but you can’t deny that he’s been a huge offensive catalyst for San Jose. In the first five games of this streak, he piled up nine points.

Both Hertl and Couture lead the team in scoring with 21 points in 21 games.

• Capitals are Road Warriors: 

The Washington Capitals are the only team in the league that has surpassed the 30-point mark this season (they have 34 points) and they’ve done a lot of their damage away from home. Believe it or not, the Capitals have won five of 10 games at Capitals One Arena (5-2-3), but they’ve gone 10-1-1 on the road. Yes, you read that correctly. They’ve picked up 21 of a possible 24 points in their opponent’s rinks.

They clearly won’t be able to keep this up, but the fact that they were able to do this in the first place is just crazy. And they’ve won in some difficult places. They beat the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues on the road on opening night. They’ve also won away from home against the Islanders, Stars, Bruins and Flyers. And let’s not forget the five game road trip against Chicago, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto where they picked up nine of 10 points.

The only home team that was able to beat the Capitals in regulation was the Nashville Predators, who came away with a 6-5 win back on Oct. 10. Washington actually had 1-0, 2-1, 4-2 and 5-4 leads in that game, but they couldn’t hold on.

Unfortunately for the Caps, four of their next five games will be played at home.

• Flames shooting low:

The Calgary Flames picked up 107 points last season, which tied them for second in the NHL. This year, things have been way different. If the playoffs started today, they wouldn’t be in them. Thankfully for Calgary, there’s still plenty of time left in the regular season.

After last night’s loss ugly 6-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t mincing words.

“It’s disgusting,” he told reporters, per Sportsnet. “It’s bad, it’s bad right now. We need to change this around.”

You’re probably going to start seeing articles being written about how it’s time to trade Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, or some other star on the team. You might see stories about how it’s time to move on from Bill Peters. Before you make sweeping judgements on these issues, keep things in perspective.

As of right now, the Flames have the fourth-lowest shooting percentage in the NHL. You’re probably wondering who the teams below them are. Well, here you go: Detroit, Los Angeles and Columbus. We knew that those bottom-three teams were going to be bad this year. There’s no need to get into their situations. But with Calgary, it was harder to see coming because they have so much offensive talent.

The average shooting percentage in the NHL right now is 9.6 percent. The Flames, as a team, are shooting at 8.1 percent.

Check out Sean Tierney’s PDO breakdown from earlier this morning (h/t: Sean Tierney)

Let’s give it a little more time before we blow up the Flames roster.

What’s coming up this week?

• The Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2019 will be inducted Monday night in Toronto. Meet the class.

• Islanders look to tie the longest point streak in franchise history when they visit the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena Tues. Nov. 19, 7 p.m. ET.

• First-round rematch: The Sharks will take on the Golden Knights on Thu. Nov. 21, 10 p.m. ET.

Elias Pettersson vs. Alex Ovechkin on Sat. Nov 23, 12:30 p.m. ET.

• Dave Tippett returns to Arizona for the first time as Oilers head coach on Sun. Nov. 24, 8 p.m. ET.

NHL on NBCSN
• Lightning vs. Blues, Tue. Nov. 19, 8 p.m. ET
• Oilers vs. Sharks, Tue. Nov. 19, 10:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN
• Capitals vs. Rangers, Wed. Nov. 20, 8 p.m. ET

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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