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.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

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.

Laila Anderson meets bone marrow donor

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Laila Anderson has made us shed a tear or two (or several) over the last year, and she was involved in another touching moment on Thursday night.

It was special to witness the 11-year-old’s journey. We got to see her ups with the St. Louis Blues and we also got to see the emotion behind her battle with a rare auto-immune disease, HLH. Last night, Anderson got to meet the person who helped her get better, as she got to interact with Kenton Felmlee, who ended up being her bone marrow donor.

“I felt a bond with her before we ever met. I think the second I look at her on the stage and saw her face,” Felmlee, who is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said, per Fox 2 Now St. Louis. “Every emotion that I was feeling all exploded into so much more.”

As you can tell from the above video, their first interaction was incredibly emotional.

“I don’t care if we go to dinner or if we go to Disney World. I don’t care what we do, I just want to spend time with you,” Laila told her new friend on Thursday night.

And, of course, Anderson and Felmlee will be attending Saturday’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.

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.

Calgary Flames sign deal for new downtown arena

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a deal for a new downtown arena, a 35-year agreement that keeps the NHL club in the city for that time.

The team, the city and the Calgary Stampede rodeo signed an agreement Thursday to replace the 36-year-old Scotiabank Saddledome.

The 19,000-seat arena is to cost more than $417 million. Construction is expected to begin in 2021, just north of the Saddledome. The arena will be demolished between 2024 and 2025.

The project is part of a downtown revitalization. The building will become the home of the Flames and part of a planned entertainment district bordering the Stampede grounds.

The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., which owns the Flames, and the city will split the costs. The Stampede is a not-for-profit community group.