NHL surprises and disappointments from the first half

The NHL reached the official midway point of the season Tuesday night. The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in two months but there is still lots of hockey left to play and many things to monitor in the second half.

We’ve had plenty of surprises, disappointments, and news to discuss in the opening two months of the 2020-21 campaign. This unique season has been fun to watch and the divisional alignment has increased the opportunity for some teams to get to the playoffs.

As we get started on the season’s second half, the PHT team gave their picks for the surprises, disappointments, and more.

Let us know your choices in the comments.

[Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

Biggest surprise (team)

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Florida Panthers. If you would have told me the Panthers would be in the running for a playoff spot in the potentially-crummy Central, I wouldn’t have been too shocked. They’re in the mix with the Hurricanes and Lightning, though, and that’s a knuckleball.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Florida Panthers. Every offseason this team adds six or seven new players and every year it is the same result. So you will have to forgive me if I expected the same this year. But here we are now and they are not only headed to the playoffs, they are competing for the division with Tampa and Carolina. I figured they would need a huge season from Sergei Bobrovsky for that to happen and they are not even getting that. It is a legitimately good team!

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: New York Islanders. I know the Isles were a final four team last year, but they always seem to go under-appreciated. Same deal entering this season, where many were pegging other teams in the stacked East Division to come out on top. Right now, it’s the Isles’ to lose.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Chicago Blackhawks. Let’s start out with saying that yes, they’ve beaten up on a weak first half schedule thanks to the division alignment for this season. But they’ve won the games they needed to and getting contributions from players who could help them in the future like Pius Suter and Kevin Lankinen while doing so without their top two centers. It likely won’t last, but they’ve banked 33 key points in 30 games.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Chicago Blackhawks. They are the biggest surprise as I thought they would be battling Detroit and Ottawa as the worst team in the NHL. At the start of the season, they had no goaltender and were missing their best two centers as well as having an aging blueline. But Chicago has turned it around as Kevin Lankinen has turned himself into a solid starting goaltender and they are fourth in the Central.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Minnesota Wild. Wow, things have really been wild, eh? The Kaprizov show and Joel Eriksson Ek have made the Wild — yes, that Wild — one of the most enjoyable teams to watch every night. I do not think that has ever happened before.

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Biggest surprise (player)

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Carter Verhaeghe. He is turning out to be one of the best free agent signings of the offseason and a great find for the Panthers. He dominated the AHL, could not really get much playing time on a loaded Tampa team, and is now getting a chance in Florida and playing like a bonafide top line player with his point production and ability to drive possession.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Patric Hornqvist. Half way through the season and he’s second on the surprising Cats with 11 goals. We knew he was a power play asset, but this? This was unexpected.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Aaron Ekblad. This season may put to rest any notion that the former No. 1 overall pick was a bust.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Joel Eriksson Ek. Remember when Eriksson Ek seemed like a bust? Now he looks like a possible Selke finalist.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Nikolaj Ehlers. Ehlers has been solid for a long time but he might surpass his career points total this season during a condensed schedule. The North is the wild west and goals are being handed out like candy, but the Jets have been a pleasant surprise led by Ehlers.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Marc-Andre Fleury. He continues to amaze me. Just when you think his career is on the downside, he bounces back. He was supposed to backup Robin Lehner but he has been spectacular as is 15-5-0 with a sparkling 1.77 goals-against-average and an equally sparkling .936 save percentage.

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Comeback player of the season so far

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Oskar Lindblom. The fact that he is back on the ice for the Flyers and contributing is amazing to me (even if it does make me incredibly nervous for a cancer survivor to be playing during a pandemic). He is not just coming back from a bad season or something like that.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Nolan Patrick. His story is really cool and he’s clearly vital to the Flyers success. He missed a whole season with a migraine disorder, and as a migraine disorder sufferer myself I think it’s really impressive he’s been able to come back and play really well.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Vincent Trocheck. He’s 100% healthy from that terrible leg injury he suffered in 2018 and he’s now leading the Canes with 13 goals and is second with 24 points.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Marc-Andre Fleury. Yes, he entered COVID protocol recently, and dealt with a rough patch. But with Robin Lehner unavailable, MAF has put up the sort of numbers that could make him a Vezina Trophy finalist.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Alex DeBrincat. He’s had a tough year last season with only 18 goals and 45 points in 70 games. He has been a stud this season with 15 goals and 29 points in 25 contests.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Drew Doughty. He heard the criticism of his play loud and clear, and vowed to put his name back in the conversation of best defenseman in the league. So far, he’s delivered.

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Biggest disappointment (team)

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Dallas Stars. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season and are in tough to make it to the playoffs this season. Maybe the play of Jake Oettinger can save them.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Dallas Stars. It’s not totally fair because they got off to a delayed start and everything outside of their control has been very bad but I think we all expected a more dominant Stars team.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Calgary Flames. As much as the Canucks have been a bummer, the Flames are far more lost and their older core faces a much smaller window. Failing in the North Division removes any remaining excuses, too.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Nashville Predators. The rubber may soon be hitting the road in terms of a rebuild for the Preds. Here’s hoping that somehow, some way, David Poile can get his name on the Cup before the end of his illustrious executive career.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: New York Rangers. You’d have hoped they were ready to take a big step forward this season, but not a lot has gone right so far.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Vancouver Canucks. Maybe expectations were a little high based on their bubble performance, but I really thought Vancouver would be more competitive than this, especially in that division. I know they are winning more games now but it is entirely goaltender driven with Thatcher Demko carrying them. This is just not a very good team after the top six or seven players on the roster.

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Biggest disappointment (player)

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Taylor Hall. It is hard for me to go with any player other than Hall. He took a one-year deal, reportedly turning down multi-year offers, to sign a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres. He is now not only stuck on the worst team in the league, but he is having a rough year that is doing nothing to help his value in free agency this offseason.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Taylor Hall. I thought he would have a huge year in Buffalo alongside Jack Eichel but he has only two goals on a horrible Sabres team.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Erik Karlsson. Look, it was obvious Erik Karlsson’s contract would be a headache for the Sharks. It would’ve been nice to see him put together a last hurrah before albatross status; instead, Karlsson’s been disastrous.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Erik Karlsson. Only 30, I hoped there was something left in Karlsson’s tank. Instead, we’ll be talking about how much an albatross his contract — which expires in 2027 — will be on the Sharks going forward.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Jeff Skinner. A bad investment by the Sabres.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Carter Hart. I really thought the Flyers were going to go big this year and Hart was going to break out and establish himself among the elite. He’s had a tough go of it. I do think he has it in him to turn things around.

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Next coach fired (UPDATE: As we found out Wednesday, Ralph Krueger is the big winner here.)

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Ralph Krueger. Tortorella may be a favorite, but his contract expires after this season. That’s an easy decision to make if they miss the postseason. The situation in Buffalo, though, is reaching a boiling point and Kevyn Adams may be forced into making a change.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Ralph Krueger. We’ve seen this story before in Buffalo, but it seemed like they had finally found their guy in Krueger. This season has not gone their way, and Krueger may end up paying for it.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Ralph Krueger. It is the obvious choice, but sometimes you have to go with the obvious choice. Maybe Krueger has not done a good job or been the right coach for Buffalo, but at some point when a team keeps changing general managers and coaches and the results stay the same you have to start looking for the real problem.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: John Tortorella. Maybe it happens during the offseason, where it might technically count as merely letting Torts walk. But end the misery for everyone — Torts included.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: John Tortorella. He was my choice for the first coach fired before the start of the season and I still think he won’t last the season.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Dallas Eakins. Feels like the situation in Anaheim could boil over at any point. It’s probably not Eakins’ fault, everything there just feels volatile.

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    Golden Knights reach second Stanley Cup Final after Game 6 win over Stars

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    DALLAS – William Karlsson, William Carrier and Jonathan Marchessault are finally getting another chance in the Stanley Cup Final, after the first one that came so quick for the Vegas Golden Knights.

    They are going back after making sure they didn’t need another game against the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final.

    Karlsson scored two goals and had an assist while Carrier and Marchessault also scored for the Knights in a 6-0 rout Monday night over the Stars, who had extended the West final to six games after losing the first three.

    “We’ve worked hard as a group. That was the goal since year one, to come back here,” Marchessault said. “Our best game is yet to come. That’s the mentality we need to have.”

    Reilly Smith, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore were also part of that inaugural 2017-18 Knights season that ended in a Cup Final, when they won Game 1 against the Washington Capitals before losing four in a row.

    “That first year was a whirlwind and we maybe took it for granted,” said Karlsson, who like Marchessault and Smith has played in all 83 playoff games for the franchise.

    Keegan Kolesar and Michael Amadio each had a goal and an assist for Vegas, which hosts Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Florida on Saturday night.

    The Knights led the Western Conference in the regular season with 51 wins and 111 points. The Panthers completed a four-game sweep of Carolina in the East final last Wednesday, but their 40 wins and 92 points in the regular season were the fewest among the 16 teams that began these NHL playoffs.

    Adin Hill stopped 23 shots for his second career playoff shutout – both against the Stars. The other was 4-0 in Game 3 last Tuesday, when the Knights were already within one win of clinching the series before Dallas overcame 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in both Games 4 and 5.

    “We kept them to the outside almost all night,” Hill said. “It was probably my easiest game of the playoffs so far tonight.”

    Instead of having to face a do-or-die Game 7 at home against the Stars, coach Bruce Cassidy and the Knights got off to another fast start and never left any doubt about the outcome of this series that included three overtime games. They already had 16 of their 29 shots and a 3-0 lead after the first period.

    “It was definitely our best game of the playoffs and it came at the right time,” Cassidy said. “You don’t want to let a team off the mat. After getting a 3-0 lead, there was some chatter about that.”

    It was the most lopsided playoff loss for the Stars since the franchise moved south from Minnesota before the 1993-94 season.

    “You just expect more from yourself in a game like this,” said Stars forward Joe Pavelski, the 38-year-old veteran still without a Stanley Cup after 17 seasons.

    The Stars got captain Jamie Benn back after his two-game suspension for a cross-check to the neck area of Vegas captain Mark Stone early in Game 3. But Benn got only one shot on net in his 12 1/2 minutes and was on the ice for two of Vegas’ first three goals.

    The Knights led for good when Carrier scored 3:41 into the game after a puck poked from behind the net in the vicinity of three Dallas players. Carrier skated across the front of the crease and put a backhander in the net, the ninth time this postseason the Knights scored in the first five minutes of a game.

    Karlsson’s power-play goal came midway through the first period made it 2-0, and after a penalty that likely had prevented him from scoring.

    Nicolas Roy took a shot that deflected off Jake Oettinger’s glove and popped up in the air behind the goalie. Karlsson was charging into the crease when Stars defenseman Esa Lindell raised his stick and swatted the puck out of play, drawing a delay of game penalty.

    With the man advantage, Smith took a shot from the circle to the left, which was deflected in front by Roy and then off Oettinger’s extended skate before Karlsson knocked in the rebound. Karlsson’s franchise record 10th goal for a playoff series extended the lead to 5-0 only two minutes into the third period.

    “Real disappointed for our group for the way our season ended,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “It was a case of Vegas going to another level.”

    Notes: Oettinger had been 3-0 when the Stars were facing elimination this postseason, including Game 7 in the second round against Seattle before stopping 64 of 68 shots the past two games against the Knights. That was after Vegas had scored three goals on five shots in the first 7:10 to chase him from Game 3. … Dallas was only the fifth team to force a Game 6 in an conference final or NHL semifinal after being down 0-3, and the first since the Stars lost to Detroit in a sixth game in 2008. Only two teams got to a Game 7, which both lost – the New York Islanders to Philadelphia in 1975; and the New York Rangers to Boston in 1939.

    Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

    Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

    “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

    The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

    And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

    “I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

    The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

    “Drop the puck,” he said.

    DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

    “I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

    Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

    “We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

    Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

    Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

    Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

    Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

    “There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

    The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

    Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

    Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

    Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

    Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

    Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

    From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

    His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

    He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

    Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

    Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.

    Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

    stars golden knights
    Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

    DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

    “Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

    The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

    “We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

    Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

    The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

    It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

    Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

    “He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

    Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

    William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

    “Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

    Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

    Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

    Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

    Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

    On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

    With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

    The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

    Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

    “There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”