NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin and the Capitals are back in familiar spot

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the Washington Capitals who find themselves in a very familiar position. In first place of their division, looking like a top Stanley Cup contender.

The consistency of the Capitals organization over the past decade-and-a-half is one of the most remarkable things about their success. Every year you know they are going to finish at the top of their division and be one of the league’s best teams no matter what is happening around them. Since the start of the 2007-08 season they have won 10 division titles over a 13-year stretch, finished in second-place two other times (once by just two points), and have finished lower than second just one time.

They enter this week tied for first place in the East Division (with a lead in points percentage) with the New York Islanders. Their recent seven-game winning streak, as part of a 14-3-1 stretch over their past 18 games, has helped put them in that spot. Alex Ovechkin is leading the way with seven goals in his past eight games for an offense that has been one of the league’s best.

The most impressive thing about this Capitals team is they are winning all of these games while getting only average (at best) goaltending this season. If that improves even slightly they are going to be a major contender.

This week, the Capitals sit second in the NHL Power Rankings with only the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of them.

Where does your team sit?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

1. Vegas Golden Knights. Marc-Andre Fleury‘s redemption season rolls on, while Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty form one of the league’s best forward duos.

2. Washington Capitals. Just imagine how good they will be with more consistent goaltending.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning. Just imagine how good they will be in the playoffs with Nikita Kucherov.

4. Florida Panthers. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are doing their usual thing offensively, while they are finally getting some secondary support.

5. Colorado Avalanche. They are starting to get on a roll. The forwards are great and get most of the attention, but their defense is scary good and what makes this team so potentially great.

[Related: Defense is what make Avalanche scary]

6. New York Islanders. They are really going to miss Anders Lee. A trade seems like a necessity at some point.

7. Carolina Hurricanes. Little slump at the end of the week, but still as talented and deep of a roster as you will find right now.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins. Injuries are going to be a concern here for the short-term, but they are building a cushion, are through a tough part of the schedule, and should soon get some people back in the lineup.

9. Edmonton Oilers. Those three games against Toronto a couple of weeks ago seemed to be a wake up call. They have been a different team ever since. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are still like a video game.

10. Boston Bruins. They need another forward or two before the trade deadline.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs. They are playing better than their recent slump would indicate but goaltending is a big question mark right now.

[Related: Maple Leafs slumping as North Division is getting close]

12. Minnesota Wild. They are good. They are also a long way from being on the same level as the Colorado Avalanche.

13. Winnipeg Jets. They could really use somebody like Mattias Ekholm.

14. Vancouver Canucks. Thatcher Demko is single handedly keeping them in it this season, but it might be too little too late for the playoffs.

15. Calgary Flames. It is only a handful of games with Darryl Sutter behind the bench but it is the best this team has looked all season.

16. St. Louis Blues. They are struggling to find consistency this season, which is about what you would expect given the injury situation they have been dealing with.

17. Montreal Canadiens. Jake Allen has been exactly what they hoped he would be. They need more from Carey Price.

18. Philadelphia Flyers. What a weird week. They lost 9-0, let a 3-0 lead slip away in the next game before winning late, then lost 6-1 in another game. Defense and goaltending is a big concern.

[More: Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

19. Columbus Blue Jackets. This team might actually sneak into a playoff spot, which would be amazing considering all of the drama surrounding this team this season with trades, benching’s, and all of their struggles on the ice at times.

20. New York Rangers. Mika Zibanejad is starting to get rolling. It was only a matter of time.

21. Chicago Blackhawks. The big question here would be what happens when Kevin Lankinen‘s save percentage dropped below .940 and started to regress. We are seeing the answer. It is not pretty.

22. Los Angeles Kings. Cal Petersen has not played a lot of games for the Kings in his career, but he has been outstanding in the games he has played.

23. Dallas Stars. Offense continues to be a big problem, which is to be expected given the number of games Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Roope Hintz have missed. Even with them offense is going to be a struggle.

24. Nashville Predators. The special teams have completely ruined this team’s chances for two seasons in a row now.

[NHL Trade Deadline Primer: Predators changes can start with Ekholm trade]

25. Arizona Coyotes. They need more playmakers and goal scorers at forward. They scored only four goals on a recent five-game losing streak.

26. New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes seems like the type of top pick that will go a few years with really good, productive seasons and then start being a 100-point player around year five or six. The Nathan MacKinnon path basically.

27. San Jose Sharks. Still seems difficult to see where the quick fix is here.

28. Detroit Red Wings. Robby Fabbri has been one of the few bright spots on this team the past two seasons.

29. Ottawa Senators. They are running out of goalies due to injury. That is already a position of concern this season due to their play on the ice.

30. Anaheim Ducks. At least they are getting to see Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale play at the NHL level right now.

31. Buffalo Sabres. Their most recent win against a team that is not the New Jersey Devils came on January 26, 23 games ago.

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.

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

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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.”

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.”