PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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.

Islanders already on track for some history

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As the smoke from burning John Tavares sweaters plumed into the clouds across Long Island last July, nobody, not even the most optimistic and ardent Islanders supporter, would have predicted this.

Here in mid-February, the Tavares-less New York Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan Division and in second place overall in the Eastern Conference. Barry Trotz is without question the front-runner for the Jack Adams Award and the team could very well be hosting playoff games in April. So how have the Islanders gotten it done?

One of the best stories in the league has been the resurgence of Robin Lehner, who publicly discussed his struggles with mental health earlier in the season. Lehner has gone 13-2-1 since mid-December and leads the NHL in both save percentage (.930) and goals against average (2.05). Any idea who ranks second in both categories? That would be the Isles’ other goaltender Thomas Greiss (.927 SV%, 2.28 GAA). Only once in the Expansion Era (since 1967-68) has a goalie tandem finished first and second in both categories. That would be Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, who did so for the 1968-69 St. Louis Blues.

Of course, the defense in front of both goaltenders has been exceptional. Last season, the Islanders gave up a league-worst 293 goals, which was the most allowed by any team since the Flyers surrendered 297 in in 2006-07. That Flyers team finished last in the NHL with just 56 points. This year, the Islanders have allowed only 128 goals, the fewest in the league. For perspective, only once in NHL history has a team had the most goals allowed followed by the fewest goals allowed the following season. It happened over 100 years ago around World War I, when the 1917-18 Ottawa Senators (114 GA) turned things around in 1918-19 (53 GA). Who could forget that?

Another surprising aspect of this year’s Islanders club has been the team’s depth at center, especially after Tavares walked in free agency. Mathew Barzal (48 points), Brock Nelson (36), Valtteri Filppula (22) and Casey Cizikas (22) have combined for 128 points and 56 goals. Production from Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season with 85 points, was to be expected. But Nelson is on pace for a career-high 53 points and has already exceeded his 35 from last season. Cizikas, meanwhile, already has a career-best 12 goals on the fourth line and Filppula is on track for 33 points for the second consecutive year.

The Islanders have one other peculiar chance at history, as they are an unblemished 9-0-0 in the second half of back-to-backs. The best perfect record in the second game of back to backs is 4-0-0, by the 1935-36 Black Hawks (two words back then).

If the Isles manage to stay in the playoff picture, perhaps the most intriguing storyline of all will be where they will host their postseason games. The team has split their home games this year between Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday will be the final one at Barclays Center during the regular season, with 12 more games still left to play at the Coliseum, where they are 6-1-2 thus far. Commissioner Gary Bettman will reportedly decide where the Isles will host their playoff games and politicians from Nassau County have petitioned him to pick the Coliseum. If the choice ends up being Long Island rather than Brooklyn, the Isles could have one of the more significant home ice advantages in the league. If you want a preview for how loud the old barn can get, tune in when the Islanders host Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 28 and April 1. The last time Nassau Coliseum hosted a playoff game was Game 6 of the First Round in 2015, when New York defeated Trotz and the Washington Capitals 3-1. They would go on to lose Game 7 in D.C.

Still, with all of the optimism following the team this season, Islanders players do not sound satisfied. Not with 27 games left to go.

“We’re still hunting,” forward Anthony Beauvillier told Newsday. “We don’t really look back. We just want to look forward and keep rising and climbing. Early in the year, everyone doubted us. We’re trying to prove people wrong. We haven’t accomplished anything. We want to make the playoffs and have a good run. There’s a little bit more in us, I think.”

The Islanders will continue to have their doubters come playoff time, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning in line for the Presidents’ Trophy and the championship pedigree of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins lurking in their own division. But the Isles have a bit of their own pedigree now with Lou Lamoriello in the front office and Trotz behind the bench. Nobody thought the Vegas Golden Knights would make the Stanley Cup Final last season either. Who knows where this year’s surprising Islanders squad could wind up?

WATCH LIVE: Islanders host Blackhawks at Nassau Coliseum

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks will try to rebound after yet another outdoor defeat, as the Islanders look to continue their pursuit of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Islanders have 44 games remaining this season, 18 of which will be played at Nassau Coliseum. The team left the Coliseum for Barclays Center at the end of the 2014-15 season. They plan to move into a new facility at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, for the start of the 2021-22 season.

The Islanders have been one of the biggest surprises in the Eastern Conference and are very much alive in the playoff race. New York has won of seven of their last eight games, including four straight.

There’s been no sophomore slump for Mathew Barzal, who took home the Calder Trophy last season behind 85 points and 63 assists, which were fifth most in the league. He has been particularly hot lately, riding a five-game point streak (6G, 3A).

Meanwhile, Chicago has scored first in eight of their past 10 games, after allowing the first goal in each of their previous 11 games.

Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton was a second round draft pick by the Islanders in 2003 (by then Isles GM Mike Milbury) and played all 57 games of his NHL career in an Islanders sweater. He was also the former captain of the team’s AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at New York Islanders
Where: Nassau Coliseum
When: Thursday, Jan. 3, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Islanders-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Artem AnisimovDylan StromePatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDavid KampfDylan Sikura
Brendan PerliniMarcus KrugerAndreas Martinsen

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Collin Delia

ISLANDERS
Anthony Beauvillier – Mathew Barzal – Josh Bailey
Anders LeeBrock NelsonJosh Ho-Sang
Michael Dal Colle – Leo Komarov – Tom Kuhnhackl
Matt MartinCasey CizikasCal Clutterbuck

Nick LeddyJohnny Boychuk
Adam PelechRyan Pulock
Devon ToewsScott Mayfield

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

The Buzzer: Point’s 91 second hat trick; Kinkaid ties NHL-lead with third shutout

Getty Images

Three stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

Three goals in 91 seconds, all on the power play. What a night and what a way to score your first career hat trick.

Point becomes the second fastest player to score three goals on the power play after the late, great Jean Beliveau (he did it in 44 seconds back in 1955). He also now ranks sixth all-time in terms of the fastest hat-trick.

Point also shot up the goal-scoring rankings for this season, now sitting in a tie for third place with 12 goals. Oh, and the Lightning bested the Penguins 4-3 to boot.

2. Anthony Beauvillier, New York Islanders

Beauvillier scored his first career hat trick and added an assist in 7-5 Islanders win against the New York Rangers.

Beauvillier had just one goal coming into the game and no assists. His first apple of the season came on Leo Komarov‘s third-period goal, which stood as the game winner.

Perhaps Thursday’s game will get Beauvillier going again. He had 21 goals in 71 games last season but had just one tally through 16 games entering Thursday.

3. Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils

The man known as ‘Blockaid’ on Twitter lived up to his handle on Thursday night, steering aside all 29 shots he faced from the Philadelphia Flyers in a 3-0 win.

Kinkaid is now tied for the NHL lead in shutouts at three with Marc-Andre Fleury. It wasn’t just a standard, run-of-the-mill night for Kinkaid, either. As you will see below, Kinkaid had to pull out a miraculous save to preserve the goose egg.

Other notable performances

  • Nikita Kucherov assisted on all three of Point’s goals.
  • Patric Hornqvist was great for the Penguins, scoring a brace and adding an assist in a losing effort.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 34-of-35 in a 2-1 win for the Ottawa Senators at home to Detroit, including shutting the door on two penalty shots within seconds of each other.
  • Michael Grabner scored his league-leading fourth shorty of the year and the 10th of the season for the Coyotes. The league record for more shorthanded goals in a season is 36. Arizona is well on their way to eclipsing that.
  • Speaking of Arizona, Darcy Kuemper was a bloody stud on Thursday, stopping 44-of-45 shots he faced — a new career high — in a 2-1 win against the Nashville Predators. Twelve of his saves came on on the penalty kill and he took a penalty himself for good measure.
  • Mikko Koivu was gifted a goal and added two helpers as the Minnesota Wild ran over the Vancouver Canucks 6-2.
  • Cary Price made 43 saves to help the Montreal Canadiens to a 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames.
  • Mitch Marner assisted on the game-winner and then put the game to bed with his sixth of the season as the Toronto Maple Leafs prevailed in a 5-3 win against the San Jose Sharks.

Highlights of the night

Kinkaid’s shutout-preserving save:

Point’s hatty:

Beauvillier’s hatty:

You always remember your first time:

Factoids

Scores

Islanders 7, Rangers 5

Devils 3, Flyers 0

Lightning 4, Penguins 3

Blue Jackets 7, Panthers 3

Senators 2, Red Wings 1

Wild 6, Canucks 2

Canadiens 3, Flames 2

Coyotes 2, Predators 1

Maple Leafs 5, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

How Islanders have jumped to top of Metropolitan Division

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After they lost John Tavares in free agency, the New York Islanders kind of became an afterthought ahead of the 2018-19 season. No one expected them to be competitive this season. No one. The season is still young, but the fact that they’re in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division is remarkable, but how have they been able to pull this off?

First, the impact their goaltenders have had on the team can’t be ignored. Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have exceeded expectations in every way. The goalies are a big reason why the Islanders have been able to rattle off five wins in a row over division rivals like the Penguins (twice), the Flyers, the ‘Canes and Devils. Greiss has accumulated three of the five victories, while Lehner has been between the pipes for two of them. Neither one of them has allowed more than two goals in any of the last five games. That’s terrific.

Can both guys keep this up? Can the Islanders keep this going? Last week, PHT’s Adam Gretz broke down whether or not you should buy the Islanders’ fast start.

The other reason they’ve had so much success is because of the amount of balanced scoring they’ve received. Over the last five contests, Brock Nelson (four goals) Anders Lee (three), Jordan Eberle (three), Josh Bailey, Ryan Pulock, Andrew Ladd, Anthony Beauvillier, Tom Kuhnhackl, Leo Komarov, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech and Matt Martin all found the back of the net. That’s 12 different scorers over five games. That’s really impressive.

“I have the same mindset as the team right now,” Bailey said, per NHL.com. “I just turn the page after each game and get ready for the next one. When you get on these streaks as a team, and individually, you want to ride them for as long as you can but it’s about staying [on an] even keel, not thinking too much about it and preparing the same way you do every game.”

They’ve done all of this with a struggling Mathew Barzal. Not only has Barzal not picked up a goal in 11 consecutive games, he’s also been held point-less in three of the five games during this current winning streak.

Whether or not this group of players is good enough to keep this up remains to be seen. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to their upcoming schedule, as they’ll play tough games against the Canadiens and Lightning this week, before closing out their quick two-game Florida trip with a game against the Panthers on Saturday night.

“When you get the results you’re looking for it adds to that confidence, and I think our staff does a great job preparing us,” added Bailey. “I think there’s a belief within our group that we can win every night, and we take the same approach every game. We’ll turn the page after this one and get ready for the next one.”

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.