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The Buzzer: Rantanen, Avs beat Bruins in battle of NHL’s best lines

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen

Tonight’s game between the Avalanche and Bruins featured a heavyweight battle between possibly the two best top lines in the NHL, and those trios delivered.

While David Pastrnak (one goal and one assist) ranked among the B’s who contributed, the Bruins really had no answer for Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog.

All three of those Colorado stars scored at least a goal in the Avs’ 6-3 win, yet Rantanen stood tallest with a goal and two assists. With that three-point performance, Rantanen now holds a pretty comfortable NHL points lead at 29 (MacKinnon, Patrice Bergeron, and Connor McDavid are tied at second with 26).

If you’re outrageous and need another nugget, consider that both of Rantanen’s assists were first ones, so he also racked up primary points on Wednesday.

2. Cody Eakin

The trio of Eakin (two goals), Alex Tuch (one goal, one assist), and Max Pacioretty (two assists) loomed large during Vegas’ dominant 5-0 win, doing their damage when the game was still within reach.

You could make an argument for his linemates – Tuch’s goal was the GWG, for one thing – but Eakin grabbed two goals, including a matter-of-fact backhander during a shorthanded rush.

As much as the Golden Knights must miss Paul Stastny, Eakin has been heating up lately. This impressive performance extends the former Dallas Stars center’s point streak to fie games (four goals, two assists).

3. Corey Crawford

OK, this is a tough one. After all, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s shutout (29 saves) features one more save than the one Corey Crawford authored (28 saves). “MAF” made some dazzling saves to maintain that goose egg, too.

It’s nice to spread the wealth to multiple teams in the three stars, and beyond that, the margin of error was different. While Fleury was maintaining a shutout, Crawford couldn’t make a mistake, as the Blackhawks only managed one goal in that 1-0 victory against the Blues. Maybe Chicago would have offered more if forced, although the Blackhawks’ 18 SOG don’t inspire much confidence.

The sheer meaning of Crawford’s shutout pushes it over the top.

Most immediately, it ended Chicago’s eight-game losing streak.

More personally, Crawford managed his first shutout in more than a year, and in doing so powered new head coach Jeremy Colliton to his first win as an NHL head coach.

Was Fleury’s shutout objectively better? Maybe, so consider him 3a to Crawford’s 3b if it’s really important to you.

Injuries

Highlights

Rantanen definitely helped MacKinnon score the game-winner:

Jake DeBrusk deserves three stars consideration thanks to his two goals in a losing effort for Boston:

Little Flower? MAFjr?

Nick Holden also had a two-point night, thanks in part to this odd tally:

Factoids

Blake Wheeler kept his point streak going, even if it was *yawn* just one assist. Slacker.

MAF is moving up the ranks.

Scores

CHI 1 – STL 0
WPG 3 – WSH 1
COL 6 – BOS 3
VGK 5 – ANA 0

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Power Rankings: Wild still stuck in wrong division

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Before the start of the season I had what was, admittedly, an overly harsh assessment of the Minnesota Wild (No. 5 on the list here) that talked about how they just kind of exist as a franchise, and how I don’t really have any overwhelmingly strong opinions, positively or negatively, about them as a team. Mostly because for as good as they tend to be, they just never really go anywhere.

Every year you know exactly what they will do, where they will finish in the standings, when they will exit the playoffs.

They have a lot of really good players, but they don’t really have any true superstars.

They are a consistently good team (sometimes really good!), but no matter how good they are, there always seems to be that one team they inevitably meet in the first round that is just always a little bit better than them.

The result is a team that consistently finishes with 100 points, is usually in the top-10 in the overall league standings (top-eight the past two years; top-three this season as of Monday), but can never make a serious postseason run. You know they are going to be there in the playoffs and probably near the top of the standings, but deep down you just know they have no legitimate shot of winning the Stanley Cup. At least that is the way it seems.

Look at it this way: During the five-year stretch between 2013-14 and 2017-18 the Wild were 10th in the NHL in games won. That is a pretty good team. You would think with that much regular season success, and that many trips to the playoffs (all five years), that something might have come together for at least one decent run deep in the playoffs.

For most teams, it does.

For most teams, it did.

For the Wild, it didn’t.

They were one of just two teams in the top-12 in total wins during that stretch that did not make at least one Conference Finals appearance (the Boston Bruins, sixth in wins during that stretch, were the other).

Eight of the teams in the top-12 made at least one Stanley Cup Final appearance (St. Louis, Boston, Anaheim, and Minnesota were the ones that did not).

This season, the Wild are once again a good team. A really good team. A really good team with a great coach in Bruce Boudreau that is doing what he has done for every team he has coached — win. They dominate five-on-five goal-scoring. They dominate five-on-five scoring chances. They have a great penalty kill and an outstanding goalie.

If you are a Wild fan there should be every reason to look at this team and think “maybe we have a chance!”

For everyone outside of Minnesota, you can’t help but look at the situation and the division and the potential path through the playoffs and simply say, “there is no way they are beating both Nashville and Winnipeg in the first two rounds. It just doesn’t seem probable.”

This is the story of the Minnesota Wild in a nutshell. In any given year there may only be two or three teams in their conference that are better than them, and those teams will almost always — always! — be in their division, and be their likely first-or second-round opponents.

The same is true this season.

For years that team was always the Chicago Blackhawks during their mini-dynasty run.

This year — just like last year — it is Nashville and Winnipeg. The two teams they will almost certainly have to go through to go on a run and get out of the Central Division bracket.

It takes a lot of luck and good fortune to win a Stanley Cup. That luck can be anything and everything from getting the right bounce in the right moment, to having all of your key players healthy at the same time, to getting the right matchups along the way.

When it comes to the Wild, they almost never seem to get the latter. Every year it is a brutally tough draw in their division. That does not seem to be changing.

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — Just an incredibly deep team that is dominating everybody. They have only allowed seven goals on their current five-game winning streak. In four of those games they allowed either one goal or zero goals.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — Ryan McDonagh seems to have found the fountain of youth in Tampa Bay, and as if they weren’t already good enough, Victor Hedman is now back in the lineup. The Atlantic Division should be theirs for the taking once again.

3. Minnesota Wild — Once again stuck in the wrong division.

They are who we thought they were 

4. Boston Bruins — Jaroslav Halak has been a huge surprise this season. What has not been a surprise has been the domination of their top line. It is almost like a cheat code when they are on the ice. I don’t mean to exaggerate here, but splitting that trio up should be a fireable offense.

5. Winnipeg Jets — After recording a pair of points in their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night, Blake Wheeler is now on a 10-game point streak. He has 19 points during that streak.

[Related: It is time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated]

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are still picking up wins even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, but their loss over the weekend to Boston should concern them from a big picture outlook. They still have no answer for the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line and if the Maple Leafs are going to be anything other than a team that loses in the first-round they are probably going to have to get through Boston this season. Are you convinced they can do that?

Exceeding expectations, but the jury should still be out

7. Vancouver Canucks — This team still strikes me as a house of cards (that defense and goaltending … woof!), but Elias Petterson is a legit top-line talent and one of the league’s must-see players right now. I give them credit for winning early, because that matters, but I am still not ready to buy this team, this season. Yet.

8. Montreal Canadiens — Just about everything Marc Bergevin touched this offseason seems to be turning to gold. At least for now. How long that good fortune lasts will determine the success or failure of this year’s team.

9. Buffalo Sabres — Whether it is from Buffalo or somebody else, Jeff Skinner is putting himself in a position to collect a lot of money at some point over the next few months. He is still only 26 years old and it seems like he has been around forever.

They are who we thought they were, part 2

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — They enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division despite the fact their goalies, for the most part, have completely stunk this season. They need Sergei Bobrovsky to be Sergei Bobrovsky again.

11. Philadelphia Flyers — How does anyone that follows this team have a healthy blood pressure? They either look great or horrible and they seem to spend equal time on both sides of that spectrum. Lately, the great version has been here (at least offensively). Give it time, though, because the horrible version is probably lurking around the corner just waiting to appear again.

12. Dallas Stars — Middle of the pack seems to be the perfect way to describe the Stars. In any year and every year. Losing John Klingberg for a month is going to hurt, though. He is one of the game’s best blue-liners and should be in the Norris discussion once again.

13. Calgary Flames — The Flames are off to a pretty good start and one of the biggest contributors has been … David Rittich? The backup goalie is 5-1-0 with a .935 save percentage in six starts. Now if they could just get something out of James Neal

Hey, wake up, you are better than this

14. San Jose Sharks — Erik Karlsson has been better than his box score numbers would indicate, but zero goals in 18 games to start the season is not what anybody expected.

15. Washington Capitals — The defending Stanley Cup champions have won back-to-back games once this season. They have yet to win more than two in a row. They have also yet to lose more than two in a row.

16. Pittsburgh Penguins — The general manager was right to call out his team. But he also is the one that built the team, so he has to look in the mirror a little bit, too.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

17. St. Louis Blues — Three of their top-five scorers right now (Ryan O'Reilly, David Perron, Tyler Bozak) were acquired over the offseason in an effort to boost one of the league’s worst offensive teams. They fixed the offense just in time for the goaltending to abandon them.

Making their move … but is it already too late?

18. Florida Panthers — Entering the week they are 5-2-0 in their past seven games, but another slow start to the season may have been enough to bury them.

19. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their eighth game of the 2017-18 season until December 22, so they are more than a month ahead of last year’s pace. There is a lot to like about this team, especially the way they play defensively and on the penalty kill. They are not an easy two points for anyone.

20. New York Rangers — Honestly, not sure I expected this team to put together a six-game point streak at any time this season, but that is exactly what they have done over the past two weeks as part of a 5-0-1 run. Only two of those five wins came in regulation (the other three were shootout wins) so it’s probably not something that is going to sustain itself, but you can’t fault the effort.

21. Detroit Red Wings –– Same story as the Rangers. The effort is there, and it’s resulted in a nice little hot streak here recently (for the Red Wings, it is wins in six out of the past seven games, including three in a row where they have had to overcome a two-goal deficit) but even bad teams get hot at some point during an 82-game season.

The mystery teams

22. Colorado Avalanche — Two of the top-three scorers in the league, a top-three offense overall, top-10 in goals against per game … and they are, at the moment, a fringe playoff team that has lost six out of eight games.

23. New York Islanders — The argument in favor of the Islanders is that they are balanced, and getting contributions from everyone, and they are the definition of a team with a good system and a good coach in place. The reality is they are 21st in the league in goals per game, 30th in shots on goal per game, and are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to possession and scoring chance differential. Unsustainable goaltending has masked all of those flaws for now.

24. Vegas Golden Knights — I still think this team is capable of putting together a run here if they get their goalies straightened out. But maybe they’re just not going to get the goaltending this season? Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t young anymore and the jury is still out Malcolm Subban.

25. Carolina Hurricanes — Such a promising start, too.

26. Edmonton Oilers — No forward depth. Bad defense. Cam Talbot is not playing well in goal. Everyone in charge of this team should remain on the hot seat.

27. Ottawa Senators — Young players like Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk have been great this season. That is the important thing for this team.

28. New Jersey Devils — After starting the season with a four-game winning streak the Devils are just 2-8-1 since then.

[Related: Struggling Devils]

29. Anaheim Ducks — Their strong start was always a mirage given the way they were actually playing. They have just one regulation win in their past 11 games. This has all the makings of another team destined for an in-season coaching change.

You probably fired the wrong person

30. Chicago Blackhawks — Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster is not particularly good.

31. Los Angeles Kings —  Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster stinks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

The Buzzer: Make your Mark

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Three Stars

1. Mark Scheifele

The last time the Winnipeg Jets took off for a huge victory, it was Blake Wheeler who was stealing the headlines with a rousing five-point night. Scheifele wasn’t half-bad on that Friday, either.

On Sunday, the roles were reversed. Wheeler extended his point streak to 10 games, collecting two assists. Scheifele was even better, generating a helper to go with two goals, with one of his tallies being the game-winner.

Scheifele, like Wheeler, often stacks the stat categories, and Sunday was no different. The star-on-a-bargain-contract enjoyed a +3 night, fired four shots on goal, blocked a shot, and went 12-8 in the faceoff circle.

(It would be surprising if Paul Maurice changes the third member of that line anytime soon, as talented young winger Nikolaj Ehlers provided a goal and an assist; his speedy transition game makes this top line horrifying … and oh yeah, the Jets also have Patrik Laine for weaker defenseman and Dustin Byfuglien stomping around as if he realizes that no one can contain him. Gulp.)

2. Joe Pavelski

This is a tough one, because while Pavelski ties Scheifele as the only Sunday scorer to collect three points, it’s inflated a bit by his goal being an empty-netter.

That extra point feels like a fair tiebreaker, though, especially since Pavelski paralleled Aleksander Barkov and others by contributing a strong all-around night. Along with that goal and two assists, Pavelski was +3, generated three SOG, delivered four hits, and blocked four shots while going 9-5 on draws.

People don’t really hammer scorers for failing to get assists in the same way they pick on someone when they haven’t managed their first goal of a season, but it has to be a relief for Pavelski to grab his first two assists of 2018-19. Considering that he’s in an uneasy contract year situation, he – and his agent, and the Sharks – are likely counting these things.

3. Darcy Kuemper

Again, this is a spot where you could argue for Barkov, or maybe Jaroslav Halak, who finished Sunday with only one fewer save (37). How much do you weigh Barkov’s strong overall performance/two goals over Kuemper’s nice work and 38 stops?

To me, Kuemper gets the edge for a few reasons:

  • Kuemper was facing a rested team in Washington, while Arizona was wrapping up a back-to-back following frustrating 4-0 loss to the Penguins on Saturday.
  • That rested team was the Capitals, a squad that can manufacture goals even when it’s playing 50-50 hockey, and even if they are the one dealing with more fatigue.
  • Other goalies with similar stats didn’t face that rest disparity.
  • He likely came into Sunday with fire in his belly, yet low confidence, as he had allowed a total of 13 goals in his past three starts.

Maybe you prefer the work of Barkov or someone else, but you have to admit that Kuemper enjoyed quite the performance.

Highlights

A player as smart and skilled as Barkov can make you pay for a mistake and/or unlucky bounce in a matter of seconds:

The Minnesota Wild are red-hot lately, and Devan Dubnyk usually is at the forefront of their hot streaks. Making saves like these reminds us that he’s one of the better goalies in the NHL during the (rather frequent) spans when he’s on his game:

Lowlight

Former Bruins goalie (prospect) Malcolm Subban will like to forget the first goal of Jeremy Lauzon’s career (which he, of course, will never forget):

Factoids

Hot take: David Pastrnak having 16 goals before we’ve even reached Nov. 16 is quite impressive.

Pavel Bure wasn’t a member of the Panthers all that long, yet he authored some astounding moments in Florida, so Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov flirting with one of his club marks is impressive. Also: scary, since the Panthers also employ that Barkov fellow. Oh, And Vincent Trocheck. And Keith Yandle. And …

Scores

MIN 3 – STL 2
FLA 5 – OTT 1
ARI 4 – WSH 1
WPG 5 – NJD 2
BOS 4 – VGK 1
SJS 3 – CGY 1
COL 4 – EDM 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It’s time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated

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Shortly after Blake Wheeler exploded for a career-high five-point night on Friday, the labels began to flow from the mouths of those affiliated with the Winnipeg Jets.

In a paraphrased sentence of several combined players and a coach, it looked like this:

“Blake Wheeler is an elite player, the heartbeat of Jets and the guy who drives the bus.”

If we are to extrapolate on this joint statement of sorts, we can glean that Wheeler enjoys high regard among his closest peers, is the most vital organ to his NHL team and the man who leads its charge.

Of course, a five-point night from anyone in the NHL will often lead to superlatives by the truckload. And Wheeler undoubtedly deserved the due recognition he received from his teammates after a special night at the rink.

The thing is, his teammates and coaches have always known. They see his work ethic and what the 32-year-old puts in so that he’s able to produce at the level he does. It’s normal to hear those closest to a team heap praise on their comrades.

But pilling on plaudits outside of Winnipeg’s sphere? It hasn’t always been the case for the Jets captain.

Wheeler’s underrated status has tagged alongside him for much of his career. The argument can be made that, up until last year, Wheeler was known as a good player — a productive power forward — but not one that came with the same clout as, say, a Nikita Kucherov.

Then Wheeler hit 91 points, tied for the NHL lead in assists with 63 and finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting last season. Many started to wake up to Wheeler’s worth, even if he was a near-point-per-game player for several seasons prior.

The highlights from Friday night’s game were a clinic on what an elite passer looks like. Wheeler’s nine-game point streak is nothing to scoff at.

Yet, the underrated label endures. Last week, Wheeler was voted the third-most underrated player in the NHL by 61 of his peers, behind Aleksander Barkov and Nicklas Backstrom. Given that Wheeler has always seemed to operate in the shadows of the league’s top righties, it wasn’t all that surprising.

What might surprise you to know that since 2011, Wheeler has the third most assists among right-handed shots in the NHL, behind only Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane, neither of whom would be categorized as underrated.

There’s more, too. In all situations, here’s where Wheeler sits in a variety of categories during that time frame.

  • Primary points/60: 3rd
  • Primary assists/60: 1st
  • Primary assists: 1st (226)
  • Points/60: 5th
  • Expected goals-for: 3rd

I suspect if you polled players for each position around the league as to who they think of first when they hear ‘Winnipeg Jets’, it might go something like this:

Furthermore, I’d venture a guess that many fans outside of Winnipeg might levy similar answers, too.

Perhaps Wheeler falls victim to a little of the ‘East Coast Bias’ we often hear about.

Taylor Hall, for instance, admitted on the Spitting Chicklets podcast last week that he probably benefited from some of that bias when it came pipping Nathan MacKinnon to the Hart Trophy last year.

It’s possible Wheeler, a fellow Central Division player like MacKinnon, gets overshadowed in that regard as well.

Why?

“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Saturday.

Maurice has opened the taps of praise for Wheeler many times during his Jets tenure. Maurice says Wheeler’s dominance isn’t lost in coaching circles.

“I know that other coaches do [notice Wheeler],” Maurice said. “So when you’re at the coaches meetings in the summer or you have colleagues you talk to, especially guys after you play, it’s like, ‘My god, Blake Wheeler is a dominant man out there.’ And they really see it, probably because he didn’t have a 50-goal season at 21 or 22 that brought the spotlight to him.

“He really built his game over the years, maybe in kind of the way Mark Scheifele did it early on in the first two or three [years]. He didn’t explode in his first few years. They are always very exciting young players that come in and put up numbers that are designated superstars from a young age. I think Blake has built this. He’s built his body to a machine that can drive as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached. And all of that has led to the skills I think he always possessed coming out.”


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

The Buzzer: Wheeler keeps dealing; big apples

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Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler

What a night for the wildly underrated Winnipeg Jets captain.

Wheeler scored a goal and four assists, crossing 400 for his (again, wildly underrated) career. That milestone helper came as he read Nathan MacKinnon to create a turnover and set the table for Nikolaj Ehlers. Three of Wheeler’s four assists were primary helpers, too.

As usual, the winger brought a great all-around game, earning a +3 rating and logging a significant 3:13 of shorthanded time.

This virtuoso performance extended Wheeler’s point streak to nine games (two goals, 15 assists). Wheeler’s now at 21 points on the season, with 18 of them being assists, which ranks second in the NHL.

Mark Scheifele had a strong game against the struggling Avs, too, scoring a goal and two assists.

2. Mikael Granlund

The Wild absolutely dominated the Ducks, who seem to have no gear other than “hope John Gibson and a few deadly shooters can save the day.”

Granlund and Jason Zucker both generated three points, so you could consider them tied for the second star. Granlund gets the slight edge because he scored two goals and one assist, while Zucker generated two assists and one goal. Again, you could make the argument that Zucker should get that nod instead (or be the third star, if you’re really being difficult), as he had five SOG to Granlund’s two, and Zucker’s tally was the GWG.

Still, Granlund enjoyed a slightly more impressive night, including really making it easy for Zucker on his goal.

The Wild are quietly heating up, with wins in nine of their last 11 games. Bruce Boudreau just finds ways to keep his team’s regular-season-relevant, doesn’t he? Granlund and Zucker deserve serious credit for stepping up with Eric Staal banged up.

3. Chad Johnson

Friday was a solid night for goalies around the NHL. Sergei Bobrovsky earned praise from Torts and had the same number of saves (33) as Johnson. Like Bob, Frederik Andersen only allowed one goal while making 38 stops.

Chad Johnson is the only goalie who earned a shutout on Friday, though.

Considering Jake Allen‘s substantial struggles, the Blues might want to lean on Johnson for a while, as the journeyman goalie has – on occasion – shown that he can carry a team in net at times during certain stretches. The Blues have been able to occasionally create a really nurturing atmosphere for hot-and-cold goalies (like Brian Elliott, Johnson’s creasemate from last season), so perhaps Johnson could go on a mini-run? If nothing else, this was a nice win, especially if Mike Yeo is in any way looking over his shoulder at Joel Quenneville.

In other Blues news, Ryan O'Reilly is on a nine-game point streak.

Highlights

It didn’t translate to a goal, but this bit of Scheifele wizardry was magical:

Speaking of magical, Nick Foligno‘s beautiful pass to Oliver Bjorkstrand played a trick on three Capitals opponents:

Andreas Athanasiou ranks as one of Friday’s honorable mentions, scoring the goal that sent Detroit’s game against the Rangers into OT, then setting up Dylan Larkin for this OT game-winner:

Lowlight

Here’s hoping referee Brad Meier is feeling OK after this uncomfortable fall:

Factoids

Wheeler’s 400th assist wasn’t the only milestone from Friday. Patrick Marleau didn’t do a whole lot for it (Nazem Kadri ended up batting down a puck for a nice goal), but most of his 600 career assists have surely been impressive. (These two assist milestones explain the big apples part of this post’s headline, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Kinda cool to see his old buddy Joe Thornton on this list with him:

Chad Johnson’s enjoyed some nice peak moments in the NHL, but it’s been a while since he’s enjoyed a night like Friday.

Rarely a bad time to see your name next to Wayne Gretzky’s, eh, Blake Wheeler?

Scores

TOR 6 – NJD 1
CBJ 2 – WSH 1
DET 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
STL 4 – SJS 0
WPG 5 – COL 2
MIN 5 – ANA 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.