Capitals vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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As far as storylines go, Capitals vs. Hurricanes is up there for Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At minimum, no two teams do the epilogue/final scene celebrating with ewoks better than these two teams.

First, you have Washington, the favorites. They didn’t just finally break their playoff curse last year; they also celebrated to the point that you basically need to fill in the blanks with “scene missing” screens.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, basically had an on-ice party after every home win via the “Storm Surge,” to the point that broadcasts would linger in Carolina to find out what they’d cook up (or reel in) next. Eventually, the storm built to the point where they had to eventually shut it down, for some combination of wanting to looking serious and maybe they also ran out of ideas.

Can the hockey of the Capitals and Hurricanes top those things? Tall task, but it will be fun to watch them try.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | USA, SN360, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | NBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Thursday, April 18, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | SN360, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Capitals @ Hurricanes | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD

FORWARDS

CAPITALS: If you paid attention to last year’s run … or, really, hockey in general, you probably know most of the deal.

Alex Ovechkin is the headliner, and he didn’t disappoint in 2018-19, winning his eight Maurice Richard Trophy with 51 goals. He’s joined by two stellar centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with T.J. Oshie and professional disturber Tom Wilson. (Wilson, by the way, justified that fat extension with 22 goals and 40 points despite being limited to 63 games.)

The scary thing is that you can argue this is a deeper group. Jakub Vrana‘s had a nice year, scoring 24 goals and 47 points. Brett Connolly might be the bargain to target in free agency this summer, as he scored 22 goals and 46 points despite averaging just 13:20 TOI per game. Even frequent doghouse resident Andre Burakovsky cannot be disregarded as a former first-rounder (23rd overall in 2013).

As a team, the Capitals are a group that tends to shoot at high percentages, making middling possession stats easy to stomach — and this isn’t a fluke, they’ve been doing this for years. Which brings us to …

HURRICANES: A group that, from forwards to defense, always made “fancy stats” people swoon, yet could never break through to the playoffs. While the Capitals made the most of every shot to a near-extreme, the Hurricanes have been posterchildren for quantity over quality. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Things have really started to come together lately, though.

Nino Niederreiter seemed to tie the Hurricanes’ offense together like The Dude’s rug. In 36 games since being traded to Carolina, Niederreiter generated an impressive 30 points. The Hurricanes boast a mix of guys with numbers impressive enough that they shouldn’t sneak up on people any longer (Sebastian Aho‘s 83 points; Teuvo Teravainen getting 76) along with players whose value shines greatest when you consider their all-around games, such as Jordan Staal. Andrei Svechnikov‘s rise has been impressive as a rookie, too, and he should only become a bigger part of the mix as Rod Brind’Amour gains more trust in him.

Oh yeah, they also have “Mr. Game 7” and “Storm Surge” innovator Justin Williams.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. The Hurricanes are more potent in this area than many might realize, but the Caps are in the upper tier.

DEFENSE

CAPITALS: John Carlson probably deserves more Norris buzz than he is receiving.

Last season brought some red flags, as he generated 68 points, with his 53 assists nearly matching a previous career-high of 55. Well, he topped all of that in 2018-19, scoring 13 goals and 70 points, the fourth-best total among NHL blueliners. Oh yeah, he also skyrocketed from a possession stats standpoint, so this was a great all-around year.

The rest of the group is less inspiring.

After being an important duo during that magical Stanley Cup run, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have struggled this season, which is part of the reason the Capitals invested in Nick Jensen at the trade deadline.

All of this makes the loss of Michal Kempny tough to stomach. While the Capitals aren’t outright bad on defense, it could be an area of weakness.

HURRICANES: Carolina lost a similar understatedly-effective defenseman in Calvin de Haan to injury issues, but the difference is that they’re deep enough that they can handle the loss more gracefully.

Despite rarely getting the chance to be a top power play unit’s QB, Dougie Hamilton just keeps scoring, particularly goals. He generated 18 this season, and his 48 goals over the last three seasons ranks second to Brent Burns‘ 57 during that span.

Hamilton tends to be a strong play-driver, too, and he’s far from alone on Carolina’s stacked blueline. Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin can often dominate possession, and the duo of Justin FaulkBrett Pesce was effective this season, too. This group can move the puck up the ice, generally prospers in their own end, and can chip in offensively, too.

ADVANTAGE: Hurricanes. This could be a “coming out party” for one of the league’s better defensive groups. Carlson may be the best single blueliner among both teams, though.

GOALTENDING

CAPITALS: For the second straight season, Braden Holtby‘s stats have been modest — in the regular season.

That concludes about all the negative things I can muster about Holtby, and even his .911 save percentage is passable on a team that scores so proficiently, and doesn’t always win the possession battle. As you hopefully remember, Holtby was fantastic during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, and he deserved credit for being a postseason beast before that, as his career playoff save percentage of .929 is just bonkers, and 82 high-pressure games count as a healthy sample size, too.

There’s some concern if Holtby gets hurt or melts down, and not just because Pheonix Copley‘s name is spelled Pheonix, but Holtby’s as close to a sure thing as you can get in the unpredictable realm of hockey goaltending.

HURRICANES: Curtis McElhinney‘s quietly built up a resume as a very very good backup over the years, making an argument to rise to the level of a platoon guy.

That’s exactly what’s happened lately, as Petr Mrazek went from a guy whose career was continuing to spiral out of relevance the first few months of this season (.894 save percentage in 23 games before the All-Star Break) to someone who generated a .938 save percentage in his last 17 games.

This unlikely duo has finally shown what Carolina can accomplish with good (or at least competent) goaltending: finally make the playoffs.

At the same time, McElhinney’s been a journeyman and Mrazek was trending in that direction, and a 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs matchup against a team full of sharpshooting scorers could really expose both of them.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals, by a healthy margin.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Capitals’ defense hold up?

Carolina’s defense and two-way forwards makes them a potentially tough matchup, and they’ve also been a strong penalty kill team. If these games end up being tight, low-scoring affairs, will Washington’s perceived weaknesses on defense get exposed?

Will Carolina’s goalies fall apart?

It’s fair to wonder if shabby netminding may dry out the “Storm Surge” before the thunder really gets cracking. There just aren’t a lot/any hockey humans who can shoot the puck like Ovechkin can, and the Capitals have other players who can make goalies look bad. Carolina’s goalies are as uncertain as Holtby is seasoned when it comes to postseason play (and playing the role of a No. 1 in general, really).

PREDICTION

Carolina in 6. Look, I know this is an aberrant pick, and most of the details above give me second, third, and 651st thoughts. But the Hurricanes’ playoff-friendly, two-way play make me feel better about going with my gut. Kinda.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
• Predators vs. Stars
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins

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: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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There can only be one team lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season, and that means the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against your favorite team going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Chances are, your team is going to lose at some point over the next two months.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we keep that in mind and, just as we did at the start of the playoffs a year ago, take a look at why your team can not win it all this season.

Teams are ranked in order their ability to overcome whatever weakness it is they may have.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have to actually finish a big series. In the past four years they have lost two Eastern Conference Finals where they had 3-2 leads and a Cup Final where they had a 2-1 lead. In all three situations their offense was completely shut down at the worst possible time. A fluke? An unfortunate, poorly timed coincidence? Some kind of mental block? All of the above? Whatever it is, until they actually do it that question is going to keep following them around.

2. Washington Capitals — The defending champs have started to play like champions since the trade deadline. The concern here: They are still not a great defensive team and the loss of Michal Kempny will only make that worse. What they do have, however, are a couple of Hall of Fame forwards and a goalie that, even though he didn’t have a great regular season, always seems to play his best hockey in the playoffs. That recipe worked a year ago.

3.  Vegas Golden Knights — They have been a dominant possession team in the second half and can roll three quality lines that can all beat you. Their struggles down the stretch were mainly related to the fact Malcolm Subban isn’t Marc-Andre Fleury. With Fleury back and healthy, and assuming the bad version of him does not show up, this is going to be a brutal team to deal with. That is the big concern, though: Which Fleury will they get. No goalie in the league has been more hot and cold than him this season. He has been great in games, and awful in others.

4. Boston Bruins — One of the best teams in the NHL this season despite some brutal injury luck that robbed them of some of their best, most important players for extended periods of time. The biggest concern I see here, other than still wondering if they are deep enough beyond their top forwards, is the same thing every team in the Atlantic Division bracket has … they are the best teams in the league, they all have to play each other, and somebody has to lose.

5. St. Louis Blues — They have been one of the hottest teams in the league for months now and have some of the best underlying numbers in the NHL since Craig Berube took over behind the bench. It’s easy to write their turnaround off as them simply catching lightning in a bottle with Jordan Binnington, but since Jan. 1 the Blues have been one of the best 5-on-5 teams in hockey. They don’t really have a glaring weakness and the two top teams in their bracket are there for the taking. If you wanted to look for an issue it is probably concern over how long Binnington can keep playing at this level or if he will eventually turn into a pumpkin at midnight.

6. Nashville Predators — I want to say a lot of their struggles at times this season, especially as it relates to their offense, have been because of all the games players like Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson missed. They still have what might be the best defense in hockey and two really good goalies, but their offense — both at even-strength and on the power play — has been a struggle this season.

7. Calgary Flames — I love everything about this team except for the fact I don’t entirely trust David Rittich or Mike Smith. That is the wrong position to have questions about.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — They could win the Cup or they could lose Round 1 in five games. Nobody really knows what this team will do or what it is capable of, and that is kind of the problem here. They are just too inconsistent. There are only a handful of teams in the NHL that can match the star power they have at the top of the lineup, and Matt Murray has been better than anybody gives him credit for being this season, but their defensive play is severely lacking at times and I don’t know that you can trust their second and third pairs on the blue line.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are really good, and their struggles are probably magnified more than the struggles of other teams because of where they play and the expectations around them. I just don’t know if they are good enough to beat Boston and Tampa Bay in the first two rounds should it come to that. There might be six teams in the entire league better than them, and two of them will probably be standing directly in front of them in the first two rounds.

10. Carolina Hurricanes — Since January 1 the Hurricanes have been kind of outstanding. Their points percentage since then? Fourth best in the NHL. Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength? All among the top-10. Sebastian Aho is a star, Teuvo Teravainen has had a great year, Nino Niederreiter gave them another finisher they desperately needed, and Andrei Svechnikov‘s rookie season is better than you realize. Love the way they play and love their approach to the game. My big concern is how long Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney can maintain their current level of play.

[Related: Hurricanes’ long road back to the playoffs]

11. San Jose Sharks — Goaltending matters in the playoffs and history is not kind to playoff teams that have goaltending like this, no matter how good their regular season record is or how good their roster looks on paper. This is a real problem and it might cost them the Stanley Cup.

12. Winnipeg Jets — I don’t know what to make of this team. A couple of weeks ago they looked to be getting into playoff mode and playing some of their best hockey of the season, but for two months now they have been getting obliterated in shot attempts and scoring chances and have only been a very mediocre even-strength team all season. They do have great talent up front that could always carry them on a run, but something is missing this season.

13. New York Islanders — Mathew Barzal is developing into a star, but this roster lacks the type of impact talent after him that every Cup winner needs to have. Since February 1 they are 24th in the NHL in 5-on-5 shot attempt differential, 16th in scoring chance differential, and are only 6-7-1 against playoff teams during that stretch. I could see them winning a round with their goaltending, and then giving somebody a scare in Round 2. But I just don’t see the high-end talent here to win it all this season.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — They were a mess in that first month after the trade deadline, but the Blue Jackets are kind of quietly heading into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league winning seven of their past eight. That is the good news. The bad news is they are stuck in the divisional bracket from hell and have to have face the Lightning in Round 1, and if they get through that, have to play the winner of Boston-Toronto in Round 2. And as much I hate to be that person to mention a narrative built entirely around small sample sizes, because I usually loathe that person, but Sergei Bobrovsky in the playoffs … yeah … it has been a problem.

15. Dallas Stars — Their goaltending gives them a chance every single night, but eventually Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are going to get shut down for a couple of games. Once that happens there is nobody else on this team that is a threat to score.

16. Colorado Avalanche — They have the same depth concerns as the Stars without the great goaltending to back it all up.

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.

Crawford, Grabner, Lehner among 2019 Masterton Trophy nominees

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The 31 nominees for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy have been announced. The award, which is given to the players “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” will be handed out at the NHL awards show in June in Las Vegas.

The 31 nominees are selected by each Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter.

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Boyle, then of the New Jersey Devils, won the award last season after his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

All very good choices, and it’ll be tough to narrow it down to three finalists. You have to believe Lehner will be one of the three considering his season and what he’s overcome. After that? Crawford, Grabner, Foligno, and Campbell could also find themselves heading to Las Vegas in late June.

————

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

Hurricanes in position to end NHL’s longest active playoff drought

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The last time the Carolina Hurricanes were in the playoffs, the Black Eyed Peas were on top of the charts and The Hangover was just about to hit theaters. This year, the “bunch of jerks” from Raleigh have a legitimate chance to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

Postseason hockey was last seen in Carolina in May of 2009, when the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Not one member of that playoff roster remains on the team, except for captain Rod Brind’Amour, who is now behind the bench. Justin Williams, the Canes’ current captain, was traded to Los Angeles in March of 2009 before the playoffs began.

Fast forward 10 years to this March, where with 11 games to play, the Canes are in the first wild card spot in the East. They’re also just three points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division, with two games in hand. That positioning has to do with a recent surge in which Carolina has gone 11-3-1 in their past 15 games, have converted on 21.9 percent of their power plays during that stretch and also killed off 34 of 37 penalties.

Outside of Williams, who has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, Carolina is led by a slew of underrated up-and-comers. Sebastian Aho is in the middle of a career season and is on track to become just the second player in Carolina history (not including the Hartford Whalers) to record 90 points. Eric Staal did so with 100 points in 2005-06. The team’s leaders in time on ice this season are Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined for just 176 wins over the past 11 seasons. And yet, the Hurricanes have the seventh best defense and sixth best penalty kill in the NHL.

Beyond their collective lack of experience, a glance at the roster would probably place goaltending as Carolina’s biggest concern entering the final few weeks of the season, though their netminders have been sensational of late. McElhinney is 11-3-1 dating back to New Year’s Eve with a 2.66 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts. While he struggled in his latest start against Columbus, Mrazek has been terrific over the past month, going 6-1-0 over his last seven starts with a 1.71 goals against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts of his own. Still, performing that well in the playoffs is something new entirely. McElhinney has never made a postseason start. Mrazek took the Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 of the opening round against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, but has never won a playoff series. His latest postseason appearance came last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed two goals on 14 shots in relief during a game that the Penguins won 7-0.

If they can hang on to a playoff spot and snap their nine-season drought, the Canes will most certainly be underdogs in the first round, no matter their opponent. But there is no reason not to enjoy what Carolina has already accomplished this season in their push toward the playoffs.

When he signed with the Hurricanes before the 2017-18 season, Williams made it clear he wanted the team’s culture to change.

“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”

It took a year longer than Williams might have liked, but between making a playoff push and enjoying their viral post-game celebrations, the Hurricanes are relevant once more.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s best coaching jobs this season

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There is not a single aspect of the NHL that is more difficult to evaluate and analyze than coaching.

Want to know how difficult it is and how bad we tend to be at it?

Just look at the past, oh let’s say, 10 Jack Adams Award winners and see how many of them are still with the team they won it with, or how many of them were fired within a year or two of winning it. It is stunning how many of them are gone within two years.

Either they forgot how to coach in that time since winning, or we picked the wrong winners.

The coach of the year usually goes to a coach whose team exceeded expectations and snuck into the playoffs, likely on the back of a superhuman performance by a goalie that carried the team. Pick a Coach of the Year winner and then take a look at how the starting goalie performed throughout the season. There is going to be a fairly strong correlation.

This season the coach of the year award has seemingly been a one-horse race involving New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, only lately getting a little bit of pressure from Rick Tocchet in Arizona.

Given the circumstances around those two teams it is understandable.

But have those two coaches actually been the best coaches in the league this year and done the best job? Maybe, but maybe not.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the eight best coaching jobs in the NHL this season, and there are a couple of names at the top you might not be thinking of at the moment. We are not looking for the coach that has benefitted the most from a goalie, or a coach whose teams marginally exceeded expectations.

We are looking for the coaches that have done the best job in the NHL.

You probably will not like it, but hear us out.

1. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues. When the Blues fired Mike Yeo in mid-November they looked like a team that was going nowhere. They had been shutout in three of their previous four games, had only won seven of their first 19, and just had absolutely nothing going for them. They were completely mediocre across the board, and in some cases, completely stunk. Offensively, defensively, goaltending. All of it. It was a dreadful looking team that seemed doomed to a forgettable, wasted season.

Enter Berube and new starting goalie Jordan Binnington.

The easy thing here is to assume that Binnington’s play is key factor driving the Blues’ turnaround, and to a point, he is. He has helped fix what was a black hole in net and is putting together an incredible rookie season. But it’s not just him, and this can not be emphasized enough.

There is real improvement within the rest of the team since the coaching change.

First, some numbers looking at Mike Yeo’s final 53 games behind the Blues’ bench and Berube’s first 53 games.

The overall possession numbers are better. The shot attempt numbers dropped significantly. Their ability to control scoring chances improved. All of that together, plus a solidified goaltending position, has dramatically improved the record.

If you look at the numbers in the context of this season alone the numbers are even more striking.

That is real, team-wide improvement that isn’t just related to the goaltending change.

Keep in mind that Berube also did not have Alex Pietrangelo for 10 games in December and spent two months without David Perron, one of the team’s leading scorers, from mid-January until mid-March. He is also coaching without Vladimir Tarasenko at the moment.

They are simply a totally different team under Berube, and not be a small amount, either.

2. Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins. This is not the NHL’s deepest roster, and we already know this. We already know this because we have been saying “what about their depth?” for two seasons now.

Keep that in mind and then consider how many games some of their top players — the players that have to carry the most weight for this team because they do not have a ton of depth — have missed this season.

Patrice Bergeron has missed 15 games.
David Pastrnak has missed 15 games.
Charlie McAvoy has missed 26 games.
Jake DeBrusk has missed 13 games.
Zdeno Chara is 41 years old and has missed 18 games.
Torey Krug has missed 12 games.

There are more, but these are the big ones.

It would stand to reason that a team that was already thin on depth, and playing in a division with two of the best teams in the league, might struggle a bit.

Not even close. Entering Monday the Bruins have the NHL’s third best record, are a top-five possession team, and probably already giving Toronto Maple Leafs fans nightmares about their inevitable first-round playoff matchup. Cassidy is not getting enough credit for the job he has done this season. Not by a long shot.

3. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning. Cooper is the coach that simply can not win the coach of the year award because his team is too good, which is just plain dumb. As if it’s easy to just win 55 of your first 72 games no matter how much talent you have at your disposal.

He didn’t have his starting goalie for a month and went 12-3-0 with Louis Domingue playing every game (and not playing all that well, I might add) during that stretch. Insane.

We have tried to turn the MVP into an award that a player can’t win if their team is too good (they don’t need you!) or not good enough (they lost with you they can lose without you!) and only seems to go to the best player on a mediocre team that sneaks into the playoffs as first-round cannon fodder for a Stanley Cup contender.

The Jack Adams Award has become the exact same thing. We only give it to the coach of a team that was bad the year before and then barely made the playoffs, whether it was the coaching that got them there or not.

Here is a secret: Great teams can have great coaches, too. The Lightning are a great team with a great coach.

4. Pete DeBoer, San Jose Sharks. Like Cooper, another coach that probably won’t get enough credit because of the talent on his team.

Here is the argument for him: The Sharks have the second-worst team save percentage in the NHL at .893. That is an appallingly abysmal number. It is such a fantastically bad performance by the duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell that this team has no business being anywhere near the top of its division and the top of the Western Conference standings.

They are the only team in the NHL that currently occupies a playoff spot and sits lower than 20th in team save percentage.

Here is where the other teams ranked 20th or lower (in order) sit in the league-wide standings.

19th
21st
26th
29th
30th
31st
17th
23rd
22nd
28th
4th (this is the Sharks)
20th

Goaltending this bad is supposed to be impossible to win with. I know the Sharks have a lot of talent, but they’re not the only team in this tier with a talent on their roster, and goaltending has sunk all of them.

Oh, and the Sharks have also been without Erik Karlsson for a significant chunk of the season. And they are still steamrolling teams and one point back of the top spot in the Western Conference … with no goaltending to speak of.

DeBoer is like … the bizarro Jack Adams winner. Instead of being a coach whose team has climbed to the top of the standings on the back of his goalie he has climbed to the top in spite of his goalies.

5. Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes. If I were a betting man I would say that if the Coyotes make the playoffs that Tocchet is going to win the coach of the year award, and probably by a wide margin. This is what Jack Adams Award votes live for. The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago, have missed the playoffs six years in a row, and have been absolutely decimated by injuries all season, crippling what was already a thin roster. Heck, even losing just starting goalie Antti Raanta could have been enough to ruin their season, even without all of the others.

But here they are, holding a playoff position in mid-March and seemingly in the driver’s seat to take a Wild Card spot. Darcy Kuemper deserves the bulk of the credit for that, but the injury situation has definitely been a huge hurdle, and it would have been really easy for this team to just pack it in and self destruct. They haven’t, and the coaching staff deserves credit for that.

[Related: Coyotes’ GM on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence]

6. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders. Trotz deserves a ton of credit for taking over what looked to be a sinking ship of a franchise at the start of the season and, quite frankly, not allowing it to completely sink.

They missed the playoffs a year ago, lost their best player to free agency, entered the season with three of their top-four returning forwards in contract years, and there really wasn’t any reason for anyone to believe in this team. So far, they have proved a lot of people wrong and made a pretty stunning turn around to go from one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era to what is, currently, the best defensive team in the league when it comes to preventing goals.

That is worth a lot.

But this goes back to what we talked about up at the top. How much of that is the coaching of Trotz, and how much of that is the result of the Islanders’ two goalies producing the league’s best save percentage? And if that is the result of coaching, how much of that is Trotz and how much of it is the work of goalie coaches Piero Greco and Mitch Korn? I am not saying that Trotz hasn’t had a positive influence on the team, because he almost certainly has. He is a great coach and his resume in the league speaks to that. I just don’t know that he or the Islanders would be having this kind of season without stunning play of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

They are the true difference-makers this season.

7. Bill Peters, Calgary Flames. In most years Peters would be the type of coach that would be a slam-dunk Jack Adams winner. A first-year coach, taking over a non-playoff team a year ago, and driving them to the top of the Conference standings. But with teams like the Islanders and Coyotes exceeding expectations, Berube helping to turn around the Blues, the Hurricanes becoming relevant again, he just seems like he is going to be lost in the shuffle. It is unfortunate because his team has been legitimately good, and I almost wonder if this is what the Hurricanes would have looked like the past few years with a couple of more finishers and some decent goaltending on their roster.

8. Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes. There is definitely a different vibe around this team, and not just because of the storm surge celebrations that are driving some people mad.

It just finally feels like everything is starting to click for a team that always had promising young talent but could never really put it together.

The thing about the Hurricanes’ climb up the standings is there’s not really much difference in their actual performance from an analytics standpoint.

They have always been one of the best possession teams in the league, and they still are.

They have always been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league, and they still are.

The two things that always sunk them were goaltending and not enough forwards that could actually finish. The big change this season is that Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to give them competent goaltending they needed to actually look like the good defensive team they have always been, and they found a couple of forwards with real finishing ability in prized rookie Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Neiderreiter, who they stole from the Minnesota Wild.

Brind’Amour has done a great job, but even with all of the losing in recent years there was still a strong foundation in place. They just needed the right move or two to bring it all together.

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.