PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s most dominant performances so far

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the players, lines, and positions that have put together the most dominant performances through the first two-and-a-half months of the NHL season.

There are a lot of the usual suspects in here, from the top line of the Colorado Avalanche, the ridiculous depth of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to the unstoppable force that is the Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom duo.

There are also a few pairings that have maybe been overlooked so far this season.

1. Colorado’s top line. There should be no debate as to which team boasts the NHL’s best line and it is the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. Their performance so far this season has been nothing short of dominant and has been the driving force behind what is looking to be a second consecutive playoff appearance for the Avalanche. Individually, they are each among the league’s top-15 scorers while Rantanen and MacKinnon are first and second in the league having both already exceeded the 50-point mark. They are on track to be one of the best duos the league has seen in recent history, and when you combine them with Landeskog they make the NHL’s most complete line. When that trio has been on the ice together during 5-on-5 play this season the Avalanche are outscoring teams by a 31-16 margin and controlling more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts. When that line is not on the ice the Avalanche are a negative team in both areas.

[Related: Avalanche duo chasing rare feat]

2. The duo of Ovechkin and Backstrom. Individually they have been sensational. The perpetually underrated Backstrom is off to one of the best starts of his career, while Ovechkin is scoring goals at a pace that is unprecedented in this era even for him. When they have been on the ice together the Capitals have been an unstoppable force. They’ve only spent about 200 minutes together at even-strength but the Capitals have a 15-4 goal different during those minutes and their work on the power play is as great as it has ever been. They won a Stanley Cup, partied all summer, and came back even stronger.

3. Connor McDavid. He is trying to almost single-handedly carry the Edmonton Oilers to a playoff spot. He is playing more than 23 minutes per night, is on pace for more than 120 points, and has had a hand in literally 50 percent of his team’s goals. When he is not on the ice the Oilers are still playing at a lottery team level, just as they have throughout most of his career.

4. The Lightning. The whole team. Everything about them. Entering play on Monday the Lightning have a six-point lead over the second-best team in the NHL. No team has had that large of a lead in the standings on Dec. 17 since the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks, and the Lightning have done that despite not having their top defender, Victor Hedman, for seven games earlier this season and not having their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, for more than a month. Both players were awards finalists a year ago, with Hedman actually winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender. If that is not enough, they are still averaging four goals per game while their 138 goals are the fourth most through a team’s first 34 games over the past 25 years. Only the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, 1995-96 Avalanche, and 2005-06 Ottawa Senators had more goals after their first 34 games during that stretch. Truly dominant team across the board.

5. Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Buffalo Sabres fans have reason to believe again, and this duo is the biggest reason why. Not only are they wildly productive together, but they have been a highlight reel almost every night. Skinner is second in the league in goals as of Monday while Eichel is in the top-six in total points. The Sabres are a plus-18 (32 goals for, 14 goals against) when they are on the ice together at even-strength. This is everything the team could have possibly hoped for when they acquired Skinner before the season to play alongside their franchise player.

6. Calgary’s top pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. This might be the best defense pairing in hockey this season, and I’m not sure anyone else is really close. Giordano is having a career year and should be a mid-season contender for the Norris, while he and Brodie have been outstanding as a pairing. How good have they been? In 470 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time with them on the ice the Flames have allowed just nine goals (that is only 1.15 goals per 60 minutes) and only 45 total shot attempts per 60 minutes. For some perspective on that the Vegas Golden Knights are the best team in the league when it comes to suppressing shot attempts … they give up 51.2 shot attempts per 60 minutes. The Boston Bruins are the best team when it comes to 5-on-5 goal prevention … they are giving up 1.84 goals per 60 minutes. Just total defensive dominance from these two, while Giordano is also having a spectacular year offensively.

7. John Gibson and Ryan Miller. No potential playoff team bleeds shots and scoring chances against quite like the Anaheim Ducks do. With anything less than outstanding goaltending they would probably near the bottom of the Western Conference standings instead of in contention for the Pacific Division crown. But they are not only getting outstanding goaltending, they are getting the best goaltending in the NHL. Together the Gibson-Miller duo has combined for a league-best .920 save percentage this season, .004 points better than any other team in the league and .012 points better than the league average.

8. Auston Matthews. He would probably higher on the list had he played in more games, but 16 goals and 19 games is a ridiculous scoring pace, as is the fact he already has six two-goal games this season. Only Ovechkin (with seven) has more. Matthews, again, has only played in 19 games while Ovechkin has played in 32 for the Capitals.

9. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. It does not matter if their center is Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, this duo is the engine that drives the Bruins’ offense, and by extension, the entire team. The Bruins aren’t really getting any scoring outside of this line so they are going to need them to continue carrying the load if they are going to be a playoff team. They have been great with Krejci, but they are even better with Bergeron, and he seems to be getting closer to a return to the lineup.

10. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The Pittsburgh Penguins do not have a particularly good defense, and they are not a great defensive team by any stretch, but they do have one of the NHL’s absolute best defensive pairs in Letang and Dumoulin. Together they’ve doubled up their opponents in the goals department (28-14) and have controlled nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts and scoring chances when they are on the ice together. Letang is the dominant player in this group due to his offensive ability (nearly a point per game), but Dumoulin is a perfect complement to him and they have been exceptional together from the start.

(Data in this post via Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick)

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.

 

Penguins ready to welcome back Murray, but Letang’s status is in doubt

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to welcome back the one player that could significantly alter their 2018-19 season, and are also facing the possibility of being without the one player they may not be able to replace.

Matt Murray, the team’s regular starting goalie over the past two years, is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday night for the first time since Nov. 17 when the team plays host to the Los Angeles Kings.

His return could potentially coincide with the loss of their top defenseman, Kris Letang.

Letang had to leave the Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Friday night with just under eight minutes to play in the third period after he found himself tangled up with Bruins forward Joakim Nordstrom and awkwardly fell to the ice. He struggled to make it back to the bench with an apparent leg injury, and then needed help getting down the tunnel from the team’s bench to the locker room.

When asked after the game if he had any update on Letang’s status, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan simply responded with “no” and gave no other details.

It is still not yet known what his status for Saturday’s game is, or if he will be sidelined for any length of time.

If he is, that would be brutal news for a Penguins team that is trying to play its way back into a solid playoff spot after an inconsistent start to the season. Letang has probably been their best, most irreplaceable player this season and has bounced back from a down 2017-18 season in massive way. He is playing more than 26 minutes per night at a Norris Trophy level. He already has 25 points in 30 games and fairly dominant numbers across the board, from his ability to generate shots, to his possession numbers, to the way he has played alongside his defense partner, Brian Dumoulin.

When asked about potentially losing Letang, Dumoulin said “Obviously it’s tough, we need that guy in the lineup.”

He is not wrong.

The Letang-Dumoulin duo has been one of the NHL’s best this season. During 5-on-5 play the Penguins are outscoring teams by a 28-14 margin when Letang and Dumoulin are on the ice, and controlling more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts and more than 58 percent of the scoring chances.

It is a night and day difference between them and their bottom-two pairings that are currently made up of Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak on the second period, and Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson on the third. When Letang and Dumoulin are not on the ice together the Penguins’ goal differential drops to minus-1 while their shot attempt and scoring chance percentage all plunge to under 48 percent.

The common refrain from the Penguins on Friday night is that they have succeeded in Letang’s absence before, specifically during the 2016-17 season when they won the Stanley Cup with him missing the second half of the regular season and the entire postseason.

“We’ve done it before,” said Dumoulin. “We know we can do it. We’ve been carrying eight defensemen so far this year, everyone can play, everyone needs time and action and we want to just keep it simple as a defense corp if he is missing.”

“Because we think we have NHL defenseman,” said Sullivan when asked why he thinks the team would be able to succeed again if Letang has to miss time. “Juuso [Riikola] has played extremely well. Chad [Ruhwedel] is an NHL defenseman. He’s played for our team for a few years, he’s played in the playoffs, he’s won the Stanley Cup with us. These guys are NHL defensemen, and regardless of who is in our lineup we believe we have enough to win.”

Honestly, there is no other approach for the coaches and players to take. But looking at things objectively from an outside perspective it’s easy to see how that team was very fortunate to win without such an important player, and also how different this team is.

With Justin Schultz already sidelined (and he is still expected to miss a couple more months), the only defenders still left over from the 2017 Stanley Cup winning team are Maatta, Dumoulin, and Ruhwedel, the latter of which only appeared in six playoff games that year and has only been a role player this season.

This team also isn’t getting the same level of goaltending that 2017 received, and that was probably the biggest driving force behind that championship run.

Which brings us to the news of Murray’s likely return on Saturday.

Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 11 games this season and an .877 save percentage that is among the worst in the league. He was activated from injured reserve late in the week and backed up Casey DeSmith in the Penguins past two games, including for DeSmith’s 48-save performance on Friday night.

Overall DeSmith has done a fine job filling in, mixing in some spectacular saves and games with some rough patches as well. But if they are going to get back to the top of the NHL and compete for a championship again it is awfully hard to see them doing that without Murray playing some kind of a significant role in that.

Goaltending was one of the biggest factors in the Penguins’ early postseason exit a year ago (and some of their regular season struggles), and it’s played a role in their early struggles this season. Even if Murray and DeSmith end up splitting time they’re going to need strong performances from both no matter who is in the lineup on defense.

The position is going to take on even more importance if their top defender has to miss any extended time as they attempt to play their way out of their mediocre start.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This matchup features two teams that have combined to win 6 of the last 10 Stanley Cups, but are both currently outside of playoff position. The Penguins are in the mix though – they enter Wednesday night ninth in the Eastern Conference, and have a chance to move into a top-3 Metropolitan Division spot tonight. Chicago is last in the NHL with 23 points.

After losing 6-3 in Winnipeg on Tuesday, the Blackhawks enter tonight having lost eight straight in regulation. That stands in contrast to their current eight-game winning streak against the Penguins. The last Pittsburgh win over Chicago came on March 30, 2014.

This is the second time this season that the Blackhawks have lost eight in a row, and Tuesday’s loss means they’ve won only three times in their last 22 games (3-16-3). Once again, the team was doomed by a slow start, getting out-shot 14-0 to start the game and falling behind 3-0 after the 1st period. Chicago did eventually cut the deficit to 4-3, but Winnipeg added 2 more goals in the 3rd to seal it.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 19, the Penguins went 1-7-2 and were in last place in the East. But since then, they’ve gone 6-2-2 (including 3-0-1 in their past four) to vault up the standings.

Their latest win (2-1 shootout win over the Islanders on Monday) came with some drama, as Derick Brassard – who was moved up to Sidney Crosby’s line to ignite a struggling offense in the 3rd period – tied the game off an assist from Jake Guentzel. Guentzel later scored the decisive tally in the shootout on his first career shootout attempt.

“I think it was good for Brass,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s such a gifted player. He’s playing a different role on this team than he has on all the other teams he’s played on. I’m trying to find more ways to keep him involvedand maximize what he brings to this team because I think he’s a unique player.”

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Wednesday, December 12th, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Derick Brassard – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Tanner PearsonEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Zach Aston-ReeseRiley SheahanBryan Rust
Derek GrantMatt CullenJean-Sebastien Dea

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJamie Oleksiak
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Dylan Sikura – David KampfBrendan Perlini
Alex DeBrincatDylan StromePatrick Kane
John HaydenMarcus KrugerAndreas Martinsen

Duncan KeithHenri Jokiharju
Brandon ManningBrent Seabrook
Connor Murphy – Carl Dahlstrom

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Isles’ Clutterbuck injured after punch from Pens’ Letang

MSG
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This is a weird one, so let’s start from the beginning.

With the Penguins on the power play, Evgeni Malkin‘s one-timer deflected off Leo Komarov‘s stick and into the head of Thomas Hickey.

There was a quick bit of confusion amongst players before the referee came in to stop the play to make sure Hickey, who had blood on his visor, was OK.

While that was happening, Cal Clutterbuck, who was shadowing Kris Letang at the blue line, apparently didn’t hear the whistle or was upset that Letang, correctly, stopped playing and decided to cross-check him in the arm.

Letang, displeased with the cross-check, returned the favor with a punch that caught Clutterbuck high, sending rhe latter crumbling to the ice.

Clutterbuck struggled to get back up before skating hunched over off the ice. He was called for cross-checking on the play while Letang received a roughing minor.

Clutterbuck did not return to the game.

Hickey, meanwhile, left the game for a brief time before returning.


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: Phil thrills with four-point night; Smith wins fifth straight with shutout

Associated Press
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Three stars

1. Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins

Kessel’s name was all over this game. He assisted on the first of two goals by Kris Letang, scored twice himself in the second period to give the Penguins a comfortable 5-1 lead and then grabbed his fourth point of the night on Sidney Crosby‘s 15th of the season in the third period.

With the Penguins reportedly “testing the market” when it comes to Phil the Thrill, performances like this one only raise the price. More importantly, it gives the Penguins less and less of a reason to trade him. He simply makes the team betters, as PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote on Thursday.

2. Mike Smith, Calgary Flames

Talk about a resurgence. Smith has won five straight starts now after dropping six of his previous.

His latest victory comes in the form of a 31-save shutout in a 2-0 win against the Minnesota Wild. Smith is slowly starting to repair a horrible start to the season. He entered the game with a .884 save percentage and left with a .892, which just goes to show that he still has a ways to go if he wants to own some respectable numbers by seasons’ end.

Still, a five-game heater is nothing to scoff at and it’s helped the Flames open up a three-point lead atop the Pacific Division.

3. Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets

Jones’ overtime winner was the fastest in Blue Jackets history after he potted it 10 seconds into the extra frame for his second of the game.

In doing so, he also helped John Tortorella become the first coach in a long time to win a game behind the bench while wearing a tracksuit.

But back to Jones… his first goal extended his point streak to five games with three goals and four assists in that span.

Other notable performances:

  • Brayden Point continues to light the lamp, scoring his 21st of the season to tie Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine for the NHL’s top scorer.
  • Elias Lindholm scored both goals for the Flames in their win. He’s on a five-game point streak and has at least a goal in his past three games.
  • Gustav Nyquist had a goal and two assists to help the Red Wings to a 5-4 OT win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. His second assist sprung Dylan Larkin in on a breakaway to win it in the extra frame.
  • Travis Sanheim‘s first two goals of the season weren’t enough for the Philadelphia Flyers, who lost to Jones and the Blue Jackets in OT.
  • Paul Byron scored twice in a 5-2 win for the Montreal Canadiens against the Ottawa Senators.
  • Alex Ovechkin‘s goal helped the Capitals secure a 4-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes and put him into a tie with Laine and Point on 21 goals.
  • Reilly a three-point effort (a goal and two helpers) as the Golden Knights came from behind in the third period to win 4-3 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Highlights of the night

Crosby doesn’t care about your tight angles:

This kid is far too good:

Larkin’s OT winner highlight by this head fake:

Factoids

Scores

Red Wings 5, Maple Leafs 4 (OT)

Avalanche 5, Panthers 2

Blue Jackets 4, Flyers 3 (OT)

Penguins 6, Islanders 2

Canadiens 5, Senators 2

Lightning 3, Bruins 2

Capitals 4, Coyotes 2

Flames 2, Wild 0

Canucks 5, Predators 3

Golden Knights 4, Blackhawks 3

Devils 6, Kings 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