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The Buzzer: Schwartz helps Blues keep pace; Rinne, Rask pick up shutouts

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Three stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues

There’s a real race for the third spot in the Central Division down the stretch here, with the Blues leading the Dallas Stars by two points for the spot.

Both teams won on Tuesday, and Schwartz led the way for the Blues, scoring a hat trick en route to a 7-2 thrashing of the Edmonton Oilers. Schwartz opened the game’s scoring and then scored in the second and a late third-period marker on the power play to complete his fourth career hatty.

Schwartz hasn’t had the season he would have hope after putting up 24 goals and 59 points last season. He’s now up to 10 tallies this year and 34 points after also grabbing an assist for a four-point night.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The Predators are in tough to try and win another Central Division crown. They’re one point back of the Winnipeg Jets but the Jets have two games in hand. Basically, they need to win out and hope for some help.

Part of that help will come from within, and Rinne was on point in the crease on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, stopping all 22 shots he saw. It’s the second time this season that Rinne has blanked the Leafs.

The Preds neutered the Maple Leafs high-powered offense in this one as the Predators nursed a one-goal lead for most of the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins put in a complete effort against the Islanders in this one, and Rask only saw 13 shots come his way. But he stopped all 13 to snap a two-game stretch where he was less than the stellar goaltender that he had been. And sometimes those games where you barely see action can be the hardest.

Rask now has four shutouts on the season and 25 wins. He started the season off horribly and likely would have been in the Vezina conversation if not for that. Still, a focused — and well-rested — Rask is exactly what the Bruins need heading into the playoffs.

Highlights of the night

Hurricanes go duck hunting:

Here’s how to make Seth Jones look silly:

Simmons ends drought, scores first with Predators:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 5, Islanders 0
Red Wings 3, Rangers 2
Canadiens 3, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Penguins 2 (SO)
Capitals 4, Devils 1
Blues 7, Oilers 2
Predators 3, Maple Leafs 0
Avalanche 3, Wild 1
Stars 4, Panthers 2
Flames 4, Blue Jackets 2


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

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.

The Buzzer: Islanders reclaim top spot in Metro; Flames clinch playoff spot

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Three Stars

1. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers. This is the player the Philadelphia Flyers have been waiting decades for, a goalie that can be a difference-maker (for the better!) and steal them the occasional game. That is exactly what Carter Hart did on Sunday night as he stopped 41 of 42 shots he faced and gave his team a chance to score two late goals, one with 19 seconds remaining in regulation and another with three seconds remaining in overtime, to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, keeping their slim playoff hopes for at least another day. Read all about it here.

2. Brock Nelson, New York Islanders. The New York Islanders reclaimed the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with a 3-2 overtime win against the Minnesota Wild. Mathew Barzal had two more assists in the win, but it was Brock Nelson that gets the star in this one for his two points, including the overtime winner. He is now up to 47 points on the season, setting a new career-high with still 10 games remaining on the regular season schedule.

3. Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche have no margin for error the rest of the way and need to win as many games as possible if they are going to get back into a playoff position. Sunday’s 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils was a good place to start with Tyson Barrie’s two goals leading the way. He is now up to nine goals on the season and is just one goal away from what would be his fifth season with double-digit goals. There are only 17 active defenders in the NHL with at least that many in their career.

Other notable performances and notes from Sunday

  • Jonathan Marchessault scored two goals to help the Vegas Golden Knights keep rolling in a 6-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers. Read all about it here.
  • Entering play on Sunday Vancouver Canucks forward Tim Schaller had appeared in 37 games this season without scoring a goal. He scored two in the Canucks’ 3-2 shootout win over the Dallas Stars.
  • Alex Nylander had a pair of assists to help the Buffalo Sabres pick up a 4-3 shootout win over the St. Louis Blues.
  • Jakob Silfverberg‘s late third period goal was the difference in the Anaheim Ducks’ 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers. Not getting a point might be enough to put an end to the Panthers’ playoff chances.
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin on a week-to-week basis due to an undisclosed upper-body injury. Read all about it here.

Highlights of the Night

Carter Hart was the star of the game for the Philadelphia Flyers in their win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Sean Couturier made the play of the game to score the game-winning goal with just three seconds to play in overtime.

The Minnesota Wild did not get the result they wanted, but they were still able to get at least one point on Sunday night thanks in large part to this incredible goal from Zach Parise.

Tyson Barrie provided enough offense for the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday afternoon and Philip Grubauer stopped all 22 shots he faced to help their team get two important points to keep them in pursuit of a playoff spot. This is Grubauer’s best save of the day.

Factoids

  • The Calgary Flames did not even play on Sunday night but they still became the first team to clinch a playoff spot in the Western Conference thanks to the Minnesota Wild’s overtime loss to the New York Islanders. [Calgary Flames]
  • It came in a losing effort, but Connor McDavid is the first player since Vincent Lecavalier to record multiple points in at least eight consecutive games since Vincent Lecavalier in 2007. [NHL PR]
  • The Minnesota Wild have lost six of their past seven games that have gone to overtime or shootout. Those are big points to leave on the table, especially considering they are just one point out of a playoff spot as of this posting. [Michael Russo]

Scores

Colorado Avalanche 3, New Jersey Devils 0

Buffalo Sabres 4, St. Louis Blues 3 (SO)

New York Islanders 3, Minnesota Wild 2 (OT)

Vancouver Canucks 3, Dallas Stars 2 (SO)

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (OT)

Anaheim Ducks 3, Florida Panthers 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Edmonton Oilers 3

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.

Saturday was good for Hurricanes, bad for Penguins, ugly for Habs

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As this PHT post argues, the Montreal Canadiens haven’t been particularly lucky lately, but Saturday pushed such thoughts to the extreme.

The Habs fired a robust 48 shots on goal against Corey Crawford, but couldn’t beat the veteran goalie once. With that, the Blackhawks won 2-0, handing Montreal not just a loss, but a defeat in regulation.

The Canadiens can’t even really look on the one broad bright side of Saturday (that a lot of other East teams struggled), either, as the most crucial ones gained ground while Montreal’s running out of time to get its act together.

(That’s particularly true of that putrid power play, which went 0-for-4 on Saturday.)

The Canadiens are now stalling out at 81 points in 72 games played. Here’s a rundown of the rest of today’s most pertinent East action, in order of teams with the most on the line.

Blue Jackets lose, but they get a point

Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron made the difference for the Boston Bruins in a 2-1 OT win, as the dynamic duo generated a goal and an assist apiece. While Montreal can’t question its overall effort, Columbus might be at least a bit frustrated with the fact that they only forced Jaroslav Halak to face 25 SOG.

The Blue Jackets gain a step on Montreal, finishing the night with 84 points in 72 GP.

Hurricanes have the best Saturday of anyone at or near the bubble

After former Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner scored early into Saturday’s game, Carolina scored four straight goals to eventually win 4-2. Justin Williams‘ 21st goal of 2018-19 was really something:

Carolina is likely more focused on Tuesday’s opponent slightly ahead of them for the Metro third spot (the Penguins), than the Hurricanes are about the bubble teams behind them. Carolina now has 85 points in 71 GP.

Penguins lose badly

Speaking of Pittsburgh, they had a rough afternoon, falling to the Blues 5-1 despite 41-26 SOG advantage. As rocky as his St. Louis start was, moments like these make you wonder if Patrick Maroon might benefit the Blues more when the games get bigger:

(Nice to see those “NHL 19” moves work out in real life every now and then, huh?)

The Penguins failed to gain breathing room ahead of Carolina (and Columbus, to a lesser extent), and also didn’t give themselves a better chance at the Metro’s second seed, as the Penguins sit at 87 points in 72 GP.

Most likely Metro Division winners idle

Both the Capitals (91 points in 72 GP) and Islanders (89 points in 71 GP) lost in regulation in their respective games, falling short of improving their odds at a division title. The Islanders leave themselves at least somewhat vulnerable to losing a round of home-ice advantage, depending upon how things shake out.

***

So, almost everyone lost, with the Blue Jackets at least salvaging a very, very important point. All things considered, you can’t totally blame the Hurricanes if they’re thinking big — as in at least rising above the wild-card ranks.

Looking at the landscape, the Canadiens must be awfully worried. It doesn’t look great for their chances, so they need to turn things around soon. This crisis of confidence is coming at a terrible time for a team that exceeded just about everyone’s expectations this season.

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.

Bettman rejects Voracek’s appeal, upholds two-game suspension

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To little surprise, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman rejected Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek‘s appeal, thus upholding Voracek’s two-game suspension.

Voracek, 29, sought to appeal that suspension for an interference hit on New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk. Bettman’s ruling on the suspension revealed that Voracek and his reps were looking to reduce the suspension from two games to one.

Bettman provided his full reasoning in this one-page ruling, with this excerpt being the most noteworthy part:

(See the video above this post’s headline for the hit, and Voracek’s initial reactions.)

This was an unusual process in a few ways.

To start, there were some interesting events in the aftermath of the hit. Boychuk essentially vowed revenge on Voracek, prompting the Flyers winger to accuse Boychuk of cutting a pro wrestling promo on him.

“He’s pointing at me like it’s WrestleMania or something,” Voracek said after the game. “Come on, it’s a hockey game. This is a guy who was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year at the end of the game, and he’s going to do that. Give me a break.”

Then, when the league announced the two-game suspension, Voracek’s derision was palpable, and emoji-filled:

In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman notes that it’s quite unusual for a player in Voracek’s position to appeal a suspension in the first place.

While larger suspensions can go to an independent arbitrator – who frequently reduce the length of suspensions – rulings like Voracek’s stop at Gary Bettman’s desk, so it was unlikely that this would go any further. Friedman wrote about how rare this is:

The last eight appeals this decade involved only one that ended up being fewer than 10 games. (That was Dan Carcillo’s 2014 playoff punishment for physical abuse of an official, shortened to six by Bettman.) I can find only one try for anything as low as Voracek’s two. That was Joe Thornton in November 2010, also trying to lift a two-game suspension — for a hit to the head of David Perron. He failed to move the needle, as Bettman upheld the original decision. So this is rare. In some ways, it is fitting the Flyers would be the ones to charge at the status quo.

Ultimately, that challenge was unsuccessful, as Voracek’s two-gamer stands.

Then again, maybe Voracek was doing this to send a message, although a successful appeal would have left him available for Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals. Instead, he’ll have to settle for a return against the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Friday, after that two-game suspension runs its course.

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.