Another week, another team in the top spot.
The Minnesota Wild clawed their way to No. 1 after an impressive winning streak, but a loss to the Vegas Golden Knights cast some doubt about their level of play.
It warranted a new team at the top, and with plenty of mixed performances from top teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning have emerged at the top due to their consistency. They can beat you in so many different ways, and they’re consistently doing so without two of their best players and a revolving door of injuries and minor-league call-ups. Andrei Vasilevskiy will be a Vezina candidate again and Steven Stamkos is putting together an MVP-worthy season. Dare we say… three-peat?!
(All fancy stats are 5v5 and courtesy naturalstattrick.com)
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (18-6-4, +16 goal differential. CF%: 16th, xGF%: 10th. Last Week: 6)
The 5-3 win against the Leafs put the Lightning over the top, and we’ll simply forget about the 4-0 loss to the Sens because any game in which they start Brian Elliott feels like a scheduled loss, anyway. The Lightning have overcome their awful special teams lately and it remains their only loss this month.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs (20-8-2, +22. CF%: 7th, xGF%: 3rd. Last Week: 4)
It may be a tough pill to swallow because the Leafs have the most wins and the most points, but rest assured, the Leafs will hang around the top five all season. Had they not lost to the Lightning, the Leafs would’ve held the No. 1 spot for the second time in three weeks.
3. Colorado Avalanche (17-7-2, +27. CF%: 5th, xGF%: 7th. Last Week: 12)
The Avs seemed to have resigned to the fact that they may not have a healthy roster all season and just said, “screw it.” Their offense has been on a tear despite missing key players and Darcy Kuemper just has to be average to avoid losing games. Among the 17 goalies with at least 10 wins, Kuemper’s .907 Sv% ranks 15th, ahead of only Robin Lehner and Mikko Koskinen.
4. Vegas Golden Knights (17-11-0, +13. CF%: 15th, xGF%: 13th. Last Week: 9)
The Knights are making a charge, winning five of their past six and looking like the team that many had picked to dominate the Pacific. Max Pacioretty has been unstoppable, leading all players with 14 points in seven games in December. Lehner’s play is not a huge concern if the Knights keep scoring like this.
5. Minnesota Wild (19-8-1, +24. CF%: 13th, xGF%: 11th. Last Week: 1)
Their hold on the No. 1 spot was shaky to begin with since the Rangers were also on a seven-game winning streak at the time, but now the Wild have lost two straight, including a litmus test game against the Knights in which they just couldn’t quite keep up, tying the game three times and blowing a one-goal lead but eventually losing, 6-4. The Wild are still a good team, but the loss gives us some pause before calling them contenders.
6. New York Rangers (18-7-3, +9. CF%: 31st, xGF%: 27th. Last Week: 2)
That’s three losses in their past four games, with their only win coming against Buffalo that was a lot closer than it should’ve been. Two of the losses were to the Avs, which wasn’t surprising but the 11-5 margin certainly was. The Rangers are not even close to being a contender without Igor Shesterkin.
7. Florida Panthers (18-6-4, +20. CF%: 1st, xGF%: 2nd. Last Week: 3)
It’s been pure chaos for the Panthers, who placed Aleksander Barkov on injured reserve and lost three of their past four games, including an 8-2 drubbing by the Sens. It’s enough to knock the Panthers to their lowest ranking so far this season.
8. Carolina Hurricanes (19-7-1, +27. CF%: 2nd, xGF%: 5th. Last Week: 8)
The Canes looked gassed in Sunday’s loss to Vancouver, and it’s the only blemish in what would’ve been a perfect sweep through Western Canada. The Canes struggled a little without Brett Pesce and Tony DeAngelo in the lineup, and just as they’re about to return, Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis were placed in COVID protocol. They have not caught any breaks since their blistering start to the season.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins (15-8-5, +13. CF%: 9th, xGF%: 4th. Last Week: 13)
Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have both been very good despite injuries to key players in the Pens lineup. But the better story is, in classic Sidney Crosby fashion, he’s again managed to drag middle-six wingers up to his level and turn them into dependable producers on the top line, this time in Kasperi Kapanen and Evan Rodrigues.
10. Washington Capitals (17-5-6, +26. CF%: 10th, xGF%: 9th. Last Week: 5)
The Caps drop in the rankings but they’ll be fine; a loss to the rival Pens and scraping by with a shootout win against the Sabres the following night after a three-day break should draw a little criticism. It’s almost inevitable the Caps will find themselves climbing back up with games against the Hawks, Isles, Flyers and Sens coming up, and Nicklas Backstrom’s return seems imminent.
11. Anaheim Ducks (16-9-5, +12. CF%: 19th, xGF%: 18th. Last Week: 14)
Even if John Gibson misses extended time, the Ducks don’t really need to worry since Anthony Stolarz has been so good. The Ducks finish their road trip with an impressive 3-1-1 record, and they did it the hard way, too; each win was decided by two goals or less.
12. Nashville Predators (17-10-1, +6. CF%: 14th, xGF%: 8th. Last Week: 16)
The Preds rank second in 5v5 CF% since Dec. 1, trailing only the Panthers, but in reality, they’re barely squeaking by with a league-leading 10 one-goal wins, including four in December. The upcoming stretch will be tough without Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene, and we’ll know soon if they’re a pretender or contender.
13. St. Louis Blues (16-8-5, +20. CF%: 23rd, xGF%: 24th. Last Week: 17)
The Blues’ depth has been impressive: Charlie Lindgren has more wins than starts and five different rookies have scored at least one goal, though Scott Perunovich has provided five assists in 14 games. They’ve won four of their past five and broken out of their mid-November lull, and if Lindgren can keep this up, it could give the Blues two strong options in net.
14. Boston Bruins (14-9-2, +4. CF%: 4th, xGF%: 1st. Last Week: 15)
The Bruins were missing Brad Marchand and Craig Smith and their scoring immediately suffered with just one goal against the Knights on Tuesday, which again highlights their lack of scoring depth. Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman have played well, for the most part, but have also not been able to do so for periods lasting anything longer than a few games. I’m not sure just bringing in Rask the Ringer will suddenly turn them into a legit contender, though the possession numbers suggest they should be a lot better.
15. Dallas Stars (13-11-2, -4. CF%: 20th, xGF%: 15th. Last Week: 7)
In retrospect, I was a little too eager to hop on the Stars wagon. The Stars lost three straight on the road, which was expected because they’re lottery-status bad on the road, but the shocking loss came Tuesday at home against the Blues and their third-string goalie. The Stars will play exclusively divisional opponents until Jan. 2, and five of those nine games will be at home. These are key weeks coming up for the Stars, who are four points out of the last wild card spot.
16. Calgary Flames (15-7-6, +25. CF%: 3rd, xGF%: 6th. Last Week: 10)
It’s hard to gauge a team whose games have been postponed until Thursday, but the Flames have been uncharacteristically poor on defense and lost four straight. They’ve also lost four of their past five games at home, with the only win coming via overtime against the Canes. It’ll be interesting to see how the Flames perform coming out of their COVID-related break.
17. Edmonton Oilers (16-11-0, +6. CF%: 17th, xGF%: 14th. Last Week: 11)
Could you imagine if Evan Bouchard wasn’t playing like he is right now? If Darnell Nurse was Tom Hanks and alone on an island, Bouchard would surely be Wilson, the silent partner who keeps him sane. Everyone else has been a disappointment, and when Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl aren’t scoring to cover up their mediocre defense and bad goaltending, it can look utterly disastrous.
18. Vancouver Canucks (13-15-2, -12. CF%: 12th, xGF%: 21st. Last Week: 23)
Bruce, there it is! The more the Canucks win, the more the chant will catch on, much to Bruce Boudreau’s dismay. They’re now 5-0-0 under his watch, with the most recent win against the Jackets arguably the most impressive; down 3-1 heading into the third period, the Canucks staged a relentless comeback and won the game on the backs of a rejuvenated power play that capitalized when they needed a goal the most. Elias Pettersson has now scored in consecutive games, and the struggling superstar is key to the Canucks’ success.
19. Los Angeles Kings (12-10-5, +1. CF%: 6th, xGF%: 16th. Last Week: 24)
The Kings get a big boost with Drew Doughty back in the lineup, who are 3-2-1 since his return and keep turning back the clock with Jonathan Quick emerging as the comeback player of the year. We’ll get a better sense of just how good they are during their road trip with stops in Florida, Carolina and Washington to follow after a hard-fought 3-2 overtime loss in Tampa on Tuesday.
20. Detroit Red Wings (14-12-3, -17. CF%: 30th, xGF%: 23rd. Last Week: 20)
Admittedly, the Wings faced three tough teams during their losing streak – Preds, Blues, Avs – and Alex Nedeljkovic has been quite good this season even though there were doubts about his ability to be a starting goalie (ahem, Carolina).
21. Winnipeg Jets (13-10-5, +4. CF%: 8th, xGF%: 12th. Last Week: 21)
They’re the most frustrating team in the league to figure out, winning four of six, including victories over Calgary and Toronto, then promptly losing to Vancouver and Buffalo. For a team that has so much talent, they always seem to be mired in more losing streaks than winning ones. The 2018-19 season was the last season in which the Jets’ longest winning streak was longer than their longest losing streak; every season since then has featured a season high four-game winning streak but also a losing streak that has lasted at least five games.
22. Columbus Blue Jackets (14-12-1, -1. CF%: 24th, xGF%: 25th. Last Week: 18)
If Elvis Merzlikins is not lights-out good, the Jackets’ chances usually aren’t great. They’ve lost seven of their past nine and both of their wins needed above-average performances on offense to clinch. They’re more competitive this season because their offense has improved, but for the second straight season they rank 25th in GA/GP.
23. Seattle Kraken (10-15-3, -19. CF%: 18th, xGF%: 20th. Last Week: 22)
A third-straight win from Chris Driedger means he should be the starter now, right?. The Kraken leapfrog the Sharks after a 3-1 on Tuesday, which snapped a three-game slide. Philipp Grubauer is quickly making a case to be the league’s worst goalie relative to his contract and – dare we say?! – a potential buyout candidate.
24. San Jose Sharks (15-13-1, -4. CF%: 28th, xGF%: 22nd. Last Week: 19)
James Reimer continues to be a big reason for their success but they’re having trouble scoring goals. Individually, Timo Meier and Logan Couture are having good seasons, but they have no depth. Only four forwards have scored more than five goals, and Nick Bonino is averaging two minutes on the power play per game, the third-highest average of his career even though he’s scored more than three power-play goals just twice in his career.
25. Ottawa Senators (9-16-1, -20. CF%: 32nd, xGF%: 29th. Last Week: 27)
It’s been an impressive run with five wins in their past six, including the two most recent wins against Florida and Tampa. A lot of credit goes to Anton Forsberg, the 29-year-old journeyman who has caught fire, and since Drake Batherson returned on Dec. 1, he’s combined to score 32 points in seven games with Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris. They’re a legitimate No. 1 line that should stay together for years to come.
26. Philadelphia Flyers (11-12-4, -18. CF%: 25th, xGF%: 28th. Last Week: 31)
Could this be the turnaround? The Flyers have now won three in a row, including a road win in Vegas and a 6-1 drubbing against Jersey. During their winning streak, the Flyers ranked sixth in shooting percentage, and they’ll need to keep this up to maintain their momentum.
27. Chicago Blackhawks (10-15-2, -24. CF%: 26th, xGF%: 30th. Last Week: 25)
Jonathan Toews finally broke his goal drought, and the Hawks have alternated wins and losses since Nov. 20. It’s not nearly enough to gain the ground lost during their season-opening nine-game losing streak, but at least they’re no longer sinking like a rock. They nearly staged a comeback against the Leafs that would’ve been very impressive.
28. New York Islanders (7-12-5, -21. CF%: 27th, xGF%: 19th. Last Week: 26)
Winning two of their past four games is a pretty good result, considering how awful the Isles were at the start of the season and how many players they’ve lost to various ailments and injuries. There’s a slim chance they can be a playoff contender if they can string together some wins, but they really need some offense. According to plusminusline.com’s model, heading into Tuesday’s games, Ilya Sorokin’s 2.31 goal support per 60 minutes ranks 58th out of 67 goalies who have played at least five games, while Semyon Varlamov ranks 65th. The silver lining: the Isles have played the fewest number of games.
29. New Jersey Devils (10-12-5, -17. CF%: 11th, xGF%: 17th. Last Week: 28)
Blackwood shut out the Flyers last Wednesday but allowed six goals on Tuesday – such is the life of a young goaltender who can’t be consistent. The Devils have been mixing up their lines but it hasn’t produced any results. It also remains to be seen if Blackwood can handle a heavy workload with Jonathan Bernier missing significant time and a dearth of goalies on their depth chart; Blackwood’s career-high 47 appearances in 2019-20 was split into a strong first half but a disappointing second half.
30. Buffalo Sabres (9-15-4, -22. CF%: 21st, xGF%: 26th. Last Week: 30)
Ukka-Pekka Luukonen has brought a ray of sunshine, and on his fourth try managed to snap the Sabres’ losing streak at seven games. The most impressive stat, however, is that UPL has managed to keep opponents to two goals or fewer. The Sabres’ scoring has dried up, averaging three goals in October, 2.79 in November and now 2.17 in December.
31. Arizona Coyotes (5-20-2, -53. CF%: 29th, xGF%: 32nd. Last Week: 29)
Excluding overtime and shootouts, the Coyotes have lost by one goal only three times this season. It’s another way of saying they’re getting blown out a lot. During their five-game losing streak, they’ve been outscored 24-8.
32. Montréal Canadiens (6-21-3, -43. CF%: 22nd, xGF%: 31st. Last Week: 32)
If we’re counting losses in extra time, the Habs’ seven-game losing streak is the third-longest in franchise history. Only the 1940 Habs (nine games) and 1926 Habs (12 games) have lost more games in a row. On the plus side, the Habs are still worth $1.6 billion, according to Forbes.