Power Rankings: Capitals on top of almost every category these days

Ken Campbell
Evgeny Kuznetsov celebrates another Caps goal (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

No team in the NHL has a better winning percentage at home than the Washington Capitals. No team in the NHL has a better winning percentage on the road than the Washington Capitals. So basically, you name the place and the Capitals will be there to beat you.

With a differential of plus-56, the Capitals are 24 goals better in that department and stand first in the league in goals per game and second goals against per game. So basically, you name the style of play in the game and the Capitals will be there to beat you. And their power play is best in the NHL, so take liberties against them and they will be there to beat you.

With so much beating going on, it’s no surprise that the Capitals are at the top of both the NHL standings and the THN.com Power Rankings for this week. (Pre-all-star break rankings from Jan. 27 are in parentheses.):

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Power Rankings: Panthers ride ‘Spacey in Space’ to new stratosphere

Ken Campbell
Reilly Smith (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Nobody but the Florida Panthers and actor Kevin Spacey knows exactly what “Spacey in Space” means, but the last time the Panthers had a gimmick like this, they rode it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

In 1995-96 it was the year of the rat. And if the Panthers keep playing the way they have of late, who knows? They might just be able to ride “Spacey in Space” to boldly go where no Panther has gone before, a Stanley Cup parade. There’s still a long way to go and a lot to prove, but the Panthers are undoubtedly for real. And they also go into the all-star break as the top team in thn.com’s weekly Power Rankings. (Last week’s rankings in parentheses.)

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Power Rankings: Defending Cup champs separating from pack in West

Ken Campbell
Steven Stamkos (left) and Patrick Kane (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

This is getting downright scary. Will anyone be able to stop Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks this season? As great as the Blackhawks have been over the past half decade, they never won 12 games in a row the way they have this season. As brilliant as Kane has been throughout his career, he has never had a stretch like this one.

The Blackhawks established their franchise high-water mark for straight wins when they dispatched the Nashville Predators Tuesday night. And they’ll have a chance to usurp the Florida Panthers season-high winning streak when they visit the surging Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night.

Their play of late makes the Blackhawks an easy choice as the top-ranked team in thn.com’s Power Rankings for the second straight week. (Last week’s ranking in parentheses.)

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Power Rankings: Blackhawks, Kane get love from The Great One

Ken Campbell
Chicago Blackhawks  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When an authority no less than Wayne Gretzky gives you his seal of approval, you know you’re doing something right. On a Chicago radio station this week, The Great One said what the Chicago Blackhawks have accomplished in the salary cap era, “is probably harder to do today than what the Islanders did in the ’80s and what the Oilers did in the late ’80s.”

He went on to say of Blackhawks star Patrick Kane: “I don’t think there’s any question at this point of the season that he’s probably the leading candidate to win the Hart Trophy and it’s well deserved.”

The Hawks don’t only have Gretzky’s seal of approval. On the strength of an eight-game win streak, they also have thn.com’s, edging the Florida Panthers, who saw their 12-game run halted Tuesday night in an overtime loss to Vancouver. (Last week’s ranking in parentheses.)

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THN Goalie Rankings: Despite injury, Carey Price in a league of his own

Ken Campbell
(Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

When Ken Hitchcock stood behind the visitors’ bench against the Montreal Canadiens in October, he watched his St. Louis Blues fire 17 pucks at Carey Price in the first period. He stood and pondered how his team could be outchancing the Canadiens so badly and still be losing. As the game went on, he watched his players shake their heads and look to the heavens. He saw their energy ebb and resignation take over their body language, becoming more discouraged as each of their 38 shots found their way into that sea of red in the Montreal net.

It was right around then Hitchcock made his own determination about Price and his impact on the game. “As a sportsman it’s nice to see,” he said, “but as a competitor, it’s the s–ts.”

His injury this season notwithstanding, what we’re witnessing with Price is the emergence of an athlete who’s beginning to transcend his sport. There is no debate Price is the best goaltender in the NHL, and by extension, the world. As far as his impact on the game, however, he’s starting to find his way into that rarified status occupied by the likes of Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Michael Jordan and Dominik Hasek. He is so dominant at his position that he is becoming the focal point of his opponents’ efforts, often to their detriment. “There’s no doubt he’s renting out space inside players’ heads,” said longtime sports psychologist Paul Dennis.

Price can do what Hasek did in his prime. On Feb. 20, 1998, in Nagano, Japan, Canada was playing the Czech Republic, and Hasek was at the height of his powers. He was not only in the Canadian players’ kitchens. He was helping himself to everything in their fridges. Canada was passing up shots, playing tentatively and looking for the perfect scoring chance. The Canadians finished regulation with 22 shots on goal, and by the time they got to the shootout, they might as well have been trying to score with manhole covers.

Two months later, Sean Burke had been dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers at the trade deadline. As the season wound down, he kept noticing in the dressing room how his teammates continued to put pressure on themselves to finish second in the Eastern Conference to avoid finishing third and a meeting with the sixth-place Buffalo Sabres and Hasek. The Flyers lost three of their last four games, met the Sabres in the first round and, despite having home-ice advantage, were crushed 4-1 by Buffalo in the series. “We were mentally beaten already,” Burke said. “We didn’t want to face him, and it became a total mental thing for us.”

And that’s perhaps where Price has his biggest advantage over opponents. It’s not so much in terms of the actual game action where players are shooting when they should be passing, passing when they should be shooting or zigging when they should be zagging. It’s in the total team approach to facing him. Price is at a stage where teams are becoming so focused on trying to beat him they forget the Canadiens are a pretty good team even without him in the net. “I know that after we played them, we were kicking ourselves for spending all our time talking about the opposing goalie,” Hitchcock said.

Dennis said it can be a huge advantage for the Canadiens. Players who rise to the ranks of the NHL do so for many reasons. One of them is a sublime level of skill, another is mental toughness and determination. But one of the big ones is their ability to eliminate distractions and focus on the task at hand. When Price enters the equation, he becomes exactly that – an unwanted and unneeded distraction. In addition to having to make plays and put themselves in a position to score goals, opponents have to think about how they’re going to get the puck past Price once they accomplish all those things.

Dennis’ advice to teams and players in the NHL is to basically ignore the reigning MVP.

“I’m not an NHL coach, but if I were and I were preparing my team, I don’t think I’d focus a lot on a Carey Price, because it brings more tension to an already tense situation,” Dennis said. “I’d focus on what we do really well and ‘this is how we’re going to exploit the Canadiens and get scoring opportunities.’ And I would stop there. I wouldn’t reinforce how good he is in my players’ minds. They already know that. I’m not going to state the obvious.”

By virtue of the position he plays, Price is always going to have a significant impact on the outcome of the game, either positively (usually) or negatively (rarely). It’s no different, really, than facing a superstar such as Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux in his prime. Those who were around Price with the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi marvelled at how easy he makes a very difficult game look. Even though you could count on one hand the number of goals Canada gave up in that tournament, it’s not always easy to keep your focus, particularly when the stakes are so high. Hitchcock said he knew Price was special after Canada’s 2-1 win over Latvia when Canada was hitting posts, missing open nets and continually being thwarted by a virtual unknown at the other end named Kristers Gudlevskis. But in that game, Price had to make at least a half dozen highlight-reel saves himself. Had he allowed a soft goal or not been at the top of his game, what Price does to shooters might have happened to his own team facing Gudlevskis. That he did it so calmly was what impressed those around him.

Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland was one of those people who had a front-row seat for Price’s exploits in Sochi. He opines that there are so many good players in the NHL it’s difficult to distinguish yourself as a difference maker. But Price has done that by determining the outcome of games. Holland isn’t sure whether Price is in his Wing players’ heads, but he is certain of one thing.

“I know he’s in my head,” Holland said. “He puts pressure on the other goalie. He puts pressure on the other team. At the same time, he gives confidence to his team because he’s the last line of defense. And he’s the best last line of defense in the league.”

THN’s Top 40

 

The Hockey News submitted a list of 40 NHL goaltenders – 30 starters plus our picks for the 10 best backups – to 10 retired NHL goaltenders. We asked them to rate each goalie in five different categories: goalie sense (positioning, angles, general hockey IQ); athleticism; puckhandling; winnability (trustworthiness in a do-or-die game); and durability (health and ability to handle large workload). Ex-NHL goaltender and goalie coach Corey Hirsch came up with the five categories. Here are the overall results:

GoalieRankings_Top40

Here are the Top 5-rated goalies from each of the five categories.

GoalieRankings_GoalieSense

 

Quick

GoalieRankings_Athleticism

GoalieRankings_Winnability

Smith

GoalieRankings_Puckhandling

GoalieRankings_Durability

Power Rankings: Defense and goaltending have Panthers flying high

Ken Campbell
Roberto Luongo  (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

The fact the Florida Panthers have won each of their past 10 games is impressive enough. The fact that they’ve given up one or zero goals in eight of those games is downright mind-boggling.

The Panthers are scoring plenty, led by their 43-year-old wunderkind Jaromir Jagr, but their underpinning of their success over the past three weeks has been defense and goaltending. The Panthers have outscored their opponents 33-12 9 in regulation time during the streak, meaning they’ve averaged just over a goal a game against during their run.

So it should come as no surprise that the Panthers are at the top of thn.com’s weekly Power Rankings for the first time this season. After all, is there any team in the league you’d rather face than the Panthers at the moment? (Rankings from Dec. 23 are in parentheses.)

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Power Rankings: Capitals pile up the wins in a variety of ways

Ken Campbell
The Capitals celebrate their sixth straight win.  (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Washington Capitals can win it any way you’d like. Get down a couple of goals? Not a problem, they’ll just pour it on and come back. Need to get down and gritty? They’ve got that covered too, winning their sixth straight game on the weekend with two goals from their bottom-six forwards and using their backup goalie Philipp Grubauer.

That’s why the Capitals have become a fixture at or near the top of thn.com’s Power Rankings this season. The Capitals have teased us before with great regular seasons, but this one just seems to have a different feel to it. These guys look like they’re for real.

And they go into the Christmas break as the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference standings and in our Power Rankings. (Last week’s rankings in parentheses.)

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Power Rankings: Caps and Stars NHL’s models of consistency

Ken Campbell
Washington Capitals (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

There’s no secret to why the Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars occupy the top two spots in the NHL standings and in thn.com’s Power Rankings this week. It’s because they’ve both been models of consistency this season.

In fact, they’re the only two teams in the NHL that have not lost successive games so far this season. The Capitals, in fact, are the hottest team in the league with an 8-1-1 record in their past 10 and a stretch in which they’ve picked up at least one point in 13 of their past 15 games. (Last week’s rankings in parentheses.)

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