A wizard (or sorcerer, maybe?) once said the endgame was approaching. While the fate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was at stake when the quote was specifically used, it can still apply to the 2021 NHL season. As the season begins to wane, more excitement is likely to brew.
Until the regular season comes to a complete close, it is best to take in the inevitable fireworks and do a few more Rich 10 NHL Rankings. Who says no?
At the edge of the crease: New York Islanders (29-14-5, 63 points)
Previous ranking: +1
Record over past week: 1-1-1
Spoiler alert – the Islanders can still check, block, mind the net and do everything else in-between to win hockey games. Sometimes, the speed is simply not there, and bad stretches occur as a result. Should New York put themselves in a favorable position to clinch a playoff berth, they will need to crank it up a notch on the road, as four of their next five games are away from Nassau Coliseum, where they are 19-3-3. Of those four games, two will be against the tough Washington Capitals (Apr. 27) and scorching hot New York Rangers (Apr. 29). The team’s resilience and tenacity will most definitely be tested.
10. Boston Bruins (27-14-6, 60 points)
Previous ranking: 5
Record over past week: 2-2-0
OK, maybe I was a bit too bullish on the Bruins in last week’s ranking installment. Then again, maybe I was not, as the team’s strengths are still readily apparent. The goaltending, when healthy, is still deep, and the line combinations, even when they hit a rough patch, are still formidable on a game-to-game basis. Although he was mentioned in last week’s ranking, I will mention him again – keep an eye on Jeremy Swayman. Although the 22-year-old came up on the wrong end of the stick in Sunday’s 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he is still a significant asset to a Boston squad hungry for healthy and steady goaltending. In seven career games started, Swayman now holds a 1.56 Goals Against Average (GAA) and .946 Save Percentage (Sv%). Small sample size aside, Boston will certainly take it and run with it.
9. Tampa Bay Lightning (32-14-2, 66 points)
Previous ranking: 8
Record over past week: 3-1-0
A quick breakaway to begin overtime against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday evening was just what the doctor ordered for the Lightning, as Victor Hedman wristed a shot from the slot to net Tampa Bay the 4-3 win. The game-winning goal was the 19th of Hedman’s career and his second of the season (Apr. 15 against the Florida Panthers). Should Tampa Bay put themselves in a more favorable position come playoff time, they will need to dig in and capitalize in the clutch like they did against the Blue Jackets. Obvious take, right? Hey, I am just here to let you know.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs (30-13-5, 65 points)
Previous ranking: 9
Record over past week: 2-1-0
Ever since Zach Hyman (knee) exited Toronto’s Apr. 18 matchup against the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto has had to do a bit of a lineup shuffle. Nevertheless, Toronto’s scoring depth has not missed a beat, as the team collectively scored 12 goals in their three games played this past week, tied for fifth-most in the NHL. Instead of Auston Matthews scoring the majority of the goals, the honor instead went to Mitchell Marner and John Tavares, who both tallied three netters each. The goaltending might be finding its form once more, too, as Jack Campbell went 2-0-0 and compiled a 2.01 GAA and .937 Sv% this past week. This team is good, so do not let this ranking fool you.
7. Washington Capitals (31-13-4, 66 points)
Previous ranking: 6
Record over past week: 2-0-0
No Alex Ovechkin? No problem for Washington. At least, not for one game. Even without the prolific 35-year-old winger (lower-body injury) during their Apr. 24 matchup against the Islanders, Washington outshot and outscored their inter-division rival in what amounted to a 6-3 triumph. Although Ovechkin is simply day-to-day, how Washington responds to the injury should the star be out for a prolonged period will be a hot topic. In the short-term, Washington should be OK, but in the long-term, could Ovechkin’s health become the age-old question? Your answer is as good as mine.
6. Minnesota Wild (31-13-3, 65 points)
Previous ranking: 7
Record over past week: 4-0-0
Minnesota is streaking again, ladies and gentlemen. Winning seven in a row is one thing, but it is most certainly another when you beat opponents you are supposed to beat. Over the stretch, Minnesota has beaten Arizona three times, San Jose three times and Los Angeles once. When looking at their past week of action, Minnesota led the entire NHL in goals scored (19) and in power-play percentage (44.4%). Having a unique blend of youth and veteran leadership is something every franchise wants to have, and Minnesota certainly has it. The Wild will start up a seven-game home stretch this week when they host the St. Louis Blues (three games), Vegas Golden Knights (two games) and Anaheim Ducks (two games). To think Minnesota will show off their winning prowess again during the upcoming stretch would be a correct assumption. At least, it is likely a correct assumption.
5. Colorado Avalanche (31-10-4, 66 points)
Previous ranking: 2
Record over past week: 1-1-0
After a brief COVID-19 hiatus, Colorado returned to the ice on Apr. 22 and promptly clinched a playoff berth after overwhelming St. Louis, 4-2. By now, Colorado’s x-factor is pretty straightforward. Share the puck to keep the defense guessing and squeeze just enough production out of the secondary goaltending unit. Over the past week, Colorado showed the capability to do both – the supplementary lines spearheaded by Andre Burakovsky and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare did their part on offense on Apr. 22, while the goaltending led by Devan Dubnyk bent but did not break. Although the latter was unable to prevent Ryan O’Reilly from collecting a hat trick on Apr. 24, the 34-year-old should still be a viable option for Colorado to rely on. Colorado just needs decent production from the backups. It is as simple as that.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (32-14-3, 67 points)
Previous ranking: 10
Record over past week: 4-0-0
Don’t look now, but there is a new power atop the MassMutual East Division. With Pittsburgh’s 1-0 shutout win against the Bruins on Sunday afternoon, the Penguins are now the current kings of what is a stacked division. Although there are still a handful of games to be played, Pittsburgh is starting to play complete hockey, and should they continue to do so, the remaining games might not matter. They will definitely not matter if the goaltending continues to perform the way 25-year-old Tristan Jarry did against the Bruins on Apr. 25. How so? Well, Jarry is the first Pittsburgh goaltender 25 years old or younger to shut out the Bruins since Marc-Andre Fleury on Mar. 18, 2010 (Pittsburgh won, 3-0). Shutting down the offensive firepower of the Bruins is one thing, but to do it at such a young age? Amazing. You know what is also amazing? With his goal scored against the New Jersey Devils on Apr. 24, Sidney Crosby is now guaranteed to finish the season averaging a point per game. Per NHL Public Relations, Crosby’s 16 seasons averaging a point per game trails only Wayne Gretzky (19) and Gordie Howe (17). Pittsburgh will do battle against the Bruins once more on Apr. 27 before taking to the road to play Washington on Apr. 29 and May 1.
3. Florida Panthers (31-13-5, 67 points)
Previous ranking: 4
Record over past week: 3-1-0
The Carolina Hurricanes are a speedy team, and it most definitely showed on Apr. 22 when they outpaced Florida in what was a 4-2 defeat for the latter. The Panthers, however, utilized their shooting frenzy to get a leg (or paw?) up against Carolina on Apr. 24, as they clawed their way back from a 3-1 deficit to send the game into overtime. However, instead of a passive approach, Joel Quenneville loaded up on offense and speed for the five-minute sprint to the finish. However, Florida only needed 24 seconds to take Carolina down, as Aleksander Barkov rocketed ahead on the rush and drove in the puck from the right circle without sneaking a peek. As it turns out, Florida has speed, and they are not afraid to use it.
2. Carolina Hurricanes (31-10-6, 68 points)
Previous ranking: 3
Record over past week: 2-0-2
One could have expected the worst for Carolina heading into the most recent week of NHL action. After all, they were slated to play four straight games on the road against two of the top teams in the NHL, let alone the Discover Central Division. With four combined bouts against the Lightning and Panthers, one could have, and perhaps should have, expected Carolina to possibly drop one or two in regulation against the pair. Guess what? Carolina, despite losing two of their games (Apr. 19 against Tampa Bay and Apr. 24 against Florida), still collected a point in each. In the other two matches, Carolina outscored their opponent, 8-3. Whether it be Dougie Hamilton from the point or Alex Nedeljkovic between the pipes, this team is deep. Everywhere. It showed this past week in what was a huge test.
1. Vegas Golden Knights (34-11-2, 70 points)
Previous ranking: 1
Record over past week: 3-0-0
Under normal circumstances, a nine-game winning streak would easily vault a team into this ranking installment. Considering Vegas was already in this ranking (and at the top of it, no less) to begin with, they instead hold off the rest of the field to maintain the pole position. What is there to say about the team’s current nine-game winning streak? They have clinched another playoff berth because of it (Apr. 21 against San Jose), but enough about the postseason. What about the streak itself? Since the streak began (Apr. 9), Vegas has led the entire NHL in shots per game (36.7) and goals allowed per game (1.67). I could write much more than just this about the potency this team has shown, but remember this — per NHL Public Relations, Vegas’ nine-game winning streak is tied for the longest within a team’s first four years of existence. The other club to achieve this? Ottawa during the 1919-20 season (nine games). Not bad.