Down the Stretch: Late-Season PP Observations
In St. Louis, what a turnaround season it's been for the Blues, who currently sit first overall in the Western Conference (45-19-8, 98 pts) and are looking to become the first team to clinch a playoff spot this week. The Blues have been known all season long as the best defensive team in the NHL (1.86 goals allowed per game, 26.3 shots against per game, both tops in the league), however they've also been getting it done offensively, particularly on the power play. Since February 9th (my second-to-last report and last time I ran these stats), the Blues have jumped an impressive 13 spots in the league's PP rankings (28th to 15th), and one need look no further than the team's blue line to see where most of the production's been coming from. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo is tops in the league in PP scoring with 13 points (2G, 11A) over that 20-game span, and now has a career-best 21 PP points on the season (5G, 16A). Meanwhile, Pietrangelo's blue line partner Kevin Shattenkirk has also been contributing, recording eight points of his own (3G, 5A) over the same stretch, and now sits with 15 points (5G, 10A), one point away from establishing his own career high. Not bad for a couple of guys that are each playing in just their second full season in the NHL. Finally, you can't underestimate the impact Andy McDonald's return has had on this team, either. Since returning from a concussion in mid-February, McDonald has been on a point-per-game pace with 19 points in 21 games, including six PP points (3G, 3A). However, the team will now be without him possibly for the rest of the season following a shoulder injury this week.
Okay everyone - and be honest here - raise your hand if you figured the Winnipeg Jets would still be competing for a playoff spot with a dozen games to go? Yeah, me neither. But here we are with about three weeks left, and the Jets are just four games back of eighth spot in the East. And here's another surprise - their power play has been a real contributor over the past few weeks. Again, using that same five-week span since Feb. 9th, the Jets are up 12 spots in the league's PP standings - from 20th place all the way to 8th. Dustin Byfuglien finished the month of February on an absolute tear - scoring 17 points in his last 10 games, eight of which came with the man advantage, and now leads the team in PP scoring (18 points) despite having only played 54 games. Otherwise, the team continues to get very balanced scoring with the extra man, relying on guys like Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane and Nikolai Antropov. The only head-scratcher of the group is Tobias Enstrom, who still sees plenty of first-line PP minutes but is struggling to produce with just 10 PP points in 50 games. Enstrom missed all of November and half of December with a shoulder injury and overall just hasn't looked like the same player since his return. [NOTE: Another interesting stat - the Jets currently have the best home PP record in the league (25.0%) along with the second-worst road PP record (12.0%). Chalk it up to those crazy home crowds in Winnipeg, I guess.]
In Ottawa, the surprising Senators are another team on an upswing this year. After finishing third-last in the East last season, few experts predicted they'd be contending for a playoff spot just one year later. However, the seventh-place Sens currently sit just one point back of Boston in the Northeast and could vault into second place in the East if they can overtake the B's in their division. Meanwhile, the Sens' power play has been firing on all cylinders lately, with 13 goals over their last 15 games, supplied by Jason Spezza (4), Milan Michalek (3), Chris Phillips (yes, you read that right, 3), Erik Karlsson (2) and Filip Kuba (1). Note that Sergei Gonchar, who has historically been a fixture on the first PP unit wherever he's played, can no longer claim that distinction in Ottawa. Presently, it's the Special-K twins Karlsson and Kuba manning the points, with Spezza, Michalek and Alfredsson up front. The second line is led by Nick Foligno, Kyle Turris and Chris Neil, who are marginal PP producers at best, with just five points between them over the past five weeks.
In Montreal, this season will obviously go down as an absolute flop for the Canadiens, currently tied for last place in the East. Lately, however, one of the few bright spots has been the team's power play. Once dead-last in the PP rankings, the Habs have scored 14 PP goals over the last five weeks - second-most in the league over that span - and now sit in 26th place, ahead of such playoff-bound teams as the Rangers (28th), Dallas (27th) and Phoenix (30th). The Canadiens' PP lines have gone through quite the overhaul this year, with guys like Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta having been replaced by Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. The good news is, these guys have been contributing - especially Desharnais and Pacioretty, each player having already established career highs in PP points this season (18 pts and 12 pts, respectively). Another reason for optimism is the recent return of Andrei Markov, who has been out since the start of the season with a knee injury. Markov returned to the lineup on March 10 and registered a PP helper in his first game back. He's still not seeing first-line PP duty however - that role is still going to P.K. Subban and Tomas Kaberle - but with time, he should return to his usual spot once he gets his game legs under him.
In Tampa Bay, what else can you say about the emergence of Teddy Purcell over the last few weeks but A-M-A-Z-I-N-G? Ever since Vincent Lecavalier went down with a hand injury in late February, Purcell has stepped in to fill the breach and responded with 10 PP points (3G, 7A) in 12 games. He's currently teaming with Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos on the team's #1 PP line, and the trio has absolutely been on fire lately, totaling nine goals and 12 helpers between them over the past dozen games. And not to be forgotten, Ryan Malone has also been chipping in on that line, with a goal and five helpers over that same stretch. In terms of defensemen, it's a good thing the Bolts have all that firepower up front, because they're getting nothing out of their back end these days. With Marc-Andre Bergeron likely done for the season following back surgery earlier this month, the only other options the team has left on their blue line are Brett Clark and Victor Hedman, who have exactly three points between them for the season to date. Not good.
And finally, in San Jose, the ninth-place Sharks are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since the lockout, and just the second time in the last 14 seasons. However, you can't blame that on the team's power play, currently fourth overall in the NHL with a 20.8% success rate. Anyone who thought the team was going to have trouble replacing the combined production of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi (15 PP goals between them last season) obviously wasn't counting on Logan Couture stepping up to the plate this year. Couture currently has 10 PP goals and counting, including two in his past three games. Meanwhile, his linemates Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are also lighting things up lately, with a combined 20 PP points (5G, 15A) over the past five weeks. Meanwhile, Brent Burns has been a nice blue line addition this season (5G, 9A), providing a nice complement to Dan Boyle (3G, 11A), and Ryane Clowe has been very productive in his own right (4G, 8A), especially for a guy who spends most of his time on the second unit. Arguably, the one disappointment the Sharks have this year might be Martin Havlat. The oft-injured Havlat has once again been sidelined for most of this season after having hamstring surgery in December, but was just recently activated from IR and made his return to the lineup Thursday against Nashville. Havlat, who had 15 points prior to the injury, including a goal and two helpers on the power play, should provide the team's second unit some pop once he gets back up to speed.