Weekend Takeaways: Thriving California NHL teams have fans dreaming again

I suspect a lot of people who don’t live in the state often wonder about — especially at this slush-filled time of year in Canada and the northern U.S. — the regenerative properties of California. The sun, the waves, the wine: I mean, there has to be a reason for all those love-letter pop songs.

Look around ‘The Golden State’ right now and you’ll find a few veteran guys — many of them California lifers in terms of their NHL career — are playing like they’ve never felt fresher.

Start at the top, where Erik Karlsson’s blue-line clapper on Saturday as the San Jose Sharks downed the visiting Dallas Stars 2-1. The former Ottawa Senator is in Year 4 in Northern California and aside from a short stint on the COVID protocol list, things could not be going better this season for the 31-year-old.

His tally against Dallas was Karlsson’s eighth goal of the campaign, equaling his best single-season total since joining the Sharks from Ottawa in a 2018 training camp mega swap. Among defencemen, only Roman Josi (nine) and Cale Makar (12) have more goals than Karlsson, who is playing at a 68-point clip. The Swede won the 2015 Norris Trophy and finished runner-up each of the next two years. Since then, though, he hasn’t had a top-10 finish. Truly climbing into the Norris conversation this year may be a bridge too far for Karlsson, but it’s great to see him (hopefully) leave his nagging injury history behind and play more like the daring wizard we knew in Canada’s capital.

Speaking of award-winning defenceman, Drew Doughty has continued his renaissance season since returning ahead of schedule on Dec. 2 from a knee injury. Doughty picked up a helper in the Los Angeles Kings’ 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, as the home side made sure Minny’s win streak stopped at eight games. Doughty, who turned 32 last week, has played just 10 games this season, but his 1.2 points-per-game mark in those contests is second only to the scorching Devon Toews (20 points in 15 games for a 1.33 figure) among D-men.

And how about Doughty’s longtime teammate, Jonathan Quick? The goalie, who turns 36 next month, has won three straight games, raising his save percentage to .933 in 15 outings. Only four puck stoppers in the league with at least 10 appearances have a better mark. (One of them, by the way, is 33-year-old Sharks goalie James Reimer, whose .937 number is further evidence of some kind of California comeback theme in the air). As for Quick, he hasn’t finished a season with a save percentage above .904 since 2017-18.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks wrapped a five-game roadie with a 3-2 extra-time victory over the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, giving them seven of a possible 10 points on the voyage. The day before Anaheim was blanked 1-0 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the club did welcome Ryan Getzlaf back from a lower-body ailment that shelved him for five games. The 36-year-old captain — thanks to a helper-heavy 1-19-20 stat line — is producing points at his best rate (0.80 points-per-game) since 2017-18. His fellow California-based pivots Anze Kopitar and Logan Couture are also experiencing surges this year, with the 34-year-old Kopitar scoring at his best clip since a career-high 92-point year in 2017-18, while the 32-year-old Couture’s 0.89 points-per-game is actually the hottest pace of his NHL tenure.

In terms of team performances, Pacific Division-leading Anaheim is one of the league’s biggest revelations thanks largely to the fact they’ve found the next generation of California stars with Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras. The Sharks — to the surprise of many who predicted this team full of bloated contracts would sink — are firmly in the Western Conference playoff picture, while the Kings — perhaps the only disappointing outfit of the three, depending on who you talk to — cruise along around the .500 mark.

Not so long ago, all three of these teams were perennial playoff contenders with big-time post-season aspirations. That may not be the case today, but a handful of rejuvenated vets are doing all they can to help fans of these California teams start dreamin’ again.

Other Takeaways

• Any conversation about surprise teams has to include the Nashville Predators at this point. The Preds won 3-2 in Newark over the New Jersey Devils on Friday, then scraped out a 1-0 victory at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers on Sunday. Those W’s came despite the fact Matt Duchene was sidelined for both contests, while Ryan Johansen was forced to miss the Rangers game thanks to COVID protocol. Both of those guys — similar to the California vets — have been experiencing huge bounce-back seasons, as have Mikael Granlund and Filip Forsberg. Add to all that rebounding Roman Josi going to even another level offensively and Juuse Saros taking the crease torch from fellow Finn Pekka Rinne, and you can see why the Preds — winners of five straight — sit second in the Central Division.

Halfway through last year we thought there could be a fire sale in Nashville. However, since March 15, 2021 — basically the mid-point point of that truncated campaign — the Predators own a .679 points percentage in 56 games. Only six clubs in the league have a better mark over that span, so maybe we all wrote David Poile’s squad off a little prematurely.

• We mentioned Max Pacioretty was looking good last week after his return from injury and, boy, has that continued. The big winger scored for the eighth time in six games on Sunday, https://www.nhl.com/video/paciorettys-breakaway-goal/t-277350912/c-9885969 helping the Vegas Golden Knights down Minnesota 6-4. That gives Pacioretty 10 goals in 10 games this year as he’s finding a new gear one month after his 33rd birthday.

• Just for fun, let’s toss out some “Since the start of December” small-sample-size facts about the Canadian teams. The top three points percentages belong to Vancouver (.833, tied for best in the NHL), Winnipeg (.700) and Ottawa (.667). The worst, of course, belongs to Montreal at .100, only slightly below Edmonton’s .167. Only Detroit, Arizona and Philadelphia are giving up more goals per game than the Leafs, while Calgary ranks 28th in goals-for per game, right ahead of Edmonton at 29th. The Leafs power play scores 50 percent of the time it’s on the ice, while Toronto’s penalty-killing is sixth-worst in the league.

• Now, to top of a pretty zany couple of weeks, all of Calgary’s games are postponed through at least Dec. 16 thanks to COVID protocol.

Weekend Warrior

Andre Burakovsky entered the weekend with seven goals on the season, but he’s up to 12 after bagging a brace on Friday in Detroit and netting a hatty during Colorado’s win over Florida on Sunday. The Avs, by the way, have been averaging six goals a game for about a month.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (19-8-2): Auston Matthews is up to 11 tallies in his past nine games after netting another won in Toronto’s wild 5-4 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.

2. Calgary Flames (15-7-6): Here’s hoping the COVID-forced hiatus is as short as possible.

3. Winnipeg Jets (13-9-5): The Jets were downed by Vancouver in a shootout on Friday, but Mark Scheifele scored to run his point streak to five games. He has five goals and nine points in that span.

4. Edmonton Oilers (16-10-0): The offence has dried up during a losing streak that hit five games after Saturday’s 3-1 setback versus Carolina. The Oilers have scored one goal in three of their past four games and only netted two in the other one.

5. Vancouver Canucks (12-15-2): They’re not saying boo, they’re saying “Bouuuu-Dreauuu! Bouuuu-Dreauuuu!”

6. Ottawa Senators (8-16-1): What a find Drake Batherson, who had three helpers during Saturday’s 4-0 win over Tampa Bay, has been. The 2017 fourth-rounder has 24 points in 20 contests this year.

7. Montreal Canadiens (6-20-3): The list of injured Habs has grown longer than an eight-year-old’s wish list for Christmas. The Canadiens lost on Saturday to St. Louis without the services of Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Jake Evans, Joel Edmundson, Christian Dvorak, Paul Byron, Carey Price and Shea Weber.

The Week Ahead

• Suddenly there are no games on Monday night. The only one originally on the slate — Flames at Hawks — is quashed by Calgary’s COVID concerns.

• One week after Jacob Trouba laid out Nathan MacKinnon at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers visit the Avs on Tuesday.

• That same night, Matthews and Connor McDavid will go head-to-head in Edmonton.

• On Saturday, the Boston Bruins will visit Montreal for the first time in more than two years.