1. Washington Capitals (39-9-4, two weeks ago No. 1) – The Capitals continue to leave everyone, particularly teams in the Eastern Conference, in their dust. They have the most points in the NHL (82) and the best goal-differential (plus-56!). Washington has 30 games left in the regular season but they might as well start planning for the playoffs because the top seed in the East is a wrap.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (36-17-4, two weeks ago No. 2) – San Jose blanked Chicago 2-0 on Tuesday at the United Center but the Blackhawks are still the clear No. 1 team in the Western Conference. Chicago has a goal-differential of plus-29 which is tied with Dallas for the best mark in the West. Speaking of the Stars, Chicago hosts Dallas (who is only three points behind them with three games in hand) on Thursday in a huge Central Division showdown.
3. Dallas Stars (34-15-5, two weeks ago No. 3) – Ahead of Thursday’s meeting with Chicago, Dallas picked up a key 4-3 overtime win at Minnesota on Tuesday thanks to emerging young defenseman John Klingberg (9 goals, 35 assists, plus-15). The Stars have the second most points (73) in the Western Conference and third-most in the NHL. They are not playing great at the moment though (5-4-1 in last 10 games).
4. Florida Panthers (32-16-6, two weeks ago No. 4) – The Panthers might be ahead of schedule this season but so far in the dog days of February, they are showing no signs of slowing down. Florida has the second-most points (70) in the Eastern Conference and they lead the Atlantic Division by eight points. One of the unexpected big parts of their success has been the fact that they have allowed just 123 goals (2nd fewest in the East).
5. Los Angeles Kings (32-17-3, two weeks ago No. 5) – It’s rare that a single game in the marathon known as the NHL regular season makes you sit up and take notice but LA’s 9-2 blowout of the Bruins on Tuesday was something else. Milan Lucic (13 goals, 20 assists) had a goal and an assist in his first return to Boston as a visiting player. Would anyone complain about a Blackhawks-Kings Western Conference Finals this spring?
6. St. Louis Blues (30-17-9, two weeks ago No. 6) – The Blues’ tendency is to be a strong team in the regular season that like clockwork crumbles in the postseason. Do you really see that being any different this year? St. Louis’ goal-differential is only plus-2 which is not a good sign for a team that could be a high seed in the playoffs.
7. New York Rangers (30-18-5, two weeks ago No. 7) – As I’ve said for a long time, the Rangers are playing for second-place in the Metropolitan Division but at least now they seemed to have regained their footing (7-3-0 in last 10). New York has been great at Madison Square Garden (20-5-2) this season but very poor on the road (10-13-3). They are four points ahead of Pittsburgh (Penguins have a game in hand) so Wednesday’s meeting in the Steel City is important for both teams.
8. New York Islanders (28-18-6, two weeks ago No. 12) – The Islanders have won their last two games and are 6-3-1 in their last 10 to pull within three points (with a game in hand) of the Rangers. They have a better goal-differential (plus-17) than the Rangers and the Islanders are also over .500 on the road (11-10-3) so needless to say, those clubs are evenly matched. Hosting the Kings on Thursday is a good test to see how they measure up against one of the Western Conference’s elite teams.
9. Tampa Bay Lightning (29-20-4, two weeks ago No. 10) – After going 9-1-0 in their last 10 games, Tampa Bay has dropped its last two including a 4-2 loss at Montreal on Tuesday. Still, the Lightning are within shouting distance of the Panthers (eight points back with a game in hand) with a legitimate goal-differential (plus-12). All eyes will be on free agent franchise center Steven Stamkos (21 goals, 19 assists) this summer as teams-most notably his hometown Maple Leafs-are doing everything they can to create enough cap space to be able to sign him.
10. Pittsburgh Penguins (27-18-7, two weeks ago No. 13) – The Penguins don’t make much sense: Evgeni Malkin (23 goals, 26 assists) is out for the next week with an undisclosed injury and yet they are playing their best hockey of the season (7-2-1 in last 10 games) without him in the lineup. Not surprisingly, Sidney Crosby (24 goals, 29 assists)-who was the NHL’s First Star of the Week-is crushing it with a seven-game goal-streak and 11-game point streak (12 goals, 10 assists!). Considering how well that Anaheim has played lately, Pittsburgh’s 6-2 domination of them on Monday was quite impressive.
11. San Jose Sharks (28-20-4, two weeks ago No. 8) – Somehow, the Sharks are still technically alive in the Pacific Division race (seven points behind the Kings). San Jose is 6-2-2 in its last 10 games after Tuesday’s unexpected 2-0 shutout at Chicago. Of course, this is the same group that is two games under .500 at home (10-12-2) so good luck figuring them out.
12. Anaheim Ducks (26-19-7, two weeks No. 20) –The Ducks are the ultimate eye test team, meaning that when you watch them these days, you understand that they are way better than their record indicates. Anaheim is 8-2-0 in its last 10 games after Tuesday’s 4-1 win at Philadelphia. The Ducks have five more games left on this lengthy trip but at least they can finally get to .500 on the road (10-11-3) with a win at Columbus on Thursday.
13. Detroit Red Wings (27-18-8, two weeks ago No. 9) – Petr Mrazek (20-10-4, 1.97 goals against average, .933 save percentage and 4 shutouts) has blossomed into one of the best young goaltenders in the league. He is carrying an otherwise average team that has a goal-differential of zero. Monday’s 3-0 shutout of Florida was their best result of the season thus far.
14. Boston Bruins (28-19-6, two weeks ago No. 11) – The Bruins had been playing well (7-2-1) before the Kings came into town on Tuesday and flat out embarrassed them. However, Boston should be psyched as they depart on a season-long six game road trip beginning on Thursday in Winnipeg. The B’s are still incredible on the road (16-5-3) and awful at TD Garden (12-14-3) this season.
15. New Jersey Devils (27-21-7, two weeks ago No. 17) – Speaking of outstanding goaltenders with very little talent around them, Cory Schneider (24-16-6, 2.01 goals against average, .930 save percentage and 4 shutouts) says hello! Despite having a goal-differential of minus-5, the Devils are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. If New Jersey sneaks into the playoffs, they’d likely face Washington and a matchup of Schneider vs. Braden Holtby (34-5-0, 2.08 goals against average, .928 save percentage and 2 shutouts) would be goalie porn for hockey fans.
16. Montreal Canadiens (27-24-4, two weeks ago No. 21) – After epically bottoming out, the Canadiens are back! OK not really but at least Montreal has won its last three games to finally show some life again. Objectively, you had to know that they couldn’t possibly be as bad as they had looked for months.
17. Nashville Predators (25-21-8, two weeks ago No. 16) – The NHL All-Star Game came and went in Nashville, now the Music City is left to wonder if the Predators will even make the playoffs this season. Nashville lost 5-3 to Washington on Tuesday and now they travel to Tampa Bay on Friday then Florida on Saturday for two more extremely difficult matchups against the iron of the Eastern Conference. Nashville is tied with Colorado but the Predators have played two fewer games than their Central Division foes.
18. Colorado Avalanche (27-25-4, two weeks ago No. 15) – Colorado has dropped its last two games and the 3-1 loss to Vancouver on Tuesday at the Pepsi Center is a tough one for a team scratching for every point. The Avalanche’s goal-differential is an uninspiring minus-5 and they are 12-13-4 at home this season. So perhaps this upcoming mini three-game road trip (to Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo) is coming at the right time for a team that is 15-12-0 away from home.
19. Minnesota Wild (23-20-10, two weeks ago No. 19) – What the hell is going on in the Land of 10,000 Lakes? Minnesota is the coldest team (1-7-2 in its last 10 games) in the NHL (pun intended) as they plummet out of the Western Conference playoff race. They are 14-8-4 at the XL Center and they’ll need all that good mojo working for them on Thursday as they take on the Capitals.
20. Ottawa Senators (25-23-6, two weeks ago No. 22) – Ottawa was similarly slipping out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture but they have slightly recovered with two straight wins (including a shocking 5-1 win against Tampa Bay their last time out). The Senators made a puzzling move on Tuesday, trading for overrated Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3 goals, 21 assists, minus-4) in a nine-player deal and even worse, they assumed the rest of his overpriced contract. The former Maple Leafs captain will make his Ottawa debut on Wednesday as they travel to Detroit.
21. Carolina Hurricanes (24-21-9, two weeks ago No. 18) – The Hurricanes continue to defy reason as they hang around (5-3-2 in their last 10 games) in the East. Their goal-differential is minus-14 which will probably come back to bite them in the end. Carolina will have a chance to make up ground on teams ahead of them in the Metropolitan Division as they host Pittsburgh on Friday and the Islanders on Saturday.
22. Vancouver Canucks (21-20-12, two weeks ago No. 23) – Things start to get sketchy around here since most of the remaining teams are struggling in one way or another. With Anaheim’s expected revival, the Canucks’ playoff hopes have quickly faded in the rear-view mirror. Vancouver’s goal-differential is minus-19 so who are we kidding here?
23. Arizona Coyotes (24-22-6, two weeks ago No. 19) – The Coyotes have been off since last Saturday, more time for them to savor Friday’s bitter 5-2 loss to the Ducks. Like the Canucks, Arizona is now five points behind Anaheim who is obviously on the rise. The Coyotes host the Canucks on Wednesday in what is close to an elimination game for either team (assuming that one triumphs in regulation).
24. Philadelphia Flyers (23-20-9, two weeks ago No. 24) – I’m picking up on a recurring pattern of the Ducks ruining everyone’s (playoff) dreams. Anaheim won 4-1 at Philadelphia on Tuesday, as they Flyers fell to 7th place (out of 8 teams) in the Metropolitan Division. Philly is six points behind both the Penguins and Devils, meaning that Thursday’s game vs. Buffalo is essentially a must-win.
25. Winnipeg Jets (24-26-3, two weeks ago No. 25) – The Jets got a jump on what should be a busy summer for them as they signed mercurial defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (15 goals, 18 assists) to a five-year extension on Monday worth an average of $7.6 million per season. He’ll be 31 in March, what could possibly go wrong there? Since the other six teams in the Central Division each have a shot at the playoffs, no club can play a bigger role as a potential spoiler than Winnipeg.
26. Calgary Flames (24-25-3, two weeks ago No. 26) – Flames head coach Bob Hartley made his point by sitting out young stars Johnny Gaudreau (21 goals, 28 assists) and Sean Monahan (16 goals, 19 assists) along with Lance Bouma for Tuesday’s clash with Toronto after they were late to practice the day before. Calgary ended up winning that 4-3 so I guess only time will tell if the stern punishment has an effect one of the league’s most disappointing teams this season. The Flames are closer to last place in the Pacific Division than Anaheim (who hold the last automatic playoff spot) so basically they are screwed.
27. Buffalo Sabres (21-27-6, two weeks ago No. 27) – Sabres forward Evander Kane fought Florida defenseman Alex Petrovic not once, not twice but three times (somewhere doctors shudder) in Tuesday’s wild 7-4 win by the Panthers. Fighting can still occasionally have its rightful place in hockey these days but that was ridiculous and the NHL (which is battling a major CTE crisis of its own with former players) had to hate every minute of it. The bottom four of the NHL looks pretty locked in at this point: Buffalo, Toronto, Columbus and Edmonton.
28. Columbus Blue Jackets (21-28-6, two weeks ago No. 28) – Despite sporting the worst goal-differential in the league (minus-33), the Blue Jackets are still making an effort (5-3-2 in its last 10 games) to win which seems counterproductive given their almost certain fate. Columbus has allowed the most goals in the NHL (173). They are bad at home (9-11-5) and downright hopeless (12-17-1) on the road.
29. Toronto Maple Leafs (19-24-9, two weeks ago No. 29) – The Leafs have just one regulation win in their last 14 outings, is that bad? They are the worst team in the Eastern Conference and tied with Edmonton (who also has 47 points but has played 3 more games) for the fewest points. Other than head coach Mike Babcock and the comfort of playing at home, I can’t imagine what their sales pitch to Stamkos will entail.
30. Edmonton Oilers (21-29-5, two weeks ago No. 30) – Electric rookie center Connor McDavid has returned to action and posted two goals and five assists in his first five games back. Other than him, I see no reason to watch the Oilers unless you enjoy torturing yourself. They are the worst road team in the league (7-19-4), so if your favorite team is hosting them, you are almost guaranteed a win.