NHL Power Rankings: Closing in on the 2012-13 playoffs
1) Chicago Blackhawks (34-6-5, previous No. 1) – Since they’ve been the best team in the NHL this entire season, I think people would be shocked if the Blackhawks, at the very least, fall short of the Western Conference Finals. They’ll need Patrick Sharp to return to the ice healthy and Duncan Keith to shut his mouth in postgame interviews. Ray Emery is back so now it’s up to head coach Joel Quenneville to pick a No. 1 goaltender for the playoffs.
2) Pittsburgh Penguins (35-10-0, previous No. 2) – With the playoffs starting a week from Wednesday, no team has as much positive momentum as the Penguins. They’ve won an NHL-best seven games in a row despite missing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Since they already have the top seed in the East locked up, expect their other key players (Letang, Iginla, Fleury) to get some extra rest in the last three games.
3) Anaheim Ducks (29-11-6, previous No. 3) – The Ducks clinched the Pacific Division and No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with a 3-0 win on Monday in Edmonton. After a bumpy few weeks and a four-game losing streak, they beat the Oilers in back-to-back games. Head coach Bruce Boudreau has his work cut out for him though, picking out which goaltender to start in the postseason: Jonas Hiller (14-6-4) or Viktor Fasth (15-5-2)?
4) Boston Bruins (27-12-5, previous No. 5) – It hasn’t exactly been a classic race but someone has to win the Northeast Division and the Bruins are in better shape with one more game left than Montreal. Boston has truly struggled to score goals lately which is why it is 5-4-1 in its last 10 games. Sunday’s 3-0 win over Florida snapped a four-game losing streak (0-3-1). Nathan Horton’s wrist injury, suffered in a fight with Pittsburgh’s Jarome Iginla on Saturday, is something to keep an eye on.
5) Vancouver Canucks (26-13-7, previous No. 6) – The Canucks are one of the NHL’s hottest teams (7-2-1 in their last 10 games) and they are in good shape to get the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. The game didn’t mean anything to the Blackhawks but most of their stars were playing so Vancouver has to take some confidence away from its 3-1 win on Monday. Cory Schneider (17-9-4, .927 save percentage, 2.11 GAA, NHL-leading five shutouts) has been great but what happens if he falters in the playoffs? Would they dare turn to Roberto Luongo?
6) Montreal Canadiens (27-13-5, previous No. 4) – No supposed top team has faltered more down the stretch than the Canadiens. They are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games but that hardly tells the story since they’ve lost four of their last five games and have allowed 25 goals in that span. Right now, they could stamp “first round exit “on their skates.
7) Los Angeles Kings (26-14-5, previous No. 8) – The Kings can’t win the Pacific Division but they are two points ahead of the Sharks (both teams have three games left) for the all-important No. 4 seed in the West. LA vs. San Jose would be a pretty great first round series, if only people in California gave a crap about hockey. All three of their remaining games will mean something: at Wild Tuesday, at Red Wings on Wednesday and hosting Sharks on Saturday.
8) San Jose Sharks (24-14-7, previous No. 9) – Even though they lost 4-3 to Columbus in OT on Sunday, San Jose has been playing well (6-3-1 in its last 10 games). They’ll clinch a playoff spot with one more win but they could drop as far as No. 8 so they can’t get complacent. They’ll be sad to see no shootouts in the playoffs since they’ve excelled in that cheesy regular season format (8-4).
9) Toronto Maple Leafs (25-15-5, previous No. 7) – The Leafs are in the playoffs but they can’t be happy with simply qualifying. With the right matchup in the depleted East, they could win a round or two. They still have an outside shot at the Northeast Division crown but more likely, they’ll be the No. 5 seed and either meeting Montreal or Boston in the first round.
10) Washington Capitals (25-18-2, previously No. 10) – The Capitals show no signs of slowing down (9-1-0 in their last 10 games) and with a win tonight at the Verizon Center against the Jets, they’ll capture the Southeast Division. Alex Ovechkin (30 goals) leads the NHL in goals and he’s fourth in points, meaning that he should garner plenty of MVP votes. Goaltender Braden Holtby (21-12-1, 4 shutouts) has stabilized a position that was a turnstile for years in Washington.
11) St. Louis Blues (26-17-2, previous No. 13) – The Blues are playing well (7-3-0 in their last 10 games) and if they face the Canucks in the first round, that’ll be a dandy of a series destined to go six or seven games. They could also jump up to No. 4 or 5 in the West but with Vancouver’s penchant for choking in the playoffs, they might be best served hanging tight at No. 6. They close with three games at home: tonight vs. Colorado, Thursday vs. Calgary and Saturday vs. Chicago.
12) New York Islanders (24-16-5, previous No. 14) – Amazingly enough, a playoff spot is a formality at this point for the Islanders. They can clinch tonight with a win at Carolina and a Winnipeg loss at Washington-both the most likely scenarios. The Islanders wrap up the regular season with a game at Philadelphia on Wednesday and at Buffalo on Friday which leaves them alive for the No. 4 seed but the No. 5 spot is less of a pipe dream.
13) New York Rangers (24-17-4, previous No. 15) – Don’t look now but the Rangers have won three games in a row and they’re fresh off eliminating New Jersey from playoff contention on Sunday (4-1 win). New York is in seventh in the East but no other team has an easier final week: at Florida tonight, at Carolina on Thursday and hosting the Devils on Saturday. If you were to pick a lower seed most likely to pull off an upset in the first round, the Rangers would definitely be the top choice.
14) Columbus Blue Jackets (22-17-7, previous No. 17) – If the Blue Jackets hold off the Red Wings for a playoff spot, it would be one of the most unexpected outcomes in NHL history. Columbus has put itself back in the picture by going 7-3-0 in their last 10 games. They need to win out: at Dallas on Thursday and hosting Nashville on Saturday to be comfortable.
15) Ottawa Senators (23-16-6, previous No. 12) – Predictably, the Senators are running on fumes as they try to survive and reach the playoffs. Ottawa is 4-6-0 in their last 10 games and they’ve lost their last two games. It’s entirely possible that Sunday night’s game in Boston (a make-up date that’s the final game of the regular season) could be a play-in game for them.
16) Minnesota Wild (24-18-3, previous No. 11) – Much like the Senators, the Wild are circling the drain at the worst possible time. No playoff team is playing worse (3-6-1 in their last 10 games) but they do have a cushy schedule on their side. Hosting the Kings tonight is no picnic but they end with the Oilers on Friday then traveling to Colorado on Saturday.
17) Winnipeg Jets (24-19-3, previous No. 19) – The Jets are the last team standing outside the Eastern Conference Top 8 but still very much alive. If they do make the playoffs, they will have earned it since they are in Washington tonight then close the regular season by hosting Montreal on Thursday. They probably have to win out to qualify but on the bright side, they are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games so it could happen.
18) Detroit Red Wings (21-16-8, previous No. 16) – Detroit just gave goaltender Jimmy Howard a huge extension and he began to earn that money with a 4-0 win over Phoenix on Monday. Hockeytown will need more efforts like that from him as they host the Kings on Wednesday and Predators on Thursday before closing in Dallas on Saturday. Their absurd streak of reaching the playoffs in 21 straight seasons is in serious jeopardy.
19) Dallas Stars (22-19-4, previous No. 18) – They haven’t been officially eliminated yet but their 4-3 OT loss in LA on Sunday was the death blow. The Stars basically have to win out to make the postseason and that is very unlikely since they face three other teams still fighting for positioning: Sharks, Blue Jackets and Red Wings.
20) Phoenix Coyotes (19-18-8, previous No. 20) – The Coyotes could win their final three games and still miss the playoffs so their inclusion in the power rankings is a gift with no other real threats. Getting blanked 4-0 by the Red Wings on Monday was the signal that it’s over and they can start making plans for the summer on Wednesday since I think they’ll lose to San Jose. A team that goes 6-10-7 on the road (so far) doesn’t deserve to make the playoffs anyway, sorry guys.
Follow Metro Bruins beat writer Richard Slate on Twitter @RichSlate