1. Washington Capitals (44-10-4, last week No. 1) – At this point, you can basically pencil in Washington for this top spot until the playoffs begin. Like the high-flying Warriors in the NBA, the Caps are chasing lofty history (namely Detroit’s record 62 wins in 1995-96). Down to its core, hockey will always be a team sport but goaltender Braden Holtby (38-6-3, 2.17 GAA, .924 save percentage and 2 shutouts) is chasing his own mark in the form of Martin Brodeur’s all-time record 48 wins in 2006-2007.
2. Dallas Stars (38-17-6, last week No. 2) – Dallas suffered a very surprising blowout loss at home on Saturday, a 7-3 setback to Boston in which the Bruins scored the final six goals of the contest. The Stars predictably bounced back vs. hapless Winnipeg on Tuesday (5-3 win) but that loss had to plant a seed of doubt in their minds which could be dangerous come playoff-time. For now, they are still the top team in the Western Conference and they have scored the most goals (199) in the NHL.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (38-19-5, last week No. 3) – Speaking of top teams in the West that got unexpectedly drubbed, the Blackhawks fell 6-1 to Minnesota on Sunday in an outdoor game at TCF Bank Stadium (University of Minnesota). The Wild had been playing much better lately but Chicago almost never no-shows like that which makes the result rather strange. The Blackhawks haven’t played since then and I would expect a much different looking team on Thursday when they take on Nashville -a Central Division rival that they typically own.
4. St. Louis Blues (35-18-9, last week No. 4) – Why can’t the Blues have nice things? St. Louis is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games even though they lost 6-3 to San Jose on Monday. The issue is that major injuries continue to dog them this season: left wing Alexander Steen (17 goals, 30 assists) and goaltender Brian Elliott (17-7-6, 2.14 GAA, .929 save percentage and 1 shutout) both went on IR this past week with serious injuries.
5. Florida Panthers (34-18-7, last week No. 5) – Other than ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr’s stellar season (20 goals, 23 assists, +15), the Panthers continue to receive not nearly enough of the attention that they rightfully deserve. Florida still has the inside track to the Atlantic Division title (up 3 points on Tampa Bay with a game in hand) and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They are an NHL-best 6-2 in shootouts in 2015-16.
6. New York Rangers (34-20-6, last week No. 6) – The Rangers were rolling (8-1-1 in their last 10 games) before they fell 5-2 to the Devils on Tuesday. Still, New York has pulled ahead of the Islanders (3 points in front although the Isles have 2 games in hand) and look to be in good position for a 2-4 seed in the East. Thursday’s game at St. Louis should be a good test for what has been a poor road team (12-14-3) this season.
7. Los Angeles Kings (35-20-4, last week No. 7) – The Kings finally returned to LA on Tuesday in their lovely yellow throwback jerseys and held off Calgary 2-1. They have won their last two games after a bumpy stretch (5-4-1 in their last 10 games). Goaltender Jonathan Quick (30-15-3, 2.17 goals against average, .921 save percentage and 3 shutouts) seems to be rounding into his usual top-notch playoff form which should give the rest of the Western Conference nightmares for weeks to come.
8. Anaheim Ducks (31-19-8, last week No. 8) – Other than the Capitals, the Ducks remain the hottest team in the league (8-1-1 in their last 10 games). The crazy part is that they have creeped within four points of LA with a game in hand. Anaheim has won an NHL-best five consecutive games heading into Wednesday’s meeting with Buffalo that could get out of hand quickly.
9. Tampa Bay Lightning (34-22-4, last week No. 14) – Tampa Bay has won its last four games as they only trail Florida by four points now in the Atlantic Division. Their talented young right winger Nikita Kucherov (24 goals, 25 assists and 22 power play points)-who leads the team in points-has missed the last two games with a lower-body injury. The Lightning are in New Jersey on Friday and Boston on Sunday, two clubs that they are in the thick of a playoff race with in the jumbled East.
10. New York Islanders (32-19-7, last week No. 10) – The Islanders picked up a nice 4-1 win over the Wild on Tuesday. New York is 6-3-1 in its last 10 games and their goal-differential is plus-23, third-best in the Eastern Conference. New York has a five-game road trip (Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Rangers) that looks about as easy as you could expect at this time of the year.
11. Boston Bruins (32-22-6, last week No. 9) – I can’t sum up the bi-polar nature of these Bruins better than their last two games: a 7-3 win in Dallas on Saturday (their best victory of the season, closing out a 4-2 road trip) and then a pathetic 6-4 loss to Columbus on Monday. Realistically, Boston could finish anywhere from about third-place in the East this season to outside of the top-eight. With the trade deadline coming up on Monday, right wing Loui Eriksson (23 goals, 25 assists, +12) is doing everything that he can to make sure his value is at its peak.
12. Detroit Red Wings (30-20-11, last week No. 12) – Like the Bruins-their Atlantic Division rivals-the Red Wings are nearly impossible to predict. They are 5-2-3 in their last 10 games but their goal-differential is minus-5 which last time I checked, isn’t so hot. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Red Wings-Avalanche was the best rivalry in the NHL so the league has to hope that Saturday’s game at Coors Field revives that a little bit.
13. San Jose Sharks (32-21-5, last week No. 11) – Who would have thought that the Pacific Division would actually develop into an interesting race this season? San Jose is only five points behind Los Angeles and one point behind Anaheim, California what? The Sharks are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games and their goal-differential of plus-17 is the fourth-best in the Western Conference.
14. Nashville Predators (29-21-11, last week No. 16) – Slowly but surely, the Predators have climbed back to relevance (5-2-3 in their last 10 games). However, if the playoffs started today Nashville (the No. 7 seed) would meet No. 2 Chicago. What could possibly go wrong, yet again?
15. Pittsburgh Penguins (30-20-8, last week No. 13) – As it stands right now, the Penguins would be the eighth-seed in the East so they would face Washington. Obviously, everyone in the Eastern Conference will be looking to avoid the Caps at all costs in the first-round. Pittsburgh is 6-3-1 in its last 10 games ahead of Wednesday’s sneaky big matchup with Boston.
16. New Jersey Devils (30-24-7, last week No. 16) – New Jersey governor Chris Christie recently dropped out of the 2016 presidential race which gives him more free time to cheer on the Devils as they chase a somewhat unlikely playoff spot. New Jersey is 4-4-2 in its last 10 games which makes that win over New York so vitally important. Pittsburgh is only one point ahead of them but the Penguins have three games in hand plus the Hurricanes trail the Devils by just a point.
17. Carolina Hurricanes (28-23-10, last week No. 17) – Carolina has been a pretty remarkable story this season given their less than favorable preseason outlook. They might not reach the playoffs but the Hurricanes appear to at least be in the mix for the long run. They have a must-win at Toronto on Thursday before returning home the next night to host Boston.
18. Colorado Avalanche (31-27-4, last week No. 18) – The Avalanche are fading fast (4-5-1 in their last 10 games) as they cling to the eighth-seed in the Western Conference. They are only two points ahead of Minnesota and the Wild have two games in hand. Before they can enjoy the outdoor game with Detroit, they host San Jose on Wednesday in what should be a difficult tilt.
19. Minnesota Wild (27-23-10, last week no. 21) – Tuesday’s setback to the Islanders not withstanding, the Wild are headed back in the right direction. The race between Minnesota and Colorado for the last playoff spot in the West should be an entertaining one. Starting on Thursday, the Wild have a very difficult three games in four days stretch: at Philadelphia, at Washington and vs. Florida.
20. Ottawa Senators (29-26-6, last week No. 23) – The odds are still stacked against them but at least the Senators are showing a pulse again (winners of their last 4 games in a row). Realistically, to return to the postseason Ottawa will need a crazy winning streak. You know, something ridiculous like what they managed to pull off last season.
21. Philadelphia Flyers (26-22-11, last week No. 19) – The Flyers are only five points behind the Penguins but there are two other teams (New Jersey and Carolina) between them so getting past all three in the last 23 games seems unlikely at best. Philadelphia is 3-4-3 in its past 10 games and Tuesday’s 3-1 loss at Carolina certainly stung. Who are we kidding, the Flyers’ goal-differential is minus-16.
22. Montreal Canadiens (28-27-5, last week No. 22) – The Canadiens continue to not be able to get out of their own way. Who knows how realistic they are but seeing a few trade rumors involving star defenseman P.K. Subban (5 goals, 41 assists, 23 power play points) are still shocking. Dealing such a singular talent like him would no doubt set the franchise back even further (need we remind you that they haven’t won a Cup in the last 23 years?).
23. Arizona Coyotes (27-27-6, last week No. 20) – It took longer than expected this season but Arizona has finally slid out of the playoff picture in the West. The Coyotes have dropped their last three games and they are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. Colorado is six points ahead of them but Arizona does have two games in hand which is their only possible life-line.
24. Vancouver Canucks (23-24-12, last week No. 24) – The wheels have also fallen off for Vancouver who is 3-6-1 in its last 10 games. The Canucks’ goal-differential is minus-26 which makes Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Avalanche so bizarre for both sides. Vancouver’s 19 regulation and overtime wins are the third-fewest in the NHL so this is not a fluke.
25. Columbus Blue Jackets (24-29-8, last week No. 25) – It means almost nothing but for what it’s worth, Columbus appears to have more pride than any of their other fellow bottom-feeders. The Blue Jackets are 5-2-3 in their last 10 games. They are living proof that a historically bad start (0-8) can screw up your entire season.
26. Buffalo Sabres (24-29-7, last week No. 26) – Buffalo should also be commended for not punting on the rest of their utterly doomed campaign. The Sabres are 4-3-3 in their last 10 games and they are over .500 on the road (13-12-4). Like the Blue Jackets, they could play a big role in terms of who makes the Eastern Conference playoffs.
27. Calgary Flames (26-20-3, last week No. 27) – I think that the Flames have clinched the title of most disappointing team of 2015-16, seriously what a mess. They are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games and their goal-differential is minus-21. Their only real hope to salvage something from this disaster is to win the draft lottery.
28. Winnipeg Jets (25-30-4, last week No. 28) – There is no doubt that the Jets should be sellers at the trade deadline and that’s why I believe that captain Andrew Ladd (17 goals, 17 assists) is one of the most likely players in the NHL to be dealt in the next few days. He is a solid veteran that could be very valuable to any number of contenders around the league. After losing 5-3 to the Stars on Tuesday, the return bout (which will probably be much uglier) is in Dallas on Thursday.
29. Toronto Maple Leafs (20-28-10, last week No. 30) – If you’d rather not puke, don’t do what I just did and compare the Maple Leafs to the Oilers. They both have 50 points but Toronto has played three fewer games so they avoid the dreaded No. 30 power ranking. They are both extremely lucky that the NHL doesn’t use a relegation system.
30. Edmonton Oilers (22-33-6, last week No. 29) – There are three certainties in life these days: death, taxes and the Oilers being out of the playoff race roughly halfway through the regular season. If Edmonton wins the lottery once again, I won’t know what to believe in anymore. Head coach Todd McLellan has had enough more than his fill of this crap as he boldly admitted after Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Ottawa that “maybe we have to eliminate some players.”
Follow Richard Slate on Twitter: @RichSlate