1. Washington Capitals (46-12-4, last week No. 1) – It has been a big week of games for the Capitals who lost 3-2 to the Blackhawks on Sunday in a possible Stanley Cup Final preview but bounced back to rally for a 3-2 win against the Penguins on Tuesday. Washington is 7-3-0 in its last 10 games and they have the best goal-differential in the NHL (+61). The Presidents’ Trophy is basically guaranteed for them this season.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (39-20-5, last week No. 3) – 18 years have passed since the last Stanley Cup champion went back-to-back (Detroit in 1997 and 1998) but at least on paper, Chicago seemingly will have as good a shot as anyone during that long drought. For a trade deadline that lacked many big names changing teams, the Blackhawks made perhaps the most notable move by reacquiring left wing Andrew Ladd (17 goals, 17 assists) from Winnipeg. He was on Chicago from 2008-10 and won a Cup with them in 2010 (their 1st of 3 in the past six years).
3. St. Louis Blues (37-20-9, last week No. 4) – Would you believe that three teams (Chicago, St. Louis and Dallas) in the Central all have exactly 83 points? In my mind, the Blues have passed the fading Stars by going 7-3-0 in their last 10 games. Much like Washington though, the Blues have to exorcise their playoff demons starting in April.
4. Dallas Stars (38-20-7, last week No. 2) – In a way, we all saw this coming since Dallas’ defensemen and goaltending don’t match up well with their excellent forwards. The Stars are 3-5-2 in their last 10 games after losing 5-3 at Nashville on Tuesday. Shot-blocking machine Kris Russell (4 goals, 11 assists) who they traded for (from Calgary) should help their defense but it’ll take more than just him to turn this around.
5. New York Rangers (37-20-6, last week No. 6) – The Rangers are cruising (7-2-1) and they appear to be one of the biggest threats to their rival Washington’s hopes of an Eastern Conference title this spring. The amazing part about a team that’s 17 games over .500 is that they are only 14-14-3 on the road this season. New York also made a splash at the trade deadline by getting center Eric Staal (10 goals, 23 assists) from Carolina, reuniting him with his younger brother Marc (2 goals, 11 assists)-a defenseman on the Rangers.
6. Florida Panthers (36-19-8, last week No. 5) – As expected, the Atlantic Division race has tightened up considerably with Tampa Bay only two points behind Florida and Boston two points shy of the Lightning. The Panthers have two winnable games left on their road trip (at Colorado and Arizona) before returning home to host the Bruins in what could be a huge game for both teams. Florida is 5-3-2 in its last 10 games and they have the second-best goal-differential (plus-26) in the Eastern Conference.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning (37-22-4, last week No. 9) – Speaking of the Lightning, they are peaking at the right time with seven straight wins. If Florida should slip up at all, it looks almost certain that Tampa Bay would be right there to take advantage of that. Goaltender Ben Bishop (26-17-3, 2.06 goals against average, .925 save percentage and 3 shutouts) has been excellent.
8. Anaheim Ducks (34-19-8, last week No. 8) – Somehow the Lightning aren’t even the hottest team in the league since the Ducks have won eight in a row (9-0-1 in their last 10 games). Corey Perry (26 goals, 19 assists) scored a hat trick in Anaheim’s enormous 4-2 win vs. LA on Sunday. The Kings are two points in front of the Ducks in the Pacific Division but Anaheim has a game in hand against their So Cal neighbors.
9. Los Angeles Kings (37-21-4, last week No. 7) – No doubt that loss to Anaheim hurt and the Kings have had extra time to think about it since their next game isn’t until Thursday vs. Montreal. It’ll be hard to bet against the Kings in the playoffs but the Western Conference is loaded as usual. LA’s goal-differential of plus-22 is the second best mark in the West.
10. Nashville Predators (32-21-11, last week No. 14) – When most had written them off, the Predators have responded by playing their best hockey of the season (7-0-3 in their last 10 games) with a season-high five consecutive victories. They lead the Wild Card race in the West and they are seven points ahead of Minnesota so they are in relatively good shape. Needless to say, they should do everything they can to play Dallas in the first round and avoid Chicago.
11. New York Islanders (34-20-7, last week No. 10) – As they have basically all season, the Islanders continue chugging along (7-2-1 in their last 10 games). They are five points behind the Rangers but the Islanders do have two games in hand. Their Western Conference road trip ends in Winnipeg on Thursday then they return to face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in a key tilt for both clubs.
12. Boston Bruins (35-23-6, last week No. 11) – The B’s surprised many around the league by not trading right wing Loui Eriksson (23 goals, 25 assists) and instead bolstering their lineup by acquiring right wing Lee Stempniak (16 goals, 25 assists) from New Jersey and defenseman John-Michael Liles (6 goals, 9 assists) from Carolina. The newest Bruins debuted in a 2-1 win over Calgary on Tuesday. Up next, Boston has what I am confident in saying is the toughest four games in six days stretch for any team in 2015-16: vs. Chicago, vs. Washington, at Florida and at Tampa Bay.
13. San Jose Sharks (34-22-6, last week No. 13) – The Sharks didn’t make any major moves at the deadline, probably because this group has done so much in past postseasons, wait what? San Jose is 6-2-2 in its last 10 games and they are only two points behind Anaheim (who has a game in hand). They are an incredible 22-9-3 on the road this season.
14. Detroit Red Wings (32-20-11, last week No. 12) – It looks like Detroit’s amazing postseason run (24 straight seasons and counting) will continue but truth be told, it will probably be another short stay. The Red Wings have won their last three games (including 3-2 at Dallas on Monday) to take control of the Wild Card race in the Eastern Conference. A showdown with their Original Six nemesis Chicago figures to be a sobering reality check for this flawed team.
15. Pittsburgh Penguins (32-22-8, last week No. 15) – After missing nearly a month of action, superstar Evgeni Malkin (24 goals, 27 assists) returned last weekend for Pittsburgh. The Penguins got a taste of what a first-round playoff matchup with Washington would be like as they blew a 2-0 lead on Tuesday and lost 3-2 to the Capitals. Pittsburgh is three points behind Detroit (with a game in hand) but they have to do everything they can to avoid that death trap No. 8 seed in the East.
16. Minnesota Wild (29-25-10, last week No. 19) – Fittingly, Minnesota is the final team that is currently in the Top-8 in either conference. They are 6-4-0 in their last 10 games and Tuesday’s 6-3 win over Colorado was vital for their playoff hopes. The Avalanche also possess 68 points but they have played one more game than the Wild.
17. Philadelphia Flyers (29-22-11, last week No. 21) – It’s completely understandable if you haven’t been paying attention but the Flyers are the cockroaches in the East that just won’t die, at least not yet. Philadelphia is 6-2-2 in its last 10 games and they have won three in a row. Of course, one could argue what’s the point of even making the postseason if you’ll only get swept by Washington but do you see the state of the other Philly pro sports teams?
18. Colorado Avalanche (32-29-4, last week No. 18) – The Western Conference playoff picture is much less muddled than the East because Colorado is the only team that has a realistic shot at jumping back into the Top-8. The Avalanche will need to turn things around though as they are 5-5-0 in their last 10 games. A very difficult upcoming four-game homestand (Florida, Nashville, Arizona and Anaheim) will likely decide their fate.
19. Carolina Hurricanes (29-26-10, last week no. 17) – Time is similarly running out on Carolina although they did beat New Jersey 3-1 on Monday which allowed them to move ahead of the Devils into 10th-place in the East. I feel comfortable saying that it would be a shock if the Hurricanes make the playoffs, you know because they aren’t very good at all. Their goal-differential is minus-16 and they have played the most games (65) in their conference.
20. Ottawa Senators (30-27-7, last week No. 20) – The Senators are another club in the long-list of Eastern Conference pretenders. They are 5-4-1 in their last 10 games after Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Blues. No worries though, washed up center Scott Gomez (who they signed on Wednesday) will lead them to the Promised Land.
21. New Jersey Devils (30-27-7, last week No. 16) – Where I come from, trading your leading scorer (Stempniak) during the season is always a sign that you are waving the white flag on that campaign. In a way, it’s remarkable that the Devils stayed relevant for this long since they have scored by far the fewest goals (140) in the league. It seems like maybe New Jersey should rethink things since winning a bunch of 1-0 or 2-1 games isn’t sustainable, despite scoring being way down in the NHL.
22. Montreal Canadiens (30-28-5, last week No. 22) – Remember when we all thought that Montreal was one of the top teams in the league this season? It was only a few months ago but that is only a distant memory at this point. The Canadiens were embarrassed by the Sharks on Monday (6-2 loss) and more of those beatings could come on Wednesday in Anaheim and Thursday in LA.
23. Columbus Blue Jackets (26-30-8, last week No. 25) – Say this for the NHL, compared to the NBA their bad teams don’t tank to such a shameless degree year after year. The Blue Jackets have absolutely nothing to play for but they have been good for a while (5-2-3 in their last 10 games). For what it’s worth (nothing), Columbus would actually be tied for 10th-place in the Western Conference.
24. Vancouver Canucks (24-26-12, last week No. 24) – Vancouver’s season went off a cliff a while back and it promises to be another postseason without the Canucks. The team is stuck in a bad place too with not much young talent NHL-ready on the horizon. Would they ever dare to break up the Sedin twins and trade one or both of them?
25. Arizona Coyotes (27-30-6, last week No. 23) – Conversely, the Coyotes are loaded with quality youngsters that makes them a team to watch (wherever the club calls home) over the next few years. I’ve never understood why right wing Shane Doan (23 goals, 15 assists) has wasted so much of his great career on a franchise that is almost constantly rebuilding. He must really love the desert or something because otherwise, I don’t get it.
26. Buffalo Sabres (25-31-8, last week No. 26) – Round 1 of what hopefully is a long personal rivalry between Jack Eichel (17 goals, 24 assists) and Connor McDavid (12 goals, 19 assists) went to Edmonton (a 2-1 overtime win on Tuesday). Buffalo is six points ahead of last-place Toronto but the Maple Leafs have three games in hand so it’s not inconceivable that the Sabres could finish down there this season. As always, being a Buffalo sports fan doesn’t not seem to be a very enjoyable existence.
27. Winnipeg Jets (26-32-4, last week No. 28) – By trading their captain (Ladd), the Jets punted on another forgettable season. This group gave up a long time ago as they are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. They are tied with Calgary (with a game in hand) and one point ahead of last-place Edmonton in the sewer of the Western Conference.
28. Calgary Flames (26-33-4, last week No. 27) – After losing 2-1 to the Bruins on Tuesday, Calgary is an NHL-worst 1-8-1 in their last 10 games. As he and most of his teammates have done all season, Dougie Hamilton (9 goals, 18 assists, minus-11) was a disappointment in his first game back in Boston. This can’t end soon enough for the Flames.
29. Edmonton Oilers (24-34-7, last week No. 30) – I know as an American and native of Massachusetts, I’m supposed to say that Eichel is better but oh man, McDavid is incredible as well. He scored both goals in that win over Buffalo, 22 seconds into regulation then the overtime winner. Hopefully his transcendent skills are too much to be dragged down by Edmonton’s recent culture of endless losing.
30. Toronto Maple Leafs (21-30-10, last week No. 29) – Finally, there is the Maple Leafs who in terms of players, I am having a hard time finding something to be positive about. Their only hope is to win the draft lottery (which certainly could happen) and/or become a destination for top free agents (highly unlikely). Through trades and a flurry of moves, Toronto is basically fielding an AHL club these days.