Shawn Thornton, right, will likely be out several weeks. Credit: Getty Images
Records through Dec. 11
1) Chicago Blackhawks (22-6-5; last week-2) – The Blackhawks are back on top after a one-week absence but there is some uncertainly in Chitown. Starting goaltender Corey Crawford is out for three weeks with a lower-body injury. Chicago is as much of a wagon as you’ll find in the NHL but they’ll be tested with minor league goaltenders Antti Raanta and Kent Simpson in charge.
2) St. Louis Blues (20-6-3; last week-3) – With the Blackhawks banged up, now is the time for the Blues to gain some ground (six points behind with four games in hand). St. Louis has the best goal-differential in the NHL (+33) even though they are tied with the fewest games played in the league (29). His crazy pace has settled down but Alexander Steen scored his 21st goal of the season on Tuesday, still good enough for second most in the NHL.
3) Anaheim Ducks (21-7-5; last week-4) – It has been under the radar but the Ducks have the second most points in the NHL behind the Blackhawks. Anaheim has won its last three games in a row and most impressive, they are the only team that still hasn’t lost at home (11-0-2) in regulation this season. Left wing Dustin Penner’s return to the Ducks has gone well, he leads the NHL with a plus/minus of +18.
4) San Jose Sharks (19-6-6; last week-1) – I didn’t drop them three spots because of one result but losing 3-2 in a shootout to the Islanders (who came in on a 10-game losing streak) on their home ice Tuesday was shocking to say the least. For such a solid club, it’s weird that San Jose is a combined 3-5 this season in overtimes and shootouts. They host Minnesota tomorrow night before a difficult three-game road trip that ends in St. Louis and Los Angeles.
5) Boston Bruins (21-8-2; last week-7) – In the last few weeks, the Bruins have suffered an unfathomable amount of injuries (5 regulars out) plus Shawn Thornton is sure to be suspended for a long time after his sucker punch of Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik. Boston has benefited by playing Calgary on Tuesday (with a rematch next week in Boston) and Edmonton on Thursday-the two worst teams in the Western Conference. Their Western Canada trip ends on Saturday in Vancouver, renewing the rivalry created in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
6) Los Angeles Kings (20-7-4; last week-6) – Something about that California sun seems to treat NHL goaltenders well. Anaheim is said to have the most goaltending depth in the league but Los Angeles has made their case in recent weeks. Martin Jones has two straight shutouts including a 6-0 whitewashing of the Canadiens in Montreal on Tuesday. However, Jonathan Quick is expected back before Christmas and his job is secure.
7) Pittsburgh Penguins (20-10-1; last week 8) – Saturday’s 3-2 loss in Boston was costly in a couple ways to the Penguins: Orpik is on IR with a concussion and James Neal was suspended five games for kneeing Brad Marchand. The good news is that they got Evgeni Malkin back on Monday (of course he scored a goal). Pittsburgh has the best goal-differential in the Eastern Conference (+27) so they’re doing something right in the Steel City.
8) Montreal Canadiens (19-10-3; last week-10) – No team is hotter in the Eastern Conference (8-1-1 in their last 10 games) than the Canadiens which sounds funny to say since they had that stinkbomb vs. the Kings. Last Thursday, they kicked off their feud with the Bruins by taking a 2-1 decision at the Bell Centre. The first two games are on the road but you couldn’t find a much more favorable three games on a schedule: at Flyers, at Islanders and vs. Panthers.
9) Vancouver Canucks (18-10-5; last week-13) – The Canucks are the hottest team in the NHL, winners of their last five games in a row to climb back into the playoff mix for the Western Conference. Vancouver will need to get some points this weekend at the Rogers Centre (vs. Edmonton and Boston) before they hit the road for three difficult games: at Minnesota, Dallas and Chicago. He might be a lunatic but John Tortorella is a good head coach in the NHL (for a few years at least).
10) Minnesota Wild (18-9-5; last week-9) – No team has a bigger disparity at home (13-3-2) vs. on the road (5-6-3) than the Wild. That along with their middling goal-differential (+2) and fact that they reside in the Central Division (all seven teams are .500 or better) means that Minnesota will be in a tough spot all season. No worries, their next three games are only in four nights, all on the road: at Ducks, Sharks and Avalanche.
11) Colorado Avalanche (20-9-0; last week-5) – The Avalanche continue to stumble, they’ve lost their last two games to fall to fourth in the Central Division. You have a feeling that they’ll be battling with Minnesota all season, Chicago and St. Louis seem to be at another level now. On the plus side, Colorado has won 19 games in regulation and overtime, tied with Anaheim for the most in the Western Conference.
12) Phoenix Coyotes (17-8-5; last week-11) – The Coyotes have their work cut out for them with four good teams ahead of them in the Pacific Division (Anaheim, LA and Vancouver). Phoenix will probably be fighting for the last spot in the Western Conference which is ironic since in the Eastern Conference, they’d be one of the top teams. They can grab four points in the next two games: home vs. Islanders and Hurricanes.
13) Detroit Red Wings (15-9-8; last week-12) – The Red Wings are the only team that can complain more about injuries than the Bruins (not that we encourage that). Detroit just got Pavel Datsyuk back on Tuesday (he scored a goal) but Henrik Zetterberg is on IR and goaltender Jimmy Howard suffered a serious injury in practice. The team will be under the spotlight starting on Saturday as HBO’s wonderful 24/7 begins focusing on them and the Maple Leafs ahead of their New Year’s Day tilt.
14) Washington Capitals (17-12-2; last week-15) – Where would the Capitals be without Alexander Ovechkin (league-high 26 goals)? It’s a question Washington doesn’t want to answer but Ovechkin’s brilliance was on full display Tuesday as he scored four goals (third time in his career) vs. Tampa Bay in a crazy 6-5 victory. The Caps have won three straight and their next five games are all against non-playoff teams so they have a chance to go on a nice little run here.
15) Tampa Bay Lightning (17-10-3; last week-14) – Tampa Bay has to wish they hadn’t moved to the Atlantic Division, if they were in the Metropolitan they could definitely finish second behind Pittsburgh. It’s tough to see them with a better record than Boston, Montreal or even Detroit. They host the Red Wings tomorrow before a three-game road trip: New Jersey, Detroit and Islanders.
16) Toronto Maple Leafs (16-12-3; last week-16) – The Leafs aren’t going anywhere when their captain Dion Phaneuf is doing dumb things like hitting guys from behind (Boston’s Kevan Miller) to earn a two-game suspension. For a team that’s struggling, that’s not what they needed from a supposed leader and veteran. Their next four games couldn’t be more difficult: vs. LA, at St. Louis, vs. Chicago and at Pittsburgh.
17) Dallas Stars (14-10-5; last week-17) – Tyler Seguin is back from a concussion but the reality that Dallas basically can only grab the eighth spot in the Western Conference (at best) has to be setting in. The Stars are 9-6-1 on the road and their next two games are very winnable: at Nashville and at Winnipeg. A back-to-back with Colorado looms to start next week.
18) Winnipeg Jets (14-4-4; last week-18) – There has been little movement at the bottom of my rankings because these teams have just treaded water. The Jets host the Avalanche on Thursday and Stars on Saturday; they can’t afford to drop many points at home if they want to climb back into the playoff picture. The defensemen and goaltending have to get better too since they’ve allowed 90 goals.
19) Carolina Hurricanes (13-13-6; last week-not ranked) – The Hurricanes don’t really deserve to be in here but I refuse to include teams that are under .500. Carolina is 5-3-2 in their last 10 games which is decent but their goal-differential is a vomit-inducing -16. With all that said, if the playoffs started today they would be the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
20) Nashville Predators (14-14-3; last week-19) – Nashville has won 14 games in regulation and overtime but shootouts have been an issue (0-3). Lack of goal-scoring has been an obvious weakness for years with the Predators and this season seems to be no different as they have the fewest in the West (71). Maybe their impressive 4-1 road win at the Rangers on Monday will be the start of something positive.
Follow Metro Boston Bruins beat writer Richard Slate on Twitter:@RichSlate