Ben Smith, right, and the Blackhawks are again at the head of the class. Credit: Getty Images
1) Chicago Blackhawks (25-7-5; last week-1) – This was a coin flip since the Ducks are coming on strong, but the benefit of the doubt always goes to the defending Stanley Cup champs. Chicago leads the NHL in goals scored (138) and goal-differential (plus-36), two outstanding marks which they could be on top of all season. With the NHL’s upcoming holiday break (Dec. 24-26), they won’t player another road game until next Saturday in St. Louis.
2) Anaheim Ducks (24-7-5; last week-2) – The Ducks are the hottest team in the NHL. They’ve won their last six games to pull within two points of Chicago for most points (55) in the league (with a game in hand). Anaheim dodged a major injury scare when center Ryan Getzlaf (16 goals, 23 assists) was boarded by Detroit’s Kyle Quincey on Tuesday but he later returned. The Ducks are 13-0-2 in the Honda Center, still the only team not to lose a home game in regulation on their home ice.
3) Los Angeles Kings (23-8-4; last week-6) – Martin Jones continues to defy explanation: in his first six NHL games, he’s 6-0-0 with 0.82 GAA, .972 save percentage and three shutouts. Ben Scrivens is an above-average backup goaltender but he might have lost his job to the precocious rookie. Thanks to Jones, LA is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games and the Kings have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (68).
4) Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-1; last week 8) – The Penguins are rolling too: they are 9-1-0 in their last 10 games and have won four in a row. What makes it more interesting is that they’ve done it without James Neal (suspended), Kris Letang (IR) and Evgeni Malkin who hurt his leg on Saturday in Detroit. Pittsburgh’s minor league depth proves that this team is about more than just its superstars.
5) St. Louis Blues (22-7-4; last week-2) – David Backes (16 goals, 14 assists) missed Tuesday’s showdown with San Jose (a 4-2 Sharks win) with an upper body injury. Besides being a solid player, that is particularly notable since he had appeared in 274 consecutive regular season games (289 including the playoffs). St. Louis has another big game-tomorrow night vs. Montreal-before they hit the road to face the dredge of the Western Conference: Edmonton and Calgary.
6) San Jose Sharks (21-7-6; last week-4) – San Jose’s road win in St. Louis was one of its best victories of the season. It was also a good sign for a team that is so dominant at home (11-1-3) but not nearly the same on the road (10-6-3). Thursday's game against the Kings in LA should be a really tasty matchup.
7) Boston Bruins (23-9-2; last week-5) – It's hard to explain how Boston has dropped two spots. Save for its 6-2 no-show in Vancouver, the B's have played very well lately (7-3-0 in their last 10 games). The Bruins are 11-0-2 in their last 13 games at TD Garden, including six straight wins. A team riddled with injuries is rewarded with a cushy part of its schedule: nine games in a row against non-playoff teams.
8) Vancouver Canucks (20-10-6; last week 9) – Any thoughts of the Canucks being frauds (at least in the regular season) were put to rest on Saturday with the beating they gave the Bruins. Vancouver’s seven-game win streak was snapped last night in a 3-2 shootout loss at Minnesota but it’ll probably only be a blip. They are the only team in the NHL with the exact same home and away record: 10-5-3.
9) Colorado Avalanche (22-10-1; last week-11) – A blowout of the Oilers Thursday would serve the young Avalanche well since their following three games are all on the road and extremely difficult: Kings, Sharks and Blackhawks. Colorado gets a reprieve from that brutal stretch with the Christmas break but I’m sure it looms in their minds. The bright side is the Avalanche are 11-5-1 on the road so maybe they can steal a win or two.
10) Montreal Canadiens (21-12-3; last week-8) – Montreal doesn’t have another home game in 2013. The Canadiens are about to embark on a season-long six-game road trip beginning Thursday night in St. Louis. The Canadiens (7-3-0 in their last 10 games) have played fine, but we’ll see what kind of shape they are in after this marathon.
11) Minnesota Wild (20-11-5; last week-10) – Somebody had to end Vancouver’s long win-streak so it figures that it was the Wild, who are 14-3-2 at the Xcel Energy Center. Their poor road record (6-8-3) will be put to the test immediately since their next four games are all away from snowy Minnesota: Penguins, Rangers, Flyers and Jets. To avoid facing one of the top teams in the first round of the playoffs (assuming they make it), they’ll need to be better on the road.
12) Tampa Bay Lightning (20-11-3; last week-15) – Now we’re into more of the Eastern Conference teams, so the difference is palpable. Tampa Bay has won its last two games and has taken advantage of Detroit and Toronto’s struggles to climb back to third in the Atlantic Division (only two points behind Montreal). The Lightning have hung around since they finally developed a No. 1 goaltender - Ben Bishop (18-5-2, 1.96 GAA, .934 save percentage, three shutouts).
13) Phoenix Coyotes (18-10-5; last week-12) – Phoenix has dropped its last two games as the Coyotes continue to slide in these rankings. The bottom line is that they won’t go anywhere with Mike Smith (14-8-5, 2.94 GAA, .911 save percentage) playing at a mediocre level. It’s not a one-man team, they have plenty of other solid players, but Smith is their most valuable and Shane Doan (illness) also being out has compounded it.
14) Washington Capitals (18-13-3; last week-14) – Can we just refer to them as the Washington Ovechkins? Seriously, Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals (28) and power-play points (12) while he has four game-winning goals. They need better goaltending, which means Michal Neuvirth has to step up now that he’s been recalled from Hershey (AHL) where he was rehabbing an injury.
15) Detroit Red Wings (15-12-9; last week-13) – The latest stars of HBO’s wonderful 24/7 series certainly haven’t been giving the show a good product on the ice. Detroit has lost its last three games and is 0-6 in shootouts. The 24/7 show thrives on drama and juicy storylines (something mostly absent in the first episode) but so far, the Red Wings haven’t been nearly the formidable team that they always seem to be come spring time. Also, let’s hope some of the players open up more: we don’t need head coach Mike Babcock’s runs around Joe Louis Arena being the most interesting part of each episode.
16) Dallas Stars (16-12-5; last week-17) – Outside of the Blackhawks, nobody in the NHL plays more consistently exciting games than the run-and-gun Stars. That style won’t bring them to the playoffs necessarily but maybe they’ll gain a few more fans. Rumors of an NHL team going to Las Vegas makes you wonder what kind of mayhem Tyler Seguin (18 goals, 15 assists) would unleash on Sin City. 17) Toronto Maple Leafs (17-16-3; last week-16) – The other stars of 24/7 are similarly struggling like the Red Wings and I’m not even talking about head coach Randy Carlyle’s feeble attempt to work a toaster at the team’s cafeteria. Toronto is 3-7-0 in its last 10 games and a 3-1 loss to the Panthers at Air Canada Centre last night had to be the low point of the season. Can't wait to see the depressing highlights from that on HBO!
18) Nashville Predators (14-10-5; last week-20) – Moving a team up three spots when they are 4-5-1 in their last 10 games is a bit much, yes. But what else is there? Backup goaltender Carter Hutton (7-4-1) came out of nowhere to earn the NHL’s third star last week. Before the break, they face the three best teams the Atlantic Division has to offer: at Tampa Bay, vs. Montreal and vs. Boston.
19) Carolina Hurricanes (14-13-7; last week-19) – Alexander Semin is back from a lengthy absence due to injury and with Jeff Skinner, the Hurricanes have enough firepower to potentially make the postseason. Carolina is 5-3-2 in its last 10 games and the 3-1 win in Phoenix on Saturday was one of their finest hours of an up and down season.
20) Philadelphia Flyers (15-15-4; last week-not ranked) – The Flyers make their first appearance in the rankings this season thanks to some strong play after the nightmare start. Philadelphia is 5-3-2 in its last 10 games. The Flyers waxed the Capitals 5-2 last night and a home-and-home with woeful Columbus tomorrow and Saturday should be enjoyable.
Follow Metro Boston Bruins beat writer Richard Slate on Twitter:@RichSlate