1. Dallas Stars (21-5-2, last week No. 2) – The Stars are the NHL’s closest version of the NFL’s Panthers or the NBA Warriors: must-see TV whenever and whomever they play against. Witness their insane 6-5 comeback win over the Hurricanes on Tuesday where Dallas was up 5-1 in the second period, Carolina tied it in the third but Patrick Sharp scored the game-winner with 19 seconds left. Goaltender Antti Niemi relieved starter Kari Lehtonen and picked up a rare win when he didn’t even have to make a single save.
2. Washington Capitals (19-5-2, last week No. 4) – The Capitals are the hottest team in the NHL: 8-1-1 in their last 10 games after Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout win over Detroit. Washington is 11-3-1 at Verizon Center and 8-2-1 on the road this season. Goaltender Braden Holtby leads the league in wins (17) and goals against average (1.95).
3.Montreal Canadiens (19-6-3, last week No. 1) – The Canadiens still have the most points in the Eastern Conference but they have some serious competition with the Capitals (1 point behind) and Rangers (2 points behind) breathing down their collective necks. Montreal has dropped its last two games going into Wednesday’s showdown with Boston, their last meeting before the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at Gillette Stadium. They still own the best goal-differential (+31) in the league.
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4. Los Angeles Kings (18-8-1, last week No. 5) – With five straight wins (7-2-1 in last 10 games), the Kings have climbed to second-place in the West as they simultaneously leave the rest of the Pacific Division in their wake (2nd place San Jose has 9 fewer points). LA has benefited from way more home games (they are 11-5-0 at Staples Center) so far this season. LA started a six-game road trip with a 3-2 overtime win in Columbus on Tuesday.
5.New York Rangers (18-7-3, last week No. 3) – The Rangers had led the Metropolitan Division basically all season but they’ve dropped into second-place after going 4-5-1 in their last 10 games. Last time out, they blasted the Senators 4-1 on Sunday and now their next three games are in Western Canada (Canucks, Oilers and Flames). Their goal-differential (+22) is still the third-best in the NHL.
6.New York Islanders (16-8-4, last week No. 8) – While the Rangers have tumbled, the Islanders have taken advantage by going 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. It should be a tight race between the Capitals, Rangers and Islanders all season. New York is off until this weekend when they have a back-to-back at Columbus on Saturday then they host the Devils on Sunday.
7.Chicago Blackhawks (15-9-4, last week No. 10) – Right wing Patrick Kane extended his franchise best point streak to 23 games with an empty-net goal against the Predators in Tuesday’s 4-1 victory. The Blackhawks are 5-2-3 in their last 10 games and they are playing their most consistent hockey of the season. The next hurdle is to get over .500 on the road where they are 5-6-3 heading into Thursday’s game in Nashville.
8.St. Louis Blues (16-8-4, last week No. 6) – The Blues had lost three games in a row until they beat Arizona 4-1 on Tuesday. They have fallen eight points behind Dallas and now they only lead Chicago by two points. St. Louis has three games in four nights starting on Thursday (Flyers, Stars and Avalanche) but they are all at Scottrade Center (where they are 8-4-2).
9.Ottawa Senators (15-8-5, last week No. 14) – The Senators have the same amount of points as the Red Wings in the same amount of games but Ottawa has a superior goal-differential (+7) and they are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games. The Senators have surprisingly scored the third most goals (90) in the league. Their next four games are a gauntlet to say the least: at Tampa Bay, at Montreal, vs. LA and at Washington.
10. Detroit Red Wings (15-8-5, last week No. 11) – Detroit has been able to pile up points (7-0-4 in last 11 games) since nine of those contests have been decided in overtime or a shootout. This might be a bit of fool’s gold since the Red Wings’ goal-differential is only +1. They host the Canadiens on Thursday and at the moment, they only trail Montreal by six points.
11.Minnesota Wild (14-7-5, last week No. 12) – The Wild are currently treading water (4-4-2 in last 10 games) which his bad news if you reside in the Central Division. No other team in the NHL has a bigger disparity between their home (10-3-1) and road (4-4-4) record than Minnesota. A back-to-back at Arizona on Friday and San Jose on Saturday is the perfect opportunity to improve upon that.
12. Nashville Predators (14-9-5, last week No. 7) – I wouldn’t say that they are a mess yet but something is clearly amiss with the Predators (3-5-2 in last 10 games). Normally stingy Nashville has a negative goal-differential (-2). The bigger issue is that star goaltender Pekka Rinne (11-7-5, .904 save percentage, 2.46 goals against average, 2 shutouts) is just 1-5-2 in his last eight starts.
13. Boston Bruins (14-9-3, last week No. 15) – The Bruins picked up four out of six points on a bizarre road trip in Canada then returned home in a lifeless 3-2 loss to the Predators on Monday. Exhaustion shouldn’t be a problem on Wednesday in Montreal which has been a house of horrors for Boston over the last few seasons. Goaltender Tuukka Rask (9-7-3, .906 save percentage, 2.72 goals against average, 3 shutouts) is long overdue for a good outing against the Canadiens, right?
14. New Jersey Devils (14-10-4, last week No. 18) – New Jersey lost 3-2 in a shootout at Toronto on Tuesday and even worse, underrated left wing Adam Henrique (13 goals, 10 assists, +10) departed with a lower-body injury. The Devils have been one of the early surprises of the season as they are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They host the Red Wings on Friday then go to the Islanders on Sunday and the Sabres on Tuesday.
15. Pittsburgh Penguins (14-10-2, last week No. 9) – If the playoffs started today, the Penguins (in 9th place) would be left out but that’s probably the last thing on their minds. Veteran right wing Pascal Dupuis was forced to retire on Tuesday because of a medical condition related to blood clots. Not to sound heartless because it’ll be hard but Pittsburgh will have to move on fast to avoid falling further behind in the Metropolitan Division.
16. Florida Panthers (13-11-4, last week No. 16) – The Panthers are also at a bit of a crossroads as they’ve dropped their last two games to slide into 10th-place in the East. They have their work cut out for them at least in the short term as they host the Capitals on Thursday before going to Boston on Saturday and the Islanders on Tuesday. Florida is only one point ahead of Tampa Bay who is bound to wake up at some point.
17. Tampa Bay Lightning (13-12-3, last week No. 20) – Winning the Atlantic Division is a pipe dream (12 points behind Montreal) but it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom in Tampa Bay. They host the Senators on Thursday and Capitals on Thursday in two huge games before hitting the road for two very winnable matchups with the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Steven Stamkos might want to take a little break from social media after he “accidentally” liked a story on Twitter about him going to Toronto as a free agent next summer.
18. San Jose Sharks (14-13-0, last week No. 13) – It says something about the pathetic nature of the Pacific Division that the second-place team is unquestionably here (and you could make a valid argument for having them even lower). San Jose has lost four games in a row and they have the worst home record (4-8-0) in the league. The Sharks are in Edmonton on Wednesday in what is essentially a must-win if they care to turn things around anytime soon.
19. Philadelphia Flyers (11-11-6, last week No. 19) – The Flyers are the definition of a .500 team so it is fitting that’s where they sit. Points will be tough to come by the next few nights at St. Louis on Thursday and Dallas on Friday. Philadelphia is 5-3-2 in their last 10 games but they have scored the second-fewest amount of goals (57) in the NHL.
20. Winnipeg Jets (13-13-2, last week No. 24) – I bet you didn’t realize that the Jets are still barely hanging on to eighth-place in the Western Conference. Don’t expect that to last though with two teams a point behind (San Jose and Vancouver) and two others two points behind (Arizona and Anaheim) them. The Jets have to beat Columbus on Thursday since their next three games after that are at Chicago, vs. Blues and vs. Rangers.
21. Vancouver Canucks (10-11-8, last week No. 21) – The Canucks needed a win in the worst possible way and they were able to do it on Monday (5-2 vs. Sabres). Vancouver remains 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. They host the Rangers on Wednesday then hit the road for six games, their next home game isn’t until after Christmas (12/26 vs. Edmonton).
22. Anaheim Ducks (11-12-5, last week No. 22) – There is still plenty of room on the Ducks’ bandwagon in the gutter. Anaheim is 5-4-1 in the last 10 and they’ve won their last two games. The Ducks host the Hurricanes on Friday before heading out for four games in NY/NJ (Sabres, Devils, Islanders and Rangers).
23. Arizona Coyotes (13-14-1, last week No. 17) – The Coyotes continue to fade away: they have lost their last five games. They will soon be passed by Anaheim and perhaps Calgary as well. Their goal-differential is -14 so this probably isn’t a fluke or something that will change anytime soon.
24. Colorado Avalanche (12-15-1, last week No. 25) – One of the league’s most enigmatic clubs continues to do what they do. Colorado beat Minnesota 2-1 on Monday but they remain in the basement apartment of the high-rent district Central Division. They Avalanche host the Penguins on Wednesday before a brutal three games in four nights stretch on the road: at Predators, Blues and Blackhawks.
25. Toronto Maple Leafs (10-13-5, last week No. 26) – It’s often tough to measure improvement when you are in last-place in your respective division but the Maple Leafs are definitely headed in the right direction. Toronto is 5-4-1 in its last 10 and has won its last two games after Tuesday’s 3-2 triumph over New Jersey. In a weird scheduling quirk, the Maple Leafs’ next game isn’t until Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay.
26. Calgary Flames (11-14-2, last week No. 28) – Don’t look now but here come the Flames! It’s no question that Calgary is playing its best hockey of the season (6-3-1 in last 10) after they’ve won their last three games. Normally, they would have no hope of reaching the postseason after their awful start but this is when being in the JV Pacific Division pays off handsomely.
27. Edmonton Oilers (11-15-2, last week No. 29) – It was a good week for the bottom-feeders in the West as the Oilers have also won their last three games. Since they face the Sharks on Wednesday, a win in regulation could potentially vault Edmonton to within two points of second-place in the Pacific Division. Defenseman Mark Fayne (who signed a four-year, $14 million deal last summer) was placed on waivers and sent to the AHL, he has just one assist in 24 games.
28. Buffalo Sabres (11-14-3, last week No. 23) – After playing well, the Sabres have dropped their last two games and they are 3-5-2 in their last 10. They are now tied with Toronto for last-place in the Atlantic Division but the teams appear headed in opposite directions. Monday’s 5-2 loss to former Buffalo star goaltender Ryan Miller and the Canucks was disappointing to say the least.
29. Columbus Blue Jackets (11-16-2, last week No. 27) – Not even crazy John Tortorella can make this awful team interesting at all. Columbus is in last place in the Eastern Conference and it’s hard to see that changing much for the rest of the season. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky suffered a lower-body injury in Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Kings.
30. Carolina Hurricanes (10-14-4, last week No. 30) – The Hurricanes might be terrible but at least young defenseman Justin Faulk (10 assists) is worth watching. He leads the NHL with 11 power play goals. Carolina’s next three games are on the road (Ducks, Coyotes and Flyers) where they are 4-8-1 this season.