1. Anaheim Ducks (21-6-5) – The Western Conference continues to separate itself from the Eastern Conference in terms of both quality of teams and its overall depth. The Ducks have the most points (47) in the league and they’ve won their last seven games. Corey Perry being out with a knee injury and their constant goaltending issues, so far, haven't been an impediment for the Ducks this season.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (21-9-1) – The Blackhawks lost, 3-2, at the Islanders on Saturday, snapping their NHL-best eight-game win streak. That didn’t seem to bother Chicago too much though as it bounced back on Sunday with a 2-1 win over Calgary. The Blackhawks’ goal-differential of plus-34 is insane, and not surprisingly, it easily leads the league.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (19-6-4) – What started out as something to laugh about has quickly turned into an epidemic as Sidney Crosby (nine goals, 26 assists) was diagnosed with the mumps over the weekend. I shudder to imagine what would happen if a more mainstream sports star like LeBron James or Peyton Manning caught the mumps. For now, Pittsburgh is sitting pretty on top of the East with the best goal-differential (plus-25) in the conference.
4. St. Louis Blues (20-8-2) – The Blues continue to play well, having won their last four games to remain only one point behind the Blackhawks in the Central Division (with one game in hand). Martin Brodeur (2-1-0) provided a spark to St. Louis but it’ll be interesting to see how its goaltending roles shake out. It’s not hard to see some drama on the horizon there. A home-and-home series with Los Angeles this week could feel like a playoff preview for this spring.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning (19-9-3) – Tampa Bay has finally come back down to Earth a bit as it opened a key five-game road trip with a 4-2 loss at Washington on Saturday. The Lightning are only 7-5-2 on the road so this next week (at Penguins, at Flyers, at Devils, at Islanders) should tell us if they are a complete team or not. Steven Stamkos (17 goals, 17 assists) will be a leading MVP candidate if he keeps this up.
6. Detroit Red Wings (17-7-7) – Few people thought that the Red Wings would be this good so far in 2014-15. Detroit is 6-2-2 in its last 10 games and its record is that much more impressive when you consider that it is 1-5 in overtime and shootouts. The Red Wings' next four games (Blue Jackets, Islanders, Avalanche, Sabres) are in Motown, which is good news since they are 11-3-4 at Joe Louis Arena.
7. Nashville Predators (19-8-2) – The Predators dropped to third in the Central, not because they’ve struggled but rather the fact that the Blackhawks and Blues have both been on serious rolls. Nashville has allowed an NHL-low 57 goals thanks to the incomparable Pekka Rinne (19-6-1, .937 save percentage, 1.75 GAA), who leads the league in all three of those categories. Tuesday should bring a nice matchup between Rinne and fellow Finn Tuukka Rask as the Bruins visit Bridgestone Arena.
8. New York Islanders (20-10-0) – This is probably more in line with who the Islanders really are this season: a good team, but probably not a top club in the NHL. New York is 6-4-0 in its last 10 games. Along with the Blackhawks, the Islanders (5-0) are the only other team in the NHL that remains unbeaten in overtime and shootouts.
9. Montreal Canadiens (19-10-2) – It looks like Montreal isn’t as good as we might have thought, that is unless they are playing Boston (3-0 vs. Bruins in 2014-15). The Habs have won two games in a row but are 4-5-1 in their last 10. Montreal’s goal-differential is only plus-4 and it is just 8-7-1 away from the Bell Centre this season.
10. Toronto Maple Leafs (18-9-3) – Outside of Chicago, the hottest team in the NHL is its fellow Original Six member in Toronto. The Maple Leafs are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games and have won five straight. The stat of the week: Toronto is 12-0-0 this season when James van Riemsdyk (13 goals, 13 assists) scores a goal.
11. San Jose Sharks (17-11-4) – Just when you leave San Jose for dead, it responds with three straight wins to show some much needed signs of life. The Sharks have won three games in a row and their 2-0 shutout of the Predators on Saturday has to be their finest hour in this campaign. San Jose is off until Thursday when its hosts Edmonton - the worst team in the NHL, which just fired head coach Dallas Eakins.
12. Vancouver Canucks (18-10-2) – The Canucks are another team that overachieved to start the season and now their true identity is starting to emerge. They are 5-4-1 in their last 10 games and they’ve dropped their last two. This means that their grip on second place in the Pacific Division could end very shortly.
13. Los Angeles Kings (15-10-6) – More than any other team in the league, the Kings are built for the postseason, so they're far from alarmed regarding their current record. Being 4-4-2 in their last 10 games and 4-6-5 away from home would earn most teams a "fraud" label. Not true with the Kings. In Darryl Sutter and Jonathan Quick we trust.
14. Winnipeg Jets (15-10-6) – It will probably come down to the wire, but this is Winnipeg’s year to make the playoffs. They are good enough, even in the loaded West, to make the tournament. Common sense says that the Jets would be great at home, but they are not (6-6-2). They are in this position by being 9-4-4 on the road. Winnipeg is at the MTS Centre for the next week as they host the Sabres, Bruins and Flyers.
15. Calgary Flames (17-13-2) – That thud you heard coming from Canada this past week was the surprise team of the first few months - the Flames - falling hard. Calgary has dropped five games in a row, which in the Western Conference is a one-way ticket right out of the playoff picture. Their goal-differential is still plus-10 and they are 8-4-2 at Scotiabank Saddledome, where they host the Rangers and Stars later this week.
16. Minnesota Wild (16-11-1) – The Wild have to play better (5-4-1 in their last 10 games) before they fall too far out of the Western Conference's top eight. Their goal-differential is plus-11 and they are 9-3-1 at Xcel Energy Center. It’s time to improve on the road where they have gone 7-8-0. They are in Chicago on Tuesday.
17. Washington Capitals (14-10-5) – I didn’t expect the Capitals to be this high since they haven't really done anything of note thus far. Still, they are above .500 both at home and on the road, good enough for third place in the Metropolitan Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference. Four of their five games before Christmas break are on the road but it’s not exactly a murderer’s row (Panthers, Blue Jackets, Devils and Rangers).
18. New York Rangers (14-10-4) – The Rangers have won their last three, including the first two games of a four-game road trip. A win in Calgary and Carolina shouldn’t be too much to ask from a team that views itself as a contender in the East. The brilliant Henrik Lundqvist (12-7-3, .911 save percentage, 2.51 goals against average, five shutouts) picked up his 55th career shutout, tying him for 20th all-time in NHL history.
19. Florida Panthers (12-8-8) – The Panthers continue to hang around in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, which is great for their floundering franchise. Second-year forward Nick Bjugstad (12 goals, seven assists, three game-winning goals) is having a breakout season for a team that always needs offense. Florida’s goal-differential is minus-10, which shows that this tightrope act might not last much longer.
20. Boston Bruins (15-13-2) – These are trying times in Boston when it comes to the Bruins. They just aren’t getting the job done. A three-game road trip this week (Nashville, Minnesota and Winnipeg) is sneaky hard against three quality Western Conference teams. Zdeno Chara is back and David Krejci (hip injury) has been sidelined - although he’s expected to make the trip for a club that’s starved for goals.