Brandon Saad and the Blackhawks continue to dominate.Getty Images
  1. 1. Chicago Blackhawks (26-11-2) – Do you realize how remarkably consistent the Blackhawks have been, having won Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013? I don’t think it’s crazy to say that they are not only the model franchise in the NHL but possibly of all American sports. Guys get hurt but then others are plugged in and step up immediately, or injured stars like Patrick Sharp return with no rust and score overtime goals (see: Sunday’s 5-4 OT win over Dallas).
  2. 2. Anaheim Ducks (26-9-6) – The Ducks actually have the most points (58) in the league but Chicago has two games in hand and Anaheim’s goal-differential is plus-5 while the Blackhawks’ is an otherworldly NHL-best plus-39. The Ducks are currently in the middle of an eight-game homestand. Yes, eight games. They picked up a 4-3 shootout win over Nashville on Sunday and their next road game isn’t until Jan. 17 in LA.
  3. 3. Nashville Predators (25-9-4) – Basically halfway through their regular season (38 games in), the Predators are clearly here to stay. Nashville is 6-2-2 in its last 10 games and it owns the best home record in the NHL (14-2-1 at Bridgestone Arena). The Predators’ next three games are all against teams out of the playoffs (vs. Hurricanes, vs. Stars, at Wild) so expect them to take care of business.
  4. 4. Montreal Canadiens (26-11-2) – The Canadiens have been the Eastern Conference’s top club for what seems like the entire season. Montreal is riding an NHL-best six game win-streak and it is 9-1-0 in its last 10 games. Goaltender Carey Price (22-9-1, .929 save percentage, 2.14 goals against average, two shutouts) was named the third star of the week and he’s playing like a Vezina Trophy frontrunner.
  5. 5. Tampa Bay Lightning (25-12-4) – The top teams in the East are all on pretty much the same level. When they are healthy, like now with Steven Stamkos (21 goals, 18 assists) scoring highlight-reel goals such as the one he had in Ottawa on Sunday (4-2 win), the Lightning might be the best of the bunch. Tuesday’s meeting at Montreal’s Bell Centre could be a possible Eastern Conference Finals preview.
  6. 6. Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-5) – The Penguins were humbled in a 4-1 loss to the Canadiens this past Saturday but they’ll have another shot at Montreal this coming Saturday. In between, Pittsburgh has a chance to further bury one of its biggest rivals – Boston - with a national TV game on Wednesday at the Consol Energy Center. As they usually seem to, the Penguins made a noteworthy midseason trade: obtaining left wing David Perron (6 goals, 14 assists) from Edmonton.
  7. 7. New York Islanders (26-12-1) – The Islanders are in the middle of a grueling seven-game road trip and they had won the first two games, which makes Sunday’s 5-2 loss in Edmonton so puzzling. Don’t get too hung up on that though. The Islanders are legitimate contenders (7-2-1 in their last 10 games). Don’t laugh - captain John Tavares (17 goals, 19 assists) is on the short list for best professional athlete playing in New York these days.
  8. 8. St. Louis Blues (23-13-3) – This is when you start to see the drop-off from the clear top teams in the NHL. The subject of trade rumors, center T.J. Oshie was named the first star of the week after putting up five goals (including his second career hat trick) and two assists in four games. The Blues are only 4-5-1 in their last 10 games but they are coming off a 7-2 drubbing of the Sharks and follow that up with what should be a layup: at lowly Arizona on Tuesday.
  9. 9. Detroit Red Wings (20-10-9) – The market correction of the Red Wings is predictable, like the angst of returning to work after a long holiday break. The Red Wings are still good, but it’s a stretch to put them in the same grouping as Montreal, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. Their New Year six-game road trip started with a thud in Vancouver (4-1 loss on Saturday) but a game in Edmonton on Tuesday should be just the cure to whatever ails them.
  10. 10. Vancouver Canucks (22-12-3) – This is the start of the third tier of teams that’ll be in the playoffs but probably won’t be Cup contenders when it’s all said and done. The Canucks are enjoying a five-game homestand at Rogers Arena and Tuesday’s game vs. the Islanders should be a good one. Ryan Miller’s career (20-8-1, .913 save percentage, 2.46 goals against average, three shutouts) has been revitalized in that clean Vancouver air.
  11. 11. Washington Capitals (20-11-7) – The Winter Classic received its lowest TV rating, but that shouldn’t take away from what was a great hockey game: Washington beat Chicago 3-2 on a last-second goal by Troy Brouwer. The Capitals have gone 7-1-2 in their last 10 games. Alex Ovechkin (three goals, three assists in 3 games) was the second star of the week in the NHL as he continues to dominate.
  12. 12. New York Rangers (21-11-4) – Similar to the Canadiens, the Rangers are absolutely on fire (9-1-0 in their last 10 games). They appear to have recovered from their Stanley Cup hangover. New York has the dreaded California trip (at Anaheim, LA and San Jose) this week. Three games in four nights.
  13. 13. Los Angeles Kings (19-12-9) – Speaking of Stanley Cup hangovers, the Kings say hello. The sons of Darryl Sutter must be pacing themselves (seventh in the Western Conference) or they might just be worn out from the long playoff run last season, not to mention all of the national team duty of its star players. Their 7-6 overtime loss to Nashville on Saturday was the most entertaining game of the season in the NHL.
  14. 14. Winnipeg Jets (20-12-7) – Evander Kane is back on IR and is expected to be out until February, but the Jets have managed to get this far mostly without his services this season. If I gave you 10 guesses, I guarantee you wouldn’t know that Winnipeg is the best road team (11-4-4) in the NHL. Saturday’s 5-1 beating of Toronto was impressive and Monday’s game vs. San Jose is important since it’s a team that they figure to be competing with for a playoff spot.
  15. 15. San Jose Sharks (20-14-5) – It’s not a crisis since they had been playing well, but the Sharks are in a tough position with star center Joe Thornton (nine goals, 24 assists) out with an upper body injury. Their 7-2 loss to St. Louis on Saturday was the low point of the season, so a three-game road trip (Winnipeg, Minnesota, St. Louis) probably isn’t the worst place to refocus. San Jose’s goal-differential of plus-3 indicates a team that can score goals but often struggles to prevent them.
  16. 16. Calgary Flames (21-16-3) – Calgary has started to sputter a bit (4-5-1 in its last 10 games) to at least temporarily tumble out of the playoff picture in the loaded West. Don’t blame Johnny Gaudreau (13 goals, 18 assists, plus-11), who was named the rookie of the month for December. The Flames have four days between games before they host the Red Wings on Wednesday and Panthers on Friday.
  17. 17. Toronto Maple Leafs (21-16-3) – There is never a dull moment with the Maple Leafs, huh? After flirting with first place in the Northeast Division, Toronto has come crashing back to the middle with a woeful 3-7-0 mark in its last 10 games. The Leafs are 14-8-0 at Air Canada Centre and their next two games are Wednesday vs. Washington and Friday vs. Columbus.
  18. 18.Boston Bruins (19-15-6) – It says something about the bottom half of these rankings that the most frustrating team in the league still safely snuck in. The Bruins are 4-2-4 in their last 10 games, which doesn’t sound bad until you realize they lost in overtime at home to Ottawa, then in a shootout at Carolina in back-to-back games this past weekend. Unless the reverse jinx is in effect, Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh could get real ugly for Boston.
  19. 19. Dallas Stars (18-14-6) – The Stars are the hottest team in the West (8-1-1) yet they still can’t crack the top eight. It doesn’t help that goaltender Kari Lehtonen has been a sieve and they’ve allowed an ungodly amount of goals (124, tied for third most in the NHL). Then again, it doesn’t appear that he’s getting much help from his defensemen either.
  20. 20. Florida Panthers (17-11-9) – It doesn’t make sense that one of the lowest scoring teams in the league (87 goals) would be so fun to watch but maybe that’s because most of the Panthers games are close. Whatever the reason, this is a decent team that is a viable playoff contender in the East. It was definitely a Happy New Year for young star Nick Bjugstad (15 goals, nine assists), who received a six-year extension worth $24.6 million from Florida.
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