1. St. Louis Blues (49-16-7; last week-1) – If the Blues had lost to the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, they would have dropped to No. 2. That’s how close the gap is between them and the Bruins right now. However, St. Louis beat Toronto, 5-3, to regain the lead for the most points in the NHL (105).
2. Boston Bruins (49-17-6; last week-2) – Boston’s 12-game win streak ended on Monday in a 2-1 shootout loss to Montreal, but the Bruins have been the NHL’s best team in March. The most challenging week of the season for the B’s continues as they host Chicago on Thursday then go to D.C. on Saturday and Philadelphia on Sunday. Boston’s plus-77 goal differential is the best in the league.
3. San Jose Sharks (47-18-9; last week-3) – By virtue of their 5-2 win over Edmonton on Tuesday, San Jose clinched a playoff spot for the 10th straight season. As we’ve said all season, for the Sharks it’s all about making a long playoff run – which is something they are usually allergic to. The Sharks are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games.
4. Chicago Blackhawks (42-16-15; last week-7) – Patrick Kane (leg) is out until the postseason but the Blackhawks are playing better (6-3-1 in their last 10 games). Their game in Boston on Thursday is arguably the most anticipated showdown of the regular season. Chicago only needs one more point to clinch a playoff spot for the sixth straight season.
5. Anaheim Ducks (46-18-7; last week-4) – After leading the Pacific Division for most of the season, the Ducks have been passed by the Sharks. The good news for Anaheim is that although they are four points behind San Jose, they still have three games in hand. With their next eight games all against non-playoff teams from the Western Conference, the Ducks are still in fine shape.
6. Pittsburgh Penguins (46-21-5; last week-5) – We’re not saying the sky is falling in Pittsburgh, but with the news that Evgeni Malkin is out two-to-three weeks with a foot injury, coupled with two consecutive losses, things could certainly be going better in the Steel City. The Penguins’ next three games are very difficult: vs. Kings on Thursday, at Columbus on Friday and hosting Chicago on Sunday. The good news is that the Metropolitan Division is a lock since they are up 13 points on the Rangers.
7. Colorado Avalanche (45-21-6; last week-6) – The Blues, particularly, and the Blackhawks, to a lesser extent, are pulling away from the Avalanche. The Avalanche are still out of the Wild Card range but it looks like they’ll be in the fifth spot for the Western Conference playoffs. They’ve allowed 198 goals this season, which is not a good sign heading into the postseason.
8. Los Angeles Kings (42-25-6; last week-9) – Nobody will want to face the Kings in the playoffs as they have been one of the NHL’s top teams in the second half of the season. LA has won its last four games and have allowed the fewest goals (155) in the league. Is there any way we can ensure that Ducks-Kings would be the first round series? That’d be a war.
9. Montreal Canadiens (41-26-7; last week-8) – Montreal was in a funk but it ended Boston’s lengthy win streak on Monday and blanked Buffalo, 2-0, on Tuesday for its third win in a row. More than any other Eastern Conference team, the Canadiens seem to pose the biggest threat to the Bruins. They only have eight games left and the next four are all on the road where they have gone 20-14-2.
10. Tampa Bay Lightning (39-24-9; last week-11) – Tampa Bay has dropped its last two games, in overtime and a shootout respectively, but the Lightning should be able to bounce back since their next two games are against bottom-feeders like the Islanders and Panthers. They still have the inside track to home ice – three points ahead of the Rangers for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They are 5-1-4 in their last 10 games and 6-6 overall in overtimes and shootouts this season.
11. Philadelphia Flyers (38-26-7; last week-12) – The Flyers lost, 3-2, to Los Angeles on Monday but they are still flying high (sorry) by going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. One point behind the Rangers with two games in hand means that the Flyers could be moving up soon. It is a big weekend at the Wells Fargo Center as they host the Maple Leafs on Friday and Bruins on Sunday.
12. New York Rangers (40-29-4; last week-14) – The Rangers are trending upward. They’ve won their last four games and are 7-3-0 in their last 10. Hearing that Chris Kreider is out for a month with a broken hand is bad news but New York is deeper than it has been in the last few years. Hosting the Flyers on Wednesday should serve as a small sample of what the playoffs will be like.
13. Minnesota Wild (37-24-11; last week-10) – Stop us if you’ve heard this before. The Wild are going to make the postseason, but they’ll have to go through one of the top teams in the West in a first round series. Making the playoffs every year is admirable but you have to aim higher if you want to make any noise in the West. Going 3-3-4 in their last 10 games can’t be helping their confidence.
14. Phoenix Coyotes (35-26-12; last week-15) – On the plus side, the Coyotes are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. That is overshadowed though by the news that goaltender Mike Smith is out, potentially, until the playoffs with a leg injury. Thomas Greiss’ reign as the starter started on a good note as Phoenix beat Pittsburgh, 3-2, on Tuesday.
15. Columbus Blue Jackets (37-29-6; last week-15) – The Eastern Conference Wild Card race is a beautiful mess since the Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Capitals and Maple Leafs all have exactly 80 points. Columbus gets the nod here since they are the only one of that foursome with a positive goal differential. They host Pittsburgh on Friday in what is shaping up to be a huge game.
16. Detroit Red Wings (33-25-14; last week-19) – Now it gets harder to separate the rest of the teams. Pavel Datsyuk is skating again, but with only 10 games left, time is running out on his comeback. When Detroit goes to Toronto on Saturday, the result of that game could go a long way in determining which of them (both, one or neither) make the postseason.
17. Washington Capitals (34-27-12; last week-17) – Tuesday’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Kings had to really sting for the Capitals since they led 3-1 at the Verizon Center heading into the third period. Washington has a few days to stew over that before they host Boston on Saturday afternoon. The bright side for the Caps is that if they survive the Bruins game, their next four games are cushy (Predators, Stars, Devils and Islanders).
18. Dallas Stars (34-27-11; last week-18) – You hate to term anything in an 82-game season a “must-win,” but Dallas needs to beat Nashville on Friday. After that, they head out on a five-game road trip. The Stars are 14-17-4 away from American Airlines Arena. Yikes.
19. Toronto Maple Leafs (36-30-8; last week-13) – The Leafs are always surrounded by drama and angst so riding a six-game losing streak must be going over well in Toronto. They are better than Detroit and Washington but the problem is that they only have eight games left to show it. After going to Philadelphia on Friday, Toronto returns home for four vitally important contests.
20. Vancouver Canucks (33-30-10; last week-not ranked) – We made the point last week by not having a 20th team. The Canucks get the honor this week since they’ve won their last two games. Still, they trail Phoenix by six points, so fans might as well start paying attention to the Whitecaps (their MLS team) since it’s going to be a dull spring in Vancouver.
Follow Metro sports writer Richard Slate on Twitter: @RichSlate