1) Chicago Blackhawks (29-5-4, previous No. 1) – Fitting, for the team that has led the NHL in points wire-to-wire this season, the Blackhawks were the first club to clinch a playoff spot on Sunday. The only thing that would worry me if I were a Blackhawks fan is that it looks like they are going to rotate goaltenders this postseason, which sounds like a recipe for disaster.
2) Pittsburgh Penguins (29-10-0, previous No. 2) – Even without the NHL’s best player in the lineup - Sidney Crosby (broken jaw) - the Penguins are still humming along. They are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games and it looks like the Eastern Conference will go through the Steel City in the playoffs.
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3) Anaheim Ducks (27-8-5, previous No. 4) – Chicago’s main threat in the Western Conference looks pretty formidable except that center Ryan Getzlaf (13 goals, 30 assists) has missed the last two games with the always mysterious “lower body injury.” Anaheim has won those two contests without its top line center and playmaker but it won’t continue to roll if he’s out for a long period of time.
4) Montreal Canadiens (25-8-5, previous No. 3) – Montreal hasn’t clinched the Northeast Division yet but by beating Boston, 2-1, on Saturday, it completed a 3-1 season series triumph against its bitter rivals and put themselves in the driver’s seat. The win did have its toll though as promising young defenseman Alexei Emelin suffered a season-ending knee injury when he tried to line up Bruins winger Milan Lucic.
5) Boston Bruins (23-8-4, previous No. 5) – To hang up here the B’s will have to take care of a bunch of teams that they should beat. They’re at the lifeless Devils on Wednesday, host the Islanders on Thursday and travel to Carolina on Saturday night. They got the busy week off to the right start with a 6-2 blowout against the Hurricanes on Monday night. Tuukka Rask (17-6-4, .928 save percentage, 1.95 GAA) is having a great season. It’s strange that they haven’t locked him up to a long-term deal since he’s a free agent (restricted) in July.
6) Vancouver Canucks (22-11-6, previous No. 7) – Don’t look now but the Canucks are one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference (8-2-0 in their last 10 games) and they have won three in a row. They are about to embark on a five-game road trip (Flames, Avalanche, Predators, Blues, Stars) but it’s not nearly as difficult as you’d think since they only play one playoff team: St. Louis.
7) Los Angeles Kings (22-13-4, previous No. 8) – We can all agree that the Kings have gotten over their inevitable Stanley Cup hangover and they are playing great hockey. The only difference with them this postseason is that they are not going to sneak up on anyone after being the No. 8 seed last spring.
8) San Jose Sharks (20-11-7, previous No. 10) – For the last few weeks, the Sharks are proving all the people wrong (basically the entire hockey world) that thought they were going nowhere fast and they should blow it up. They are the hottest team in the Western Conference (8-1-1 in their last 10 games) and it’s all thanks to the best home record in the NHL (14-1-5).
9) Toronto Maple Leafs (22-13-4, previous No. 9) – Since it looks like a formality at this point, it’ll be funny to see what the miserable hockey-loving souls up in Toronto will do when the Leafs clinch a playoff berth. That wouldn’t be a big deal in most places but for an Original 6 team that’s been a joke for years, it is a nice accomplishment. Toronto is 7-1-2 in its last 10 games and the Leafs are tied for the second most goals scored in the Eastern Conference (121).
10) Minnesota Wild (22-14-2, previously No. 6) – They have regressed a tad and I feel like this is a team ripe for an upset loss in the playoffs. Niklas Backstrom (20-10-2; .913 save percentage, 2.44 GAA) leads the NHL in wins, which is a bit misleading since he’s only sat on the bench for eight games.
11) St. Louis Blues (21-14-2, previous No. 14) – Another team like the Sharks that sputtered for much of the season, St. Louis seems to have found another gear with the playoffs only a few weeks away. The Blues have won their last four games in a row which, believe it or not, is the longest streak in the Western Conference.
12) Washington Capitals (20-17-2, previously not ranked) – It’s not a lie to say that the Capitals are the hottest team in the NHL since they are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games and they’ve won their last four. So much of their success is tied to Alex Ovechkin (25 goals, 18 assists) who has been on fire: he leads the NHL in goals, power play points (14) and shots on goal (176). They will be a tough out if one of the world’s greatest players is engaged like that.
13) New York Islanders (19-6-4, previous No. 13) – I feel good about the Islanders' chances to make the playoffs but they should be worried about being the eighth seed which means they would face the buzz saw known as the Penguins. Presumably, they could compete with Montreal but the sixth seed in the East is where it’s at since that lucky squad will face the Southeast Division winner.
14) Detroit Red Wings (19-15-5, previous No. 12) – We can all admit that a first round playoff meeting between the Red Wings and Blackhawks might be a sweep for Chicago, but it would still be interesting since they are such rivals. Detroit faces a difficult back-to-back as it hosts the Sharks on Thursday then goes to Chicago on Friday. If they survive that, at Nashville on Sunday and at Calgary on Wednesday should be much easier games.
15) New York Rangers (19-16-4, previous No. 19) – If crazy John Tortorella can steer his underachieving team into the playoffs, look out. They are a matchup nightmare for almost anybody. All the new guys they traded for have made an immediate impact, which is good since getting rid of Marian Gaborik still seems really dumb.
16) Ottawa Senators (19-13-6, previous No. 11) – No playoff team is in rougher shape than the Senators who have lost their last four games. They are only four points ahead of New Jersey (ninth place) and Winnipeg (10th place) so don’t be shocked if they miss the playoffs, unless they turn things around very shortly. Losing 2-1 at Florida, the worst team in the East, on Sunday was not a good harbinger of things to come.
17) Phoenix Coyotes (17-16-6, previously not ranked) – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman pledged this week to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix so maybe that’ll help things for a franchise that always seems to find itself in jeopardy. Having one of the worst road records (4-9-5) in the NHL won’t help them sneak into the playoffs. They have two good chances to improve on that as they are in Edmonton on Wednesday and at Calgary on Friday.
18) Dallas Stars (18-17-3, previously not ranked) – You have to admire the resolve of the guys that remained on the Stars after the trade deadline. The front office clearly threw in the towel on the season by trading away their best players - Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow - yet they’ve won their last two games. I doubt they’ll make the playoffs in the loaded West but props to them for not giving up.
19) Edmonton Oilers (16-16-7, previous No. 15) – I was drinking the Oilers’ Kool-Aid last week and they proceeded to lose their next three games to fall out of the playoff picture. Led by their best player - Taylor Hall (13 goals, 28 assists), who is just 21, the Oilers are still very young so it’s hard to predict which way they’ll go in the last few weeks.
20) Columbus Blue Jackets (16-16-7, previous No. 18) – The Blue Jackets are another completely unproven team that must have been believing my hype of them in the last few power rankings. They’ve lost their last two games to fall to 12th in the West, although they are only four points behind Detroit.
Follow Metro sports writer Richard Slate on Twitter @RichSlate