Sam McCaig’s weekly Power Rankings column will appear on Saturdays.
POWER RANKINGS: The NHL’s top 10 teams
1. Pittsburgh Penguins: It’s all about getting chemistry with the new guys – and getting a healthy Sidney Crosby and James Neal back in time for the playoffs – as the NHL’s top-heaviest team gears up for a run at the Stanley Cup.
2. Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks hit a rough patch a few weeks ago, losing five times in a nine-game stretch. The good news? Those were their only five regulation losses all season, and they’ve gone 6-0-1 since.
3. Anaheim Ducks: Inevitably the No. 2 seed in the West, the Ducks have defeated the Blackhawks and Kings in recent showdowns with the conference’s elite.
4. Boston Bruins: They beat up on a couple of non-playoff teams last week, but the Bruins have struggled to score for about a month. Still, they’re too deep and too talented for that to last. Plus, they got Jaromir Jagr so you know they’re good.
5. Montreal Canadiens: The Habs have been perhaps the biggest surprise of the season – at least this side of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ playoff push – and there’s no reason to believe they’ll backslide. With great goaltending, a mobile defense and the ability to roll four lines, Montreal’s primed for the playoffs.
6. Los Angeles Kings: The defending Stanley Cup champions won’t have to do it as an 8-seed this time. The Kings have the inside track on fourth place in the West, and home ice in the first round.
7. Vancouver Canucks: Four straight wins – with a total of three goals against – and it’s almost the usual scene in Van City. That is, first place in the Northwest Division…but no Presidents’ Trophy this year for No. 1 overall in the NHL. Oh well, a playoff run would surely be a suitable replacement.
8. St. Louis Blues: Hitting their stride at the right time. Brian Elliott has rediscovered last season’s breakout form – as evidenced by three straight shutouts – and the Blues have won six in a row, surrendering a total of five goals.
9. Toronto Maple Leafs: The team with the longest playoff drought – the Leafs haven’t seen the postseason since 2004 – are all but locked into fifth place in the East. They’ve got speed, depth and toughness, and a couple of game-breakers in Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri.
10. San Jose Sharks: Streaky teams can’t be trusted, and the Sharks have been either red-hot or ice-cold this season. True to form, they were sinking fast a couple weeks ago, but turned things around and have been streaking toward the playoffs since last March.
Rising Up: Washington Capitals
Yes, it helps that the Caps play in the NHL’s weakest division. But it also helps that they’ve won six in a row and gone 10-1-1 in their past dozen games. Alex Ovechkin’s scoring revival gets all the press, but Washington has been winning with defense as much as anything.
Falling Down: Detroit Red Wings
After 21 consecutive seasons in the playoffs – and never being in danger of missing the postseason in all that time – the Wings are clinging to eighth place in the West. Make no mistake, they’d be a formidable first-round foe. But they’ve got to get there first.
ALL-STAR TEAM OF THE WEEK
Center: Nicklas Backstrom, Washington. The chicken-or-egg question is, did Backstrom’s playmaking spark Ovechkin or did Ovechkin’s breakout benefit Backstrom? In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter as long as they’re clicking again – and the Caps are winning again.
Right winger: Alex Ovechkin, Washington. The Capitals sniper has been on a tear since St. Patrick’s Day and last week was no exception as Ovechkin piled up six goals – plus an assist, to show he’s not greedy – in four games. In short, Alex is great again.
Left winger: Rick Nash, NY Rangers. The big-bodied power forward is doing his part to lift the Blueshirts into the playoffs, with goals in three straight games.
Defenseman: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles. The Kings defenseman has scored only four times 41 games, but he got untracked with goals in three consecutive contests last week.
Defenseman: Grant Clitsome, Winnipeg. The unheralded Jets defenseman scored twice in three games while posting a plus-7 rating.
Goaltender: Brian Elliott, St. Louis. Three games, three shutouts. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Rookie: Alex Chiasson, Dallas. The 22-year-old Stars rookie, a lanky 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, has had a memorable start to his NHL career with five goals in five games, including two-goal efforts against the Preds and Sharks last week.
GAMES TO WATCH
1. Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis Blues, Sunday. The nationally televised NBC matinee games features two teams with the pieces in place for a run at the Cup. There’s a slight chance this could be a first-round playoff preview, but the Blues have been rolling and are more likely to move up into fifth or sixth.
2. Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins, Monday. The B’s have designs on winning the Northeast and grabbing the No. 2 seed in the conference, while the injury-ravaged Senators are more concerned with preserving their position and qualifying for the postseason.
3. Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins, Wednesday. The two teams that have reigned supreme in the East meet one last time before things get real.
LAST MINUTE OF PLAY
— All eyes are on the parity-packed playoff races in the East and West. Which is how it should be. But there’s some intrigue at the other end of the standings, too. The Carolina Hurricanes entered the weekend with losses in 14 of 15 games, sandwiching a 3-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets between seven-game freefalls. Netminder Cam Ward, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner when the ‘Canes won the Cup in 2006, went down in early March with a sprained MCL...and Carolina’s playoff hopes went down with him.
— Steven Stamkos is in prime position to claim another Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal-scorer, as well as the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point-getter. But the Tampa Bay Lightning star isn’t exactly lighting it up in pursuit of the two awards. Stamkos has scored just one goal in his past six games, although he does have five points in that span. The Bolts sniper is five points behind Sidney Crosby with eight games remaining, and tied with Ovechkin at 26 goals. A solid finish, and he’s got two more trophies for the mantle. Another week like this past one, though, and he might end up empty-handed.
— The playoff pushes by the Blue Jackets and Oilers might ultimately be unsuccessful in that they don’t crack the top eight in the West, but the fact they’re still in the race in the final weeks is a big step forward for both franchises. Especially the Jackets, who not only had just one lone playoff appearance in their first 11 seasons, but that 2008-09 campaign was also the only year in which Columbus was a relevant and competitive NHL franchise. Whatever happens the rest of the way, the Jackets have already accomplished at least their second-best season. Hey, it’s progress.
— Raise your hand if you had the Islanders leading the Rangers and Devils in the East standings at this point in the season.
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