The long NHL regular season has drawn to a handful of games, still critical for some while others can use them as either tune-ups for the playoffs or a chance to play the role of spoiler.
This week's power rankings – which appear each Tuesday – takes a look at where teams are heading into the playoffs, what they still have to do to get in, or what's in store for the future for those out of the running.
1. San Jose Sharks (52-16-11, Previous: 1) – The Sharks will not have the luxury of getting injured players such as Ryane Clowe, Mike Grier, Kent Huskins and Claude Lemieux up to game speed before the playoffs. They'll just get thrown in when available, in addition to captain Patrick Marleau.
2. Boston Bruins (51-17-10, Previous: 3) – The Bruins are back on top of their game with six straight wins and goalie Tim Thomas playing very well. The last time Boston was a No. 1 seed in the East it lost to No. 8 Montreal in 2001-02, not that Bruins fans need reminding.
4. New Jersey Devils (49-26-4, Previous: 5) – Who predicted the Devils would set a franchise record for wins during a season in which Martin Brodeur missed four months? It's right there, though, and one more victory will do it.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (42-28-9, Previous: 4) – Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora are struggling, and no one has forgotten Malkin's struggles in last year's postseason, so while the Pens appear to be finally meeting expectations, there are those concerns.
6. Carolina Hurricanes (44-28-7, Previous: 7) – Eight wins in a row not only has put the Hurricanes on the brink of clinching a playoff spot, but also has given folks the impression they have designs on going deep into the postseason.
7. Chicago Blackhawks (43-24-11, Previous: 11) – The decision has been made, not surprisingly, to go with Nikolai Khabibulin as the starting goalie heading into the postseason. He has a Stanley Cup and has been playing well of late. Having a playoff-tested goalie will be huge for a young team heading into the postseason.
9. Washington Capitals (48-23-8, Previous: 10) – The Capitals will be looking for secondary scoring like they received on Sunday, but they won't be playing the likes of the Atlanta Thrashers in the playoffs. It's a concern.
10. Calgary Flames (45-28-6, Previous: 8) – Is there any mystery why the Flames have allowed the Canucks to jump into conversation for a division title considering the list of injured defenseman? Robyn Regehr, Adrian Aucoin, Cory Sarich, Mark Giordano and Rhett Warrener are all banged up.
11. Anaheim Ducks (41-33-6, Previous: 12) – Oh, what fun the Ducks and Sharks had over the weekend during a home-and-home series as a possible first-round playoff matchup. It wasn't so much the extra-curriculars after the whistles, but the battle for every square inch of ice.
12. Columbus Blue Jackets (40-29-10, Previous: 13) – The Jackets are holding their breath with regards to Kristian Huselius, who has an upper-body injury. He's been a nice fit on a line with Rick Nash. This is an offensively challenged team, and losing Huselius could be a problem.
13. Florida Panthers (39-29-11, Previous: 15) – No lack of suspense for the Panthers, trying desperately to qualify for the postseason for only the second time in 11 seasons: They have games on the road in Philly and Atlanta before a season finale at home against Washington. It's going right down to the wire and don't be surprised if a tie-breaker is needed.
14. Vancouver Canucks (42-27-10, Previous: 9) – As important as the weekend games were, it's understandable that the Canucks were flat emotionally considering the tragic death of Taylor Pyatt's fiancee. Sad, sad story, and the second difficult situation for the franchise in 11 months.
15. Montreal Canadiens (41-28-10, Previous: 16) – The power play woke up again, which is critical to the Canadiens' success down the stretch and into the playoffs. Mathieu Schneider and Andrei Markov got dinged up over the weekend, which could derail the power play again, but coach/GM Bob Gainey doesn't think either is too seriously hurt.
16. New York Rangers (40-30-9, Previous: 14) – Interesting statistic: New York has been outscored 20-11 in the third period since John Tortorella took over for the fired Tom Renney. Does that suggest the Rangers are having trouble maintaining the pace Tortorella wants the team to play for 60 minutes?
17. St. Louis Blues (38-31-10, Previous: 20) – If the Blues reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, this is the best story of the year in the league, hands down. And it still might be if they're edged out.
18. Nashville Predators (39-32-8, Previous: 19) – No surprise here, the Preds are up against it and are looking for ways to beat adversity again. A home finale against Chicago is followed by road games in Detroit and St. Paul, so the path to the postseason is an uphill climb.
19. Edmonton Oilers (37-33-9, Previous: 18) – Strange times in Edmonton. The Oilers have fallen out of the chase thanks to a 1-6 slide, coach Craig MacTavish comes under fire in the media and the team owner texts a radio station saying MacTavish is going nowhere on the spur of the moment. That decision might get revisited even though MacTavish is an excellent coach.
20. Buffalo Sabres (38-32-9, Previous: 17) – It was a valiant effort, but this wasn't a playoff team by any stretch of the imagination. What does the future hold now? Does the longest-tenured coach in the league, Lindy Ruff, face the firing line even though none of this is his fault?
21. Minnesota Wild (37-33-9, Previous: 21) – A three-year contract extension signed last summer aside, why do we get the feeling Jacques Lemaire will decide to step away from coaching? If so, hello Kevin Constantine.
22. Ottawa Senators (35-34-10, Previous: 22) – The Senators are finishing just strong enough to make people think they'll be fine with a fresh start. Wrong. This team needs strong leadership, and we're not talking about behind the bench, either.
23. Phoenix Coyotes (34-38-7, Previous: 23) – The biggest challenge facing the Coyotes, besides off-the-ice economic woes, is the fact they're trying to improve in a division that includes nothing but strong teams that are only getting better with the possible exception of Anaheim.
24. Dallas Stars (35-34-10, Previous: 25) – It started bad and key players got hurt. The interesting aspect is how will management react in the wake of a surprisingly disappointing season: Tear it apart or tweak here and there? We're thinking just tweaks are in order, but don't be surprised if a big name – Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov or Jere Lehtinen – isn't part of things moving forward.
25. Los Angeles Kings (32-36-11, Previous: 24) – It might not be viewed this way since the Kings are missing the playoffs again, but the team took strides this season and the collection of young talent is very, very good.
27. Toronto Maple Leafs (32-34-13, Previous: 27) – The honeymoon is over. Ron Wilson's Leafs were entertaining, but not good enough to crack the top eight, as predicted. Brian Burke will definitely be looking to make impact moves in the offseason, and once the new season rolls around expectations are sure to be higher.
28. Colorado Avalanche (32-44-2, Previous: 29) – If coach Tony Granato doesn't survive it will be the wrong place at the wrong time for the second time with the Avalanche for one the classiest acts in the league.
29. New York Islanders (26-43-9, Previous: 30) – Obviously the Islanders were going to stick with the plan to go with youth and be patient, but it didn't help to have more than 500 man-games lost to injury this season. Then again, look at St. Louis.
30. Tampa Bay Lightning (24-37-18, Previous: 28) – Elias Sports Bureau studies show the league record for most defensemen used before this season by one team was 18 by Edmonton in 1997-98. The Lightning have used 21 different players on defense. Wow.