Weekend games provided examples of how dominant forward lines can dominate hockey games.
In Ottawa on Saturday, the Senators' top group was reunited for the first time in 13 games as both Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson had missed time with injuries. Sparked by center Jason Spezza's career-high six-point night (three goals and three assists), the trio combined for 15 of Ottawa's 18 points during a 6-1 win.
Later the same day in San Jose, Jonathan Cheechoo continued to wake up from a season-long slump by scoring three goals as he, Joe Thornton and Milan Michalek combined for 10 of the team's 12 points in a 4-3 victory.
Keeping in mind coaches don't necessarily keep lines together from period-to-period, let alone game-to-game, we examine the latest first-line groups from each team and analyze how they stack up against the rest of the league.
Power rankings are updated every Tuesday.
1. Detroit Red Wings (41-12-5, Previous: 1) – Tomas Holmstrom-Pavel Datsyuk-Henrik Zetterberg: Arguably the best line in the West and the closest to challenging Ottawa's trio for tops in the league. Coach Mike Babcock opts at times to move Zetterberg off the line to create more balance throughout his lineup, but when he wants to load up with one line this is the group he assembles.
2. Dallas Stars (34-20-5, Previous: 6) – Brenden Morrow-Mike Ribeiro-Antti Miettinen: The first thing that strikes you is no Mike Modano, but that probably says Dallas is better than a lot of people think with the emergence of Ribeiro and Miettinen. The question is: How will this line hold up during the rigors of the postseason?
3. San Jose Sharks (31-17-7, Previous: 2) – Milan Michalek-Joe Thornton-Jonathan Cheechoo: A great line when the wingers are clicking, otherwise Thornton's passes can go to waste. Cheechoo is healthy for the first time this season as his recent streak of nine goals in 11 games would suggest. Michalek is in and out with consistency, but he's big and fast, creating room for Thornton when he drives defensemen deep in the zone.
4. Ottawa Senators (34-18-4, Previous: 4) – Dany Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson: Simply the best in the league. They're difficult to contain because of their skill and skating ability. There's not much a defense can do but hope to shut down the other Ottawa lines.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (32-19-5, Previous: 9) – Ryan Malone-Evgeni Malkin-Petr Sykora: Making due without the injured Sidney Crosby, of course, the Penguins rely on their talent at center ice to make it happen. Malkin is emerging as the star that gets overshadowed by Crosby.
6. Minnesota Wild (32-20-4, Previous: 7) – Todd Fedoruk-Marian Gaborik-Pavol Demitra: Perfect example of a coach matching a pair and adding a third element. In this case it is journeyman Todd Fedoruk, who would prefer to do less fighting and more mucking in the corners if it means helping two highly skilled linemates.
7. New Jersey Devils (31-21-4, Previous: 8) – Dainius Zubrus-Patrik Elias-Brian Gionta or Zach Parise-Travis Zajac-Jamie Langenbrunner: Not the biggest guys in the league, but when productive it gives the Devils two lines that can score, a rarity in today's NHL. We'll see if these groups work, however, when the physical play is turned up several notches in the postseason.
8. Anaheim Ducks (31-22-7, Previous: 16) – Chris Kunitz-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry or Todd Bertuzzi-Doug Weight-Teemu Selanne: Getzlaf and Perry are stars now and will be for years to come in this league. Both arrived just in time to have the importance of grit and tenacity needed to go along with their offensive skill. If the second group can find chemistry late, don't count out the Ducks for a possible repeat.
9. Philadelphia Flyers (30-20-5, Previous: 3) – Scott Hartnell-Mike Richards-Steve Downie or Simon Gagne-Daniel Briere-Joffrey Lupul: Teams like the Flyers who can come at opponents with two solid lines are most dangerous. Downie is obviously with scorers to provide space and battle in the corners. As long as Lupul is productive and Gagne is healthy, the Flyers have the makings of two very good lines.
10. Montreal Canadiens (29-18-9, Previous: 5) – Andrei Kostitsyn-Tomas Plekanec-Alexei Kovalev or Chris Higgins-Saku Koivu-Sergei Kostitsyn: One of the reasons the Canadiens are a bit of a surprise is the emergence of their young talent up front. Their game is based on speed and taking advantage of a potent power play.
11. Calgary Flames (28-20-8, Previous: 11) – Alex Tanguay-Craig Conroy-Jarome Iginla: Sometimes Daymond Langkow centers this group, giving the trio more size and scoring potential, but coach Mike Keenan looks to spread his offense throughout the lines. Iginla can do a lot on his own, too.
12. Colorado Avalanche (30-21-5, Previous: 13) – Cody McLeod-Paul Stastny-Milan Hejduk: Not at all what the Avalanche expected, but they're doing their best as the team awaits the return of injured top-six forwards Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth. The baptism under fire should give the younger players confidence to continue to contribute when the big stars return so, in a way, the injuries can be a good thing for Colorado.
13. Vancouver Canucks (27-22-7, Previous: 12) – Daniel Sedin-Henrik Sedin-Markus Naslund: The Sedin twins have really come into their own as bona fide NHL stars. Naslund, who teamed with Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison to form arguably the league's best line several years ago, is on the downside of his career and sometimes finds himself moved down the lines.
14. Washington Capitals (27-25-5, Previous: 20) – Alexander Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Viktor Kozlov: Coach Bruce Boudreau has all his eggs in one basket when he goes with this look. Kovloz is a natural center and gets moved between a pair of wingers for a second scoring line at times. There's no secret about what's happening here: get the puck where Ovechkin can shoot because he will fire up to 10 times a game if he can.
15. Boston Bruins (28-22-5, Previous: 10) – Marco Sturm-Marc Savard-Phil Kessel: Questionable how far this group will take the Bruins, who would love to have a healthy and productive Glen Murray back in the lineup. Not a lot of size up front.
16. Nashville Predators (29-22-6, Previous: 15) – Alexander Radulov-Jason Arnott-J.P. Dumont: For all the talent the Predators lost during the uncertain times with ownership last summer, they've bounced back in decent shape and the key is Radulov's continued development. He was a monster point-producer in junior hockey with immense talent. He has to be that kind of player in the NHL for Nashville to remain competitive in the race.
17. Buffalo Sabres (26-21-8, Previous: 21) – Daniel Paille-Jochen Hecht-Jason Pominville or Tim Connolly-Derek Roy-Tomas Vanek. A healthy Connolly may be the key to Buffalo's stretch run. The Sabres want to run and gun, create turnovers and transition along with getting the defense involved.
18. New York Rangers (28-24-7, Previous: 17) – Martin Straka-Scott Gomez-Jaromir Jagr: Lots of line juggling going on here by coach Tom Renney as the Rangers look for a consistent attack. They await the return of Brendan Shanahan, who can be thrown into the mix along with Chris Drury and a couple other young forwards to come up with what should be two decent scoring lines.
19. Phoenix Coyotes (28-24-4, Previous: 14) – Mathias Tjarnqvist-Steven Reinprecht-Radim Vrbata or Peter Mueller-Joel Perrault-Shane Doan: Coach Wayne Gretzky has been creative with his young and inexperienced roster, and for the most part they have responded. Reinprecht and Doan are key, two veterans who must show the way as the Coyotes continue to push down the stretch.
20. St. Louis Blues (24-22-8, Previous: 18) – Paul Kariya-Keith Tkachuk-David Backes or David Perron-Andy McDonald-Brad Boyes: Early on coach Andy Murray had team goal-scoring leader Boyes with Kariya and Tkachuk, but decided he needed to spread the offense around. Getting McDonald in a trade with Anaheim and the emergence of Perron has given the Blues a few more offensive weapons.
21. Columbus Blue Jackets (26-23-9, Previous: 23) – Rick Nash-Manny Malhotra-Joakim Lindstrom or Jason Chimera-Michael Peca-Nikolai Zherdev: Coach Ken Hitchcock has his offense spread over two lines. He could throw Zherdev with Nash, but the team currently lacks a high-profile No. 1 center, which is true for a lot of teams, really. The hope is for Gilbert Brule to be that player eventually, but the Jackets are getting by with a commitment to defense-first play and taking everything Nash can produce in the meantime.
22. Carolina Hurricanes (27-27-4, Previous: 22) – Ray Whitney-Eric Staal-Erik Cole: It's a bit of an educated guess here since top-line right wing Cory Stillman was shipped off to Ottawa as part of a four-player trade on Monday. The Hurricanes need to find a way to play more of a two-way game and regain a defensive posture moving forward.
23. Atlanta Thrashers (27-27-4, Previous: 19) – Ilya Kovalchuk-Todd White-Mark Recchi: Here's a team on the lookout for more skill down the middle of the ice. Recchi gives Kovalchuk a good veteran example, but clearly this is a line that is more a work in progress than anything else.
24. Florida Panthers (26-27-5, Previous: 27) – Ville Peltonen-Olli Jokinen-Brett McLean: Richard Zednik's near-fatal injury means a change here and it's assumed McLean may move from the left side to take Zednik's spot at right wing and veteran two-way forward Peltonen could join Jokinen, the lone legitimate offensive threat on the line.
25. Chicago Blackhawks (24-25-5, Previous: 26) – Martin Havlat-Robert Lang-Patrick Kane: Basically coach Denis Savard has taken players with the most skill at each position and thrown them together. It's not the most defensively-responsible line, but this team is all about developing its young talent so whatever help that can be provided to Kane and Jonathan Toews is welcomed.
26. New York Islanders (24-25-7, Previous: 25) – Richard Park-Mike Comrie-Bill Guerin: That pretty much says it all in terms of the Isles' struggles to score, eh? Park is a journeyman forward, playing with his sixth NHL team, and has never scored more than 14 goals in a season. Guerin is 37, a streaky scorer in the twilight of his career and Comrie, undersized at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, is contributing as much as he can but this line isn't going to match up favorably against many others around the league, especially in a playoff setting.
27. Edmonton Oilers (25-27-5, Previous: 24) – Dustin Penner-Sam Gagner-Ales Hemsky: Forcing the undersized 18-year-old Gagner into the No. 1 spot is out of necessity since Shawn Horcoff is lost for the rest of the season due to injury and the other centers don't have as much skill as Gagner. The onus is on the wings to produce offense.
28. Toronto Maple Leafs (23-25-9, Previous: 28) – Jiri Tlusty-Mats Sundin-Nik Antropov: A lot of moving pieces here with nothing set in stone except Sundin playing No. 1 center, and that could change, too, if he waives a no-trade clause by the Feb. 26 deadline. Alexei Ponikarovsky could replace the rookie Tlusty once he returns from injury. Wingers Alex Steen and Jason Blake see first-line duty, too, when coach Paul Maurice sees fit.
29. Tampa Bay Lightning (23-27-6, Previous: 29) – Brad Richards-Vincent Lecavalier-Martin St. Louis: Best line in hockey for a non-winning team. It was good enough to win a Stanley Cup, too, in 2004. Lecavalier is having a great year – all three log major minutes – but it doesn't appear to be enough to carry the Lightning back into the postseason.
30. Los Angeles Kings (24-31-3, Previous: 30) – Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Mike Cammalleri: This is where the Kings have hope for the future along with youth on defense (Jack Johnson) and in goal (Jonathan Bernier). Kopitar is the best young player no one knows and staying healthy is critical for Cammalleri. Brown is the lunchpail guy on the line and worth the price of admission, just watch him every shift.