The dog days of the regular season have hit. It's a time when the veteran teams have to dig down collectively and focus on the task at hand even if it seems like they've been playing forever and have forever to go.
This is also a time when points become a little tougher to earn, and teams can set themselves up for the stretch run. This week's power rankings – which appear each Tuesday – takes a look at the key issues facing each team.
1.Boston Bruins (37-8-6, Previous: 3) – Since Nov. 1 this team has gone 32-5-3. That's three months of unbelievable hockey. Usually the hottest of teams sustain a streak like this for a quarter or a third of a season. The Bruins have done it for the equivalent of half a season. That tells me they are very much for real.
2.San Jose Sharks (36-7-5, Previous: 1) – This team is finding out the importance of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake the hard way. The two have not been in the same lineup for the last five games, and San Jose has scuffled without the pair of two-way defensemen. The power play and even-strength play is where it's showing up most.
3.Washington Capitals (32-15-4, Previous: 5) – There was a lot of scoffing when it was suggested at the start of the season that Alexander Ovechkin would score 80 goals, especially after he had just two after 11 games. If he maintains the pace he's set with 34 goals in the last 38 games, however, he'll finish with 66. That pace at the start of the season would have translated to 73.
4.Detroit Red Wings (32-11-7, Previous: 2) – Yes, the Wings need better goaltending, but they have been hampered by recent injuries to Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and Brad Stuart. Then again, it looks like this Ville Leino kid can play the game. Salary-cap issues loom, and aging defenseman Chris Chelios just might be getting in the way a bit.
5.New Jersey Devils (32-15-3, Previous: 7) – The Devils were hoping to play well enough to maintain a playoff spot when top goalie Martin Brodeur went down Nov. 1. But no one in the universe imagined they'd go 26-13-1 without the future Hall of Famer.
6.Calgary Flames (30-15-4, Previous: 8) – The Flames have pulled away a bit from the usually tight Northwest Division, but don't forget how much of that lead is padded with a successful record at home (19-5-3). And don't forget: Calgary began the week with 35 remaining games, with 20 on the road – and opened with a loss Monday in Denver.
7.Chicago Blackhawks (27-13-8, Previous: 6) – Already a confident team, maybe even bordering on cocky (the good kind), the Blackhawks aren't out of the division race just yet, and yes, they will be part of the postseason for the first time since 2002.
8.Montreal Canadiens (28-16-6, Previous: 4) – Injuries are starting to pile up a bit here – Robert Lang, Guillaume Latendresse and Josh Gorges are all banged up – and Alex Kovalev needs to show up more often, but here's another wild thought: How would J.S. Giguere look backing up Carey Price heading into the postseason?
9.Philadelphia Flyers (26-14-9, Previous: 9) – Is the question who should be the No. 1 goalie – Marty Biron (15-10-5) or Antero Niittymaki (11-4-4) – or is there really not enough goaltending on the roster to escape the Eastern Conference in the spring?
10.New York Rangers (29-18-4, Previous: 10) – Wednesday's game is truly secondary to the pregame ceremony to retire the No. 9 of Adam Graves, one of the greatest guys in this sport full of nothing but good guys. And he just might be No. 1.
11.Anaheim Ducks (26-22-5, Previous: 14) – The one thing new GM Bob Murray should be learning is that his club's inconsistency probably isn't going away. This Ducks are long in tooth and not fast enough to compete with the elite teams in the West. Changes should be forthcoming if Murray can find dance partners.
12.Buffalo Sabres (26-20-5, Previous: 11) – No one in these parts needs to be reminded how much time talented center Tim Connolly has spent watching games while rehabbing injury after injury the last three seasons, but he's healthy now and contributing big time: seven goals in his last seven games.
13.Dallas Stars (23-18-7, Previous: 16) – It's not this simple, but the Stars started to produce the results expected of them once Sean Avery stopped skating for the team. Starting with a win in Calgary on Dec. 2, Dallas is 15-7-3 after beginning the season 8-11-4.
14.Minnesota Wild (25-21-3, Previous: 15) – You may not be able to spell Calder without Cal (a la all-purpose winger Cal Clutterbuck), but you've got to have top-end players performing to get anywhere in this league. And the fact remains: Marian Gaborik has played all of six games this season and is not even halfway done with his current rehab (hip surgery Jan. 5).
15.Edmonton Oilers (25-21-3, Previous: 13) – Why is it some players just won't respond until they've been humiliated in print and reprimanded to the point of a benching or healthy scratch? Right now talented winger Dustin Penner falls into that category, and the Oilers absolutely need him to play to his potential if they want to play into the third week of April.
16.Carolina Hurricanes (25-21-5, Previous: 20) – The Hurricanes are average in every sense of the word, and average doesn't get it done. They've changed the coach and they're borderline to reach the playoffs – they haven't been since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. This is a team that should be busy at the trade deadline, more with an eye to the future than the present.
17.Pittsburgh Penguins (24-22-5, Previous: 12) – The best news the defending East champs have heard recently is that injured defenseman Sergei Gonchar is about three weeks away from making his season debut, assuming there are no setbacks. The Pens desperately need his presence on the power play and minutes on the blue line.
18.Columbus Blue Jackets (24-21-5, Previous: 18) – For as much excitement as rookie goalie Steve Mason has stirred in Columbus, the Blue Jackets are still trying to break into the playoffs for the first time with a big hole at center ice. Manny Malhotra is being asked to play on the top line on most nights, and that's not going to get the Blue Jackets into the postseason.
19.Phoenix Coyotes (24-22-5, Previous: 17) – The Coyotes would seem to be right on the line of making or missing the playoffs. The reality, though, is that Phoenix is on pace for 85 points and while that would be a two-point improvement over last season it's still going to be 5-6 short of what it will probably take to finish eighth in the West.
20.Vancouver Canucks (22-20-8, Previous: 19) – This isn't necessarily Alain Vigneault's fault – a lack of depth and simply not enough talent to win enough in the West – but it wouldn't be a surprise if he pays for the team's struggles with his job. Shutdown hockey is not going to get the Canucks into the playoffs.
21.Florida Panthers (23-18-8, Previous: 21) – With 54 points in their first 49 games, the Panthers aren't catching opponents by surprise anymore, and they're finding that points are tougher to earn. Do they really have enough to sneak into the playoffs, especially considering Pittsburgh figures to push hard down the stretch?
22.Los Angeles Kings (20-21-7, Previous: 27) – Six points out of the final playoff spot in the West, yet only two ahead of last place in the conference, the Kings have only 11 home games remaining. Saturday started a stretch in which 12 of the next 16 games are on the road.
23.Colorado Avalanche (24-26-1, Previous: 22) – We've said it over and over, but it's finally becoming apparent to everyone the Avs are simply not a playoff team this season and need to go forward planning accordingly. Don't look now, but a last-place finish in the conference is not at all out of the question.
24.St. Louis Blues (20-24-5, Previous: 23) – Yes, the Blues are dead last in the West, but they have also played the fewest number of games. Is playing 15 times over 29 days, a stretch that started with Saturday's shutout win over the Flyers, a good thing or just another impossible hurdle facing a young, injury-depleted team?
25.Tampa Bay Lightning (17-23-10, Previous: 24) – Everyone was getting pretty excited about the results just before the All-Star break, but who is kidding whom here? Well, no one, in fact. The Lightning are not a playoff team, and they should take every step possible to try and improve the talent and depth on the blue line.
26.Nashville Predators (22-24-3, Previous: 28) – The injury bug has started to bite on a roster that's not very deep. There's not enough goal scoring and there are now questions as to who is No. 1 in goal. There are just too many issues to take the Predators seriously as a playoff qualifier.
27.New York Islanders (15-29-5, Previous: 30) – Just when Islanders fans were starting to dream of having a lock on the No. 1 pick – or at least the most ping-pong balls in the draft lottery – New York started having success. The Isles just can't win for losing.
28.Toronto Maple Leafs (19-23-8, Previous: 29) – As the Leafs slowly sink out of playoff contention for what will be a franchise-first four straight years without a postseason appearance, the suspense grows over just how much new GM Brian Burke will remake the roster at the trade deadline.
29.Ottawa Senators (17-24-7, Previous: 25) – Amazing, isn't it? It's never the players' fault. Craig Hartsburg became the second in-season coaching casualty in as many seasons Monday. The fortunes of this team started to go downhill with the loss of defenseman Zdeno Chara and when the Senators couldn't put a legitimate No. 1 goalie in the lineup when it had the pieces everywhere else.
30.Atlanta Thrashers (17-29-5, Previous: 26) – It's never a good sign when a coach has to ask his players whether they take any pride in their jobs, and that becomes public, but it's even worse when the collective answer is no. The convoluted ownership of this franchise really needs to decide what direction it wants to go and fire/hire accordingly.