It's crunch time in the NHL. Yes, an eighth of a season remains, but those last 8-10 games for each team will go by fast, and the points are critical.
This week's power rankings – which appear each Tuesday – takes a look at what teams are facing as the races peak in anticipation of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
1.San Jose Sharks (48-14-10, Previous: 3) – After the Red Wings play Monday and Tuesday while the Sharks rest, and the Sharks play Wednesday and Thursday while Detroit is idle, the teams will have a real good feel for who has the best shot at finishing first in the West, if not winning the Presidents' Trophy as well.
2.Detroit Red Wings (48-16-9, Previous: 2) – Bad news for the rest of the league – Marian Hossa said he's willing to take a hometown discount to sign long-term with the Red Wings. He's not making any promises because he said he'll only sign a deal that's fair to both sides, but he doesn't want to have to move from team to team at this point in his career either.
3.Calgary Flames (42-24-6, Previous: 4) – The Flames are legitimate, even if they are rarely in the conversation with Detroit and San Jose. They have the best goaltending of the three teams, plenty of speed throughout the lineup, an astute head coach and a tough barn for teams to visit.
4.New Jersey Devils (47-23-3, Previous: 1) – The Devils haven't given up on catching the Bruins for first in the conference, but coach Brent Sutter is looking for his team to improve its play on the road, especially on special teams. He knows that will be critical to the Devils' success in the postseason.
5.Philadelphia Flyers (40-22-10, Previous: 7) – Interesting numbers for the Flyers – heading into Monday's game they were 23-8-1 against non-playoff teams and only 16-14-9 versus teams that were currently in first through eighth in both conferences. It raises a flag that Philly needs to be better against the better teams.
6.Boston Bruins (46-17-10, Previous: 6) – The Bruins get plenty of time off after Sunday's pivotal win over the Devils; they don't play again until Saturday and Sunday. The rest can be a good thing, but the win over New Jersey was bigger. It clinched the Northeast Division and put some distance between the Bruins and Devils for first in the conference.
7.Pittsburgh Penguins (39-27-8, Previous: 7) – The Penguins were talking tough after having their 12-game points streak snapped during Sunday's loss to Philadelphia. The Pens feel like they sent the appropriate message in case the teams meet again in the playoffs. Hmmm, talk is cheap.
8.Carolina Hurricanes (40-28-7, Previous: 10) – The Hurricanes won their 40th game Monday night for a fourth consecutive season. An 8-1-2 run has moved Carolina from on the fence into fifth in the East. Talk about getting hot at the right time of the season.
9.Washington Capitals (45-23-6, Previous: 9) – When is a runaway division winner not a good thing? Well, maybe this season and right now for the Caps, who haven't really had much to play for of late except playoff positioning. It might go a ways in explaining their recent inconsistent efforts.
10.Vancouver Canucks (38-24-9, Previous: 8) – The Canucks would like to change their Jekyll and Hyde ways – winners of 12 straight at home, but losers of four in a row on the road. It's that kind of inconsistency that drives GMs batty. Why does a team perform so well in one arena and fail to bring the same intensity on foreign ice? Preparation and leadership are two areas to investigate.
11.Columbus Blue Jackets (38-28-6, Previous: 12) – Saturday's victory on the road at Florida typified the kind of victory that suggests Columbus really is headed to the postseason. The Blue Jackets were dead in the water for 57 minutes, then scored twice in the span of 73 seconds and added an empty-netter for a 3-1 win. They have a franchise-record 82 points, but it'll take at least another nine to reach where they want to go.
12.Chicago Blackhawks (38-22-11, Previous: 11) – Patrick Sharp returned in the nick of time. Out 16 games, the Blackhawks went 6-7-3 and were 0-3-2 the last five without the underrated winger. He scored two goals in his first game back Sunday to give Chicago a spark just when it appeared to need it the most.
13.Edmonton Oilers (35-28-9, Previous: 16) – It seems like no matter how good or bad things are going, the Oilers are always in a scrum for the final playoff spot. And they're just the kind of team no one wants to face in the postseason, too.
14.Anaheim Ducks (35-31-6, Previous: 18) – The Ducks are asking graybeards Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger to carry this team into the playoffs. Big minutes, big responsibility. Don't put it past them to get the job done.
15.Florida Panthers (35-27-11, Previous: 13) – It's the wrong time of the year to have lost six of their last seven games. The Panthers are trying desperately to end a long playoff drought, but they're going to need help soon if they give points away as they have in the last two games.
16.Montreal Canadiens (36-27-9, Previous: 15) – Anyone else hear how the home team was booed off the ice during the final two minutes in Montreal on Saturday? The Canadiens would probably be better off playing on the road; there's far less pressure there considering their tenuous standing.
17.Buffalo Sabres (34-30-8, Previous: 14) – The fact Ryan Miller returned to practice Monday gives the Sabres hope, but the reality is Miller knows he can't wait any longer. It's doubtful he'll really be anything close to 100 percent when Buffalo decides he just has to get between the pipes.
18.New York Rangers (38-27-8, Previous: 20) – This would be a real good time for the worst power play in the Eastern Conference to come alive. Otherwise, if the Rangers don't average a point a game with what's left, they'll find themselves on the outside looking in.
19.Ottawa Senators (32-30-10, Previous: 23) – The Senators are not going to reach the playoffs despite a late push, but a 15-6-3 record has all the looks of cementing Cory Clouston's chances to continue as the team's head coach. That's assuming GM Bryan Murray is still the one with the power to make such a decision.
20.Minnesota Wild (34-30-8, Previous: 19) – Just when Marian Gaborik returns after missing 38 games, Mikko Koivu goes out for at least a week, probably more. What the Wild would give to have a healthy lineup. This will likely cost them a real shot at a playoff spot.
21.Nashville Predators (35-30-7, Previous: 21) – The Predators earned six out of a possible eight points on a recent West Coast trip that could go an awfully long way to deciding their playoff fate. And if this Predators team reaches the postseason, it will be the best work by coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile.
22.St. Louis Blues (33-30-9, Previous: 24) – The way these guys have battled through injuries you almost catch yourself rooting for them to slip into that eighth spot in the West.
23.Dallas Stars (33-31-8, Previous: 17) – Brad Richards' hand is healthy enough for him to finally return to the lineup – then he breaks his other hand in the same game. That's the kind of stuff that tells you the playoffs are not really in the stars, no pun intended.
24.Los Angeles Kings (30-32-10, Previous: 22) – You just knew this kind of a road-heavy second-half schedule was going to catch up to a young team. The Kings are without a regulation victory away from home in 11 straight. Game, set, match.
25.Toronto Maple Leafs (30-30-13, Previous: 28) – They're going to miss the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season, but no one can accuse the Maple Leafs of being boring. Toronto has been entertaining most nights. Of course, that means the team has surrendered a lot of goals, too, and that isn't exactly a sign things are about to turn around.
26.Phoenix Coyotes (30-36-7, Previous: 30) – Wayne Gretzky is arguably the best player to have ever played. Is that enough to keep him behind the bench? We think not. Gretzky shouldn't be exempt from being held accountable for the Coyotes' inconsistent play, regardless of how young the players are on the roster. Time for a change.
27.Atlanta Thrashers (30-37-6, Previous: 25) – For a team that's basically been playing out the string since midseason, the Thrashers have had surprising success against their own division – a 9-8-2 record against the Southeast.
28.Tampa Bay Lightning (23-33-16, Previous: 26) – About all the Lightning can take from the late season now is the improvement shown on a daily basis by rookie Steven Stamkos, who after a slow start now has 18 goals and 38 points.
29.Colorado Avalanche (31-40-2, Previous: 29) – No one expected the season to go this far south for the Avalanche. It's hard to imagine someone, or several people, won't pay for this with their jobs immediately after the season ends.
30.New York Islanders (24-40-8, Previous: 27) – The Islanders now appear safe to have either the first or second overall pick in the June draft. Hey, if you're trying to build through the draft, you might as well have the field from which to choose.