Power rankings: Down to the nitty-gritty …
The race that started as a marathon has become a sprint. Fewer than two weeks remain in the regular season. Postseason spots are up for grabs, teams are jockeying for playoff positioning and the teams that are out of it are fighting as spoilers and looking at prospects.
This week's power rankings – which appear each Tuesday – take a look at where each team stands and what's at stake during the final handful of games for each.
1.San Jose Sharks (50-15-11, Previous: 1) – Add Patrick Marleau to the long list of walking wounded. He didn't accompany teammates on the current two-gamer to Alberta because of a "soft-tissue" injury sustained Saturday night. San Jose had nine would-be regulars out for Monday's win over the Flames.
2.Detroit Red Wings (49-18-9, Previous: 2) – Sunday's one-goal loss at home to Nashville was less a head-scratcher than Friday's shutout at the hands of the visiting Islanders, but both could prove costly in Detroit's pursuit of the top seeds in the West and NHL. The Wings still have four of their six remaining games at Joe Louis Arena.
3.Boston Bruins (48-17-10, Previous: 6) – Just when it looked like the Bruins were about to surrender the top spot in the East, they earned 11 out of a possible 14 points and now look firmly in control of locking up home ice for at least three rounds, should they last that long.
4.Pittsburgh Penguins (41-27-8, Previous: 7) – Sidney Crosby is looking at heading into the playoffs in the best physical health he's enjoyed in the past three postseasons. Healed from a groin injury, Crosby has scored eight goals and 25 points during the 15 games since Dan Bylsma took over behind the bench for the fired Michel Therrien.
5.New Jersey Devils (47-25-4, Previous: 4) – Monday's loss for the recently struggling Devils extended their a season-high losing streak to five games and they have only one win in their past seven. In addition, the Rangers could well be the Devils' first-round opponent for a second straight postseason.
6.Philadelphia Flyers (41-24-10, Previous: 5) – Don't be surprised if the suddenly hot Flyers finish with a strong kick. Only the Panthers and Rangers pose as challenging opponents during Philadelphia's final seven games.
7.Carolina Hurricanes (42-28-7, Previous: 8) – Suddenly, Carolina is starting to look like a player. With a season-high six straight wins and without at loss at home since Feb. 17, the Hurricanes are setting their sights higher than simply qualifying for the postseason.
8.Calgary Flames (43-27-6, Previous: 3) – The Flames would like to relieve a little pressure from Miikka Kiprusoff by supplying the top-flight goalie with a little more offensive support. Before Monday, Calgary had scored more than two goals only twice in its past six games.
9.Vancouver Canucks (41-25-9, Previous: 10) – It will be interesting to see how Mats Sundin finishes the regular season after hearing public criticism from his coach, Alain Vigneault. Sundin said he and his linemates have to do a better job of providing support for the other lines, so it sounds like he's got the right attitude.
10.Washington Capitals (46-23-7, Previous: 9) – Time to pile up points for the Caps. With the possible exception of Buffalo, Washington faces only non-playoff-bound teams in its final six games of the regular season.
11.Chicago Blackhawks (40-23-11, Previous: 12) – O Canada! The Blackhawks are 11-2 versus Canada-based teams heading into Tuesday's match against Montreal. That's not to suggest Chicago wants to match up against, say, Vancouver in the postseason. The Canucks handled the 'Hawks by scores of 7-3 and 4-0 in their past two meetings.
12.Anaheim Ducks (38-32-6, Previous: 14) – Bobby Ryan might very well be the league's best rookie not named Steve Mason. Ryan scored two goals Sunday to give him 50 points in 58 games. Those 50 points are tied with Chicago's Kris Versteeg for the rookie scoring lead, but Ryan has appeared in 13 fewer games. Both Ryan and Versteeg are facing an uphill battle to beat Mason, Columbus' near lock to win the Calder Trophy.
13.Columbus Blue Jackets (39-29-8, Previous: 11) – If the Blue Jackets earn their first playoff appearance, it won't be because they backed in. Columbus faces teams desperate for points (Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota) in all six of their remaining games.
14.New York Rangers (39-28-9, Previous: 18) – The Blueshirts have a difficult schedule to finish the season. It started with Saturday's loss at Pittsburgh, continued Monday against New Jersey and goes from there with the final five games all against teams in possession of playoff spots.
15.Florida Panthers (37-28-11, Previous: 15) – Jay Bouwmeester is an ironman in almost every way. The defenseman has the longest current streak of consecutive games played (357), and after leading the NHL in average ice time last season, Bouwmeester ranks third this season.
16.Montreal Canadiens (38-27-10, Previous: 16) – The Canadiens have Tuesday's game remaining to cap a long stretch of home cooking – then the pressure will be to win on the road, where they are only 15-19-3. Montreal plays four of its last six away, and anything less than a .500 record on foreign ice will probably cost it a playoff spot.
17.Buffalo Sabres (37-30-8, Previous: 17) – The Sabres are a long shot for the playoffs, not only because they are four points out of eighth place but also because they finish the season with seven games in 11 nights.
18.Edmonton Oilers (36-31-9, Previous: 13) – It took awhile, but Ales Kotalik is adding the offensive punch the Oilers had hoped for when they acquired the forward from Buffalo at the deadline. Kotalik has five goals and eight points in his past seven games, which does not include two other goals in the shootout.
19.Nashville Predators (38-30-8, Previous: 21) – Recent wins over San Jose and Detroit have the Predators feeling good, but there are still six games remaining and it doesn't help that Martin Erat's season is over thanks to a fibula fracture. A fifth straight playoff appearance is no cinch, as seventh-place Nashville plays four of its final six on the road and every remaining game comes against teams in the race.
20.St. Louis Blues (37-30-9, Previous: 22) – What a story the Blues are writing. With all the injuries on top of subdued expectations since the franchise was determined to remain patient with youth this season, St. Louis is on the brink of qualifying but finishes with five of six on the road.
21.Minnesota Wild (36-32-8, Previous: 20) – Not much room for error over the final six games as the Wild try to reach the playoffs. They might need some help. Minnesota does play at home during four of its final six, but the two road games (Detroit and Columbus) won't be easy.
22.Ottawa Senators (33-32-10, Previous: 19) – The Senators haven't had a lot to be happy about since the calendar flipped, but the month of March was a good one for them. Ottawa is 10-4 during the penultimate month of the season heading into Tuesday's game at Florida.
23.Phoenix Coyotes (32-37-7, Previous: 26) – The Coyotes were hoping for so much more this season after last year's improved showing. Where to go from here? Assuming a new buyer is found, will the franchise be on the move? And does Wayne Gretzky deserve continued employment behind the bench?
24.Los Angeles Kings (31-33-11, Previous: 24) – One of the best things that could have happened in the second half of the season was Jonathan Quick's ability to play on the NHL level so that Jonathan Bernier could get more net time in the minors. Los Angeles needed to find out what they have in these two good young goalies, and this time has helped.
25.Dallas Stars (33-33-10, Previous: 23) – The Stars are this season's poster child for what can happen when you dig too deep a hole. One thing has led to another this season for Dallas, which valiantly rallied from Marty Turco's horrid break from the gate only to be ravaged by injury and to fall out of the race.
26.Atlanta Thrashers (32-38-6, Previous: 27) – Think about it for a minute. How does this franchise have any success selling a disinterested public during a bad economy on this team moving forward? How many season tickets can the Thrashers expect to sell? It's not going to be pretty.
27.Toronto Maple Leafs (31-32-13, Previous: 25) – And it is with very little fanfare that the Maple Leafs will miss the postseason for four straight years for the first time in franchise history. It just goes to show how lowered expectations have changed the landscape in Toronto, which otherwise would be calling for every scalp following a non-playoff finish.
28.Tampa Bay Lightning (24-35-17, Previous: 28) – Vinny Lecavalier has said how much he loves living in Tampa – but really, with the kind of rebuilding this franchise is facing, why would the star forward want to hang around? Finances still may dictate his having to be moved before the long-term extension kicks in.
29.Colorado Avalanche (31-43-2, Previous: 29) – So what does Joe Sakic do now? And what do the Avs do about him? He certainly deserves a fabulous send-off, but the franchise needs to make changes and move forward. Tough call following what has been a very tough season.
30.New York Islanders (25-41-9, Previous: 30) – It's been all about rebuilding, being patient and sticking to the long-term plan throughout this painful season, and the Islanders will get either the first or second pick in June. Theoretically, they should improve. But it's not going to happen overnight.