After all of the speculation built during the weeks leading up to the trade deadline about where Rick Nash would land, he remains in a Blue Jackets uniform. The many teams that could have used Nash’s services will now have to battle for a position in the post season with their current roster. For 14 teams, the recent change to warmer weather indicates that there is a chance the fairways and greens of golf courses across the nation will be in prime condition by the time the last day of the NHL regular season comes around. On the other hand, the 16 teams that will be fortunate enough to have made the playoffs are starting to take form. With less than 13 games left in the season for most teams, it is officially crunch time.
1. St. Louis Blues (45-18-7)
All year long NHL experts have praised the Blues and head coach Ken Hitchcock for their ability to come together as a team. However, none of them expected this team to be a top the NHL standings come mid March. 9-1 in their last ten games, the Blues have risen to the top five in categories such as goal differential, and best home record. And while other teams have players on their roster with close to 50 goals or 50 assists, the Blues do not have a single player that have over 50 points total yet. Spreading the scoring around is a part of the St. Louis Blues motto and it has obviously paid off.
2. New York Rangers (43-18-7)
Just when it appeared the Rangers were poised to run away as the clear winners of the President’s Trophy, they fell back into one of their usual slumps. Although many teams in the basement of the league would be content with a 5-3-2 record in their last ten, John Tortorella knows that their performance of late has not resembled that of a Stanley Cup contending team. With the Rangers making no moves at the trade deadline, the pressure now falls on forward Brandon Dubinsky, who have vastly underperformed with a less than admirable 26 points. Meanwhile the Rangers will continue to look to names like Gaborik, Richards, Callahan, and of course Lundqvist, to continue carrying the load.
3. Detroit Red Wings (44-22-3)
It may be an overlooked statistic in today’s NHL, but the Red Wings are currently the best 5-on-5 team in hockey with a 1.58 5-5 F/A rate. The Wings also find themselves second to only the Boston Bruins in terms of goal differential, but have somehow managed to go only 4-5-1 in their last ten games. A large part of that record can be attributed to the absence of star player Pavel Datsyuk, and lingering injury problems for Vezina candidate Jimmy Howard. Nevertheless, you can rest assured that coach Mike Babcock will have his team ready for the playoffs. The only question now is what seed will they earn.
4. Vancouver Canucks (42-19-8)
Just a few weeks ago the Canucks watched their previous Stanley Cup opponent, and rival, Bruins ascend to the top of the league standings. But thanks to the steady play of Luongo, the Sedins, and quality secondary scoring, it appears the Canucks will have the last laugh and finish the regular season ahead of the Bruins. Perhaps the most positive thing for Canucks fans to take away from their teams play right now is the imminent return of Ryan Kesler. Yes, he has played 64 games this year, but Kesler struggled to regain his footing early in the year thanks to playoff injuries. But now with 44 points and a +19, Kesler is beginning to resemble the star player he was during the 2010-11 season.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (42-21-5)
Not too long ago it looked like this Crosby-less Penguins team had finally run out of gas due to injuries, and was free-falling in the standings. But there is a reason why Dan Bylsma is considered one of the best coaches, and Malkin one of the best players in the NHL. Any fan that tuned into HBO’s 24/7 two years ago got an inside look of how Bylsma manages his team. You can bet that he has been fully utilizing his player rating system and pushing his players to their fullest potential. Meanwhile, Malkin and Neal continue to put points on the board effortlessly, and secondary scoring from Dupuis and Letang never hurts.
6. Philadelphia Flyers (39-22-7)
Could it be that Mr. Universe – otherwise known as Iyla Bryzgalov – has finally found his game? All season long the city of Brotherly Love has bashed the Russian net minder for his less than admirable play. But if there was ever a time for Bryzgalov to win back the hearts of Flyers fans, it would be now. Finally bumping his sv% over .900, it looks like Bryzgalov is ready to earn his pay check. In the midst of injuries to JVR, the Flyers offense has continued to perform at a high level thanks to incredible seasons from Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell. Defense is the name of the game come playoff time, and if the Flyers can find theirs, there is no reason why this team cannot make a real run at the Stanley Cup.
7. Nashville Predators (40-21-7)
Let the good times roll in Nashville! With the passing of the trade deadline, we saw the reunion of the second most dominating twins in the NHL, the Kostitsyn brothers. Andrei and Sergei have already showed their chemistry on the ice and have been a large part of the reason why the Predators have gone 7-2-1 in their last ten games. Although it appears Pekka Rinne has hit some what of a rough patch, it is only because the rest of the NHL holds him to such a high standard. Led by Shea Weber and coach Barry Trotz, this may be the best team in Predators franchise history from top to bottom. Only the playoffs will tell.
8. New Jersey Devils (40-24-5)
Remember a year ago when the Devils began an inconceivable run that fell short of earning them a playoff spot? Fortunately for New Jersey fans, the Devils have put themselves in a much better position than last year, and have a great chance to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. Although Martin Brodeur continues to show his age, he has been able to get the job done between the pipes while Kovalchuck, Parise, Zubrus, and Elias provide offense every night.
9. Dallas Stars (38-26-5)
9-0-1 in their last ten games has propelled the Stars back into playoff contention. Despite the fact that the majority of the scoring has fallen to Eriksson, Benn, Ryder, and Ribeiro, the return of team captain Brenden Morrow should ignite some scoring from the 2nd and 3rd offensive lines. In the crease, Kari Lethonen continues to revive his otherwise dead career, proving that Rinne and Kiprusoff are not the only talented Finnish goaltenders in the league. On the cusp of 30 regular season wins and a .924 SV%, Lethonen has proven to be a great investment for the Stars and will play a key role to the continued success of the team.
10. Chicago Blackhawks (37-25-8)
Perhaps the 2011-12 Blackhawks are the best example of how poor goal tending always trumps an explosive offense in the NHL. The Hawks are coming off a shootout loss to the L.A. Kings, in which veteran Ray Emery got the start. And although Emery has statistically outperformed Corey Crawford, both goalies have played just awful this season. The bottom line for the Hawks, Hossa, Toews, Kane, and Sharp can all get over 60 or even 70 points, but come playoff time it won’t matter if Joe Quennville cannot find a way to hide this atrocious net minding.
11. Boston Bruins (40-25-3)
Injuries to Nathan Horton and Rich Peverley have finally caught up to a Bruins team that has been riding high for the majority of the season. Despite their 83 points, the Bruins are practically plummeting downwards in the league standings with a 4-5-1 record in their last ten games. To make matters worse, Tukka Rask is out of commission and Tim Thomas is playing the worst hockey in his last three years of play. Just this weekend the Penguins exposed the defensive flaws of the Bruins, jumping out to a quick lead and never looking back. If the Bruins are looking to make a run at back-back Stanley Cup championships, something has to change – and soon.
12. Ottawa Senators (36-25-9)
After what can only be described as a freak accident with goalie Craig Anderson, the towering Ben Bishop has stepped in to help Robin Lehner between the pipes. As the tallest goalie in the NHL, Bishop has maintained a .926 sv% through his three games as a Senator. On the offensive side of the puck, Spezza and Erik Karlsson continue to produce night in and night out. Although Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson have come off their season highs, both forwards have continued to pick up the important secondary goals that has earned the Senators a chance to reach the playoffs.
13. Florida Panthers (32-23-13)
With the Washington Capitals breathing down their neck, the Panthers have managed to remain cool and hold their lead on the Southeast division. The Panthers possess the worst goal differential of any of the top 16 teams in the NHL at a -25, and much like the Blackhawks are having goal tending issues. As of today, the Panthers have juggled four goalies during regular season play including Jose Theodore, Scott Clemmensen, Jakob Markstrom, and now Brain Foster. But the question remains: who is going to step up come playoff time?! Even if the Panthers manage to squander the Southeast division title to the Capitals (or any other team in the division for that matter) they still have a great chance to make the playoffs, pending great play from Versteeg, Fleischmann, and Campbell.
14. Phoenix Coyotes (34-25-10)
While the 2011-12 NHL season has been a coming out party for Coyotes goal tender Mike Smith, who is being called a star by some, the Coyotes are barely hanging out to their playoff spot. With teams in the Western conference like Calgary and Los Angeles keeping pace, the Coyotes lack the depth that other teams in the league have to be a serious playoff contender. Unfortunately for Coyotes fans, captain, and face of the franchise, Shane Doan is on pace to having a sub par season by his standards, and lingering injuries to center Martin Hanzal have hurt the team immensely.
15. Washington Capitals (35-28-6)
When was the last time this team was in the power rankings? The Capitals are by far still the front runner for the NHL’s most disappointing team award, Dale Hunter has managed to put together a winning combination as of late. One of the most overlooked injuries in the NHL is the concussion-like symptoms that center Nicklas Backstrom is suffering from. Alex Ovechkin has been stagnant without his offensive partner, and the Caps have struggled to fill the first line center role since his injury. Star defense man Mike Green is obviously playing injured and has literally contributed nothing to the team since his return. Nevertheless, the Caps have been able to muster up the fire power to get back into the playoff race.
16. Los Angeles Kings (32-25-12)
Currently the Kings sit one spot out of the playoffs behind the Calgary Flames, but the Vezina worthy play of Jonathan Quick is what separates the Kings from the Flames. A goal from Jeff Carter last night, and a shootout win against the Blackhawks is a huge feat for this team and helping build momentum for their last 13 games.