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Rising & Falling: Three teams on the way up – and three on the way down – as the stretch run begins

The post-break stretch run can make or break a season. Which three teams could hit the ground running as we head towards the NHL trade deadline and which teams will head in the opposite direction?

The end of the NHL all-star break comes with an increased focus on the schedule ahead, with the importance of each game amplified as the league’s 31 teams prepare to either buy or sell at the upcoming trade deadline and gear up for a playoff run or get ready for an extended summer.

And over the next few weeks, as teams load up, tear down, get healthy or fall apart, there will be several clubs who shift spots in the standings. For some, it may be a marginal move up one wild-card spot or from third- to fourth-last in a respective conference. But for others, like the six teams listed below, there could be a significant shift up or down the standings. So, as we prepare for the trade deadline and the race for the post-season, which teams can be expected to rise and fall?

RISING

ANAHEIM DUCKS
Plain and simple, the Ducks are better than their record, but the fact they’re still in the wild-card race given the amount of injury trouble they’ve had to work through this season is remarkable. Anaheim has had to deal with the extended losses of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm, among others, and that’s not even mentioning the fact Patrick Eaves has missed all but two games this season. But the Ducks, as a collective, haven’t been as healthy as they are now all season and enter the post-all-star portion of the schedule with an eye on working their way into a divisional playoff spot.

With Getzlaf playing the way he has since his return from injury — he has 31 points in 26 games — Anaheim can make some serious strides. He drives the offense and the difference in play since his return is significant. During his 19-game absence, the Ducks scored 2.33 goals per game. In the 20 games since Getzlaf returned to the lineup, Anaheim has averaged three goals per game, giving them a top-10 offense over that span. The result is a Ducks team that’s starting to show signs of life, too. On the cusp of the final wild-card berth, Anaheim entered the break with back-to-back wins and five victories in their past seven games. 

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Was there anyone who truly expected the Penguins to float around the wild-card race all season? Sure, Pittsburgh’s not in the clear yet and they’re only holding down a divisional spot by virtue of a couple of extra games played and a point more in the standings, but it’s about time for the Penguins to shake out of what has been to this point a season-long slump and start playing like two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. That they were among the five hottest teams heading into the break, though, seems to be an indication that Pittsburgh is going to make some noise before the regular season is through.

Of course, as with everything with the Penguins, it starts with Sidney Crosby. By his own admission, he didn’t have an all-star worthy first half of the season, but he’s the best player in the world for a reason and he’s been the league’s most dominant player since the start of the new year. In 11 games since Jan. 1, Crosby has three goals and 20 points, which accounts for more than one-third of his total output this season. Likewise, Evgeni Malkin has come on with nine goals and 16 points in his past 11 games, Phil Kessel has five goals and 16 points in 11 games and even Carl Hagelin, who has had a dreadful year, has chipped in two goals and eight points since the start of January. If Matt Murray finds his game, too, would anyone rule out a third straight Cup for the Penguins?

DALLAS STARS
There were several reasons why the Stars were expected to compete for top spot in the Central Division, and almost every single one had to do with off-season maneuvering by Dallas GM Jim Nill. Coach Ken Hitchcock was brought aboard, the Stars signed Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal and Nill shored up positions of need by acquiring defensive defenseman Marc Methot and goalie Ben Bishop, the latter inking a long-term deal to be Dallas’ No. 1 netminder. A rocky start gave way to some mediocre play in the early going, but now the Stars seem to be figuring this thing out. Bishop has been good of late, Radulov has been excellent all season and, heading into all-star weekend, Dallas was riding a 6-3-1 record across their past 10 games.

The impressive thing about the Stars, though, isn’t their record of late or how their top talent has played — and we certainly can’t sleep on Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn just because Radulov is producing — but rather that they’re doing everything right en route to victory. Dallas boasts strong possession numbers, one of the best shots for percentages in the league and no team has produced a higher rate of high-danger chances at 5-on-5 than the Stars. They’re beginning to look dominant and could start to push for a divisional spot as the playoffs draw near.

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FALLING

NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The early season success of the Devils was surprising, to say the least, and that New Jersey was able to remain on a roll through the halfway mark of the campaign was impressive. But the feeling surrounding the Devils wasn’t that this was a team ready to truly compete in the post-season and it wouldn’t be altogether shocking if the once first-place-in-the-Metro squad ends up missing the playoffs entirely. 

Injuries could play a significant role in a slide, too. Taylor Hall is on his way back, but that still leaves New Jersey without Marcus Johansson, Brian Gibbons, Mirco Mueller and their top two goaltenders, Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid. Now, the Vegas Golden Knights may have shown that teams can still succeed without the use of their first- and second-string netminders, but that’s likely a once-per-season story, at best. Another reason for the Devils dipping down the standings is the lack of offensive depth. Hall has been almost alone in driving New Jersey’s attack and it’s going to be difficult to continue to produce that type of offense solo.

To be clear, though, missing the post-season isn’t the worst-case scenario for the Devils. This has been an excellent year, one of tremendous growth, even without a playoff appearance. If it’s a sign of what’s to come, New Jersey should be excited.

NEW YORK RANGERS
Bizarre as it might sound given the Blueshirts are a mere point out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, there’s been some rumblings that New York could be prepared to blow things up at the deadline. And, really, that’s the reason the Rangers find themselves on this list. Obvious trade rentals include Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, David Desharnais and Nick Holden, but there has been talk that other trade options could include Chris Kreider and captain Ryan McDonagh. Stripping several players from the Rangers’ roster would turn this from a potential wild-card team to one that would be best served landing a high draft choice.

The one player who could throw a wrench into the idea of New York sliding down the standings, though, is Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers netminder has been excellent after battling through some tough starts at the beginning of the season and he’s an honest-to-goodness candidate for the Vezina Trophy at this point in the campaign. If he steals games down the line — and he’s prone to do so — the Rangers could strip this roster down and still sneak into the playoffs.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS
We’re not trying to pick on the Metropolitan Division, nor are we intending to lambaste New York’s two teams, but there’s good reason for the Islanders to be concerned about the post-break stretch. Though they entered the break on a 5-4-1 run, New York is 10-12-3 in its past 25 games. That’s only a hair better than the Devils or the Columbus Blue Jackets over that span. Most worrying about the Islanders’ play, however, isn’t their record but their team defense. The Isles have allowed 104 goals against since the start of December, which is 25 more than any other team in the league over that span, including the lowly Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres. There’s no obvious end in sight to the defensive woes, either. Goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss haven’t been able to lock down the crease and the defense is ailing without the services of Johnny Boychuk and Calvin de Haan.

There exists the possibility the Islanders ship out picks or prospects and bring in a goaltender. So, too, could New York land a defenseman to shore up their play on the back end. But one player in each position might not be enough to turn this ship around. The Islanders are among the worst possession teams in the league and that’s reflected in their poor scoring chances and high-danger chances percentages at five-a-side. It might be too big an issue for one player to fix late in a campaign.

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