Wing dings

The return is underway; now it’s about the results.

Barring any unfortunate injuries to their stars competing at the Olympics, the Detroit Red Wings will return from the break in better position to win hockey games than they’ve been in a long time.

Some bodies have already started filtering back, but basically Detroit should finally have soldiers like Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and even Andreas Lilja – out for almost exactly one year with concussion-like symptoms – as it tries to chase down a playoff spot.

The Wings’ issues run deeper than some damaged players this year and they’ll need more production than they’ve been getting out of their high-end stars for most of the season, not to mention consistent goaltending from Jimmy Howard, who has become the team’s go-to guy in the crease.

Detroit is trying to make the playoffs for the 19th year in a row, a remarkable run during which the team has basically never had to claw and fight their way in over the final months of the season. Should they squeeze in the West’s top eight this year, you have to think neither San Jose nor Chicago would be real crazy about playing a savvy Wings team that’s just starting to fire at the right time of year.

Especially if a club that usually has a giant target on its back really embraces the roll of underdog.

1 San Jose Sharks 3 40-13-9 6-3-1 Have to think a gold medal in Vancouver would do wonders for the big-game reps of Thornton, Marleau, Heatley or Nabokov
2 Los Angeles Kings 2 37-20-4 8-1-1 Have a pretty favorable post-break schedule as team chases down first post-season berth since 2002
3 Washington Capitals 1 41-13-8 7-1-2 Washington allowed 15 goals in three straight losses after the 14-game winning streak was halted
4 Chicago Blackhawks 5 41-15-5 6-3-1 Trading Cam Barker offers some long-term cap relief, but more moves are necessary for Chicago to get the books in order
5 Phoenix Coyotes 4 37-21-5 7-3-0 Very nice return to Phoenix for Radim Vrbata, who has already hit the 20-goal barrier
6 Ottawa Senators 7 36-23-4 8-2-0 On the road for 12 of 19 to close out the year
7 Colorado Avalanche 11 35-20-6 5-5-0 John-Michael Liles has a permanent spot in coach Joe Sacco’s doghouse, but the offense-minded blueliner will be tough to move with two years left on a salary that pays him $4.2 million annually
8 Philadelphia Flyers 17 32-25-3 6-4-0 Every time Philly’s season needs saving, goalie Michael Leighton steps up
9 Pittsburgh Penguins 9 36-22-4 5-2-3 Can’t fully get it in gear, but the good news is the Atlantic is still up for grabs thanks to New Jersey’s struggles
10 Vancouver Canucks 6 37-22-2 6-4-0 Respectable 4-4-0 record after passing the halfway point of their mammoth 14-game road swing
11 Dallas Stars 12 28-21-12 6-3-1 Rookie left winger Jamie Benn has been strong of late, posting five goals and six points over his past six contests
12 New Jersey Devils 8 37-21-3 3-5-2 Should finally get defenseman Paul Martin back after the Olympic break; he’s been out since October with a fractured forearm that just wouldn’t heal properly
13 Boston Bruins 22 27-22-11 4-3-3 Good on the Bruins for refusing to put in play the 2010 first-rounder they got from Toronto for Phil Kessel; sacrificing a pick that high in a trade to try and salvage this season would be a massive error
14 Buffalo Sabres 10 33-18-9 3-5-2 Two-week break couldn’t have come at a better time for a team that needs to find its bearings fast
15 Nashville Predators 20 33-23-5 4-4-2 Pending-UFA defenseman Dan Hamhuis definitely comes up in some trade talk and moving him – especially given Nashville’s depth on the blueline – sure makes sense if it returns some offense
16 Calgary Flames 14 30-23-9 4-3-3 Offense has yet to find a higher gear in the wake off all those acquisitions up front
17 Anaheim Ducks 15 30-25-7 6-4-0 Parts of Anaheim and all of Canada breathed a sigh of relief when Ryan Getzlaf returned from a sprained ankle to score two goals and four points versus Edmonton on Sunday
18 New York Rangers 25 28-27-7 4-6-0 Erik Christensen getting a golden opportunity to play as the Rangers’ No. 1 center
19 Carolina Hurricanes 21 24-30-7 8-2-0 Just two losses in their past 11 games; not bad for a team that dropped 14 straight near the start of the year
20 St. Louis Blues 26 28-25-9 5-4-1 Young blueliner Alex Pietrangelo is the top prospect in THN’s annual Future Watch edition
21 Detroit Red Wings 18 28-21-12 3-3-4 Johan Franzen returns for Wings, scores two goals in three games and will replace teammate Tomas Holmstrom on Team Sweden because ‘Homer’ has been bothered by his left knee
22 Tampa Bay Lightning 13 26-24-11 5-4-1 Ryan Malone had 15 goals after 22 games this season; he’s got just six in 39 since then and only one in his past 12 outings
23 Montreal Canadiens 19 29-28-6 4-5-1 Defense prospect P.K. Subban got his first taste of NHL action last week, picking up two assists in back-to-back games versus the Flyers
24 Minnesota Wild 16 30-27-4 6-4-0 Cam Barker scored in his first game with his new team, which could be a sign of things to come now that the third overall pick from ’04 will be getting plenty of ice time
25 Atlanta Thrashers 24 26-24-10 4-3-3 Been a rough year for Bryan Little, but he does have four points over his past four games
26 Columbus Blue Jackets 27 25-28-10 5-4-1 You’ve got to believe GM Scott Howson is going to be a busy man before the March 3 trade deadline
27 New York Islanders 29 25-29-8 2-8-0 John Tavares is having the exact opposite rookie season Steven Stamkos had. Stammer struggled initially, but came on strong; J.T. scored early, but has two goals over his past 31 games
28 Florida Panthers 23 24-27-10 3-6-1 This team could be completely torn down after the break
29 Toronto Maple Leafs 28 19-31-11 2-6-2 Big question in Toronto seems to be how much Alexei Ponikarovsky is worth on the trade market
30 Edmonton Oilers 30 19-36-6 3-7-0 Only 21 more games to go…
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Power Rankings will return March 8.

The Hockey News ranks the teams 1-30 each Monday based on a combination of last week’s play and a squad’s overall outlook.

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