Believe it or not, the NHL schedule will officially hit the halfway point tonight. The first half of the season has been largely dominated by Western Conference teams, but teams from the east are making some gains. In fact, for the first time this season, there are three Eastern Conference teams in the top 10 of thn.com’s Power Rankings.
But the top three spots are occupied by western teams, including the Anaheim Ducks at No. 1 for the second consecutive ranking. (Last ranking, after a week off for Christmas, are in parentheses.)
1. ANAHEIM (1): The Ducks lost their first game in regulation for the first time in more than a month against San Jose Sunday, which ended a 10-game winning streak. They returned the favor to the Sharks on New Year’s Eve and are still undefeated in regulation on home ice this season. Ryan Getzlaf is making a serious bid for the Lady Byng Trophy with 47 points and just 15 penalty minutes.
2. ST. LOUIS (5): The Blues closed out 2013 with points in six straight games, four of which Alexander Steen missed with a concussion. Speaking of Olympians, the Blues placed three players on the U.S. team – defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, center David Backes and right winger T.J. Oshie – more than any other team in the NHL. The Blues, in fact, could have as many as 11 Olympians.
3. CHICAGO (3): After scoring 17 goals in three games, the Blackhawks showed they could grind it out with the biggest team in the league when they defeated Los Angeles Monday night. Goalie Corey Crawford is expected to return to the lineup tonight against the New York Islanders, but the outstanding play of Antti Raanta in his absence will almost certainly put him on a short leash.
4. PITTSBURGH (2): The injury parade continued for the Penguins when they lost Pascal Dupuis, likely for the rest of the season, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Brooks Orpik returned to the lineup, but Paul Martin, out with a broken leg, hasn’t even started skating yet. All the injuries have kept the Penguins from resting 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta, which they finally did in a 2-1 loss to New Jersey Tuesday.
5. SAN JOSE (8): The only blemish on the Sharks record in the past two weeks was a 6-3 loss to Anaheim Tuesday night. Three of the four victories were in shootouts. Until mid-December, Tomas Hertl was the leading contender for the Calder Trophy, but his knee-on-knee collision with Dustin Brown and subsequent surgery have likely ended his pursuit of the Calder and a spot on the Czech Olympic team.
6. BOSTON (7): Back-to-back losses to Ottawa and the New York Islanders were not the ideal way for the Bruins to end the year. The Bruins are enduring a major run of injuries, but none of them will have more impact than the season-ending knee injury to defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL and a perfect complement on the blueline to Zdeno Chara.
7. TAMPA BAY (9): The Lightning opened a four-game road trip through western Canada on a great note with a 4-2 win over the surging Canucks. The Lightning continue to wait for superstar Steven Stamkos to return from his broken leg, but they have been acquitting themselves rather well with a 12-7-4 mark without Stamkos in the lineup. Ben Bishop deserved to be on the U.S. Olympic team, plain and simple.
8. LOS ANGELES (4): A four-game losing streak can put a team in jeopardy in the Western Conference in a hurry, and considering the Kings are in St. Louis tonight, putting an end to it will be no easy task. It’s even more difficult when you’re incapable of scoring more than two goals a game. Goalie Jonathan Quick has shown signs of progress in rehabbing his groin injury, but with Martin Jones and Ben Scrivens playing so well, the Kings have no need to rush him.
9. COLORADO (10): The Avs remarkable luck when it came to injuries hit a bump when P.A. Parenteau was sidelined until after the Olympic break when he injured his knee against Winnipeg on the weekend. Their run of playing over the heads also came to an end with a 5-5-4 record in December. The Avs are still five points up in the playoff race, but they can’t afford a letdown during the stretch run.
10. VANCOUVER (6): The Canucks were spectacular in December, compiling a 10-1-2 record, but gave up an uncharacteristic four goals in a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay on New Year’s Day. The Canucks are the fourth-best defensive team in the league, no surprise considering John Tortorella is behind the bench. But they have all kinds of trouble scoring, no surprise considering John Tortorella is behind the bench.
11. PHOENIX (13): The Coyotes past six games have gone to extra time, but the Coyotes have won only two of them. The Coyotes began their longest homestand of the season with a 4-3 overtime win over Edmonton Tuesday night and news that captain Shane Doan is on the mend from his bout of Rocky Mountain Fever. He practiced for the first time Monday, but no timetable has been set for his return.
12. DALLAS (14): The Stars continue to gain points and confidence, particularly after beating Los Angeles twice in the span of eight days and picking up at least a point in each of their past eight games. Tyler Seguin, who hit the 20-goal mark for the second time in his career, has 16 points in his past 17 games, but it’s been feast or famine. He has been shut out in 12 of those games and the other five have all been multiple-point games.
13. MONTREAL (11): Prior to losing 5-4 in overtime against Carolina Tuesday night, the Canadiens had scored one or fewer goals in seven of their previous nine games in regulation. The one game where they managed to score enough goals to win, the Canadiens blew a three-goal lead in the third period, largely because they were undisciplined and having to kill penalties.
14. TORONTO (16): Fresh off a three-game win streak and a shootout victory in the Winter Classic, the Maple Leafs shored up their blueline depth by acquiring Tim Gleason from Carolina for John-Michael Liles and a prospect. They’ll need it. The Leafs are still getting outshot by double digits on a regular basis and are getting bailed out by Jonathan Bernier, who has emerged as the No. 1 goalie.
15. PHILADELPHIA (17): With points in eight of their past nine games, the Flyers have saved their season and enter the New Year in possession of a playoff spot. And they’ve done it with significant contributions from the expected – Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn – and the unexpected – Steve Mason and Michael Raffl. After being put on a line with Giroux and Jakub Voracek, Raffl had six points in eight games.
16. DETROIT (18): If the Red Wings miss the playoffs this season – and that is becoming an increasing possibility of late – they’ll have their performance in shootouts in the first half of the season to blame for it. The Red Wings are 1-7 in the post-game skills contest after dropping a shootout to Toronto in the Winter Classic. The Red Wings depth is taking a hit with injuries to Darren Helm (groin pull) and Patrick Eaves (possible concussion).
17. WASHINGTON (15):Alex Ovechkin took 19 shots in games against Buffalo and Ottawa to end the season and failed to score on all of them. Not surprisingly, the Capitals scored just one goal in each game and have lost four of their past five. Phillip Grubauer has emerged as the No. 1 goaltender, which has pushed Michal Neuvirth into healthy-scratch status and asking for a trade.
18. WINNIPEG (22): The Jets take just their second three-game winning streak into Ottawa tonight. Like so many other backups around the league this season, Al Montoya has been far better than the No. 1 goalie, in this case Ondrej Pavelec. Montoya was in goal for all three games of the win streak and gave up only two goals. Overall, Montoya has an 8-2-1 record with a .934 save percentage this season.
19. NEW JERSEY (20): With points in seven of their past eight games, the Devils are still hanging around a playoff spot in the woeful Metropolitan Division. Jaromir Jagr publicly announced he has no intention of asking to be dealt to his eighth NHL team before the deadline, saying he plans to stick with the Devils for the rest of this season and is intent on helping them earn a playoff spot.
20. NY RANGERS (24): The Rangers got out of their house of horrors at Madison Square Garden and won two of three games, but more importantly, they got their No. 1 goaltender back. After watching backup Cam Talbot play three straight games from the bench, Henrik Lundqvist posted successive victories on the road against Tampa Bay and Florida. Even with their lackluster play, the Rangers remain only two points out of a playoff spot.
21. MINNESOTA (12): With a six-game losing streak, the Wild is currently the coldest team in the league at the moment. Things are so bad that coach Mike Yeo is in serious jeopardy of losing his job and if he’s fired, will be replaced by someone with NHL experience, with Peter Laviolette, Ron Wilson and Paul Maurice being floated as possible replacements.
22. NASHVILLE (21): After losing six in a row and not looking good doing it, the Predators posted impressive victories over Los Angeles and Detroit to end the calendar year. What’s even more important is the Predators scored nine goals in those wins after struggling to score more than two goals per game during the losing streak. The most productive of them was Mike Fisher, who had six points in the two wins.
23. OTTAWA (25): With captain Jason Spezza out of the lineup, it was imperative that some of the depth players on the Senators step up and Cory Conacher and Mika Zibanejad did just that in back-to-back wins over Boston and Washington on home ice. Conacher ended a 31-game goal drought with one against Boston and Zibanejad a 12-gamer with a goal against Washington.
24. CAROLINA (23): In an effort to acquire every player who ever played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Hurricanes dealt for John-Michael Liles on New Year’s Day. After dropping five in a row, the Hurricanes got an absolutely necessary win Tuesday night when they overcame a 3-0 deficit in the third period en route to a 5-4 overtime win over Montreal.
25. COLUMBUS (26): Remember Nathan Horton? He was the guy who signed a seven-year, $37.1 million contract in July, then underwent shoulder surgery. But the wait could end tonight if Horton is cleared to play against Phoenix. Just as importantly, Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, out a month with a groin injury, might dress in a backup role for the game.
26. NY ISLANDERS (29): With 10 goals and two wins in their past two games, the Islanders are finally beginning to show the kind of firepower that was expected of them. Just as importantly for a team that has blown so many leads this season –nine of their losses this season have come in games when they entered the third period with a lead - the Islanders came back from deficits in successive wins against Minnesota and Boston.
27. FLORIDA (19): The Panthers tied a franchise record with 17 points in the month of December, but most of that hay was made in the middle of the month. Since Dec. 20, the Panthers have won just one of their past five games. In a 2-1 shootout loss to the Rangers Tuesday night, veteran goalie Tim Thomas had his first start in three weeks and stopped 30 shots.
28. EDMONTON (30): The Oilers have points in each of their past four games after losing six in a row. The Oilers young forwards have been carrying the mail of late, particularly Taylor Hall, who has four multiple-point games in his past six. That likely won’t be enough to earn him a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, but then again Steve Yzerman will have a chance to see Hall himself in action when Tampa Bay visits Edmonton in three days.
29. CALGARY (27): De facto GM Brian Burke acquired Kevin Westgarth in his first deal at the helm of the Flames, making good on his promise to have more truculence in the Flames lineup. But what the Flames could really use is goals, since they’re 26th in the league. You can expect the Michael Cammalleri sweepstakes to heat up considerably leading up to the March 5 trade deadline.
30. BUFFALO (28): The fact that Ryan Miller was named to the U.S. Olympic team despite the fact he tends goal for the worst team in the NHL is a testament to the heroic season he’s having. In a 2-1 shootout win against Washington Sunday afternoon, he stopped 49 shots in regulation and overtime – including all 12 off the stick of NHL goal leader Alex Ovechkin.