Winners and Losers from Week 7 of 2013 NHL Season
At the halfway point in the 2013 NHL season, teams are starting to emerge as legitimate contenders to make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.
At the moment, there are six teams that have a real chance to lift the best trophy in sports this June; they are the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks (if Corey Perry is not traded).
These are the teams to beat, and for the most part, they have been very consistent this season, which is tough to do in a shortened 48-game schedule.
Meanwhile, there are several teams falling down the standings at a rapid pace. The San Jose Sharks, Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks are all on losing streaks of three games or more and need to get their seasons turned around quickly to avoid missing the playoffs.
If certain teams fail to improve over the next two weeks (such as the Tampa Bay Lightning), we could see more head coaches join Lindy Ruff in unemployment.
Let's look at the winners and losers from Week 7 of the 2013 season.
Winners: Boston Bruins and Tyler Seguin
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The Boston Bruins went 2-1-1 last week and are on a two-game winning streak with impressive victories over the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers at TD Garden.
At 16-3-3 (35 points), Boston has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and is just three points behind the Northeast Division-leading Montreal Canadiens with four games in-hand. The Bruins are also one of the three teams in the league with three or fewer regulation losses.
The team's goaltending and power play have been solid over the last week. Tuukka Rask earned a shutout on Saturday against the high-scoring Flyers and is now 12-2-3 with a 1.97 GAA and a .927 save percentage.
Backup goaltender Anton Khudobin was able to give Rask a rest on Thursday night and defeated the Leafs in a 25-save performance that improved his record to 4-1. The Bruins rank third in goals against and have the No. 1 penalty kill in the league, and a lot of this success can be attributed to the impressive play from Rask and Khudobin.
As for the power play, the Bruins are finally starting to find consistent success with the man advantage, and the improving play of young star Tyler Seguin is a major reason for this success. The 21-year-old forward has scored five goals (two on the power play) with two assists in his last five games.
As a unit, the power play is succeeding at a 28.6-percent rate in March, which is well above the team's 16.2-percent success rate for the entire season. If the Bruins' power play continues to succeed at an impressive rate, the team's biggest weakness through the first quarter of the year will become a strength, which will make Boston a much tougher team to beat.
Winners: Columbus Blue Jackets
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If you haven't been paying any attention to the Columbus Blue Jackets, you might want to change that because they are an exciting young team that's finding ways to win.
The Blue Jackets are on a season-high five-game winning streak and are now just four points away from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
During the team's impressive win streak, Columbus has beaten quality teams such as the Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings (twice). Columbus has now won four straight games against Detroit.
Starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who was acquired at the 2012 NHL draft in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, played some of the best hockey of his career over the last week. He has won five straight games with a 1.40 GAA in that span, including two overtime victories and two shootout wins.
Bobrovsky's emergence as someone who is capable of playing like a No. 1 goaltender is a very encouraging sign for the Blue Jackets, whose biggest weakness over the last decade has been poor goaltending.
During their winning streak, the Blue Jackets have killed off 14 of 15 penalties and 10 different players have scored a goal.
Will the Blue Jackets make the playoffs? It's going to be tough because their schedule for the rest of March is quite difficult (six of their next 10 games are against playoff teams from last season), but if opponents take them for granted, the Jackets will continue to win games and climb up the standings. They are no longer an easy team to take two points from.
Winners: Anaheim Ducks and Ryan Getzlaf
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The Anaheim Ducks have won three straight games and find themselves just six points behind the Chicago Blackhawks for the best record in the Western Conference with two games in hand.
The Ducks have won three straight games and are playing very well at both ends of the ice. Anaheim ranks third in goals scored, eighth in goals against and first on the power play.
Rookie goaltender Viktor Fasth has continued to play like a No. 1 goaltender after starting the season with eight straight wins, but the most impressive part of last week's results for Anaheim was the resurgent play of backup goalie Jonas Hiller, who is 5-0-1 in his last six starts.
Fasth and Hiller are one of the top goaltending duos in the NHL, and they are the reason why the Ducks have improved from 19th in GAA last season to eighth in 2013. When these two netminders play well, it's difficult to take two points from Anaheim because its offense has scored three or more goals in 18 of 24 games this year.
In addition to their impressive performance last week, the Ducks also re-signed franchise center and captain Ryan Getzlaf to an eight-year contract extension worth $66 million. For more details on Getzlaf's new deal and what it means for Corey Perry, click here.
Winners: Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz
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The Pittsburgh Penguins have won five straight games, including victories against the conference-leading Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and rival Philadelphia Flyers. As a result, the team's lead in the Atlantic Division has grown to seven points.
Pittsburgh's offense is firing on all cylinders right now, and the play of the first line is the biggest reason for this success. Superstar center Sidney Crosby has an astounding 45 points in 26 games, including a five-assist performance in Sunday's victory over the New York Islanders. He had 11 points in four games last week.
His linemate Chris Kunitz is having the best season of his career, as he currently ranks third in the league in scoring with 36 points (17 goals and 19 assists). The 33-year-old winger tallied nine points last week (six goals, three assists), and scored a hat trick with two assists on Sunday.
The Penguins' high-scoring offense is bailing out the team's poor defense and goaltending, which is fine in the regular season, but defensive breakdowns in the playoffs will be much more costly when games become more physical and the importance of strong defense is heightened. Pittsburgh has allowed three or more goals in four of its last five games.
With two matchups against the Boston Bruins this week, we will soon see just how strong this Penguins team is, but right now, they are one of the few championship contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Losers: Philadelphia Flyers
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Last week was one to forget for the Philadelphia Flyers. They went 1-3 with losses to the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins, which caused Philly to fall further down the Eastern Conference standings.
The Flyers snapped a three-game losing streak on Sunday with a 3-2 victory over the slumping Buffalo Sabres, but there are several problems for this team to correct in the near future.
Philadelphia gave up over three goals per game in four matchups last week, and the team's defense has been terrible recently.
Defensemen are taking themselves out of the play to dish out big hits, they aren't closing down opposing forwards quick enough and they aren't being physical in front of the net. As a team, the Flyers are not playing smart defensive hockey, as they continue to turn the puck over and not make quality passes out of their own zone.
The Flyers (currently 12-14-1, 11th in East), will have to put together some winning streaks in the second half to make the playoffs.
Consistency is Philly's biggest challenge for the rest of the season because it's difficult to gain ground on teams higher in the standings when the team that's behind is unable to win more than two games in a row. The Flyers have failed to win three consecutive games this year, and they have lost three straight games three times already.
Losers: Vancouver Canucks
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The Vancouver Canucks have lost four straight games and their lead in the Northwest Division. The Minnesota Wild, who defeated the Canucks 4-2 at home on Sunday night, are now tied with their rivals with 28 points atop the division.
Included in Vancouver's losing streak are losses to the Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets, who have been at the bottom of the Western Conference standings for most of the season.
Cory Schneider has been unable to convince fans and the coaches that he's capable of being the team's No. 1 goaltender right now and into the future. He's 1-2-2 in his last five starts and allowed four goals in two of those games.
Schneider's struggles are certainly a concern for the Canucks, but the team's inability to score is also something to worry about. Vancouver ranks 17th in goals scored with the 24th-ranked power play, and it has scored just seven goals in its last four games.
Offseason free-agent signing Jason Garrison has just five points in 26 games this season, with zero goals, one assist and just five shots during the team's losing streak.
He was signed to a six-year deal in the summer to improve the team's scoring production from the blue line and make the power play tougher for opponents to defend. He has not done any of these things thus far.
Two players who must improve for Vancouver are first-line wingers Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows. They have combined for just one goal in the last five games, and Burrows hasn't scored in his last eight games. With second-line center Ryan Kesler out of the lineup due to injury and Garrison struggling, these two players must produce offensively for the Canucks to win games against the best teams in the West.
Losers: San Jose Sharks
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The San Jose Sharks have lost four of their last six games and are winless in their last three. As a result, this veteran team has dropped to seventh in the Western Conference standings with just a one-point lead over the ninth-place Phoenix Coyotes.
The Sharks' offense has gone from bad to abysmal since they started the season 7-0, and the team now ranks 29th in goals scored.
Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau have combined for just three goals over the last five games, which is unacceptable for three of the team's best offensive players. The Sharks don't have enough offensive skill on the blue line to make up for their top forwards failing to score consistently.
Another problem for San Jose is winning in overtime. The Sharks are 0-3 in games decided in overtime and they have lost three of their last five shootouts. Failing to pick up these extra points could end up costing San Jose a spot in the playoffs at the end of the season.
It's going to be really interesting to see what Sharks general manager Doug Wilson decides to do before the April 3 trade deadline.
There's no reason to give up valuable assets such as prospects and draft picks to go on an impossible mission of winning Stanley Cup this season, but then again, starting the team's inevitable rebuild now would not be a popular decision among fans since the Sharks are still in the playoff race.
Losers: Tampa Bay Lightning
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The Tampa Bay Lightning have lost two games in a row and seven of their last eight, which has caused them to plummet to 13th in the Eastern Conference standings, just one point above the last-place Florida Panthers.
Tampa Bay went 1-4 last week and and its struggles against quality teams continued. Losses to the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins dropped the Lightning's record against teams currently in a playoff spot to 5-7-1.
Just like last year, goaltending is a huge problem for the Lightning. Starting goaltender Anders Lindback has failed to meet expectations in his first season with the team. He is 8-6-1 with a .894 save percentage and a 3.11 GAA this season, and he has just one win in his last four starts.
The Lightning are now eight points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Southeast Division, and if they don't start winning games soon, major changes will have to be made.
One of the few bright spots for Tampa Bay has been the performance of superstar forward Steven Stamkos, who leads the NHL with 19 goals scored and ranks second in scoring with 37 points.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.