We are more than halfway into this 48-game shortened season, but 25 of the NHL's 30 teams are only five points or less from a playoff spot.
The playoff race in the Western Conference is very tight, with no team more than six points from the eighth and final playoff spot. The margin between the fourth-place St. Louis Blues and 12th-place Columbus Blue Jackets is only six points.
With that said, there are a few teams starting to separate themselves in the standings and getting closer to clinching a playoff berth.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens are currently on winning streaks of nine and five games, respectively, while the continued success of the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks is making it near-impossible for any other teams to earn one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference.
Let's look at the winners and losers from Week 8 of the 2013 NHL season.
Before last week, it was unfair to label the Pittsburgh Penguins as the favorites in the Eastern Conference because they had yet not played the Boston Bruins. These two teams played twice last week, and with the Penguins winning both games, it's clear that they are the team to beat in the East eight weeks into the year.
Pittsburgh has won a season-high nine straight games, which includes impressive victories over the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs (twice), New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Bruins (twice).
The most impressive part of this streak is the improvement that the Penguins have made defensively and the more consistent goaltending the team is getting from Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun.
Pittsburgh has allowed just five goals in its last five games despite playing several teams with high-powered offenses, and this defensive success has helped the team move up to 14th in goals against.
Even with Evgeni Malkin missing the last five games because of an injury, the Penguins offense is still firing on all cylinders and ranks first in goals scored and fourth in power-play success.
The team has failed to score more than two goals just once during its winning streak, and the great performances of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang are one reason for this success.
Here's a look at their offensive stats from last week's games.
The Penguins are the class of the Eastern Conference and well on their way to earning home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
With the season now eight weeks old, it's clear that the Montreal Canadiens are a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference and have a strong chance to reach their first Stanley Cup Final since 1993.
Montreal is on a five-game winning streak, which has helped them stay above the rival Boston Bruins in the Northeast Division standings by one point.
The Canadiens are one of the most balanced teams in the NHL, evidenced by the fact that they rank fifth in goals scored and sixth in goals against. Starting goaltender Carey Price has remained in the Vezina Trophy conversation and is 4-1-1 in the month of March.
Price is also benefiting tremendously from his offense, scoring goals at an impressive rate during the team's current winning streak. Montreal has scored 19 goals in its last five games, and the strong play of star defenseman P.K. Subban is a major reason for this success. The 23-year-old blueliner has scored two goals with five assists and has a plus-minus rating of four over the last five games.
The Canadiens are a tough team to play against because of their depth, strong goaltending, overall team speed and high level of offensive skill. They are playing great hockey right now, and you can bet that no team will want to play them during the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Making the playoffs is not an unrealistic goal for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have taken points from each of their last 10 games. The team's impressive 6-0-4 record in its last 10 games has moved Columbus to 12th in the Western Conference standings and just two points away from a playoff spot.
The Blue Jackets defeated the Detroit Red Wings twice last week, which helped them earn four victories in one season against Detroit for the first time in franchise history. Columbus' stellar month of March also includes a victory over the Vancouver Canucks and earning one point against the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks on two occasions.
Scoring goals consistently is still a problem for the Blue Jackets (ranked 30th in goals scored, 28th on the power play), but the team's defensive play has been spectacular over the last two weeks.
Starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is playing the best hockey of his career, as he has a 6-0-2 record with a .976 save percentage in the month of March. His consistently strong performances in net have also contributed to the Blue Jackets ranking fourth in penalty killing.
The Blue Jackets' gritty, defensive style of hockey and the great play of Bobrovsky will make this team a difficult one to beat in the final month-and-a-half of the season. Unlike the last few seasons, if you make too many mistakes against the Blue Jackets, they will find ways to take advantage of them and earn a victory.
The Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks are going in opposite directions right now.
The Wild have won five of their last seven games, which has put them on top of the Northwest Division standings with 32 points, while Vancouver is 3-5-2 in its last 10 games and struggling to score goals consistently.
Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the league in scoring not too long ago, but the team's offense is finally starting to produce at a consistent rate and now ranks 22nd in the league in goals scored. After a slow start to the season, offeseason signing Ryan Suter is now a legitimate contender for the Norris Trophy.
He's playing very well defensively and his offensive production has steadily increased over the last two weeks. Suter has 14 points (two goals, 10 assists) in his last 10 games, including seven points in the four games that the Wild played last week.
Suter's partner on the Wild's top defensive pairing is Jonas Brodin, and the rookie defenseman is quickly becoming one of the league's best young blueliners. Brodin is winning puck battles, creating turnovers, shutting down opposing teams' best forwards, and he also scored the first goal of his NHL career in Thursday's 5-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche.
If the Wild continue to score goals and give starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom enough support offensively, this will be a very tough team to beat because it ranks eighth in goals against and fifth in penalty killing.
It's taken a while for this team to gel after so many changes to the roster were made last summer, but the Wild are finally starting to play well at both ends of the ice on a consistent basis.
The Dallas Stars are quickly falling down the Western Conference standings thanks to a four-game losing streak (longest in the West right now), and if this team doesn't turn their season around quickly, it could become one of the most active sellers at the trade deadline.
Dallas is in 13th place, and only three points separates them from the last-place Colorado Avalanche.
The two main issues during the team's losing streak are abysmal defense and goaltending. The Stars have allowed 15 goals in their last four games, including an embarrassing 8-1 defeat at home to the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. Also included in the team's losing streak is a 4-0 defeat to the Nashville Predators, who rank 28th in goals scored.
Another major issue that has hurt the Stars is their inability to erase early deficits and earn points with strong third periods. They are 1-7-1 when trailing going into the first intermission and 1-9-0 when losing after two periods. Dallas also has a minus-one goal differential in the third period with 22 goals for and 23 goals against.
The Stars are at a critical point in their season right now, but even after a terrible week, they are still only three points away from a playoff spot. It's not yet time to push the panic button in Dallas, but that moment will come soon if the team is unable to go on a winning streak in the near future.
For the first time this season, fans of the New York Rangers should be genuinely concerned that their team could fail to make the playoffs just one year after reaching Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Blueshirts have lost three straight games and among their list of problems are a lack of secondary scoring, a struggling power play and star players failing to perform at a high level.
Here's a quick snapshot of the Rangers' struggles from last week:
- 1-3 record
- An average of 1.5 goals scored and 3.33 goals against
- One power-play goal in six opportunities
- One first and third period goal, including no goals in the first and third periods in their current three-game losing streak
- No points from Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik over the last three games
- One John Tortorella post-game meltdown (video)
The Rangers rank 27th in goals scored, and this can be largely attributed to the struggles of top-line forwards Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. These two stars combined for one goal and one assist last week and have been unable to produce offensively on a consistent basis.
Finishing games is also a problem for the Rangers. They have a minus-four goal differential in the third period this season and a 3-10-1 record when trailing after two periods. During its current losing streak, New York has been outscored 4-0 in the third period.
The Blueshirts are in 10th place in the East and three points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference.
General manager Glen Sather has to make a trade or two before the deadline to add some forward depth to his lineup because the Rangers will be in danger of missing the playoffs if the current roster remains intact for the entire season.
While a lot of teams in the Western Conference have failed to win games consistently over the last two weeks, the Nashville Predators have been unable to climb up the standings with three straight losses and a 1-3-1 record in their last five games.
Interestingly enough, the Predators' inability to score goals consistently this season hasn't been the team's main problem during its losing streak.
Nashville has averaged 3.25 goals per game over the last four contests, which is well above its yearly average of 2.2 goals scored per matchup. The problems for the Predators have surprisingly been their failure to defend well and star goaltender Pekka Rinne not performing at an elite level.
The Predators have allowed 16 goals in their last three games, and in that same span, Rinne has give up nine goals with a .742 save percentage. After a strong first half of the season in which he was arguably the leading candidate for the Hart Trophy, Rinne no longer ranks in the top five in wins, save percentage and GAA.
Rinne has started 24 of the team's 29 games this year, so it's certainly possible that fatigue could be affecting his play right now. However, if Rinne continues to perform below expectations, Nashville won't win games consistently.
Luckily for the Predators, they are only two points behind the San Jose Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West after a disappointing week.
The Colorado Avalanche are at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and have lost six of their last eight games, including a three-game losing streak.
The Avalanche have the worst goal differential in the Western Conference (-15) and are 2-9-3 away from the Pepsi Cener. They have also given up an average of five goals during their three-game losing streak.
As the chart below shows, Colorado is struggling in several important statistical categories:
|Stat||Goals For||Goals Against||Power Play %||Penalty Kill %|
Star center Paul Stastny struggled in the team's four games last week with one point and a minus-three rating. As the team's highest-paid player, Stastny must be more productive offensively and give Colorado the scoring it needs to defeat quality opponents because the team's goaltending has been awful over the last two weeks.
Going forward, the Avalanche must start games better or they will be forced to play from behind too often over the final six weeks of the season. Colorado has a first-period goal differential of -12, which is the second worst in the league, and to no one's surprise, the Avalanche are 3-8-1 when trailing after the first period.
Colorado is only six points from a playoff spot despite being in last place in the West, but the team is quickly running out of time to make a late-season climb up the standings.
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.