The chase for the Stanley Cup in 2013 is approaching as quickly as ever, with the lockout-shortened season lending itself to a tight, condensed race for the playoffs.
To highlight just how close things are, the Nashville Predators are 13th in the Western Conference standings, yet are just five points out of eighth position. The East is similarly tight, but there are certain clubs that are playing their best hockey at the perfect time.
Here is a breakdown of some of the league's hottest teams that are enjoying resurgences down the stretch, which will allow them to enter pro hockey's postseason in top form.
The departure of Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline hasn't necessarily hurt the Stars, as they have won three consecutive games and are inching closer to that eighth and final playoff spot.
Dallas is still suspect on defense, as it lets up an average of three goals per game. Although Jagr's absence creates a scoring void of sorts, there are plenty of young contributors ready to fill the void as the regular season wraps up.
Ahead of Tuesday's decisive victory over the Los Angeles Kings, head coach Glen Gulutzan expressed optimism over the new-found energy the youngsters have provided. It has led to a significant reduction in turnovers, which is part of what's plagued the Stars (h/t DallasNews.com):
It’s something we’ve addressed all year, but I think it’s something we’ve embraced. I think there’s a little bit of a different mentality in our locker room right now. Tonight will be the proof of it. This is a great team over here and a big, heavy team and they can force you into turnovers. So we have to have our mindset right.
The schedule is difficult down the stretch, and it may be difficult to weather due to the recent injury to starting goalie Kari Lehtonen. But the rest of this upstart team has held up: Richard Bachman entered the Predators game and didn't allow a goal on 21 shots.
It looks as though this bunch is built to handle the adversity, and the Stars are playing loose and with nothing to lose at the moment.
St. Louis Blues
A resurgent performance by goaltender Brian Elliott has helped the Blues a lot recently, as he's posted back-to-back shutouts. The team has won five consecutive contests overall in rising to a tie for sixth in the West.
Elliott capitalized on the opportunity presented by an injury to Jaroslav Halak, who will miss three weeks for St. Louis.
The Blues rank in the top 10 in the NHL in terms of power-play conversions and penalty-kill percentage. That bodes well for the team, as they look to continue this fine form over the final 10 games. They haven't allowed a power-play goal in seven games.
Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund are staggeringly efficient from a scoring standpoint, finding the net on well over 20 percent of their shots. That dynamic duo provides the Blues with enough firepower to be a scary team in the postseason.
Newly acquired star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is determined to reach his first playoff series, as he can help on the offensive end while solidifying the defense in front of Elliott.
Everything seems to be clicking in St. Louis at the proper time, and if Elliott keeps up this form with the help of Bouwmeester and new veteran Jordan Leopold, the Blues have a chance to make some noise in pursuit of Lord Stanley's cup.
It was a rough, injury-ravaged start to the season for coach Adam Oates' club, but the Capitals have really turned it on.
Their league-leading power play devastates opponents that make too many mistakes, and Washington's high-octane offense led by superstar Alex Ovechkin constantly forces defenses back on their heels.
It is a very precarious position for the Caps right now. Their division lead allows them to sit in third place in the conference, but a minor slip-up from here may force them out of the postseason.
Don't count on it, though.
Ovechkin and Co. are desperately searching for a way to get to the NHL's pinnacle and match the Blues for the best winning streak in the league at the moment. The Caps' big star is rounding into form at the right time, notching 17 goals in his past 15 games.
This has been an odd shortened season, and it may be the change of pace Ovechkin and Washington needed to finally deliver the city its first Cup in franchise history.