Now that we're into the month of December, we can now see which teams are legitimate Stanley Cup playoff contenders and which teams have begun their descent towards the NHL draft lottery.
To coin a phrase a former Blue Jackets head coach once used to jumpstart a struggling team, "It starts now."
With that, here are the power rankings for the week ending Dec. 10:
1. Pittsburgh (Last Ranking - LR: 12)—The Penguins are on fire, having won 11 straight games. And they are doing it without Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Sidney Crosby however, is playing at a level even he's not played at before and that's saying quite a bit. But what's really driving the Penguins, and what drove them during their Stanley Cup Championship season is the resurgence of Marc-Andre Fleury to his former level of solid play.
2. Detroit (LR: 1)—All teams hit a wall, eventually, and the Red Wings are no exception. That is, unless you consider "hitting a wall" to mean not winning in their last three starts (two consecutive losses combined with an OT loss to the LA Kings). However, their recent struggles have not been lost on Head Coach Mike Babcock, who expects much more effort from his elite NHL squad.
3. Philadelphia (LR: 4)—While not on a streak similar to Pittsburgh—who really is?—the Flyers have steadily held their own in the Eastern Conference standings. With the steady net-minding of rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and a team with balanced scoring throughout their lineup (14 players have registered at least 10 points so far this season), the Flyers have shown that last season's Stanley Cup finals appearance was no fluke.
4. Montreal (LR: 6)—Winners of their last three games, the Habs shown quite a bit of resiliency this season as they've gone 9-1-0 in games following defeats. They have done so with the goal tending of Carey Price and an underrated defensive corps. The Canadiens rank second in the NHL in goals allowed per game at 1.93. Tomas Plekanec has been their most consistent offensive player.
5. Washington (LR: 2)—While the recent slide in their goal tending is a bit of a concern, it pales in comparison to the goal-scoring struggles of Alexander Ovechkin, who has found the back of the net only twice in his last 12 games. But the Caps' inability to score more goals, given the offensive talent they possess may limit expectations come playoff time.
6. Boston (LR: 7)—The Bruins don't garner much respect from most who do these rankings, but they just keep winning. Tim Thomas is a legitimate Hart Trophy contender, not to mention possibly regaining the Vezina Trophy. Thomas is 9-0 on the road and is 3-0-1 over his last four games with a 1.22 GAA and a save percentage of .966. The offense is paced by Mark Recchi and the return of Marc Savard from injury, but Thomas' play doesn't require that much goal-scoring support.
7. Vancouver (LR: 5)—The 'Nucks have flattened out a bit after their usual November surge that's required to overcome their usual sluggish Octobers. While defending Hart Trophy recipient Henrik Sedin has struggled to score goals—three goals in his first 26 games—he's making up for that by logging a league-leading 28 assists.
8. Los Angeles (LR: 3)—The Kings have returned to form by winning their last three games, quite the recovery from the 3-7-0 slide over their previous 10 games. Drew Doughty's in a slump, without any points in his last nine games played. But Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams are not and have lead the recent resurgence. And hopefully deciding upon their No. 1 goalie—Jonathan Quick has won his last three starts—will solidify their expected rise atop the Western Conference standings.
9. Atlanta Thrashers (LR: 24)—Were it not for the Penguins other-worldly play, the Thrashers would be an easy choice as the NHL's hottest team with eight wins in their last 10 games. While they couldn't overcome the runaway freight train that is the Penguins, they did beat the Capitals, twice, as well as the Red Wings. Were it not for Tim Thomas' performance to date, Ondrej Pavelec would be the leader in the Vezina Trophy race, with a GAA of 1.70 and a save percentage of .948.
10. Chicago (LR: 15)—In spite of injuries to Patrick Kane a Marian Hossa, the Blackhawks are beginning to surge. A lot of that surge is attributable to a less frenetic schedule, allowing the Hawks to ease into a lot more consistency. Is Corey Crawford really the answer in net for the Hawks? The Marty Turco experiment seems to have failed in the Windy City so here's hoping Crawford can morph Anti Niemi's success from last season.
11. Dallas (LR: 17)—I honestly cannot explain how the Stars won six games in a row, this after watching their last two losses. While Kari Lehtonen has been a pleasant surprise and their top six forwards are as good as about any in the league, the Stars' current ascent to the top of the Pacific Division is still quite surprising.
12. New York Rangers (LR: 19)—Marian Gaborik has returned to the Blueshirts in style, with 17 points in 17 games played. However, the Rangers' recent surge has been at the hands of the struggling Islanders and the mediocre Sens. With upcoming games against the Pens, Caps, Coyotes, and Flyers, we will see if they're a legitimate Stanley Cup playoff contender.
13. Phoenix (LR: 13)—While Ilya Bryzgalov has been his usual stout self in the Coyotes' net, he's not getting much defensive support from his usually defensive-minded teammates. The 'Yotes are currently giving up the sixth most shots/game (33.2), so it will require more of a commitment to their defensive play or a surge in their struggling first two scoring lines to get them to repeat last season's success.
14. Tampa Bay (LR: 14)—I'll say one thing—Coach Guy Boucher's "pedal to the metal" system sure isn't boring. While the Bolts have risen to seventh in the NHL in shots on goal (they were 23rd, last season), they have also surrendered the most goals in the NHL, with 98 in their first 28 games played. But their goaltending issues must be resolved to allow Tampa to return to playoff consideration—either that, or they need to provide Steven Stamkos with a lot more goal-scoring support.
15. St. Louis (LR: 10)—The Blues have begun to recover from their disappointing funk, but in losing three of their top six forwards to injury, it will require recently-struggling Jaroslav Halak to return to his early-season form for the Blues to stem the tide of the injury bug. David Backes and Alexander Steen must remain hot to carry the scoring load until their remaining forwards return.
16. Nashville (LR: 20)—They continue to lose players year after year. That's the downside of a budget team in a non-traditional market. Can they expect to make the playoffs in spite of these obstacles? Why not, when they have a coach like Barry Trotz and a GM like David Poile. No team in the NHL does more with less than the Predators, yet these miserly ways do catch up with them, come playoff time. Once again, the Preds have found another solid goaltender in Anders Lindback to help Pekka Rinne's workload.
17. Columbus (LW: 8)—Buy? Sell? Panic? The slide of December's past has haunted the Blue Jackets once again. The Blue Jackets have gone 1-5-1 since their franchise-record 14-6 start. If this sounds familiar, the Blue Jackets started last season with a 12-6-2 start only to watch at cataclysmic meltdown mark of 3-14-7 to essentially end their season. GM Scott Howson's preaching of patience is wearing quite thin in Ohio's capital city.
18. San Jose (LR: 9)—Are the Sharks mired in mediocrity? Perhaps a new approach of staying in the playoff hunt, versus challenging for the President's Trophy only to disappoint in the playoffs might work, but in the brutal Western Conference, this "up and down" pattern might prevent the Sharks from making the playoffs. Patrick Marleau is a staggering -13 in his last 11 games.
19. Colorado (LR: 16)—Losers of five of their last six games, the spiraling Avs need to put an end to the slide before their chances to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs are a distant memory. Upcoming road contests against Atlanta, Washington and Chicago aren't going to make matters any better. Craig Anderson needs to return to last season's form, and quickly.
20. Anaheim (LR: 11)—After embarrassing back-to-back shutout losses, the Ducks were able to find the net during their last two games, with a shootout victory and a shootout loss. With two winnable home games upcoming, only to be followed by a brutal seven-game East to West coast road swing, the Ducks need to continue to find the net before panic begins to ensue in the Honda Center.
21. Minnesota (LR: 18)—The Wild ended their five-game losing streak with a 3-2 victory over the Coyotes. What was once the most prolific power play in the league has dried up into an inept special teams unit, with one goal in their last 29 power play opportunities. If the Wild don't find a way to provide some consistent goal-scoring support, Niklas Backstrom's shoulders are going to get heavier by the day.
22. Florida (LR: 25)—Winners of their last three games, the Panthers are winning behind Tomas Vokoun's goal tending and a solid defensive contingent. It's the offense though, that impairs the Panthers from making any headway in the Southeastern Division and the Eastern Conference.
23. Buffalo (LR: 26)—The Sabres are starting to play better, thus securing Lindy Ruff's job in upstate New York. But it's been the play of defending Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller that has paced Buffalo's recent solid play. Miller has gone 3-0-1 over his last four games, with a GAA of 1.46 and a save percentage of .948.
24. Edmonton (LR: 29)—It's too bad the Oilers have lost both Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff to long-term injuries. Otherwise, the way Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall have been playing, this is a team who most teams hope not to have to play later on in the season.
25. Carolina (LR: 22)—The Canes are a team who's also mired in mediocrity, with only one regulation victory in their last eight games played. It would help if Cam Ward could return to his form from a few season's ago. But it also doesn't help that the team isn't overly talented and in the midst of a rebuilding mode.
26. Calgary (LR: 27)—The Flames are just not a good hockey team, and their faithful are growing impatient by the day. How much longer the Sutter brothers continue to run this once-proud organization into the ground defies all logic.
27. Ottawa (LR: 21)—Alex Kovalev is upset at playing on the fourth line, GM Bryan Murray is frustrated with the team's defensive unit, there is not much scoring done on this team, their goal tending situation is both murky and below average. Either Murray begins to shake things up with some trades, or it will be a long winter in Canada's capital city.
28. Toronto (LR: 23)—Calls are coming for Ron Wilson's head for an embarrassing loss to the upstart Edmonton Oilers, a putrid offense. When will Brian Burke's rebuild start to take shape in Toronto? It's season two, after all.
29. New Jersey (LR: 28)—Was it just me, or did anyone else not see that the Ilya Kovalchuck "impact" towards the end of the season just might not work out, in the long run? The Devils are now saddled with dressing 18 players, plummeting further to the bottom of the league standings, and making any indications of a return to the playoffs a mere pipe dream. Karma, Lou Lamoriello, karma.
30. New York Islanders (LR: 30)—Just one win in their last 18 games. The good news is that the NHL Entry draft is now less than 200 days away.
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