With the All-Star Game over, the league is coming back to its regular schedule of games. Games become more and more important as the second half of the season begins and we get closer and closer to the playoffs.
Teams are going to have to make their last effort to gain some momentum in hopes of grabbing one of the playoff spots, or trying to better themselves with a higher seed.
The Eastern Conference is a little more spread out than the West, making it easier to see who's a real contender compared to a team whose stock is falling.
Despite the closeness of the playoff race in the Western Conference, and in the East to some extent, I am going to pick the teams that I think have the best chance of making the playoffs, beginning with the Eastern Conference.
I can say with the utmost assuredness that the Flyers will make the playoffs again. I can't say that they will be the No. 1 seed like they are as of today, but there's no way they'll falter in the second half of the season.
Philadelphia's record will be maintained by great goaltending (what else?).
It proves that a great one-two setup in goal can mean the whole difference.
Great depth and scores from every position gives the Flyers a second chance at the Stanley Cup.
With big names, Pittsburgh is always on someone's watch list. They refuse to go away.
They are just three points away for Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division as Sidney Crosby continues to improve every year, and still surprises us.
What you might not know is Pittsburgh is also a very well-developed defensive team, and it begins with their goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Boston, for the past couple of years, has been a sure bet for making the playoffs.
Once again, Boston is riding its fantastic defense. Goaltender Tim Thomas is having another spectacular season. He has 25-5-6 record with a .945 save percentage and a 1.82 GAA.
I don't know how you can get more dominant than that.
With defense like that, Boston is a favorite for the Stanley Cup.
Arguably one of the biggest surprises of the season. Tampa Bay, thanks to a six-game win streak, has capitulated all the way to second in the Eastern Conference.
The Lightening are already 21 points away from their point total from last season with 30 more games to play.
Tampa is my team to watch this season, but not for what you'd expect. I'd watch Tampa Bay because I think it might fall, considerably, in the ranks before the season ends. The defense and goaltending have been spotty all season long.
I still think the Lightening will make the playoffs, as long as they keep riding the success of Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos.
It's true that Washington is hurting from Alexander Ovechkin's "mild" season (if you can say that). The fact is that he's still having a great year, just not scoring as much.
But that's all right.
The Capitals have garnered support from Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin.
Goaltending is average, but better than most teams. There's no doubt that this Washington team relies on its offense, rather than defense.
As long as their offense continues to do above average and the defense keeps clicking, the Capitals should have no problem making the playoffs.
I would pick the Montreal Canadiens as the sleeper pick for this season's playoffs.
They've found a gem of a goaltender in Carey Price. The kid is talented and has plenty of potential. The best part: he's only 23 years old.
That gives a solid block for the Canadiens to build off of, and they know that.
While they don't have one big scorer, they do have a handful of guys who can score.
Five players have 10+ goals scored this season. They do a good job of sharing the wealth, which has proven to be effective when it comes to playoff time.
New York is a team often forgotten. It's in the same division as the Flyers and Penguins, but this team can hold its own.
A six seed while in that division is a pretty good achievement, but the last 10 games have been mediocre. New York has a 4-5-1 record in the last 10 games and has just lost to Pittsburgh in a shootout, proving that there's a hill the Rangers have to get over to be Stanley Cup contenders.
New York is a very defense-oriented team that has an above average defense and goaltender.
In the best-case scenario, New York grabs a six, seven or eight seed.
I like the Hurricanes because I believe they're a better team than what their record is. I could be wrong, but I stand firm in that belief.
They have a great offense, but because of that, we see a gap in offensive skill and defensive skill.
Cam Ward has been good, but he can do better, and I think that's what is slowing down the Hurricanes and has them in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta is riding on the wild side at the eight seed. Former Blackhawks, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd have given the Thrashers a chance at making the playoffs, but I believe, as the season progresses, the Thrashers will start falling from the playoff picture.
They're a troubled team when it comes to defense. They can score, but they've allowed almost 20 more goals than they've scored.
Sooner or later that's going to catch up to them. I don't see Atlanta making the playoffs.
For the first time, we see a big gap in between teams. Buffalo is five points behind Atlanta.
While that doesn't seem big, it'll only get bigger.
Buffalo has a really hard time scoring, and if you can't score, you can't win games.
Buffalo's recent 7-3 record over the past 10 games is nothing but a tease.
There's an ongoing trend that I see once we get further and further down in the Eastern Conference standings. That is every team in the lower half has a tough time scoring.
It seems like a logical affliction and it's no different for Florida.
Add a very tricky and unproductive defense, and you have a failed season.
It's hard to totally exclude the Panthers, but you can't really vouch for them either.
Toronto is a perfect example of a mediocre offensive team with terrible defense and goaltending.
They have great forwards who can score. Clarke McArthur, Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski come to mind.
Yet, they can't seem to solve or get around their defensive and goaltending problems.
Their goalies are hovering at or below .500 and can't keep their save percentage above .900.
All lead to a terrible year.
Ottawa's season can pretty much be written off.
It's a sad thing to see after a strong regular season performance last season.
It has many fans angry and trying to figure out who's to blame for this. Either way, playing the blame game won't get you anywhere.
Let's hope for better days for Ottawa.
The Islanders, of recent history have never prided themselves on winning. In fact, they've been consistently one of the worst teams in the league the past four years.
What makes this season any different?
Nothing really. Just be glad your neighbor, New Jersey, is just as bad, if not worse than you.
How does a team go from a second-place team in the Eastern Conference to dead last? It seems like New Jersey has pulled off one of the biggest fall-offs by a team in sports history.
That amount of difference between seasons is almost unheard of and pretty close to impossible.
Blame it on Martin Brodeur's terrible season. Blame it on the GM or coaches. Blame it on anyone, but please fix it.
It's hard to watch this team.
We now move to the Western Conference and onto the most talked about teams in the league: the Vancouver Canucks
With their win Tuesday night, Vancouver is the best team in the NHL points-wise, and, possibly, skill-wise as well.
It's been a few years in the making, but the Canucks have finally reached their full potential. They are cruising past teams, especially at home.
You'd be stupid to count these guys out.
Detroit is back into the serious playoff talk (did they ever leave?).
A great balance of home and road wins have the Red Wings back as one of the premier NHL teams, looking for another Stanley Cup.
Just looking at the Red Wings roster gives me the chills. They're the Yankees of the NHL. They have big-name players, and all those players contribute to the success of the team.
Add great coaching and management, and you have a great franchise.
Built on strength, toughness and defense, Nashville has proven itself to be a top contender in the Western Conference.
They may not score as much, but the Predators for sure don't let you score. Nashville is tied with Vancouver for lowest total goals scored against with 122 in the Western Conference, which has earned it a reputation as a disciplined team. Teams must capitalize on their chances in order to beat the Predators.
Other teams are starting to creep up on the Predators, threatening their piece of mind. An older Nashville team would've caved, but, I believe, this year's team will hold on for a playoff spot.
One of the more pleasant surprises this season has been the emerging Dallas Stars.
Dallas is building a great young team that's backed by a balance of offense and defense.
They have three forwards with 20+ goals scored. Both of their goalies have winning records, as well as save percentages above .900.
Things are looking up, and fans can't be prouder/happier with their team.
Third place in an highly contested conference is definitely something to be happy about.
The returning Stanley Cup champions find themselves in hotter water than they had hoped when this season began.
Due to not being able to finish games and, at some times, horrid defense, the Blackhawks find themselves right in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race.
With a remaining schedule that's mostly on the road, the 'Hawks have to so something that even at home they're having difficulty with: win.
It's going to be an uphill battle, but team chemistry, as well as line problems have been fixed.
Count on a chance to reclaim the Cup.
San Jose is trying to oust itself from the league's "all talk but no show" category.
After a couple of years of being the Western Conference's top dog, San Jose continued to under-perform in the playoffs.
Now the Sharks find themselves working their way back up the ladder and clinging to the final playoff seed in the conference.
But the Sharks have veteran experience, and that will help them in this situation.
In Anaheim it all starts with a balanced attack, as well as a balanced defense. The Ducks have attackers that can score, but they also have defenders that can play defense and come up and use their offensive skills from the blue line.
Add a reliable goaltender and you have a playoff team, though they will be challenged.
The Western Conference is still a closely fought battlefield.
The four seed and the eight seed are only three points away from each other, and the 12 seed and the eight seed are only two points away.
It's safe to say there will be some moving around. I predict Anaheim will stay in the playoff race, but don't expect a high seed.
Minnesota has made a huge improvement from last season, and it's been enough to get close to a playoff spot.
Martin Havlat is beginning to come around for the Wild, and because of that, many other forwards are seeing improvement in their play, as well as better overall team chemistry.
The goaltending skill is on the rise as both goalies have a above .500 record, a .900+ save percentage, and a GAA less than three.
All things point to a second-half push, resulting in a playoff spot.
Phoenix remains a fan favorite because of the heart it showed in last season's postseason.
But don't bet on the Coyotes making this year's playoffs.
Phoenix has had a hard time winning at home, and with the rest of the schedule being dominated by home games, the outlook doesn't look too optimistic.
Average goaltending has the Coyotes in an interesting position, as they rely more on their depth than one star.
As the season progresses, we're going to see less and less of Phoenix in the playoff race.
In such a highly talented division, Los Angeles is beginning to show itself as the weaker link in the divisional chain.
The Kings have fallen to the 11 seed. Worse, is that it seems like division rivals have their number. They are just caught up in their rivals having better seasons than them.
It will be a close battle between them, Los Angeles and Minnesota, but in the end the Wild will take the prize.
Close behind the Kings will be the Avalanche.
Defense and reliable goaltending have been the culprits for the Avalanche, and in today's sports market, those afflictions will kill your playoff chances.
Besides, the Avalanche have a new, young team, and this year has been more of a developing year.
Their time will come, hopefully...just not now.
It has been a very frustrating season for the Flames.
Plagued by unreliable goaltending from veteran Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames find themselves in a scary situation.
A five-game win streak has helped them regain some ground, but it seems to be just another cycle every once in awhile.
Truth is, the Flames' problems will be too much for them to handle and recover from.
I would love to say St. Louis has finally gotten over that hump it's been trying to clear over the past few years, but I'd be a liar.
There was supposed to be some major improvements to the team, and hopes were high for this young team.
But things soon went into disarray.
The scoring really isn't there, but the bigger problems lie in the goaltending.
Both goaltenders have been up and down and their stats show that.
It's sad, but St. Louis will have to wait another year.
One or two playmakers can't make a team.
The Blue Jackets have found that out for years. Sure, they have Rick Nash and Derick Brassard, but other no-names haven't made a name for themselves, slowing down the improvement process.
Below-average goaltending and defense have only added to the problem. They won't reach Edmonton lows, but it doesn't get much better.
It never really was supposed to turn out good, but fans were hoping it wouldn't turn out as bad as it has.
When your starting goalie is 8-22 and you have 38 points, something is wrong.
It's both offensive and defensive problems.
Lineup changes are supposedly in the works, but the season is already over for the Oilers.