NOTE: All teams are listed with their current points in the standings (as of Saturday, December 12). Each top-10 team (the top two groupings), as well as the focus of my coverage, the Carolina Hurricanes, receives at least one sentence of analysis. Each comment is completely original and reflects only the opinion of Mark Jones. Any comments, corrections, or questions are welcomed in the section at the conclusion of this article.
It's feeling like winter again.
The air outside is verging on freezing (or on 0 degrees in some places), Christmas lights spread color and joy into the air, and snow gently falls down out the window as you sit in front of your TV set watching hockey.
The National Hockey League has also begun to eek a feeling of winter. Winter in the NHL is a time to get poised for the playoff race while keeping a steady winning pace going on the ice. Winter is the season when the league really starts to sort out, when we find out which teams are true contenders and which ones are as cold as the weather outside.
Meanwhile, in the big picture, it's also important to know where you stand against the other 29 teams. As a hockey spectator, you want to know where your team stacks up, and not just in the stacks of presents under your Christmas tree.
So, with the theme of the holidays in the air, let's move on to the annual every-two-week power rankings. This edition, I've also sorted the teams into five "Power Groups", which are not done by ranking alone but rather finding tight clumps of teams that take almost as long to order than to analyze.
Power Grouping One: The Elite
1. Washington Capitals...46 pts
With just one regulation loss in their last ten games, the Capitals are hitting their stride at just the right time.
With Backstrom and Semin beginning to become threats of their own while complimenting the one-and-only Alexander Ovechkin on the top line, this Capitals crew has continued to maintain their position as one of the most explosive teams in the league.
2. San Jose Sharks...45 points
The Sharks have cooled down a bit recently, going just 1-1-3 in a recent two-week homestand, but they do have points in eight of their last ten and, despite their recent struggles there, have lost only two regulation games at HP Pavilion this entire season.
Dany Heatley has worked out beautifully on the West Coast, although he may have perhaps entered a small slump recently, but it now seems to be the big offseason trade between San Jose and Ottawa has payed off for both teams.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins...43 points
The defending Cup champions are still easily in the mix to win it again, although we're only about a third of the way through the season. The Pens are 7-2-1 in their last 10, and have balanced winning records at home as well as on the road.
However, I worry that the Penguins have become a bit too top heavy this year, and may have problems earning the lower-line support they need in the playoffs to return to the top. Also, the miserable powerplay units are costing Pittsburgh important opportunistic scoring.
4. Calgary Flames...42 points
Despite falling victim in overtime to the red-hot Wild last night, the Flames remain a top Western Conference power heading into the holidays. They have earned 14 points in their last ten games, but much of their success this season has been on the road, where they have 25 points in only 17 tries!
5. New Jersey Devils...43 points
Martin Brodeur is at it again.
With him, the Devils just can't seem to stay out of the elite group in the Eastern Conference (well, until Jussi Jokinen comes along...). This year, the offense has also been contributing, and great records in Jersey as well as on the road have launched the Devils into second place in the Eastern Conference.
6. Chicago Blackhawks...41 points
With the skill level of this team, it's nearly bordering on surprising they don't have more points than they truly do early into this season. All ends of this team are great, from the top line all the way back to one of the NHL's best defenses. They just need to find some depth!
Power Grouping Two - Right Up There
7. Boston Bruins...37 points
The Bruins latest hot streak is really kind of what we expected to see for the entire two-and-a-half months of this (still) young NHL season, based on last year's conference-best regular season performance.
The Bruins have won seven of ten in the past three weeks, with the supreme group of goaltenders continuing to get it done for Boston.
8. Los Angeles Kings...43 points
It's amazing how much this team has improved from last season, and exactly how far it's taken them. They've moved from 13th in the West in 2009 to having the second best record in the conference at the moment. Los Angeles has also been quite hot recently, going 7-2-1 in ten games and winning three straight.
The Kings extra games played, however, does keep them from topping Boston in my power rankings despite leading them by six points in the standings.
9. Buffalo Sabres...
The Sabres continue to not receive enough credit this season, but Ryan Miller has turned a mediocre-at-best team from last season into a upper-third contender. The back-end support has allowed Buffalo to get by without much scoring and win the close games they couldn't last year.
Although I have a very hard time believing the Preds are for real, Nashville continues to prove that success in hockey can come from any geographic region, even if their average attendance is approximately 125 (just kidding, but it's not much).
Anyhow, the Predators have 13 points in their last 10 and been proving that their solid all-around play is good enough to get them top-ten level respect.
Power Grouping Three —In the Mix
11. Colorado Avalanche...42 points
12. Detroit Red Wings...35 points
13. Dallas Stars...37 points
14. Phoenix Coyotes...38 points
15. Vancouver Canucks...34 points
16. Ottawa Senators...34 points
17. Minnesota Wild...33 points
18. Edmonton Oilers...34 points
19. Columbus Blue Jackets...34 points
Power Grouping Four - Work to Do
20. Atlanta Thrashers...33 points
21. St. Louis Blues...31 points
22. Montreal Canadiens...32 points
23. New York Rangers...30 points
Power Grouping Five - Early Draft
24. Anaheim Ducks...29 points
25. Philadelphia Flyers...29 points
26. Florida Panthers...30 points
27. Tampa Bay Lightning...31 points
28. Toronto Maple Leafs...27 points
29. New York Islanders...29 points
30. Carolina Hurricanes...20 points
Although there still isn't much going right for the Hurricanes in this rebuilding season, at least Carolina has finally begun to improve. They picked up three points in four games on a brutal road trip this week, playing the current number one (Washington), two (Pittsburgh), three (New Jersey), and six (Ottawa) teams in the Eastern Conference.
Ray Whitney and Tim Gleason have also stepped up and taken the leadership role of guiding their disoriented, thrown-together units through tough times. It will be important for them and the rest of the Hurricanes to get themselves back together and keep up this nice streak during these next two weeks, while they have a break in the schedule.
The next two weeks contains a stretch where Carolina will play five of six games at the RBC Center, with all games but the first one against Dallas versus teams that are currently not in the top eight of their conference. A Friday-Saturday, away-home back-to-back with Florida could give the 'Canes a jump into climbing back up in the Southeast Division standings, too.