Since the first day of the 2009-2010 NHL season back in October, three teams (the Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks, and Chicago Blackhawks) have pulled away from the rest of the league and established themselves soundly as the "Big Three."
In the Eastern Conference, four other teams, in addition to the Capitals, established themselves as the top five teams in that conference. In the Western half of the NHL, seven teams have been fighting since last autumn in their race for the last two available playoff spots.
And now all of that is falling apart.
The "Big Three" is now looking like it may split up as we approach the conclusion of the regular season, as Washington has begun to pull themselves away with remarkable comebacks and simply a consistent, productive style of hockey.
In the East, the recent surge by the Philadelphia Flyers and slump by the Ottawa Senators (as well as below-average performance lately from the Devils and Sabres) has mostly eliminated the gap between the fifth and sixth seeds.
These recent changes haven't done blessings to these power rankings, either, not only making our recent statements look assumed and not proven, as well as making the rankings harder than ever.
Your team may be in 20th in this edition when you think they should be in 12th...or perhaps it'll be the other way around. Whatever the situation, though, just know that the NHL is not determined by experts. It's determined by how each and every team plays every game on the ice.
Notes: Point totals as of Sunday, March 14, at 4:30 PM. "L10" refers to "last 10," or the team's record in their last 10 games played.
1. Washington Capitals (101 pts)
The Capitals have only won five of their last 10, but they've still earned 13 points in that span and have eclipsed 100 points in a single season for the sixth time in franchise history. This team can go far into the playoffs if they can rely on their home ice advantage, where they are 26-4-4 this year.
2. San Jose Sharks (96 pts)
The Sharks Olympic top-line of Heatley, Marleau, and Thornton keeps on steadily producing plenty of goals and assists, and it's resulted in a 6-3-1 record for San Jose in their L10 as well as the front seat in the Western Conference.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (94 pts)
The Blackhawks are still in fine position and are still on a good track with 13 points in their last 10, but two third-period meltdowns against Philly and Washington have to begin to concern them. The non-trade of Christobal Huet, or the stubbornness of the Blackhawks coaching staff, may end up costing this team a conference title.
4. Vancouver Canucks (87 pts)
The Canucks are 7-2-1 in their L10 and have the fourth-best team +/- ratio in the league at plus-50, which has built an eight point lead in the Northwest Division.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (85 pts)
Pittsburgh has only one regulation loss in their last 10 games, but their inability to win a single game in five attempts against the Devils has not let them advance their lead on the division and a top-three seed by much more than the current two point differential.
6. Los Angeles Kings (85 pts)
The Kings have kept up only a decent pace as of late and are still neck-and-neck with Phoenix for the home-ice advantage in their probable first-round series.
However, Los Angeles's position is so much better now than it was at this point last season. It's hard to think anything but positive thoughts about L.A. right now.
7. Phoenix Coyotes (87 pts)
The Coyotes reeled in at the trade deadline and it's paid off, jump-starting unlikely playoff contender Phoenix to four straight victories following a brief slump. Still, I'm sticking with my gut feeling that the 'Yotes might crash here at any moment.
8. New Jersey Devils (83 pts)
The Devils are below .500 in their L10 and by no means settled into a top-four seed, but it seems hard to fathom right now that the talented, experienced Devils could crash from now until the beginning of the playoffs.
9. Buffalo Sabres (82 pts)
The Sabres have recovered a bit from their huge February crash and have rebuilt a three-point lead in the division over Ottawa, but someone other than Ryan Miller needs to step up and become the leader of Buffalo's evaporating offensive attack.
10. Colorado Avalanche (82 pts)
Colorado's young core is standing their ground for now and keeping the Avs above .500 in their last 10 games (at 6-4), but their slim four-point gap between them and the postseason cut-off line seems far too close for comfort.
11. Philadelphia Flyers (76 pts)
The Flyers have taken off as of late, having earned points in eight of their last 10 games, highlighted by Chris Pronger's last-second, game-winning goal against the Hawks last Saturday night. While Philly likely won't earn a great position going into the playoffs, the Flyers situation is improving by the day.
12. Detroit Red Wings (78 pts)
Detroit's now-healthy lineup has finally cracked the West's top eight with a 6-2-2 record in their L10, and we're starting to get the feeling that the Wings are back and dangerous once again.
13. Calgary Flames (77 pts)
Several major pre-Olympic deals may finally be starting to have a positive effect on the Flames' inconsistency, as Calgary has now won four in a row. But they've also, simultaneously, been ousted from the top eight by Detroit during that time period.
However, one thing is certain: The Flames are going to be very interesting to watch down the stretch as we approach the last four weeks of the regular season.
14. Montreal Canadiens (76 pts)
The Canadiens have played more games than basically every other team, but at least the hometown fans are beginning to be satisfied as Montreal has now won five straight matches.
Still, the Habs are one of only three NHL teams currently in their conference's top eight with a negative team +/-.
15. Nashville Predators (79 pts)
Things are getting shakier and shakier in the country music capital of America, a town not particularly known for hockey. Not only do they not have fan support, but the Preds are slipping down in the standings despite winning over half of their latest games.
That's never a good sign.
16. Ottawa Senators (79 pts)
After jumping back into the Eastern Conference's "cream of the crop" after a bad season last year, the Senators' latest slump has them in danger of losing first round home-ice advantage, or worse.
17. Boston Bruins (72 pts)
The Bruins offense still isn't getting much better, but at least Boston has returned to their winning ways over the past two months and are back, although barely, in the drivers' seat of the playoff bubble.
Their 6-3-1, L10 record is paying off, and hopefully, Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask, and the rest of the Bruins' defense can hold off opponents enough to maintain their current position.
18. St. Louis Blues (73 pts)
Despite their silence, St. Louis is sticking around in the Western Conference race. While they definitely aren't quite where they want to be, watch out for the Blues as a dark horse to sneak in at the last moment if they can put another quiet run together.
19. Minnesota Wild (70 pts)
It would be great to see the underperforming Wild finally find their spot in the postseason, but their nine-point deficit may be insurmountable with such talented teams already ahead of them.
20. New York Rangers (69 pts)
Nothing is working for the Rangers, yet they're still in the playoff race. However, even if Henrik Lundqvist can step it up down the stretch, I get the feeling that that alone won't be nearly enough to launch the sputtering Blueshirts into the top eight in time.
21. Dallas Stars (71 pts)
Although the Stars have only four wins in their last 10 games and a miserable minus-25 goals differential, they're still within eight points of the playoff elimination line in the West.
Still, eight points is far too much for Dallas to overcome with this current roster, and I expect that deficit to quickly grow into double-digits soon.
22. Carolina Hurricanes (64 pts)
After months and months of suffering, Carolina has finally begun to find life over the past 20 games in February and March. Earning three out of four possible points in a brutal back-to-back against Washington and Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes entered this previous weekend as the only NHL team to have won nine of their last 11 games.
However, Saturday's 4-0 shutout in Raleigh at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes may be the blow that the Hurricanes were bound to eventually get that will knock them back to earth—in 13th place.
23. Anaheim Ducks (68 pts)
While the Ducks have been the topic of many "dark horse" discussions around the West Coast, it now appears that a poor March has eliminated them from the conference playoff race with only 68 points on their resume.
24. Florida Panthers (66 pts)
The Panthers haven't had as many low points this season as usual, but this inactive and unproductive (not to mention forgotten among the sports fans of the region) Florida team is still in just as bad of a position as expected.
25. Tampa Bay Lightning (68 pts)
The Lightning thought this might be their year after two seasons in the NHL's basement, but Tampa just hasn't been able to keep going on their original pace for the entire season.
On the brighter side, though, the Bolts have most of the pieces in place for the future and should be poised to once again return to contention within one or two years.
26. Columbus Blue Jackets (65 pts)
Not only are the Blue Jackets long gone from any discussions in their conference, but rookie superstar netminder Chris Mason has gone down the drain...just like the Jackets' future in Columbus, Ohio, might this offseason.
27. Atlanta Thrashers (66 pts)
Confidence was high in Atlanta, but the loss of Kovalchuk has caught up with them, and their latest five-game losing skid has eliminated any bit of attention from Atlanta.
28. New York Islanders (63 pts)
While we expected their original success wouldn't last, the Isles have a great first line in Tavares, Okposo, and Moulson that can develop into a shutdown trio quickly and effectively.
29. Toronto Maple Leafs (58 pts)
For information on the Leafs, please refer to one of the 3,000 articles written covering them each week here on Bleacher Report, varying from Brian Burke to Brian Burke to Brian Burke. If you're lucky, you might actually get something about the Leafs' team itself for once.
30. Edmonton Oilers (49 pts)
One word: Dead.
Oh, sorry, that's wrong. It should probably read more like, "Five words: Very, very, very, very dead."
You know it's always a bad sign when the town is more focused on the arena than the team.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the Carolina Hurricanes. In his 19 months so far with the site, he has written over 170 articles and received over 115,000 total reads.
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