NHL Power Rankings (December 20 to January 3)
by Jason Schwartz - 01/04/2007
Well it is not too often that I introduce my power rankings by complementing the teams at the bottom, but they deserve it. St. Louis is playing great defensive hockey under new head coach Andy Murray. The Blues are 5-0-1 in their last six games, which included games against Buffalo, Nashville and Colorado. The Coyotes are also playing great hockey as of late, they are 4-0-1 in their last four games, and three of those wins were against some of the top teams in the league. There has not been much movement in the top 10 portion of the rankings, as the season goes on you will realize that I will be much more of a harsh critic in terms of moving teams up and down the rankings. Going into the New Year, the Vancouver Canucks have taken the biggest leap in the rankings by jumping 12 spots. The team that took the biggest fall was the Washington Capitals, who dropped 10 spots in the rankings.
1. Buffalo Sabres 29-8-3 (2) - I think the Sabres have made their statement as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference as they swept their season series against defending Stanley Cup Champs, the Carolina Hurricanes. In the past two weeks the Sabres have picked up some impressive wins over Nashville and Atlanta, and have gotten excellent goaltending by Ryan Miller the past three games. Now that the Sabres defensive unit is healthy, we get to see how complete this team really is.
2. Anaheim Ducks 28-8-6 (1) - Bad luck finally struck the Ducks, and boy things have been brutal for them lately in terms of the status of their top players. First, goaltender J.S. Giguere pulls his groin. Then, one of their top four defensemen, Francois Beauchemin, is sidelined indefinitely with a lacerated spleen. Finally, to put the icing on the cake, Chris Pronger breaks his foot and will be out for at least a month. The Ducks are currently on a three-game losing streak, but those losses were on the road against good hockey clubs. I think the Ducks will manage to stay on top of the Western Conference until the team gets healthier.
3. Detroit Red Wings 25-9-5 (6) - Dominik Hasek is dominating the league once again. It surprises me that he has actually stayed healthy this long, let alone lead the league in goals against average with his minuscule 1.82 GAA. The highlight of Detroit's week was beating Anaheim, 2-1, on a night that was dedicated to one of their greatest captains ever, Steve Yzerman, who had his jersey retired. By the way, how about Dan Cleary? He is leading the Wings in goals with 17 (his career-high is 14). Detroit always seems to find a way to get high production out of players you would never expect.
4. Montreal Canadiens 23-11-5 (4) - The Habs lost consecutive games for the first time this year, as they lost to Florida and Tampa Bay during a road trip to the Southeast Division. Their loss against Tampa Bay was probably the worst game they played this season; they were out-shot 41-13 in a 3-1 loss. I was impressed though by how the leaders on the team were quick to show their disappointment after the game, and was not surprised to see them get their revenge by beating Tampa Bay, 5-2, a couple of nights later.
5. Nashville Predators 26-11-3 (5) - Chris Mason continues to play as well as any goalie in this league. He is second in the league in save percentage (.927), has already tied the franchise record already for most shutouts in a season with four, and he has started an astounding 19 games in a row. Nashville is in a great situation now, Mason showed he could handle the No. 1 duties during Tomas Vokoun's absence, and when he comes back from injury in a week or so, they will have two great goaltenders they can rely on down the stretch.
6. San Jose Sharks 26-14-0 (3) - The Sharks played some of their worst hockey the past couple of weeks. They lost two key division games at home against Dallas and Anaheim, and then lost not just once, but twice to the Phoenix Coyotes in a home-and-home series. The second loss was an 8-0 wipeout in Phoenix. Wisely, a team meeting was held before an important game on New Years Eve against Dallas. The Sharks coaching staff wanted to make sure the team did not get on any long winless streaks like they did last season. The team responded against Dallas early, grabbing a 4-1 lead in the first period en-route to a 4-2 victory. With the injuries Dallas and Anaheim are currently suffering, the Sharks are missing a golden opportunity to try and take over the lead in the Pacific Division.
7. Dallas Stars 25-15-1 (7) - I think the Stars have fared pretty well with the absence of three of their top scorers. Brendan Morrow returned to the lineup temporarily, but he will find himself back on injured reserve after having to repair tendons in his right wrist. Fortunately for Dallas they play a strong and simple team game, and whenever a top player goes out, another one steps up his game to fill the void. As of late, role players have been coming through for the Dallas Stars; Jeff Halpern had two goals and an assist in a 5-4 win against Colorado, and Antti Miettinen had two goals in a 4-1 win over Nashville. Veterans Sergei Zubov and Jere Lethinen have elevated their play to help keep Dallas near San Jose in the standings until the team gets healthier.
8. Atlanta Thrashers 24-12-6 (8) - After stopping their five-game winless streak with a road win against New Jersey, the Thrashers went on to win five games in a row. Goaltender Khari Lehtonen was making great saves night after night as Atlanta distanced themselves from Carolina in the Southeast Division. Unfortunately, the Sabres ended the Thrashers winning streak, as Atlanta continues to stay stationary in that second spot in the Eastern Conference. The match-up I am looking forward to in the upcoming week is Atlanta vs. Montreal on Jan. 9, as I think Montreal is really the second best team in the Eastern Conference, maybe Atlanta can prove me wrong.
9. New Jersey Devils 22-13-4 (9) - The Devils see themselves at the top of a very tight Atlantic Division for the time being. Martin Brodeur looked fantastic in his last four games with two shutouts and some strong third period play. However, despite an excellent performance in overtime against the New York Rangers, Brodeur got beat four times in a shootout loss to their state rival. New Jersey is starting to become a weaker team in the shootout.
10. Carolina Hurricanes 21-17-4 (14)- It was bittersweet to see the Canes lose one to Buffalo one night and then win against Anaheim the next. The win against Anaheim was a special one for Rod Brind'Amour; he received a pre-game ceremony in honor of his 1000th point. No Carolina player has been better than goaltender Cam Ward lately. I did not think he would be able to live up to the way he performed in last years playoffs, but he continues to make big saves at big times to keep his team in the game. Unfortunately the Hurricanes need to see Eric Staal putting some pucks in the net; he has one goal in his last 14 games (he had 45 goals last season).
11. Vancouver Canucks 22-18-1 (23) - The Canucks have improved the most out of all the teams in the Northwest Division since the last power rankings, and as a result they are ranked the highest among Northwest Division teams. I hinted last week that they are getting a bit better offensively and the past four games they have definitely been clicking. The Canucks are also winning big games on the road, something I cannot say about most of the other teams in the Northwest. Roberto Luongo has been nothing short of unbelievable; he beat Mikka Kiprusoff three times last week. I also have to mention how well the Sedin twins are playing lately; the Canucks are still waiting for Markus Naslund to score, however.
12. New York Rangers 20-17-4 (11) - Things were looking ugly for New York during their seven-game losing. They blew a three-goal lead in the third period to Tampa Bay, and they were shutout in consecutive games against Ottawa and the New York Islanders. The streak ended against Washington, though, in a 4-1 win. The leadership of Brendan Shanahan continues to impress me. What he did against Washington may not look like a big deal but I think it may be a turning point in the Rangers season. Shanahan had the guts to challenge Washington's enforcer, Donald Brashear, to a fight after he got sick of watching him push around Jaromir Jagr all night long. Shanahan has not been lighting it up lately on the scoreboard but he definitely has scored some points with his teammates and the fans of New York for having the guts to show some toughness; something the Rangers definitely lacked last season.
13. New York Islanders 19-17-3 (10) - The Isles offense has gotten very cold lately with only 10 goals in their last seven games. Their defense was luckily able to squeak out some shutout wins to avoid a big losing skid. The Isles do have some talented forwards that need to start putting the puck in the net. The Isles defense is probably only going to get weaker over the next month as one of their top defensive players, Radek Martinek, is out with a broken foot. The Isles offense has had some positive signs over the past few games even though they lost both of those games against Buffalo and Philadelphia.
14. Minnesota Wild 21-17-2 (16) - I didn't think anyone could contend with Calgary for being the biggest homers in the league but I think the Wild are getting right up there. They have the most wins at home this season with 16, and the fewest wins on the road with four. They have won their last seven at home, and are winless in their last 10 road games …I guess you get the picture. The sad part is I don't see any sense of urgency from the Wild to win on the road. The Wild have three divisional road games coming up next week; hopefully the return of Marion Gaborik will give them some offensive help on the road (that is if the team is serious about letting him return this week). Either way, I have a feeling Manny Fernandez steals a game on the road for them on their next road trip, it just has to happen.
15. Calgary Flames 19-15-4 (13) - The Flames win streak at the Saddledome finally stopped at 10 with a loss to Vancouver, and they went on to lose another two games to those same Canucks. The Flames still have yet to pick up that big road win, they were close against Vancouver but Mikka Kiprusoff had an off night. I am pleased to see that the Flames offense is improving though, as maybe they will start to seem a little less one-dimensional.
16. Colorado Avalanche 19-18-2 (12) - Well I have had enough of Jose Theodore after his weak performance in a 5-4 loss against Dallas. The Avs have played Peter Budaj in net ever since, and I can only hope that Budaj continues to start the majority of games until Theodore proves he is worthy of more playing time. Theodore's stats do not look awful on paper, but he really has been letting in some softies this year. Meanwhile, the Avalanche continue to move the puck around well; and to be honest, anytime they are huge underdogs they are always worth a shot to bet on. They are as consistent on the road as they are at home and have managed to win some games against some good home teams this season. Their penalty killing is an issue, but they usually play a fair game that keeps them out of the penalty box, so I guess it is not a huge issue yet.
17. Ottawa Senators 22-18-2 (21) -Even though Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher are out indefinitely, you got to give credit to the Senators for winning five of their last six games. The surprising thing is that it has been their defense that is winning games along with terrific goaltending from Ray Emery. Every game I seem to see Emery make a highlight reel save to keep his team out in front. Sens' captain Daniel Alfredsson is playing his best hockey so far this season, but I am still waiting for the team's offense to explode like it did last season.
18. Pittsburgh Penguins 17-15-6 (17) - I continue to admire how well the Penguins have been doing this season despite all the distractions with ownership issues and rumors about them moving the team to a different city. If they want to make a run at winning the Atlantic Division, the Penguins have to start getting some good secondary scoring beyond Sidney Crosby (and I guess Evgeni Malkin too). The Penguins are winless when Crosby is held pointless this season and it is no coincidence. Teams like the New Jersey Devils, which have good defensive forwards, will continue to just focus on shutting down Crosby, leaving the team to find someone else to pick up the slack.
19. Boston Bruins 19-15-3 (19) - Boston's recent road trip did not go too well. They blew a late lead against Columbus in their first game, and ended up losing in overtime. In their second game they nearly blew a four-goal lead against Chicago. The third game was a 5-0 loss to Nashville in which backup goaltender Hannu Toivonen started in. Last but not least, they suffered a 5-1 defeat against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I must say Tim Thomas looked awful. Could Boston be going into a downward spiral soon in the standings?
20. Edmonton Oilers 19-18-2 (20) - I thought Ryan Smyth's return to the lineup would definitely improve the Oilers' offense the next couple of games, but I did not think the defense would take such a big step backwards. They looked terrible in two home games against Los Angeles and against Vancouver in which they made a bunch of mental mistakes in their own zone. Dwayne Roloson may not be playing his best hockey as of late, but he is entitled to it considering how well he was playing early on. The Oilers looked a lot better in their last game against Florida and it looks like their aggressive natured offense will have to start winning them some hockey games for them to win their division, the defense just is not there this year.
21. Tampa Bay Lightning 18-20-2 (24) - I continue to believe that the Lightning will break out soon, eventually one of their two goalies will give them a string of decent performances. The Lightning's defense tries to make life as easy as possible for their goaltenders, only allowing 25.8 shots against per game (third fewest in the league). This team's offense continues to impress me with their resiliency, as the have a league-leading five wins when trailing after two periods. It was very nice to finally see Vaclav Prospal end his 20-game goal-scoring drought in a 3-1 win over Montreal. Prospal had 80 points last season and needs to help out in the scoring department for the Lightning.
22. Toronto Maple Leafs 18-17-6 (22)- The Leafs' offense has been decimated by injuries lately. Luckily Captain Mats Sundin has done more than his share to puts some goals on the scoreboard; he has six goals in his last five games. Andrew Raycroft has also been looking pretty good in goal the last couple of games. The Leafs may be injured but they have to find a way to get through the next couple of weeks with their strong power play unit, as Boston is very close to moving ahead of them in the Northeast Division. Once Boston moves ahead of them, the Leafs would find themselves at the bottom of their division, which will not sit well at all with the media in Toronto.
23. Chicago Blackhawks 17-17-5 (18)- Chicago is starting to cool down a bit now as Martin Havlat's rapid scoring pace tailed off for a bit. Outside of a horrible game against Boston, though, Nikolai Khabibulin without question was Chicago's top player in December. This is the type of player the Hawks expected when they signed him to that huge contract. Hopefully he continues to play solid in goal, as the Hawks are going to be facing Nashville, Buffalo and Detroit within the next couple of weeks.
24. Phoenix Coyotes 16-20-2 (27) - What can I say, this team has improved big time since that awful month of October. Their mobile defensemen are getting more involved in games, the goaltending has drastically improved and they are finally getting healthy. Phoenix not only swept a home-and-home series with the Sharks, but they also won consecutive road games for the first time this season. Curtis Joseph improved to 34-9-1 record in his career against the Sharks after an 8-0 blowout win. Not only did Joseph get a 40 save shutout that game, but Jeremy Roenick finally got his offense going with a hat trick. With top centerman Steve Reinprecht ready to jump back in the lineup next game, the Coyotes are ready to start playing some consistent hockey on the road and at home as they still got a chance to get back in the playoff mix.
25. Washington Capitals 16-17-7 (15) - The Caps are starting to look like the Washington Capitals of last season, as they have lost seven of their past 10 games and are currently on a five-game losing streak. They are hovering around .500 for the time being but it seems like it is only a matter of time before they start slipping away from the playoff picture. Olaf Kolzig has been a huge reason as to why Washington has improved so much so much compared to last season. However, when he faces 34 shots a game it is going to be hard for him to keep them in hockey games. Kolzig is slowly wearing down, and backup goaltender Brent Johnson has not looked sharp at all in his last two outings, the more notable one involved him letting in four goals on just six shots against Buffalo. The Capitals also have trouble getting off to a good start in the past couple of weeks; they have been outscored by a margin of 14-4 in the first period of play in their last seven games.
26. Florida Panthers 15-20-7 (26) - Ed Belfour has recently been showing that the Panthers made a smart move by picking him up in the offseason, as he has been starting the majority of their games recently. Belfour has cut his GAA down to 2.69, and has raised his save percentage to .902, not bad for a 41 year old with back problems. Florida is currently on a road trip to Canada to face the teams out West, they already got off to a bad start with a loss against Edmonton, and things will not get any easier in upcoming games on the road against Calgary and Vancouver. The game against Vancouver should be interesting, as the Panthers face their former star goaltender (who was traded this past summer), Roberto Luongo, for the first time.
27. Columbus Blue Jackets 15-21-4 (25) - Well the hot streak is pretty much over for the Blue Jackets, but I am still impressed with their no quit attitude. They are very resilient at home, when this team puts a couple of good shifts together the crowd gets into the game and really energizes the team. On one night they had a thrilling comeback win against Boston, and a couple of nights later they nearly beat Detroit at home, coming back from a 3-0 deficit against one of the best defensive teams in the game. Unfortunately they ended up falling short. Nationwide Arena should be a tough place for visiting teams to play in the rest of the year, if the Blue jackets get going early it could be a long night for the visitor. On a side note, goaltender Pascal Leclaire re-injured his left knee and had surgery, he will be out of action until mid-February. This leaves a big burden on the already overworked Fredrik Norrena.
28. St. Louis Blues 12-20-7 (29) - People are giving lots of compliments to new head coach Andy Murray for getting his players to buy into his system, but I think a lot of recognition should go to goaltender Manny Legace. Don't get me wrong, the Blues defense has improved, but Manny Legace has been the answer lately for St. Louis. He has let up two or less goals in his last eight starts, and improved his career record against Colorado to 11-1-0 with a pair of wins against them this past week. The highlight of the Blues week was a 3-2 overtime win against Buffalo, a team I doubt anyone thought they had a chance against. Their upcoming schedule is relatively easy besides facing Nashville, but I think the team is just riding a hot goaltender now , the defense will stay improved but I still see them staying near the bottom of the western conference for the rest of the season due to a lack of scoring depth.
29. Los Angeles Kings 15-22-5 (28) - The goaltending continues to kill this team, but I am still surprised with their offense, which has been keeping them in games lately. No one has been more impressive for the Kings than forward Alexander Frolov. Frolov has five goals and 12 points in his last five games, as he has been a big part of the reason why the Kings power play has been looking so dangerous lately. Best news for the Kings was the return of goaltender Matheiu Garon, however he has not looked too sharp since he came back, hopefully he can pick up his play during the Kings' four-game homestand.
30. Philadelphia Flyers 11-24-4 (30) - The Flyers are currently riding a three-game win streak midway through their long road trip. Of course Peter Forsberg was back in the lineup for those three games and he usually is the difference when they win hockey games. But this time it has been the goaltending that has been winning games for the Flyers. Goaltender Robert Esche returned to the lineup after missing 11 games with a groin injury, and boy has he made a huge impact. Esche had to make at least 40 saves in each game during the Flyers' winning streak. Esche will have to continue to play well as Peter Forsberg is once again injured (get used to hearing that) and who knows how long he will be out for.