By Bob Mand and Rob Elbaz
In the final 30-team edition of RSC’s NHL Power Rankings, the New York Rangers secured the top spot while the Canucks’ surge put them close on the Rags’ heels. The Blue Jackets ended their fifteen-week stay in the cellar while the biggest risers were the Islanders and the biggest fallers, the Stars.
1. New York Rangers (LW: 2) – Three first-place votes. The Rangers are back on top of the RSC power rankings heading into the final week of regular season play. They missed a chance to clinch the number one seed in the East Sunday night against the Bruins, but the Rangers are just a single point away from locking up home ice advantage through the first three rounds.
2. Vancouver Canucks (LW: 5) – Two first-place votes. The Presidents’ Trophy is within the ‘Nucks reach as they enter the final week of play in a virtual tie with the Rangers for the first overall seed (though the Rags have more regulation plus overtime victories: ROWs). However the health of Daniel Sedin (concussion) is a serious concern. GM Mike Gillis said he’ll be ready for the playoffs but you can never be sure of head injuries.
3. Philadelphia Flyers (LW: 4) – As they’ve done all season, the Flyers battled through injuries that would have devastated a lesser team. Chris Pronger is out for the season; James Van Riemsdyk is unlikely to return before the playoffs and now number one goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is out for an undetermined period with a chip fracture in his right foot. But none of that stopped the Flyers from beating the relatively healthy Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday afternoon to move a point back of fourth place.
4. St. Louis Blues (LW: 2) – While the Blues locked-up just their second Division title in a quarter-century (and first in a dozen seasons) this week, they’re not exactly finishing the season on a high-note with losses in six of nine. Brian Elliott has shutouts in his last three starts (one a shootout loss) and is making a very convincing case to be St. Louis’ playoff starter – and perhaps Vezina nominee.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (LW: 1) – Last week’s top ranked team took a serious tumble in this week’s power rankings, slipping all the way to fifth. That type of thing happens when you drop two straight games to the New York Islanders, missing a golden opportunity to put pressure on the division leading Rangers. Follow that up with a loss to the Flyers Sunday and the Penguins now risk losing home ice advantage in the first round.
6. Boston Bruins (LW: 9) – With a huge (repeat: HUGE) win over the Rangers in New York on Sunday, the B’s captured the Northeast Division crown and the East’s second overall seed. With an assist, captain Zdeno Chara set a personal best in points with 52 – second among NHL defensemen. Even without the sidelined Nathan Horton – the B’s have to be one of the scariest teams in the postseason field.
7. Chicago Blackhawks (LW: 7) – The Hawks continued to roll toward the playoffs with big wins over the Blues and Preds to cap a 10-2-2 month of March. However their first-round home-ice aspirations took a considerable hit when they failed to secure two points against the lottery-bound Wild on Sunday.
8. Nashville Predators (LW: 6) – Wrapping two disheartening losses to the Blues and Chicago around an important win over the Wings, the Preds dropped to fifth in the West and will have to grab one more point than Detroit (and at least as many as the Hawks) to acquire that precious home-ice advantage. KHL scoring champ Alex Radulov has six points in six games since returning to the NHL.
9. New Jersey Devils (LW: 11) – The Devils look to be firmly locked into the six seed in the East, without much chance of moving up or down in the standings next week, which probably suits them just fine. The Devils are set to square off against the Panthers, or perhaps the Capitals, and while they won’t have home ice advantage New Jersey will own the better record going into the series.
10. Detroit Red Wings (LW: 8 ) – Detroit has been ice cold since the final victory of their record-setting 23-game home winning streak, posting a 6-10-3 mark and right now barely hanging onto the West’s fourth seed. Jimmy Howard – at one time on pace to be the first NHL goaltender to hit the fifty-win plateau – got just his second win in two months last week.
11. Los Angeles Kings (LW: 13) – With a 7-2-1 mark in their last ten, the Kings have put themselves on the verge of the playoffs and the Pacific Division title. It will come down to what should be a certain ‘W’ over the Oil and a season-ending home-and-home with the Sharks.
12. Ottawa Senators (LW: 15) – The Senators are getting hot at just the right time, with four straight wins to punch their playoff ticket. They’ll be led by the league’s top scoring defenceman, Erik Karlsson, whose 77 points (19g, 58a) are 25 more than second place Zdeno Chara’s 52. Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop are both healthy and seemingly capable heading into the postseason giving the Sens an unexpectedly competent goaltending duo
13. Florida Panthers (LW: 12) – A win here, an overtime loss there and the Panthers inch ever closer to locking up the Southeast division. With a three point lead over the Caps, the division isn’t theirs just yet, and the two teams square off next Thursday. Still, as long as the Panthers get one more win or the Sabres lose one more game, Florida will be headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
14. Phoenix Coyotes (LW: 17) – Every time we think we can count out the ‘Yotes, they find a way to get themselves back into the hunt and back-to-back shutouts of Pacific rivals Anaheim and San Jose is certainly one way to do it. Congratulations to 39 year-old Ray Whitney who hit the thousand-point mark with a goal and an assist over the Ducks on Saturday.
15. Washington Capitals (LW: 19) – Nicklas Backstrom returned to Washington’s lineup Saturday, giving the team a much needed boost as they try to wrap up a playoff spot, unfortunately, Tomas Vokoun is now out indefinitely with a groin injury. Sitting in eighth place with the Panther’s not too far ahead of them and Buffalo hot on their heels the Caps will be looking back as much as they look forward in their last three games.
16. San Jose Sharks (LW: 16) – The Sharks are doing just enough to keep themselves in prime position to secure one of the West’s last spots. On talent alone this team should be one of the best in the League let alone the conference so unless they’re able to pull out an amazing postseason run after the nigh-on debacle of their regular season – 2011-12 can’t be viewed as anything but a massive disappointment in San Jose.
17. Buffalo Sabres (LW: 14) – After earning points in nine straight games with a 7-0-2 record, Buffalo’s charge up the standings faltered with a pair of losses Friday and Saturday night. The Sabres no longer control their own destiny and will have to hope that Washington slips enough in their last three games to let Buffalo sneak into the playoffs.
18. Dallas Stars (LW: 10) – When a team in the midst of an end-of-season playoff race loses three of four on the week (the lone victory being against hapless Edmonton) they deserve to fall. The Stars have a week to outpoint the Sharks to steal eighth in the west but they absolutely must beat the Fins at home on Tuesday.
19. Colorado Avalanche (LW: 18) – After dropping four in a row, the Avs managed to hold onto their playoff hopes with a big win over the Flames in Calgary. Still, with just two games remaining and needing to leap-frog two teams the Avs’ postseason optimism is all but a pipe dream.
20. Winnipeg Jets (LW: 20) – The Jets will have to wait until next year for a shot at the postseason, any lingering hope the team might have had disappeared after Saturday’s OT loss to the Lightning which officially eliminated them from playoff contention. The team has nothing to be ashamed of this season, they finished far better than expected and treated their adoring fans to 23 home wins with one more home game to play.
21. Calgary Flames (LW: 21) – Surprise, surprise the Flames will miss the playoffs and a real shot at a game-changing player in June. It’s hard to tell whether GM Jay Feaster thinks he’s building towards something or is just trying to frustrate southern Albertans into trading their red and gold for copper and blue.
22. Tampa Bay Lightning (LW: 22) – While the Lightning may need to improve their defense and goaltending next season, their offense is just fine. With 56 goals and four games left to play, a Lightning record, Steven Stamkos will pick up his second Maurice Richard Trophy. Stamkos also set an NHL record for overtime winners the season, picking up his fifth OT winner Saturday against the Jets.
23. New York Islanders (LW: 28) – The Isles won a pair of games against the Penguins last week, with Kyle Okposo scoring three goals and an assist in those two games. Okposo reached 20 goals for the first time in his career, with three games left he is one of just three Islanders to hit the mark this season. John Tavares is also having a career year, he has 78 points (31g, 47a) to lead the team.
24. Carloina Hurricanes (LW: 24) – Kirk Muller can hold his head high after doing his part to turn around the flailing Carolina Hurricanes, he’ll finish his first season behind the bench above .500. The Canes were 8-13-4 when Paul Maurice was fired, they’re now 31-32-16 with three games left. With Muller at the helm, Eric Staal and Cam Ward both improved their seasons after dreadful starts.
25. Anaheim Ducks (LW: 23) – The Quackers’ recent stretch of poor play has them tied with the Maple Leafs for the fifth-worst record in the League. However, the Leafs’ late-November win over the Water Fowl in Anaheim breaks the tie and (currently) has the Ducks in-line for an outside shot at number-one overall.
26. Minnesota Wild (LW: 25) – The Wild have won three in a row – which has been enough to push them from the third overall pick last Thursday to the current owners of the eighth selection come June. Consequently, we’re bumping them down a spot for their apparent ability to win only when it hurts the franchise.
27. Toronto Maple Leafs (LW: 27) – You have to hand it to the Leafs – they don’t do things in half-measures: When they lose, they go all out. Since Randy Carlyle took over at the beginning of March, Toronto has gone 5-8-2 including an 8-0 loss to the Bruins and a 7-1 loss to the Flyers. In the ACC the chants of “Fire Wilson” have stopped, because he was, only to be replaced with chants of “Fire Burke” and “Let’s Go Blue Jays.”
28. Edmonton Oilers (LW: 26) – Taylor Hall has had season-ending injuries in his first two NHL seasons. This was one of the reasons some suggested Tyler Seguin should go number one overall in 2010: Hall’s fearlessness (some say recklessness) puts him in far too many dangerous situations. Perhaps the Oilers’ brass should have a talk with their dynamic young winger about playing more guardedly.
29. Columbus Blue Jackets (LW: 30) – For the first time in more than three months, the Blue Jackets’ (fifteen-week) reign at the bottom of our power rankings has come to an end thanks to a three-game winning streak and a 9-7-0 month of March. In addition, they still have Yakupov to look forward to, so perhaps there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for Columbus.
30. Montreal Canadiens (LW: 29) – Team owner Geoff Molson finally gave Canadiens fans something to celebrate last week when he announced the firing of GM Pierre Gauthier. Whoever is chosen as the next GM will have his work cut out for him as he tries to pick up the pieces next season. He’ll need to re-sign Carey Price and P.K. Subban while being saddled with the heavy contracts of Scott Gomez, Tomas Kaberle, Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque.