Tuesday November 25th, 2008

Biggest Climb: Philadelphia Flyers (17 to 7)

Biggest Fall: Buffalo Sabres (10 to 26)

A reminder: these rankings are based mainly on quality of play (with an emphasis on recent games), overall record and my gut instinct. If I went strictly off record, they would be no different than the standings. Also: stats and records are through Sunday's games.

Note: Want to send me a comment about the rankings? Scroll to the bottom of this page for my Mailbag. I read 'em all and if you're halfway civil -- or at least clever in your insults -- I'll try to get back to you.

NHL Power Rankings
1San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 1
Only the Wings and Habs enjoyed a spread of at least 10 points on their divisional rivals at the end of last season. The Sharks grabbed that cushion at the quarter pole with another flawless week, cutting the Preds and Caps up for chum by a combined score of 11-3 as Devin Setoguchi (four points) moved into the NHL's top-10 scorers. More scurvy tidings for those below: After missing seven games, Evgeni Nabokov starts Wednesday.
2Boston Bruins
Last Week: 2
Boston Bruins (14-3-4)
Four games in six nights is a tough stretch, but coming out with eight points has a way of easing aches and pains. Now 12-1-1 in their last 14, the B's vault into the East's top spot was powered by wins over three Northeast rivals, the sweetest being a 3-2 win on Saturday -- their first in Montreal in nearly two years, and it spoiled an evening honoring former Bruins-killer Patrick Roy. C'est dommage, eh?
3Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 3
They're 10-1-1 road mark was earned by hangin' tough in tight ones. Seven of the wins were by one goal, including a pair this week over the Oilers and Flames. Ty Conklin showed his newborn son how it's done by stopping 51 of 53 shots in a pair of wins. The free-agent netminder's arrival last summer was overshadowed by Marian Hossa, but Conklin (6-1) is nearly as valuable and could challenge for Chris Osgood's starting gig.
4Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 4
So much for Cup Finals hangover. Despite being soundly outworked in a 3-1 loss to the Canucks at home on Saturday, the Pens are off to the third-best start in franchise history. Their first regulation loss of a 7-1-1 month couldn't be pinned on backup Dany Sabourin, who has excelled standing in for starter Marc-Andre Fleury (day-to-day; undisclosed injury). This week, Ryan Whitney skated for the first time and should be back in early December. Time to pluck him off your fantasy pool waiver wire.
5Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 9
Let's officially drop any further discussion about trading Nikolai Khabibulin, shall we? After clearing waivers, he clinched his status as Chicago's top option between the pipes (3-0, 2.90 GAA, .918 save pct. and overall mark of 7-1-4). GM Dale Tallon is being lambasted for blowing $22 million on pinewarmer Cristobal Huet, but might save face if he lands a second line center, say, Michael Nylander, in the next few days.
6Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 12
It's not Thanksgiving week in Canada, but they have plenty to be grateful for. Pavol Demitra led all goal-scorers (5) and Henrik Sedin paced the circuit with seven helpers on an impressive 3-0-1 trip. Yep, with the Canucks back in first, everything's looking sunny in Orca Bay ... well, except for that groin injury that has Roberto Luongo sidelined for up to five weeks. But hey, Curtis Sanford can hold the fort, right? Right?
7Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 17
Winless in their first six, they reasserted themselves as East contenders by taking nine of 13, including four straight. A 3-0 spanking of Buffalo was a tonic for the spirits of former Sabre Martin Biron, but the 4-3 OT win over Phoenix said more about where Philly is as a team. The Yotes were 7-0 when leading after two, but the Flyers came from behind twice in the third before Jeff Carter won it with his second goal of the night in extra time.
8Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 5
The offense (four goals in three games) has gone drier than the humor of Charlie Kaufman. To put that meager output in context, consider that Minny faced a backup goalie in each contest. Ouch. The 2-1 loss to the Blues on Saturday arguably ranks as their worst performance of the year, and it provided insight into their goal-scoring woes: no one goes to the net. Until they start paying the price down low with some consistency, the Wild will have to over-rely on their top-ranked goaltending and penalty kill.
9Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 8
They coughed up just two regulation goals in each of their last five contests, but the offense averaged less than 1.5 in the same span. You don't need to be Grigori Perelman to do the math. The loss of Mark Streit (now the Isles' top scorer) on the power play is a factor, but probably not as large as the indifferent Alexei Kovalev, whose execution at both ends of the ice is erratic at best. No wonder Bob Gainey is ratcheting up his quest for Mats Sundin.
10Washington Capitals
Last Week: 6
Four games into a five-game road swing and one thing is abundantly clear: their back end simply can't support aspirations of contending. They've given up 22 goals on the trip, and had to score six to get by the Ducks for their lone win. The goaltending's been soft, and injuries to Alex Semin and Mike Green hurt, but inconsistent blueline play set the Caps up to fail. If Nylander is dealt, look for a defender to be a big part of the return.
11New York Rangers
Last Week: 7
It was old-home week for Markus Naslund and Wade Redden, but neither reunion went to their liking. Stumbling out of the gate in both, the Rangers were walloped 6-3 by the Canucks -- a contest in which Henrik Lundqvist pulled himself after leaking five goals in 26 minutes -- and 4-1 by the hapless Sens. Slow starts are becoming an issue for the Blueshirts, who have conceded the first goal in seven straight.
12Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 11
Anaheim Ducks (11-8-3)
While old stalwarts falter -- J-S Giguere hasn't had a save percentage above .893 or a win in his last five starts -- young guns are keeping the Ducks afloat. Airlifted onto the top line, winger Bobby Ryan responded with a pair of goals and four points last week. Rookie blueliner Brett Festerling offered smart, physically honest play in place of injured Francois Beauchemin.
13New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 15
After averaging 1.25 goals during their four-game slide earlier this month, the offense kicked into gear. The last four games: 21 goals, four wins. Maybe now they'll realize W's are a lot easier to come by when everyone chips in. The line of Danius Zubrus, Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta combined for 11 goals, 23 points during the roll. Given a little breathing room, Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes have been more composed.
14Nashville Predators
Last Week: 14
Barry Trotz vowed that his team would be better against Carolina on Sunday after slow starts doomed it in early-week losses to the Sharks and Bolts. His charges backed up the tough talk, galloping to a 4-0 lead before closing out the Canes, 5-2. Shea Weber bolstered his Norris candidacy by chipping in his league-leading 9th and 10th goals while playing like Chuck Norris in the defensive end.
15Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 13
Following smart wins over the Habs and Yotes with a listless effort against the Preds confirmed their reputation as the NHL's most unpredictable, inconsistent side. The feckless power play (0-for-8 on Sunday, 1-for-14 on the week) continues to cost them points, but two stars managed to break long slumps at even strength. Against the Habs, Sergei Samsonov potted his first goal in 18 games and Eric Staal hung a hat trick on Phoenix to break an eight-game slump.
16Calgary Flames
Last Week: 21
An interesting stat from Tuesday night's 4-1 dismantling of the Avs: In launching 51 shots at Peter Budaj, the Flames became only the first of seven teams this season to win after taking at least 50. But while the much-maligned defense stood up to Colorado, allowing one goal in a home-and-home sweep, it crumbled in the face of Detroit's assault on Saturday. A deal for a defender with decent wheels and some transition skill is long overdue.
17Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 16
They have to be pleased to be sitting at .500 after playing a league-leading 14 of their first 20 on the road, and dropping both ends of a home-and-home to the Wings. (No shame in that, right?) Ales Hemsky (17 points in those 14 games) can take a lot of credit. He's the league's leading road warrior and is tied for second in power play points (12).
18Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 18
Looks like I'll have to take back what I said last week about Steve Mason being sent down. In the wake of his blanking Atlanta and Pascal Leclaire's seven-goal career nadir against Edmonton, it appears the Jackets will keep the Ghidrah of goaltending intact for the time being. Mason starts Wednesday against Phoenix, hoping to keep his shutout run intact. Two more rolls of note: Rick Nash has scored in five straight and Derick Brassard remains atop the rookie leader board with a six-game point streak.
19Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 19
They won three of their last five, but all three required the shootout. They impressively came from behind in each to get to the skills competition, but it says something that they've got just five regulation wins so far. Joe Sakic's return and a soft sked could help improve the numbers this week. Three of their four opponents feel the shame of inferior records.
20Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 24
A promising week for the rebuilding Kings, who earned three of four points thanks to a revamped top line and reliable net work from Erik Ersberg. Patrick O'Sullivan joined Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown on the first unit, and all three scored in a morale-building 5-2 win over the Caps. The team defense was equally impressive, snapping Alex Ovechkin's five-game goal streak and holding to Caps to a season-low 21 shots.
21Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 20
They need a wake-up call. The best way to deliver it: bench Ed Jovanovski. A veteran -- one wearing the A, no less -- on a young, struggling team, he has to make an impact. Instead, he's a major liability in his own zone, caught too often standing still or simply out of position. Of the 697 players who have skated this season, just five have a plus-minus rating more dismal than Ed's minus 10. It's often an overplayed stat, but here it tells the story.
22Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 28
They finally put the brakes on a six-game skid, wiping out the Rangers 4-1 on Saturday and earning points in three straight games. The key? Commitment to defense. The Sens limited foes to just 67 shots over 190 minutes of play, finally repaying Alex Auld for at least keeping them in games single-handedly in the early going.
23Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 22
If GM Cliff Fletcher is about to be replaced, he's certainly not going quietly. On Monday, he dealt doghouse residents Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to the Blues for Lee Stempniak, a right-handed shot who could bolster the top six. But it didn't address the real issue: brutal goaltending. Despite giving up the third-fewest shots per game (27.1), the Leafs have allowed 72 goals -- most of any team.
24St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 25
When rookie Patrik Berglund strained his groin in practice on Friday, he became the 13th Blue to lose time to injury. St. Louis iced a lineup more familiar to AHL fans in back-to-back games against the Ducks and Wild, but managed to skate off with two wins, thanks to strong net work from Manny Legace and Chris Mason. Stempniak (12 points in his last eight games) scored the winner on Friday, but was dealt. A case of selling high? On the heels of his 13-goal 2007-08 season, it sure looks like it.
25New York Islanders
Last Week: 27
Thanks for all the mail, but yes, I noticed they've won four of five and stand as clear favorites to represent the East in the Cup Final. Okay, not so much that last part, but here's credit where it's due: the Isles are showing signs of life. Their willingness to go hard to the net and finish checks makes them tougher to play. Kyle Okposo (hand) should be back on Wednesday, but second-line center Frans Nielsen is out 8-12 weeks, meaning first-rounder Josh Bailey could be here for the rest of the season.
26Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 10
The good news for their beleaguered fans? The Sabres played just three games last week, leaving four nights open to allow something positive and uplifting into their lives. This team is clutching at straws in the midst of a brutal five-game slide that's seen them outscored by 25-9. Ryan Miller is his own worst enemy, overplaying the shooter and outthinking himself. His lack of faith in his defense is apparent. He'll be hard-pressed to break his slump with games this week against the B's, Pens and Habs.
27Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 30
It was hard to pick the bigger stinker on Sunday: the new "Bolts" third jersey or the same old effortless performance. Rick Tocchet's boys managed to squeeze points out of his first three games behind the bench, but the 7-3 loss to the Devils proved Barry Melrose wasn't completely off in his assessment of the team's unwillingness to compete. Some good news: Mike Smith's injury (likely a knee) isn't serious. He should be back in the net for Wednesday's tilt vs. the Rangers.
28Atlanta Thrashers
Last Week: 23
They enter the toughest stretch of the season -- six games in nine nights -- on a low note. A 2-0 home loss to Columbus featured an embarrassing 15 shots on net and a visibly frustrated Ilya Kovalchuk (one goal in his last seven). Atlanta has lost three straight (all against backup netminders), gassing any momentum from five wins in a row earlier this month.
29Florida Panthers
Last Week: 29
Advice for Panthers fans: If your heroes don't have a lead heading into the third period, you might consider the advantages of beating the traffic. Florida has scored just eight goals in the final stanza, a total that shows how little fight they have in them. Perfect example: they beat Tampa this week, but blew a three-goal lead, coughing up 52 shots in the process, before finally winning the shootout. Hardly a harbinger of better days ahead.
30Dallas Stars
Last Week: 26
Dallas Stars (6-9-4)
It's too early to stick a fork in them -- they have too much talent, right? But it's surely time to dig one out of the cutlery drawer. It's not that captain Brenden Morrow (torn ACL) is out for the season or that Steve Ott's broken hand will keep him out a month or that the Stars have won just six of their first 19 games. They show no sign of correcting the defensive malaise that turned them from a preseason favorite to everyone's favorite slump-buster. A lack of discipline has coach Dave Tippett (unfairly) in the crosshairs.

Allan Muir's Mailbag
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