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St. Louis Blues challenge San Jose Sharks for top spot

Photo: Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images

David Backes' Blues and Antti Niemi's Sharks are emerging as formidable Western powers.

Notable rise: Minnesota Wild (25 to 14)

Notable drop: Vancouver Canucks (11 to 17)

The biggest surprise of the early season isn't the surging Avalanche or the brilliance of San Jose's Tomas Hertl or the look on Mrs. Thornton's face when she read what her baby boy, Joe, said he would do if he ever scored four goals in a game.

That last one's a pretty fair guess, though.

No, it has to be the play of the Calgary Flames. The preseason favorite to have the most balls in the lottery hopper has stunned the hockey world by taking points out of each of its first five games. The Flames have authored the best start in franchise history -- no kidding -- with a gritty, 200-foot game that sees every player rowing in the same direction. But coach Bob Hartley's boys face a tough challenge this week as they head out on a road swing that includes three California stops. We'll have a better idea of where they really stand after this one.

We'll also get a beauty of a matchup on Tuesday night when the Blues host the Sharks. I have San Jose in the top spot this week based on statistical superiority in more than a few categories, but the pick is really a toss-up between these two Western Conference powerhouses. This looks like the first must-watch game of the season.

NHL Power Rankings
1San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 1
The best way to protect a one-goal lead? Never give up the puck. The Sharks faced their stiffest challenge of the young season against Ottawa on Saturday and preserved their 3-2 win with a dominant third period, outshooting the visiting Sens 25-2. Next up, an even tougher test onTuesday night against the Blues. (Last week: 2-0-0)
 
2St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 3
They're off to the first 4-0 start in franchise history after a statement win over the Blackhawks and a solid effort against the Rangers. The top line of AlexSteen/David Backes/T.J. Oshie is flying with 18 points, and the power play is tops at 37.5 percent. Coach Ken Hitchcock says lessons learned in last spring's playoff loss to the Kings have provided a boost to the team's confidence. (Last week: 2-0-0)
 
3Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 4
The Avs swept their three-game Eastern Conference road swing, running their record to 5-0 for the first time since their move from Quebec to Denver in 1995. They're getting scoring from up and down the lineup and J-S Giguere and Semyon Varlamov have been lights out in net, but after allowing 80 shots over the past two games, they need to tighten it up in their own zone if they hope to keep the party rolling. (Last week: 2-0-0)
 
4Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 7
GM Dave Nonis is looking like a lock for executive of the year right about now, isn't he? The Leafs are off to a rollicking 5-1 start and two of his key summer acquisitions, Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland, are leading the way. And this team still hasn't seen a minute from David Clarkson, who still has four games to go on his suspension. (Last week: 2-0-0)
 
5Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 6
The Hawks rode their league-best five-on-five play to a Stanley Cup last season. Now that they've got the power play clicking, watch out. They're 5-for-20 so far, including a beauty by Patrick Kane on Monday against the Sabres. Even when they're not finishing, the unit is much more effective with its zone entries and possession. (Last week: 2-1-0)
 
6Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 2
Maybe it was just bad timing that led to them getting blasted by the Panthers on Thursday -- hey, it was Florida's home opener and the Cats were spoiling for blood after being thumped by the Lightning -- but the goaltending was almost as bad in Saturday's win over the Bolts. A .792 save percentage: That's 10 goals allowed on just 48 shots, folks. (Last week: 1-1-0)
 
7Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 15
The Ducks didn't just look good in eggplant and teal...they looked mighty. They set a franchise record with 56 shots on net against Ottawa and ran their winning streak to four games with a 4-1 victory on Sunday while wearing their 20th anniversary throwbacks. Now if they could figure out how to dress up that 30th ranked power play... (Last week: 2-0-0)
 
8Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 12
Matt Frattin is off to a slow start, but Ben Scrivens did his best to prove that the Kings didn't get fleeced in their Jonathan Bernier trade with Toronto. Their backup keeper was the First Star in his initial start for L.A., making 20 stops in a 3-0 win over the Panthers. (Last week: 3-0-0)
 
9Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 9
Four points is four points, but wins over Philly and Boston were indicative of opportunism more than the kind of solid play the Wings are striving for. The top line is flying, but Detroit needs more consistency from the worker bees, so it was good to see Stephen Weiss and Dan Cleary get on the board against the B's. (Last week: 2-1-0)
 
10Boston Bruins
Last Week: 5
The B's are dominating games, but their inability to finish is killing them. They have just five goals in their last three contests, and the power play is back to firing blanks. It's on an 0-for-14 skid, including a feckless five-on-three chance for 1:54 against the Wings on Monday that could have turned the game. (Last week: 1-2-0)
 
11Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 21
After dropping the first two dates of a five-game road swing, the Yotes rang off three straight wins to get their season back in order. They're still taking too many penalties --10 against Carolina alone -- and allowing too many shots -- 34 per, 24th in the league -- but the grease is back in their game. (Last week: 3-0-0)
 
12Calgary Flames
Last Week: 20
Five games in and Calgary hasn't lost a game in regulation. Who saw that one coming? Give a lot of the credit to Wanderin' Joey MacDonald. His numbers aren't pretty (2.98 GAA, .897 save percentage), but his ability to make the save when the team needs it most has been the difference. He'll have to be even sharper as the Flames head out on a nine-day, five-city road trip this week. (Last week: 2-0-0)
 
13New York Islanders
Last Week: 8
Soft defensive play in back-to-back losses to the Hawks and Preds took a bit of the air out of their tires, but with the Sabres, Oilers and Hurricanes coming to Nassau Coliseum, there's a chance to quickly get the ship back on course. (Last week: 0-2-0)
 
14Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 25
Their defense has kept shots to a minimum -- a league-low 21.7 average -- and Josh Harding is doing the rest. The long-time backup looks more than comfortable in the top spot, holding the opposition to a single goal in each of his four starts. (Last week: 3-0-0)
 
15Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 18
The Habs closed out their Western swing with convincing wins over Edmonton and Vancouver The power play is humming right now, with at least one goal coming with the extra man in each of their last four games. (Last week: 2-1-0)
 
16Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 10
If the Sens hope to break out of their four-game losing skid, they could start by taking care of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. Ottawa's goaltenders were left unattended during the team's West Coast swing, with the defense allowing at least 50 shots in consecutive games, including a franchise-record 56 to the Ducks. (Last week: 0-2-1)
 
17Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 11
Bumbling losses at home to the Sharks and Habs left the Canucks with the tough task of sorting out their defensive woes during the course of a season-long seven-game road trip. At least they get the soft-touch Flyers to start it off. (Last week: 0-2-0)
 
18Washington Capitals
Last Week: 13
When the power play is going, the Caps are tough to beat, but when it's not, they're easy pickings. Getting the offense rolling five-on-five and any kind of production from the second line will be key to leaving this slow start behind them. (Last week: 1-2-0)
 
19Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 14
The Bolts have found their defensive mojo at even strength, allowing just five goals through the first five games, but they're giving games away on the PK. They've allowed seven goals on 22 chances for a miserable 68.2 percent kill rate. (Last week: 1-1-0)
 
20Dallas Stars
Last Week: 16
Dallas Stars (2-2-0)
The seven-point night for Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in a win over the Jets hinted at the good times just around the corner, but it's impossible to ignore the underlying numbers. Dallas is 29th in shots on goal (24.5) and in shots against (36.2) for a league-worst shot-differential of minus-11.7 per game. Having netminder Kari Lehtonon back on IR doesn't bode well for this week. (Last week: 1-1-0)
 
21Winnipeg Jets
Last Week: 17
After three losses played with all the passion of a team trying to get its coach fired, the Jets on Sunday finally found a game, against the Devils, that they couldn't give away. They have four games left on this homestand, and a couple more no-show efforts might mean the end for Claude Noel. (Last week: 1-2-0)
 
22Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 19
After a dense early schedule, the Canes have just six games over the next 17 days. They could use the down time. This is a team that hasn't found any chemistry through the opening two weeks, and really needs the practice time to find something that clicks. (Last week: 1-1-1)
 
23Florida Panthers
Last Week: 23
Losing's part of the process for a rebuilding team, but its how the games are lost that tell the story. The Panthers aren't coming up short in close matches --they're getting thumped. Their four losses have been by the combined score of 19-3, which highlights a stunning lack of compete. No wonder rumors already are swirling about coach Kevin Dineen's job security. (Last week: 1-2-0)
 
24Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 24
Their top line of Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson was dangerous in both games last week, combining for three goals and seven points and generating several more good chances. They've been the key to a power play that's firing at 23.1 percent -- nearly 10 points better than last year's 28th ranked unit. (Last week: 1-1-0)
 
25Nashville Predators
Last Week: 26
Things are so bad for Nashville that they were literally counting on the return of Viktor Stalberg last weekend to kickstart their offense. Viktor Stalberg. But I guess a career-high 43-point scorer looks pretty good when your forwards have all of seven goals between them through the first five games. (Last week: 1-1-0)
 
26New York Rangers
Last Week: 22
There were signs of life in Saturday's 5-3 loss in St. Louis as the Rangers arguably outplayed the Blues for the first two periods. The power play was clicking and Brad Richards continues to reassert himself as a viable NHL player, but the Blueshirts are still plagued by the same defensive zone confusion that led to their epic West Coast meltdowns against the Sharks and Ducks. (Last week: 0-2-0)
 
27Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 27
Turnovers, poor defensive reads and miserable goaltending continue to sabotage any chance this team has of gaining any traction this season. On Monday night in Washington, Jason LaBarbera fished the puck out from behind him on three consecutive shots, derailing an otherwise solid effort. That makes 29 goals allowed on the season, a league high. It's time to find another answer in net. (Last week: 0-2-1)
 
28Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 28
The Craig Berube-coached Flyers still look an awful lot like Peter Laviolette's Flyers. The offense is anemic -- eight goals in five games, with just five coming from forwards -- the special teams are a shambles, and the team continues to take too many penalties. (Last week: 0-2-0)
 
29New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 29
"The reality is the last four games we've been tied or with the lead going into the third. So there are some good things happening," said coach Pete DeBoer, doing his damnedest to put a positive spin on the team's six-game losing streak. That's about all he can do when he's saddled with a squad whose lack of foot speed, um, catches up with them on a nightly basis. (Last week: 0-2-0)
 
30Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 30
The downward spiral continues. The Sabres have scored just seven goals through their first seven games, setting a new franchise low, and have held a lead for just 9:35. Total. At least Ryan Miller is keeping his trade value high with a stunning .941 save percentage. (Last week: 0-3-0)

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