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Boston Bruins take No. 1 in Week 23 NHL Power Rankings

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0325_NHL_Power Rankings_SML

We might still be three weeks out from the official start of the playoffs, but the amped-up action and unbridled animosity are reminders that there's no better bargain in sports than a hockey ticket during this time of year. You pay regular season prices, you get postseason intensity.

All that scoreboard watching has a way of ramping the desperation level. Playoff berths may be won or lost over the course of a season, but when the end is in sight, when every point is magnified, the game becomes something ... different. You saw it on Monday night in Boston when the Canadiens and Bruins threw hips and haymakers (and conducted the occasional cup check) in a contest that felt like a prelude to a seven-game war. And it was there on Thursday when the Sharks shoved the Ducks out of first in the Pacific, and last Friday when the Rangers and Blue Jackets redefined smashmouth hockey with a Metropolitan Division berth on the line. Good stuff.

All eyes are on the bottom rungs where hardscrabble teams like Dallas and Washington see themselves as being a break or two away from becoming this year's version of the 2012 Kings. But the action is just as fierce in the middle of the pack, where home ice is up for grabs and there are unfavorable match-ups to be avoided. (Is it too soon to bring up the Kings again?).

We already have a couple of series all but set in stone after this past week's action. The Habs seem certain to face the Lightning while the Hawks will open their title defense against the upstart Avs. Beyond that, though, there are six meetings waiting to be arranged and nine teams battling for five spots. It's fun now, but it's only going to get better.

Here's how the league stacks up after Week 23:

Notable rise: Philadelphia Flyers (11 to 6)
Notable fall: Toronto Maple Leafs (17 to 23)

NHL Power Rankings
1Boston Bruins
Last Week: 2
Boston Bruins (49-17-6)
Their 12-game winning streak came to an end with a shootout loss to Montreal on Monday night, but it lasted long enough to establish the Bruins as the favorite to emerge from the Eastern Conference. They went more than 400 minutes without trailing during that roll -- that's more than six full games, if you're lousy at math -- and held their opposition to a single goal or less in seven of the 12 wins. If they keep playing defense like that, the B's set up as an incredibly tough out in the playoffs. (Last week: 3-0-1)
 
2St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 1
St. Louis Blues (48-16-7)
OK, so the Hawks and Flyers blew the Blues' doors off, scoring eight goals on just 48 shots between them, but that bit of defensive generosity looks like a minor hiccup more than anything after a nice return to form against the Penguins on Sunday. That 1-0 shutout was Blues hockey at its finest: clogging up the front of the net, blocking like linemen, and limiting chances to the outside. They're still in an offensive rut, scoring just two goals last week, but a date with Toronto on Tuesday could cure what ails them. (Last week: 1-2-0)
 
3San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 3
San Jose Sharks (46-18-9)
With a playoff spot clinched and a 7-1-2 record in their past 10 games, no one's going to be too concerned about dropping a couple in a row in the shootout ... especially when it's the first time that the Sharks have strung losses together in nearly two months. Their hot streak moved them past Anaheim into first place in the Pacific Division -- an amazing achievement for a team that trailed by as many as 13 points just two months ago. (Last week: 1-1-2)
 
4Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 6
After a brief stumble, the Kings look dangerous again, winning three straight to run their record to 10-3 since returning from the Olympic break. That pace won't move them anywhere in the standings -- they're locked in as the three seed in the Pacific -- but it sets them up to be a team that Anaheim and San Jose desperately hope to avoid. (Last week: 3-0-0)
 
5Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 11
Their five-game winning streak was derailed by a 3-2 loss to the Kings on Monday night, but that won't prevent the Flyers from getting the recognition they deserve. Philly's earned that 12-3-1 mark since the beginning of February, beating some of the league's top teams with strong defense, excellent goaltending, and the ability to counter-punch. This isn't just a hot team. It's a really good team. (Last week: 3-1-0)
 
6Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 7
I'm still in the camp that believe the Hawks can turn it on at will, so I'm a lot more interested in Wednesday's 4-0 win over the Blues than I am their 2-0 loss to the Predators on Sunday. Still, though, I have to admit to being concerned about a few elements of their game. In particular: a power play that produces touches around the perimeter more than pucks on the net, and the persistent struggles of the offense to finish the chances it's generating. A little more will over skill would go a long way. (Last week: 2-1-1)
 
7Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 8
Saturday's win over Tampa Bay showcased how creative and dangerous the Pens can be in a free flowing environment. This was a team in its comfort zone, with Sid and Geno combining for seven points in the 4-3 win. Then came Sunday's grim reminder of how ill-suited Pittsburgh is to face a heavy, defensive-minded opponent like the Blues. Before this team can be taken seriously as a Cup contender, it has to prove it can get bodies, and pucks, to the net against teams like St. Louis or Boston that will be able to slug their way through a seven-game series by clogging up the middle. (Last week: 2-1-1)
 
8Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 5
Anaheim Ducks (46-18-7)
Nice to see 'em light a few against the Panthers on Sunday night, especially a first line that's struggled of late, but these Ducks aren't in a row quite yet. The good news: that contest against Florida was the first of nine straight against playoff outsiders. Now's the time to tighten up a penalty kill that allowed a goal in seven straight games before blanking Florida on its only chance. The Ducks might go far with a lousy power play, but a soft PK will be the end of them. (Last week: 1-2-0)
 
9Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 4
They've dropped three straight, and four of five, arguably their worst stretch of hockey since Christmas season. In the grand scheme of things though, this isn't a big deal. A playoff date with Chicago is all but certain, and the Avs are equipped for it with a 21-10-3 road mark, which is tied for third best in the league. (Last week: 0-2-1)
 
10Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 9
Minnesota Wild (37-24-11)
They may have the first Western wild card berth all but lassoed, but with just three wins in their last 10 games, the Wild still have some work to do before the playoffs. Their penalty kill should be Job One after it allowed three goals on four chances to the Red Wings during the weekend. Ranked just 26th in the league, the unit has coughed up eight goals over the past 10 games, and in two of those contests Minnesota didn't take a penalty. That math will kill them come playoff time. (Last week: 2-1-1)
 
11Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 16
Five wins in their last six games, highlighted by a key Saturday night victory over Toronto, has all but booked a first-round date with Tampa Bay for the Habs. Give a heap of credit for that success to the D corps. P.K. Subban has been brilliant, scoring 11 points in his past 12 games while providing excellent defense. You'd expect that, though, right? The difference has been the old-school play of Alexei Emelin -- so effective on Monday against Boston -- and Mike Weaver, who has brought a steadying presence to the penalty kill. (Last week: 3-1-0)
 
12Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 12
The Bolts have taken points out of nine straight games (5-0-4), their longest such stretch since their Cup-winning season of 2003-04 (18 games) and third-longest in franchise history. That's the good news. The bad: Tampa has failed to collect the second point in five of their last six shootouts, including three losses during the past two weeks. That could end up being the difference between opening the playoffs at home or on the road. (Last week: 2-1-1)
 
13New York Rangers
Last Week: 13
That was a statement week for the Blueshirts, who knocked the desperate Blue Jackets to the ground with a hard-fought 3-1 win on Friday, then put a boot to Columbus's throats with Monday's OT dismissal of the Coyotes that moved New York six points up. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist led the way, setting a couple of franchise marks in the process, and Rick Nash played some of his most inspired hockey of the season. If those two are going, that points gap will be tough for Columbus to bridge, even with two games in hand. (Last week: 4-0-0)
 
14Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 14
Phoenix Coyotes (34-26-12)
It doesn't matter how well Phoenix played against the Bruins and Rangers. All that anyone will remember is that they coughed up third period leads in back-to-back games, leaving them with one point on their plate instead of four. But they may have lost more than a win against New York -- both Mike Smith and Oliver Ekman-Larsson left the game early with injuries. If either one is forced to miss time, it could be devastating to the Yotes' playoff chances. (Last week: 1-1-1)
 
15Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 10
Was this the week it all fell apart for the feisty Jackets? A pair of losses to New York-based divisional rivals punted Columbus from seventh all the way down to 10th in the East. The Jackets' offense is stuck in neutral, scoring just five goals in four games last week, in part because of a power play that hasn't connected in 36 chances. The lack of finish is one thing -- the inconsistency of their effort is a larger concern. Tuesday's home match against Detroit now looks like their biggest game yet this season. (Last week: 1-3-0)
 
16Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 18
The Wings have shown remarkable resilience in the face of injuries that would have derailed almost any other team and stayed in the thick of the playoff hunt. Two keys: the turnaround at Joe Louis Arena (where they are 7-0-3 in their last 10 games) and the remarkable play of Gustav Nyquist. The kid who couldn't crack the roster until the end of November has goals in each of his last five games and a total of 18 over his past 23. There might not be a more valuable player in the league right now. (Last week: 3-0-1)
 
17Washington Capitals
Last Week: 20
Like the old man who was prematurely tossed onto the plague cart in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," it appears that the Capitals aren't dead yet. They shocked everyone but themselves and kept their playoff dreams alive by taking five of a possible six points on California road trip -- making them only the second of 16 teams to turn that neat trick this season. Their win over the Sharks on Saturday was especially sweet as it was their first in San Jose since 1993. (Last week: 2-0-1)
 
18Dallas Stars
Last Week: 15
Dallas Stars (34-26-11)
They may not recover from a dreadful road trip that saw them drop three games while being outscored 16-5, but they looked a lot more like the team they want to be while knocking off the Senators and Jets at home. Netminder Kari Lehtonen was big, stopping 58 of 60 shots in the two wins, while Tyler Seguin stretched his career-best scoring streak to nine games with the clincher against Winnipeg. Their remaining schedule is brutal, but if those two guys are going, Dallas has a chance. (Last week: 2-2-0)
 
19Winnipeg Jets
Last Week: 19
Winnipeg Jets (32-32-9)
The diehards will tell you it's not over yet ... but it's over. The Jets put up a good fight in Monday night's loss to the Stars, but that was a four-pointer. That one left them seven out of the final wild card berth, with three teams standing between them and the spot. They'll get their shot at Phoenix next week, but with a California trip between now and then, that's likely to be a formality ... especially if leading scorer Blake Wheeler is as badly hurt as he appeared to be when he was driven into an open bench gate on Monday night. (Last week: 1-2-0)
 
20New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 21
Cory Schneider should have cut his hair sooner. The Devils' goaltender went reverse-Samson after allowing 19 goals in his previous four starts, leading to his best performance in a month during New Jersey's 3-2 win over Toronto omn Sunday night. The victory kept the Devils' postseason hopes alive, and with just two playoff-bound opponents to face during their final 10 games, they might make some noise down the stretch. (Last week: 2-2-0)
 
21Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 22
It was a banner week for a Carolina team that's been left to play out the string. The Canes won two of three on the road and got franchise blueliner Justin Faulk inked to a six-year extension. That signing might be the epitaph on the career of GM Jim Rutherford. His future, along with that of coach Kirk Muller, is said to be under review at the moment and it's a better than even chance that both will be turfed after the season. (Last week: 2-1-0)
 
22Calgary Flames
Last Week: 23
Calgary Flames (30-35-7)
Someone (apologies to the original statistician) noted over the weekend that no team has scored more goals since the trade deadline than the Flames (39). Makes perfect sense, right? Calgary doesn't exactly ice a murderer's row of snipers, but it is getting production from across the board. Mike Cammalleri leads the way with 10 goals in his last 12, not including the shootout clincher in Monday's win over the Sharks. The pending UFA hasn't ruled out a return to the Flames. Looks like he still has plenty to offer. (Last week: 3-1-0)
 
23Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 17
Make that a season-worst five losses in a row for the Leafs, who now face the very real proposition of missing the playoffs after seeming to sew up a spot just two weeks ago. They've allowed the first goal in seven straight, but those slow starts are indicative of the larger problems that have plagued them all season: not enough possession time and soft defensive coverage. The play of goalie Jonathan Bernier has gone a long way to mask those issues, but while he's been sidelined, the Leafs have been exposed. (Last week: 0-4-0)
 
24Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 24
Ottawa Senators (29-29-13)
It took OT, but the Sens finally put the brakes on their six-game losing skid with a win over the Bolts on Monday night. Problem is, the victory came too late. The losing streak ended any realistic shot they had at the postseason, and prompted talk of an impending roster shake-up that could involve captain Jason Spezza. (Last week: 1-3-0)
 
25Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 26
A couple of wins over lousy teams did not fool anyone. Unless the schedule maker suddenly announces that a mistake was made and the Canucks have a steady diet of Flames/Oilers the rest of the way, their season is lost. That's not to say there's nothing to be gained from playing out the string, though. Winger Nicklas Jensen, their 2011 first rounder, has impressed by scoring three goals and five points in eight games since his call-up, and Zack Kassian has shown signs that a future as a top-six winger isn't completely out of his reach. (Last week: 2-1-0)
 
26Nashville Predators
Last Week: 27
After a rough start, the Preds managed to salvage their four-game roadie with wins over the Flames and the Hawks. That 2-0 victory over Chicago put the exclamation mark on a 3-1 season record against the defending Cup champs, a team that always brought out the best in the Preds. If only it could have worked up the same two-way game against the rest of the league, Nashville might not be headed for a playoff DNQ. (Last week: 2-2-0)
 
27New York Islanders
Last Week: 28
It'd be nice if the Isles could at least play the role of spoiler down the stretch, but after Sunday's 2-0 win over the Jackets, they have only three more games against teams in the postseason mix. Instead, they'll have to focus on next season, and finding out who might be able to contribute. Anders Lee looks like a top-six winger. Ryan Strome will get a long look. And how about Evgeni Nabokov? Was that 41-save shutout a last hurrah for the 38-year-old keeper, or evidence that he still has something left? (Last week: 1-1-0)
 
28Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 25
Edmonton Oilers (25-38-9)
So when exactly will the Oilers hit rock bottom? Just when a 3-1 home loss to the Sabres felt like the ultimate wet thud, they followed that up with an abysmal 8-1 beating at the hands of the Flames. Kind of makes you forget the 10-4-3 roll they were on heading into the weekend, doesn't it? (Last week: 1-2-0)
 
29Florida Panthers
Last Week: 29
If nothing else, that four-game swing through the Western Conference probably earned the Panthers a couple more balls in the draft lottery hopper. But it's one thing to lose. It's another entirely to get thumped. Those last two beatings-- 4-0 in L.A. and 6-2 in Anaheim -- were painful reminders of just how far this team is from respectability. (Last week: 1-3-0)
 
30Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 30
Buffalo Sabres (20-43-8)
They finally snapped their seven-game losing skid with a road win over the equally feckless Oilers, but returned to their losing ways on Sunday night in Vancouver, blowing an early 2-0 lead in goalie Nathan Lieuwen's first start. At least there is good news in the system, where Jake McCabe earned an All- Big 10 berth. The big blueliner is still a ways off, but he looks like he'll eventually mature into the defensive rock that Buffalo desperately needs. (Last week: 1-2-0)

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