By Allan Muir
January 28, 2014

I'll admit it. I'm really digging this season of American Horror Story, which is not something I'd ordinarily cop to, but it does help me make a point. If you're not watching, it's a wheels-off show, one where narrative coherence takes a back seat to shock value, where characters are routinely killed off, but always seem to find a way to come back to wreak vengeance. It doesn't always make sense, but it's a blast to sit back and see what happens next.

I mention this because the NHL's narrative of late features plenty of shocking twists and unexpected turns of its own.

Take the Stars. Ten games into January, they were mired in a sloppy 1-8-1 slump that appeared to smother whatever playoff hopes they might have held. A week later, they look like one of the most dangerous teams in hockey, playing an aggressive, possession-driven game that's helped them win three of four and crawl out from the grave and back into the Western Conference wild-card race. They're still a ways out -- six points and two teams separate them from the final postseason spot -- but their ferocious three-zone puck pursuit sets them up as a club that's more than just in the hunt. Dallas is a legitimate threat down the stretch.

While the Stars are looking ahead, they also have to keep one eye behind them. The Jets couldn't fog a mirror during their final weeks under coach Claude Noel, but Paul Maurice has them playing focused, smart and hungry hockey. They're like a pack of wolves, confident that if one of them doesn't track down their prey, another will. Winnipeg is still a long shot to make the dance, but with a 7-1 mark against conference rivals since Dec. 27, the Jets aren't just earning points -- they're feasting on the teams they have to beat to make a move.

Over in the East, the Hurricanes and the Blue Jackets patiently stalked the frontrunners all month until finally knifing their way into the postseason mix this past week.

Ryan Johansen has matured into a difference maker for Columbus, playing big minutes and dominating in the face-off circle, while Ryan Murray and James Wisniewski are tearing it up on the back end, each chipping in nine assists in 11 January games. Sergei Bobrovsky has seven wins to go along with his 2.25 GAA and .926 save percentage for the month. The Blue Jackets are not just improving. They're finally good.

But while Columbus was expected to contend for a playoff spot, the success of the Hurricanes is a shocker that Ryan Murphy (the American Horror Story writer, not the Carolina defenseman) could have scripted. Fighting through a stretch that saw two games postponed by bad weather, the Hurricanes are playing their best hockey of the season. They've won four straight, including a 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets on Monday, to move into third spot in the Metropolitan Division. For a team that won just four of its first 14 games, and which looked like it would challenge the Sabres to be the first club officially eliminated, Carolina's story is a reminder that in the NHL, as in horror, no one is really dead until the end credits roll.

Here's how the rest of the league stacks up after Week 17:

Notable rise: Winnipeg Jets (26 to 18), Dallas Stars (27 to 19)
Notable fall: Montreal Canadiens (13 to 23)

NHL Power Rankings
1 Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 1
Anaheim Ducks (39-10-5)
Back-to-back wins over the arch-rival Kings moved the Ducks to 10-2 for the month of January and cemented their standing as the best team in hockey. They're getting terrific efforts from up and down the roster, with backbenchers like Patrick Maroon and Mark Fistric (17 hits in the two wins) stepping up to make significant contributions in those bruising match-ups against Los Angeles. (Last week: 2-1-0)
2 St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 4
St. Louis Blues (35-11-5)
They won three of four on an East Coast trip to pull within one point of the Blackhawks for the Central Division lead, but their 7-1 loss to the Devils has everyone wondering when, not if, GM Doug Armstrong will pull the trigger and make a deal to improve his team's goaltending. Jaro Halak rebounded nicely against the Rangers and Islanders, but the shadow of Ryan Miller will hang over St. Louis until he's acquired ... or the trade deadline passes. (Last week: 2-1-0)
3 San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 5
San Jose Sharks (34-13-6)
It was a terrific week in San Jose where Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau committed for another three years each and the Sharks extended their winning streak to six games before Monday night's 1-0 loss to the Kings. The screws have been tightened on the back end, where the team's GAA has been whittled down to 2.28 per game, third-best in the league, thanks in large part to the play of backup goalie Alex Stalock. After whitewashing the Panthers and Jets in his previous starts, Stalock extended his shutout streak to a franchise record 178:55 before giving up the lone goal in the loss to L.A. He's allowed two goals or fewer in eight of his nine starts this season. (Last week: 2-1-0)
4 Boston Bruins
Last Week: 6
Boston Bruins (33-15-3)
The B's don't always score six goals per game (as they did this week), but they're clearly in a zone, going 7-1-1 in their past nine. The second line has powered their surge, with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Reilly Smith combining for 30 points over their past six games. Marchand, who cost himself a shot at Team Canada with his slow start, chipped in four points in a 6-3 win over the Islanders on Tuesday and now has seven goals in his past six outings. When he's at his maddening, distracting best, the Bruins are tough to beat. (Last week: 2-0-0)
5 Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 3
The Penguins continue to win their share of games, but there are real concerns emerging about the viability of this team with the playoffs fast approaching. As Pittsburgh Tribune-Review beat writer Josh Yohe pointed out on Twitter, the bottom six has become a black hole of offensive opportunities. Outside of two empty-netters, including the clincher by Tanner Glass in Monday's 3-0 win over the Sabres, Pittsburgh hasn't gotten a goal from its third or fourth lines in five weeks. A steady diet of Sid and Geno might be good enough to get the job done in January, but depth wins games in the spring. Does GM Ray Shero have any more trade deadline magic up his sleeve? (Last week: 3-1-0)
6 Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 2
Chicago Blackhawks (32-10-12)
The stumbling Hawks are just 3-4-3 in their last 10 games, putting them in real danger of losing their year-long grip on the Central Division lead. They haven't been flat-out bad, but they have been flat, failing to turn chances into goals and dominant stretches into wins. Just a case of the common Stanley Cup hangover? Probably ... but with a six-game road swing separating them from the Olympic break, we'll see if this lull turns into something more troubling. (Last week: 0-2-1)
7 Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 7
The Avalanche continue to play like a young team -- exuberant and dominant at times, followed by periods of nail-biting, just-hold-on desperation -- but they're getting their share of points to solidify their hold on an unlikely playoff spot. Semyon Varlamov continued to build on his career season with a sensational 41-save win over the Stars on Monday night. It was his 26th victory, tying his personal best, and fifth of the season in which he's made at least 40 stops. He's making a strong case to start for Team Russia in Sochi. (Last week: 2-2-0)
8 Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 9
The Bolts made the most of a quick, two-game homestand, knocking off the Senators and Colorado to remain tied for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Rookie Tyler Johnson extended his career-best point streak to five games by scoring four goals in the victories, with his hat trick against the Avalanche cementing his place in the Calder Trophy conversation down the stretch. The undrafted center is playing in all situations for coach Jon Cooper, including on both the penalty kill and the top power play unit, which could give him the edge over frontrunner Nathan MacKinnon. (Last week: 2-0-0)
9 Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 8
It's a frustrating time to be a Kings fan. This is a team that, on most nights, sets the tone with its physical presence and puck possession, but can't put the biscuit in the basket. Los Angeles has been held to one goal or fewer in seven of its 13 games this month, and while the Kings have actually managed to pull two points out of a couple of those games, including Monday's 1-0 win over the Sharks, theirs is not what you'd call a sustainable model for success. There is only so much magic that coach Darryl Sutter can whip up with these groceries. Time for GM Dean Lombardi to go shopping. (Last week: 1-3-0)
10 Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 14
The Blue Jackets' franchise-record winning streak was extended to eight games before finally being snapped on Saturday by the Sabres, of all teams. Even with another loss on Monday to the Hurricanes, Columbus still boasts a 9-3 record in January, tops in the Eastern Conference. The offense has been flying this month, averaging 3.42 goals-per-game, third-best in the league. (Last week: 2-2-0)
11 Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 11
Minnesota Wild (28-20-6)
The Wild rebounded nicely from a self-inflicted loss in Dallas with a pair of strong efforts against the Blackhawks and the Sharks to run their January record to a stout 8-3-1. The kids have played well during this stretch, but Minny should be better with Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon back in the lineup. Both resumed skating last week, and there's a chance they could return before the Olympic break. (Last week: 1-1-1)
12 Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 15
Detroit Red Wings (23-18-11)
The Wings are finally getting it done at Joe Louis Arena, going 3-1-1 during their just-concluded five-game homestand. Sure, three of the contests went to the shootout, and Detroit gave away the finale, a 5-4 loss to the Panthers, a game in which the Red Wings held a 4-2 lead with six minutes to go, but it's still a step forward for a team that continues to battle on despite a cruel run of injuries. Henrik Zetterberg had eight points through the first four games of the streak, but was scratched against Florida because of back problems. Tough to win with him and Pavel Datsyuk (out 11 games and counting) missing from the lineup. (Last week: 2-0-1)
13 Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 17
Henrik Sedin is out. Daniel Sedin has scored just one goal in his last 13 games. Ryan Kesler looks like he has nothing left in the tank, and Roberto Luongo has allowed seven goals on the past 52 shots he's faced. And yet, somehow, the Canucks are still in the Western Conference mix. Vancouver has six games left before the Olympics, including five out East. That road swing could be pivotal. (Last week: 2-2-0)
14 New York Rangers
Last Week: 10
New York Rangers (28-23-3)
That was an impressive win at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, with the Blueshirts scoring seven goals after netting just one in three of their previous six games. Was it a sign that their offense had turned it around, or more a reflection of Martin Brodeur's problems with the bad ice? We'll get a hint with their return to the Bronx for another outdoor game, against the Islanders, on Wednesday. (Last week: 1-2-0)
15 Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 21
Now that's how you keep the ball rolling. Down 2-0 midway through the third period on Monday night, the Hurricanes scored three goals in three minutes to eke out a 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets that moved Carolina into third place in the Metro Division. The Canes are now 9-3-0 in January, with Anton Khudobin between the pipes for the entire run. Think it's safe now to remove "backup" from his job title. (Last week: 4-0-0)
16 Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 16
Big picture time: the Maple Leafs have to be relatively pleased with bringing home five points from their 2-1-1 road trip. Still, it has to sting that their six-game win streak (and, presumably, planning for the Cup parade) ended in a hideous 7-1 loss to the Stars on Thursday. Toronto beat itself in all three zones in that one, then committed many of the same mistakes in a follow-up 5-4 loss in Winnipeg. In particular, the failings of the penalty kill are really starting to haunt the Leafs. The unit has allowed three goals on its last five chances, dropping it to 29th in the league. That's a long way from the No. 2 ranking it finished with last season. (Last week: 1-1-1)
17 Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 18
Ottawa Senators (22-20-10)
The Senators may be just two points out of a playoff spot, but with four teams between them and eighth place, they can't afford to keep playing mediocre hockey much longer. Coach Paul MacLean expressed concern about the "ghastly turnovers" that are creeping back into Ottawa's game ... and ending up in the back of its net. There's lot of talk in town about bringing in scoring help -- the names Matt Moulson and Ales Hemsky are heard most frequently-- but unless the Sens tighten up in the defensive zone, it won't matter much what they do up front. (Last week: 1-1-1)
18 Winnipeg Jets
Last Week: 26
Winnipeg Jets (25-24-5)
Memo to Kevin Cheveldayoff: This is why your team's fans have been clamoring for a change behind the bench since last summer. The high-flying Jets are now 6-1 under new coach Paul Maurice, extending their hot streak with impressive road wins over the Ducks and the Blackhawks to go along with a 1-0 loss to the Sharks. They're still being dominated for long stretches of games, but there's a newfound resilience that's allowing them to bend but not break. Terrific goaltending from Al Montoya and Ondrej Pavelec has also helped. (Last week: 3-1-0)
19 Dallas Stars
Last Week: 27
Dallas Stars (24-21-8)
Kari Lehtonen was named the NHL's First Star of the Week, but he'd be the first to say that whatever success he enjoyed was primarily due to the outstanding commitment of the 20 skaters who played in front of him. The Stars rang up three straight wins while outscoring their opposition 14-1 because they allowed 18, 25 and 24 shots to the Wild, the Maple Leafs, and the Penguins, respectively, and few of them came at Lehtonen from prime scoring areas. Dallas still has a long way to go, but this level of defensive commitment is clearly what it will take for this team to stay in the race. (Last week: 3-1-0)
20 Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 24
Phoenix Coyotes (24-18-10)
They pulled a point out of Sunday night's crucial matchup against the Canucks, but that was essentially a loss for the Coyotes. Trailing freefalling Vancouver by four points heading into the contest, they're now down by five and while this week's schedule (L.A. and Buffalo) looks forgiving, Phoenix is quickly running out of time to make up ground. The one bright spot: Shane Doan scored twice on the team's three-game road trip, a sign that he might be back to full health at a most fortuitous time. (Last week: 1-1-1)
21 Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 12
How's that contract extension that Steve Mason signed on Jan. 19 working out, you ask? Not too well, actually. The goaltender has been pulled from two of his last three appearances and has a 4.56 GAA, an .851 save percentage and just one win in his last six starts. This looks like a repeat of the mental issues that plagued him in Columbus. You can almost see the light start to dim behind his eyes when a rebound slips loose or a puck starts bouncing in front of him. His confidence is slowly draining away, and unless Flyers coach Craig Berube can figure out how to fix that quick, so are Philly's playoff chances. (Last week: 0-3-0)
22 New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 20
New Jersey Devils (22-20-11)
Their 7-1 humiliation of the Blues seems like a distant memory after Sunday afternoon's humiliation by the Rangers in the Bronx. The Devils just have to hope that the 7-3 loss to New York doesn't come back to haunt them. With two key points on the line, coach Pete DeBoer went with sentiment instead of the hot goalie at Yankee Stadium and the choice bit him. Not that Martin Brodeur was entirely at fault, not with New Jersey's defense parting like the Red Sea for every Rangers rush, but he failed to come up with a couple of stops that could have turned the tide. Would Cory Schneider have made them? We'll never know ... but we'll definitely look back on this game if the Devils get edged out for a playoff spot. (Last week: 2-1-0)
23 Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 13
What's the sound of a team hitting rock bottom? Probably something like the shouting heard from behind closed doors after the Canadiens dropped their fourth straight game -- a 5-0 loss to the Capitals -- on Saturday night, leaving Montreal with just four regulation wins in its last 21 games. The players are frustrated and coach Michel Therrien seems to be running out of ideas. He's mixing up his lines and pairs while forcing his team to play a wildly unproductive dump-and-chase style. With five of the Canadiens' seven games before the break at home, this could be a make-or-break stretch ahead. (Last week: 0-3-0)
24 Florida Panthers
Last Week: 22
Florida Panthers (21-24-7)
That was a nice come-from-behind win over the Red Wings on Sunday, keeping the Panthers in the hunt (mathematically) for a playoff spot and kicking off a crucial four-game road trip with a bang. In order to make hay against the Bruins, the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jackets this week, Florida must get something out of a power play that's on a franchise record 0-for-42 skid. (Last week: 2-1-0)
25 New York Islanders
Last Week: 19
The Islanders playoff chances are slowly fading away, but you can't blame the first line. Since Dec. 17 (a span of 19 games), the trio of John Tavares, Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo has combined for 73 points, with Tavares (26) leading the league during that stretch. Okposo had three points in Monday night's loss to the Bruins, his third consecutive game with at least that many against Boston. The last player to put together a streak like that against the B's? Mario Lemieux. (Last week: 1-2-1)
26 Washington Capitals
Last Week: 23
Their seven-game losing streak came to an end on Saturday with a 5-0 thumping of the Canadiens. The question now: was that just one struggling team beating up on another or the first step on the road to recovery? Alex Ovechkin is back in the lineup, but the guy Washington really needs something from has been there all along. Nick Backstrom has just one assist in his last eight games, and his struggles are analogous to those of a power play that has produced just one goal in its last 32 chances. (Last week: 1-2-0)
27 Nashville Predators
Last Week: 25
A trip to Alberta seemed like just the ticket for a team looking to pick up some points and keep its flickering playoff hopes alive. Instead, the Predators squandered the opportunity, blowing a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes against the Flames, then posting a no-show effort against the Oilers. The losses dropped them into last place in the Central, all but ending those postseason fantasies. (Last week: 1-2-0)
28 Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 28
Buffalo Sabres (14-30-7)
The Sabres ended a pair of streaks on Saturday: Columbus' eight-game winning stretch and their own five-game losing skid. The victory was a big one for Ryan Miller, who wasn't particularly sharp in his previous two appearances. There is a growing buzz that a trade is coming, but the market for the goaltender is limited and you have to wonder if new GM Tim Murray will have the courage to settle for anything less than a home run in any deal involving his top asset. (Last week: 1-3-0)
29 Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 29
Edmonton Oilers (17-32-6)
Last Sunday's 5-1 win over Nashville ended the Oilers' six-game losing slide just before it reached a season-worst seventh game. Hey, it's the little things that count in this lost season. Goalie Ben Scrivens earned his first victory for the copper and blue, a big win for him as he attempts to assert his value heading into free agency this summer. Personal moments like this are all Edmonton can look forward to as this lost season winds down. (Last week: 2-2-0)
30 Calgary Flames
Last Week: 30
Calgary Flames (18-27-7)
According to coach Bob Hartley the confidence gained from a pair of tough road losses allowed the Flames to finally end their miserable seven-game home losing streak last week with wins over the Coyotes and Predators. Their defensive structure looks a bit more consistent of late, but Calgary still hasn't found an answer between the pipes. Interesting stat for Reto Berra: He's 4-0 in the shootout after shutting down Nashville, but has yet to earn a regulation win this season. (Last week: 2-0-0)

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