Western Conference powers slumping in Week 18

Tuesday February 4th, 2014

Even the mighty NHL-leading Ducks have fallen into a funk and are no longer invincible at home.
Debora Robinson/Getty Images

The first four months of the season played out like the "Before" pictures in one of those old Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads, in which the oversized bullies (in this case, the Ducks, the Sharks, and the Kings) who ruled the waves got all the girls and kicked sand in the face of any nebbishes who dared set foot on their beach.

Those were good times for the Golden State. But bullies always get their comeuppance -- at least in the comics -- and so the last few weeks have played out like the "After" panels in those ads, with the pencil-necked geeks rising up and knocking the snot out of the bullies. Monday night was especially painful for once-proud hulks. Anaheim lost to the Blue Jackets, San Jose was pushed around by the Flyers, and Los Angeles was beaten by the Blackhawks (the defending Stanley Cup champions have been taking it on the chin lately as well) as all three West Coast powerhouses gave up at least four goals while losing at home.

It's all made for a stunning turn of events. The Ducks are still the league's top team, but they're now picking sand out of their teeth and wondering how it is that they're no longer safe at Honda Center after the Wild, Columbus and the Stars barged in and helped themselves to two points apiece last week. The Logan Couture-less Sharks have gone seven games without scoring more than two goals in regulation, and their flaccid offense has allowed them to be kicked around by such 98-pound weaklings as the Flames (4-1) and the Oilers (3-0).

It's been an especially humiliating time for the Kings. The 2012 Cup champions have lost nine of their last 10 games, no thanks to an offense that is so inept that only the Sabres -- a team that's on pace to set the record for the fewest goals in an 82-game season -- are lighting the lamp less often. Since the calendar flipped to 2014, L.A. has been limited to a single goal or less in 10 of their 17 games, which helps explain why they've lost 12 of those contests.

The Kings have more reason for concern than either Anaheim or San Jose, where the recent skids can probably be written off as temporary bumps (and bruises) in the road, with a return to winning form on the horizon. Whether that holds true remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: No one is dreading a trip to California these days.

Here's how the rest of the league sorts out after Week 18.

Notable rise: Toronto Maple Leafs (16 to 10)
Notable fall: Los Angeles Kings (9 to 17)

NHL Power Rankings
1Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 1
Anaheim Ducks (40-13-5)
After starting the season 22-0-2 at the Pond, the Ducks have lost four of their last six, including three this past week. Maybe it's just a blip on the radar, or the manifestation of an inevitable regression, but they weren't very competitive in losing to the Wild (4-2) and the Stars (2-0). The equally physical Blue Jackets seemed to inspire a livelier effort from Anaheim on Monday night, but Columbus still hung an L on the Ducks. With just two games left before the Olympic break, including a Wednesday night meeting with the Blackhawks, it suddenly feels imperative that Anaheim right its ship. (Last week: 1-3-0)
2St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 2
St. Louis Blues (37-12-5)
"Quite frankly, we need our top-end guys to play a little bit better," coach Ken Hitchcock said last week. "I think the Backes line has been OK, but they could be a little bit better." As far as public tongue lashings go, that one seemed pretty mild, but Hitch has a knack for getting his point across in an appropriate fashion. Sure, the Blues can pick up their game, but it's hard to be too critical of a group that has a league-leading goal differential of plus-60. (Last week: 2-1-0)
3Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 7
The Avs are the hottest team in the West, going 8-2 in their last 10 and 13-3-1 since their Christmastime swoon to pull within three points of the Central Division-leading Blackhawks. It was another big week for Nathan MacKinnon, who scored his 20th goal of the season in a 7-1 rout of the Sabres on Saturday. He had three points on the day, his fourth multi-point effort in his past seven games. Everyone OK with Colorado's No. 1 overall pick now? (Last week: 3-0-0)
4Boston Bruins
Last Week: 4
Boston Bruins (35-16-3)
We'll overlook their dog effort against the Canadiens on Thursday -- and man, were the B's brutal -- because, hey, they're still 6-1-1 during the past two weeks. Boston's offense is clicking and backup goalie Chad Johnson is doing a terrific job spelling for Tuukka Rask (who, to be honest, hasn't looked himself of late). Johnson earned his first shutout of the season in Saturday's 4-0 win over the Oilers to improve to 5-0 at TD Garden, with two or fewer goals allowed in each of those appearances. (Last week: 2-1-0)
5Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 5
It was a little tighter than it should have been, but Monday's 2-1 OT win over the Senators continued a remarkable string of dominance that's seen the Penguins go 16-1 at Consol Energy Center in the past three months. They've allowed just two goals against in their past three wins at home, and built a nearly insurmountable lead in the Metropolitan Division. (Last week: 2-1-0)
6Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 6
The Blackhawks are clearly caught in the doldrums. They have 10 losses to show for their past 11 contests that went to overtime or a shootout. They're struggling with the man advantage, converting just six of 42 chances in January, and that contributed to their average of just 2.78 goals scored per game last month, down nearly one from their season average. And yet, with points in four straight to kick off a six-game road trip, Chicago has a chance to finally catch some wind in its sails. (Last week: 2-0-2)
7San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 3
San Jose Sharks (35-16-6)
The Sharks have dropped four of their last five games, with a shootout win over the Blackhawks all that separates them from matching their longest losing streak of the season. San Jose's offense has gone bone dry, getting shut out twice and scoring just four goals in that five-game stretch. Spark plug forward Logan Couture could be back in the lineup this week ... and not a moment too soon. (Last week: 1-3-0)
8Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 8
No player will be more closely watched this week than the one who isn't playing for the Lightning. Sniper Steven Stamkos has targeted this Saturday for his likely return to action -- and will be looking to prove himself ready to play for Team Canada in Sochi. He has to get through a week's worth of practices first, and then receive clearance from team doctors, but there's finally a concrete deadline in place. (Last week: 1-2-0)
9Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 10
Is it time to start believing -- I mean, really believing -- in the Blue Jackets? A decisive win over the Ducks in Anaheim on Monday put Columbus at 12-4 since Jan. 1, and the club's nasty, greasy style seems perfectly suited for playoff hockey. The Blue Jackets are doing a lot of things right, but it's most impressive that they're racking up these wins with Nathan Horton in a slump (six games and counting) and Marian Gaborik still on the sidelines (although he is traveling with the team in hopes of getting pre-Olympic medical clearance). When those two start clicking, this will be a tough club to match up against. (Last week: 3-1-0)
10Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 16
A big night against the Senators on Saturday for the Maple Leafs' top line highlighted just how good that unit is. After combining for four goals and eight points in a 6-3 win over Ottawa, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk had scored 51 points since New Year's Day. All three have reached, or are on pace to set, new career scoring highs, and that success has helped power Toronto to six consecutive home wins -- its longest streak in seven years. (Last week: 3-0-0)
11New York Rangers
Last Week: 14
A pair of wins over the Islanders -- including a 2-1 snoozer in the back half of the Yankee Stadium twin bill -- continued a trend of strong defensive play for the Blueshirts. New York has allowed two goals or fewer in 10 of its past 12 contests, with Henrik Lundqvist going 8-2-0 with a 1.50 GAA and .951 save percentage during that span. That's good news for the Rangers' playoff aspirations, and even timelier news for Team Sweden. (Last week: 2-0-0)
12Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 11
Minnesota Wild (29-21-7)
It was a big week for Zach Parise, who returned from a month on IR in time to be named captain of Team USA and earn First Star of the Week honors after scoring three goals and eight points to lead the NHL. The news wasn't as good for Wild captain Mikko Koivu, who won't return to the lineup until after the Olympic break. And it seems likely that he won't be cleared by team doctors in time to join Team Finland in Sochi. (Last week: 1-1-1)
13Winnipeg Jets
Last Week: 18
Winnipeg Jets (27-25-5)
Make that an 8-2-0 record under new coach/miracle worker Paul Maurice. The run of success that might indicate a trend more than just a lucky spell. What's interesting is that the new guy behind the bench hasn't done a lot of tinkering with the team's style. "We just said in the room we've got to play for each other, for ourselves," said Michal Frolik, who has thrived since being put on the first line by Maurice. "We didn't change that much, it's just the battle level and blocking shots." Will over skill seems to be doing the trick. (Last week: 2-1-0)
14Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 12
Monday's win over the Canucks was just the second in regulation for the Red Wings since Jan. 11, but Detroit is finding ways to scrounge up enough points to remain on the happy side of the postseason cutoff line. Full marks to the Kiddie Corps -- in particular, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar -- who have done a terrific job picking up the slack as injured veterans have fallen by the wayside. The latest, Johan Franzen, is in sick bay indefinitely after suffering a recurrence of concussion-related symptoms. (Last week: 2-1-1)
15Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 15
At some point soon, the Hurricanes need to come to a decision about the future of their goaltending situation ... not that it should be a very tough call. Anton Khudobin continues to look like the best signing of the offseason, setting a franchise record with 10 wins in January to earn recognition as the NHL's Player of the Month. He posted a GAA of 2.19 and a save percentage of .927 over the course of 14 starts establish himself as the No. 1 as the team moves forward. (Last week: 1-1-0)
16Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 21
What a fantastic effort by the Flyers on Monday night to knock off the Sharks and finish a tough California swing with a pair of victories. Just a week after a suffering through a humbling four-game skid, Philly looks to be back on course. Claude Giroux has been terrific, scoring eight points in his last four games. If Stamkos isn't up to the challenge of playing in Sochi, Giroux deserves a long look from Team Canada. (Last week: 3-1-0)
17Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 9
It's tough to top this description of the Kings' struggles, courtesy of Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times: "String together the Kings' offensive output from their last six games and it looks like a line of binary code: 0 1 0 1 0 1." L.A. finally exploded for three goals on Monday night, but still lost to the Blackhawks, ensuring that the hunt for scoring help (Sam Gagner, Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek) remains a front burner issue for GM Dean Lombardi. (Last week: 0-4-0)
18Dallas Stars
Last Week: 19
Dallas Stars (25-21-9)
The Stars' 2-0 win over the Ducks -- in Anaheim, no less -- in which they knocked the home team around marked the first time the league leaders had been shut out this season. Guess we should have seen that one coming, right? Because that's pretty much been the way it's gone for Dallas. The Stars have brutalized the denizens of the Pacific, going 11-2-2, but they'll need to keep that up as they travel to Phoenix and San Jose this week in order to ensure that the final playoff spot in the West remains within hailing distance. (Last week: 1-0-1)
19Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 13
After failing to rally behind a temporary coach (a meek 2-4 with Mike Sullivan behind the bench), the Canucks got no better with the return of full-time boss John Tortorella. (Monday's 2-0 loss to the Red Wings was close only because of the play of goaltender Eddie Lack.) The problem continues to be the offense, which has scored just 31 goals since Jan. 1. That's a paltry average of just 1.88 goals per game, and it has Torts publicly lobbying for some new toys to play with. "We need to change the complexion of our hockey club, either with our play or with different hockey people," he fumed after the loss. "We look like a slow hockey team. It's frustrating to see the same looks. It worries me. I'll leave it at that." Puck's in your end now, Mike Gillis. (Last week: 0-3-0)
20Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 17
Ottawa Senators (24-21-11)
The Senators have been outshot in each of the last eight games, their longest such streak since Brad Shaw wore their C (1993-94). Still, Ottawa's 3-3-2 mark during that stretch is probably better than the #fancystats folks would expect. Credit that to the revival of goalie Craig Anderson, whose play in three of his last four starts -- including a 46-save effort against the Penguins on Monday night -- brings to mind his Vezina Trophy-worthy work of 2012-13. As long as he's rolling, the Sens can overcome their defensive issues and remain in the playoff mix. (Last week: 2-1-1)
21Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 20
Phoenix Coyotes (26-19-10)
Nice to watch Thomas Greiss post a shutout of the Kings in front of his folks and then see the team come together for a surprising win over the Penguins, but neither of those games will mean much if the Coyotes don't use them to build some traction. Phoenix is just 6-9-1 since the start of the new year and has only three two-game winning streaks since the first week of November. Is it any wonder that the Yotes have fallen into the ranks of playoff wannabes? (Last week: 2-1-0)
22New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 22
Cory Schneider has only one regulation loss in his last 10 starts while allowing just 15 goals ... but he also has just five wins in that same stretch. You can't ask for more out of him or, most nights, from the defense (its performance against the Stars last Thursday was one for the text books), but unless coach Pete DeBoer figures out how to triple shift Jaromir Jagr, the Devils are dead in the water with their 26th ranked offense. (Last week: 2-1-1)
23Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 23
Coach Michel Therrien was frustrated with the officials after Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Jets, but a couple of missed calls come pretty far down on the list of reasons why the Canadiens dropped that game, and others, in the last several weeks. If anyone deserves to be frustrated, it would be the players who are suffering through Therrien's misguided switch to a dump-and-chase system that has drastically reduced the number of scoring chances they generate per game. If not for some stellar goaltending, Montreal would be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. They might be there before too long. (Last week: 2-1-1)
24Washington Capitals
Last Week: 26
At this point, two points is two points, and the Caps will take 'em any way they can get 'em. But a pair of extra time wins last week can't mask the fact that it's been three weeks since Washington last won a game in regulation, and the Capitals have just 13 such victories to show for their 56 games played. Goalie Braden Holtby continues to struggle, allowing nine goals on just 56 shots. Adam Oates clearly wants him to reclaim the starting job, but after Michal Neuvirth put up some solid stretches against the Red Wings, it's time to give the young Czech his chance. (Last week: 2-1-1)
25New York Islanders
Last Week: 25
It was a lousy week for the Isles, who lost both of their games against the hated Rangers to run their winless streak to five. The penalty kill continues to be an issue -- it's now a league-worst 76.8 percent -- along with third period struggles. New York was tied or had the lead going into the final frame of three of those five games and lost them all. Call it killer instinct or an extra gear -- whatever it is, this team can't find it right now. (Last week: 0-2-0)
26Nashville Predators
Last Week: 27
A couple of wins and all of a sudden folks in Nashville are doing playoff math. Not that a postseason berth is out of the question -- especially with Pekka Rinne rumored to be steaming toward a rehab stint in Milwaukee -- but this team has too many flaws to overcome at this late stage. Nice to see blueliner Ryan Ellis gaining confidence and contributing at both ends of the ice, though. (Last week: 2-0-1)
27Florida Panthers
Last Week: 24
Their four-game road trip started off with a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Red Wings and ended with the Panthers dropping three straight by a combined score of 16-6. Tim Thomas hasn't looked particularly sharp of late, failing to top an .880 save percentage in any of his last four appearances. He's had his moments this season where he's hinted at his Vezina/Conn Smythe past, but playing behind Florida's soft defense might be taking a toll on the veteran. (Last week: 0-3-0)
28Calgary Flames
Last Week: 30
Calgary Flames (21-27-7)
Make that five straight wins for the surging Flames. You have to wonder in this type of situation: Are the fans happy to see them get some results, or are they more worried about possibly missing out on a top-three draft position? With genuine success still years off, I'm guessing it's the latter. At least there are positive signs for the rebuild. Mikael Backlund, the league's Third Star of the Week, is rounding into shape as a legitimate top-six forward. (Last week: 3-0-0)
29Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 29
Edmonton Oilers (19-33-6)
In the wake of his record-setting 59-save shutout of the Sharks on Wednesday night, there's one question that has to be asked about Ben Scrivens: Is he the goalie of the future for the Oilers? You don't want to read too much into an epic game any more than you want to overreact to a night where he gives up three goals on 12 shots, which he did versus the Kings on Jan. 2. But with the rest of this season serving as an extended audition for the job, Scrivens' historic performance offers some hope that Edmonton finally has someone it can count on. Now, if only GM Craig MacTavish can scare up some defense ... (Last week: 2-1-0)
30Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 28
Buffalo Sabres (15-32-8)
The bright side to their 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Avalanche? It proves that rebuilds based on savvy drafting can pay off. Of course, the Sabres Toilet Bowl battle against the downtrodden Oilers on Monday night was a reminder that patience is another key to the equation. Will GM Tim Murray speed up that process by moving Matt Moulson and/or Ryan Miller before the end of this week? (Last week: 1-2-1)

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