Stanley Cup favorites set in Week 22 Power Rankings

Tuesday March 18th, 2014

The beauty of the Stanley Cup playoffs lies in their democracy. Once invited, every team has a chance to win it all. That can be fun -- after all, everyone loves an underdog -- but it doesn't always mean we get the best hockey.

So maybe this time around, the Hockey Gods will ditch the whole Cinderella angle and give us the series we truly deserve.

The Blues vs. the Bruins.

That might not be the matchup that fans of the Blackhawks or the Sharks or the Penguins are hoping for, but what a gift to the game that a finals between St. Louis and Boston would be.

Since returning from the Olympic break, the Blues and the Bruins have rolled over all comers while on an apparent collision course for the Cup finals. Bolstered by the arrival of netminder Ryan Miller, St. Louis is 8-2-1 since its players returned from Sochi. The Blues have held their opponents to a single goal in six of those contests while overwhelming them with an enviably balanced attack. St. Louis boasts four 20-goal scorers with a fifth, T.J. Oshie, on the verge of joining the club. The Bruins are 9-1-1 over the same stretch, also limiting their opponents to one goal or fewer in six of their wins. The B's have three 20-goal men with two others (Patrice Bergeron and Reilly Smith) knocking on the door with 19 apiece.

Both sides are led by Cup-winning coaches (Ken Hitchcock, Claude Julien) who worked side-by-side in planning and executing Canada's flawless defensive system in Sochi, and whose teams play the game the right way: relentless and nasty.

Their two meetings this season were hard-fought battles, and while the Blues took both games by identical 3-2 scores, neither was settled in 60 minutes. St. Louis needed a shootout on Nov. 21 and overtime on Feb. 6 to seal their victories, hinting at the possibility for epic struggles of raw power and emotion that last into early mornings next June.

We all know better than to count on things actually working out this way. A lot can happen between now and the final. One or both teams might just cool off at the worst possible time. Injuries and tough matchups also have a way of derailing the best possible outcomes.

Still, the Blues and the Bruins were built specifically for this time of year. And based on what we've seen over the past three weeks, the best is yet to come.

Here's how the league stacks up after Week 22:

Notable rise: Phoenix Coyotes (21 to 14)
Notable fall: New York Rangers (10 to 13)

NHL Power Rankings
1St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 1
St. Louis Blues (47-14-4)
It's a lousy time to be a Central Division team trying to take down the Blues at home. St. Louis is 8-0-1 in its last nine games, 7-0-2 in its past nine home games, and, after knocking off the Predators and the Jets last week, 20-0-2 against divisional foes. The Blues' victory over Winnipeg ensured that they became the first team this season to cross the 100-point barrier; it's the sixth time in franchise history that St. Louis has hit that milestone. The Presidents' Trophy beckons ... (Last week: 3-0-1)
2Boston Bruins
Last Week: 2
Boston Bruins (46-17-5)
There was one common denominator in each of Boston's quartet of convincing victories during the past week: the opposing team was limited to a single goal, while the B's averaged nearly four in response. That kind of advantage is lethal: According to the Bruins' web site, they are 125-7-6 since the start of the 2010-11 season in games in which they have held a two-goal lead. A 4-1 victory over the Wild on Monday night was Boston's ninth win in a row. (Last week: 4-0-0)
3San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 5
San Jose Sharks (45-17-7)
Thanks to a quirk of scheduling, San Jose just faced Eastern Conference foes in 11 straight games. The Sharks tore through that stretch like it was chum in the water, going 9-1-1 and finishing with six straight wins to keep pace with the Ducks in the battle for Pacific Division supremacy. Netminder Antti Niemi earned a nod as the league's Third Star of the Week after picking up three wins, with a 1.67 goals-against average, a .950 save percentage and a shutout. (Last week: 4-0-0)
4Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 3
Seriously, do the Avs even need to show up for the playoffs in order for this season to be considered a success? With eight wins in their last 11 games, St. Patrick's boys find themselves ahead of the defending champion Blackhawks in the Central Division standings. And with a 3-2 win over Chicago on March 12, Colorado now leads the league in one-goal victories, with 23. (Last week: 2-1-0)
5Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 7
Anaheim Ducks (45-16-7)
The Ducks finally got straightened out over the weekend, ending a four-game losing skid by picking up wins on the road in Denver (powered by a franchise record six-goal second period) and in Los Angeles. Anaheim has a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way and should end up winning the Pacific, but the Ducks need to tighten up in their own end and generate some offense from a line other than their first. The arrival of Stephane Robidas will help the D, but more goals will have to come from within the current ranks. (Last week: 2-2-0)
6Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 4
Maybe there's something good to be taken from outshooting the Maple Leafs, the Ducks and the Coyotes by wide margins -- hey, guys, check out my Corsi! -- but all that really matters is that the Kings suffered three consecutive one-goal losses, rekindling concerns about their ability to finish their scoring chances. Their late meltdown against the Coyotes on Monday ended a 21-0-0 stretch when holding a lead entering the third period. (Last week: 0-3-0)
7Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 8
The good ship Blackhawks took on more water this week. Chicago lost its grip on fourth place (and home ice in the playoffs) with losses to Nashville and Colorado and is now just 10-10-7 in 2014. Don't write off the defending champs just yet, though. Coach Joel Quenneville has pointed to losing one-on-one battles as the key to their slide and that's a switch that can be turned on when the games really start to matter. And if the Hawks need a little jolt to get them in gear, maybe Teuvo Teravainen, their 2012 first rounder, will bring the paddles with him from Finland. He's expected to see the ice in Chicago now that his team's season is over. (Last week: 1-2-0)
8Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 6
The Pens have done a really admirable job of overcoming injuries, but they looked like a team that had lost 413 man-games this season while they were being rolled by the Flyers during both ends of a weekend home-and-home. Pittsburgh's struggles were especially apparent on a power play that went 0-for-9, and which gave up a shorty in both games. The good news: Kris Letang, Beau Bennett, James Neal and Chris Kunitz all were cleared to practice on Monday, and while there are no firm return dates for any of the three, help is on the way. (Last week: 1-2-0)
9Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 9
Minnesota Wild (35-23-10)
) Monday night's loss in Boston was only the second in regulation in the past 12 games for the Wild, who are doing just enough to maintain their hold on the first wild card berth in the West. And even though it seemed like blueliner Ryan Suter never came off the ice against the Bruins, he actually played only 25:57 -- a far cry from the 30:52 he averaged during Minnesota's recent four-game homestand. (Last week: 1-2-1)
10Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 11
A 6-1-1 tear has the Jackets within a point of second place in the Metro Division, but they're still only two up on the ninth-place Capitals. A pair of blown third-period leads cost Columbus a key point against San Jose, but some terrific goaltending by Sergei Bobrovsky helped the club pull one out against the Wild. Bob earned First Star of the Week honors from the NHL and is now 18-5-2 with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage in his last 25 games. (Last week: 2-0-1)
11Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 12
If only the Flyers approached every opponent with the same supercharged determination they bring when the Penguinss are at the other end of the ice. Not that Philly has been slacking -- going 9-2-1 in the last 12—but seeing black and gold brings out its best. The Flyers will need that ferocity in their next 10 games, a brutal stretch that includes two games apiece against the Bruins and the Blues, and playoff-bound foes in the other six. (Last week: 2-1-0)
12Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 14
Just when it looked like the Bolts might be ready to fold, they ran off three consecutive wins to regrab a share of second place in the Atlantic. The play of rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson is really starting to impress, and now that Steven Stamkos is rediscovering his groove, the offense seems ready to move past the loss of Martin St. Louis. But the one constant this season has been goalie Ben Bishop and his franchise-record play. He's been a treat to watch. (Last week: 3-0-0)
13New York Rangers
Last Week: 10
They're worrying about the offense again in New York now that the Rangers have been held to one goal or less in three of their past four games, all losses. Martin St. Louis (two assists) has yet to score in seven games since coming over from Tampa Bay. Mats Zuccarello hasn't lit the lamp in 11 games. Rick Nash has just two goals in his past 10 outings. Nash says it's a matter of "work ethic over talent" right now, and the Blueshirts aren't putting in the work. With just two points separating them from an early summer, it's time to roll up their sleeves. (Last week: 1-3-0)
14Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 21
Phoenix Coyotes (33-25-11)
The Coyotes' 0-3 stumble after the Olympic break might not prove fatal to their chances after all. Phoenix has rediscovered its mojo, winning six of the last eight games while playing some of its best defensive hockey of the season. The Coyotes have allowed just 16 goals during that stretch, and have shown some remarkable late-game resilience, including a dramatic third-period comeback in Los Angeles on Monday night to regain a wild card position. (Last week: 3-1-0)
15Dallas Stars
Last Week: 13
Dallas Stars (32-24-11)
Any momentum from an emotional OT win in St. Louis after Rich Peverley's cardiac incident was wasted by the Stars, who blew a 3-1 third period lead in a shootout loss to the Flames, and then were taken out behind the woodshed by the Jets for a 7-2 whupping. Dallas Morning News beat writer Mike Heika made an astute observation about the recent degradation of Dallas' defensive game: During the Stars' 7-1-2 hot streak, they clamped down on shots allowed, averaging just 24.4 per game. During their last five games (3-1-1), that number has ballooned to 32.4, so it's pretty clear what they need to do to prevent their two-game slip from blooming into a dangerous losing streak. (Last week: 1-1-1)
16Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 18
On Saturday night, the Habs were on the verge of ringing up their fourth consecutive loss before they flipped the switch and authored one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history. Down 4-1 to the Senators with under four minutes left in regulation, Montreal pulled out a 5-4 OT win. It may not mean more than history in the long run, but with Carey Price back in net, blueliner P.K. Subban flying, and the Kid Line breaking out of a slump, maybe this will be the start of something good for the Canadiens. (Last week: 2-1-0)
17Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 15
Forget about that blowout loss in San Jose, says coach Randy Carlyle. The Leafs have lost just five games outright during their past 22, and their ability to earn points on a consistent basis has them on solid ground heading down the stretch. More good news: An MRI revealed that the injury suffered by goalie Jonathan Bernier against Los Angeles was a groin sprain, and the day-to-day diagnosis suggests he could back in the lineup as soon as this week. (Last week: 1-2-0)
18Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 16
The injury-ravaged Wings are playing lousy hockey -- just two wins in their last seven games -- but they've managed to stay within clawing distance of a wild-card spot. Detroit is three points behind the Rangers with two games in hand, but needs a couple Ws for that advantage to mean anything. The drive has to start with something more from goalie Jimmy Howard; the Olympian has posted a save percentage below .900 in four of his last eight starts. (Last week: 1-2-0)
19Winnipeg Jets
Last Week: 17
Winnipeg Jets (31-30-9)
Sure, their 7-2 drubbing of the Stars was fun, but their largest offensive outburst of the season was still too little, too late. The six-game losing streak that preceded that victory didn't completely bury Winnipegs' playoff hopes, but it left the club needing a 10-2-1 finish to have even a 50 percent chance of grabbing a wild-card berth. Don't count on that happening. (Last week: 1-1-1)
20Washington Capitals
Last Week: 19
The Caps kept their playoff hopes alive by knocking off the Canucks and the Maple Leafs at home. But Washington now faces its toughest stretch of the season: traveling to California to face the Ducks, the Kings and the Sharks before returning home to host the Kings and the Bruins. The way Evgeni Kuznetsov is playing (four assists in those two wins), the next 10 days should be a piece of cake, right? (Last week: 2-1-0)
21New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 20
With five points and three teams separating them from the final wild card slot, the Devils didn't do themselves any favors by losing a pair last week. They'll need to go 10-3-1 the rest of the way just to have a 50/50 shot at the postseason ... not likely for a team that's played sub-.500 hockey in its last 20 games. On the bright side, leading scorer Jaromir Jagr would like to come back for another season. (Last week: 1-2-0)
22Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 23
It was another thoroughly mediocre week from a team that isn't as bad as it is inconsequential. To wit: A fellow scribe asked last week if I could think of any team that got psyched up for a game against the 'Canes. I honestly couldn't come up with one. Carolina is a stop on the schedule, nothing more, nothing less, a team entirely without identity or direction. What a shame for the fans in Raleigh. (Last week: 2-2-0)
23Calgary Flames
Last Week: 24
Calgary Flames (27-34-7)
Everybody's feeling good after a couple of massive wins. The week started with a 7-2 thrashing of the Pacific-leading Ducks in Anaheim followed by a trip to Dallas for the second-best comeback win of the week. The latter victory marked the fourth time since Dec. 23 that Calgary has rallied to win after being down by two goals with less than 10 minutes to go. No quit in those boys, eh? (Last week: 2-1-0)
24Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 22
Ottawa Senators (28-26-13)
If the math of it all doesn't leave the Sens demoralized -- seven points and four teams stand between them and the playoffs -- then the way they gave it all away last week should do the trick. Their epic collapse in Montreal wasn't just a kick in the gut. It was, for all purposes, the moment when their thin hopes for the postseason vanished altogether. And it wasn't on the officials -- this one was all about Ottawa's inability to batten down the hatches defensively. A fitting epitaph for the Sens' season, really. (Last week: 0-1-1)
25Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 29
Edmonton Oilers (24-36-9)
They managed to pull five points out of their four-game road trip ... and maybe that shouldn't be such a surprise. Edmonton has managed to snare at least one point in 12 of its last 16 games (9-4-3). The Oilers have also managed to hold their opposition to two goals or fewer in five of their eight games this month, thanks to an improved penalty kill that has snuffed out 29 of the previous 32 chances against it. (Last week: 2-1-1)
26Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 26
The latest ignominy heaped on this ill-fated club? The injury suffered by Ryan Kesler may keep him out for the remainder of the regular season, forcing the Canucks to sell him as damaged goods this summer. At least they could take some solace from beating old friend Roberto Luongo and the Panthers on Sunday. (Last week: 2-2-0)
27Nashville Predators
Last Week: 27
After taking three on the road -- their first consecutive wins since January -- the Preds dropped a 4-1 decision to St. Louis for their fifth-straight loss at Bridgestone Arena. Only Edmonton has a worse home record in the Western Conference. (Last week: 2-1-0)
28New York Islanders
Last Week: 25
As another failed season winds down on Long Island, the play of Anders Lee gives the team's long-suffering fans reason to believe maybe next year really will be different. The promising power forward has made a seamless transition to the NHL since being recalled after the Olympic break, scoring six goals that probably haven't traveled 20 feet between them. That combination of soft hands and fearless net drive hints at his top-six potential. (Last week: 1-1-0)
29Florida Panthers
Last Week: 28
Sitting 18 points out of a playoff spot in the East, it's back to the future for the Panthers down the stretch. Center Vince Trochek has gotten a long look since being called up six games ago, earning nearly 24 minutes of ice time in Sunday's OT loss to the Canucks. He's scored a pair of goals, and looks like someone who can contribute next season. So, too, do forwards Quinton Howden (two goals in three games) and Brandon Pirri (five points in his past four games). Looking ahead, the challenge for GM Dale Tallon is to surround these kids with the right kind of veteran support. (Last week: 1-2-1)
30Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 30
Buffalo Sabres (19-41-8)
Just when it seemed like things couldn't get worse for Buffalo, the slapstick Sabres proved the doubters wrong. Sunday's 2-0 loss to Montreal was their sixth-straight, their longest losing streak since 2003. The offense is stuck in reverse (it scored just five times during that stretch) and with goalies Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth banged up, it doesn't look like they'll do anything to harm their draft position before this season is over. (Last week: 0-4-0)

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