Playoff sleeper teams appear in Week 24 NHL Power Rankings

Tuesday April 1st, 2014

It may be April 1, but this is no joke: Pavel Datsyuk was back on the ice on Tuesday morning with the Red Wings. And his timing couldn't be better.

The superstar center has spent the past six weeks on the sidelines with recurring knee problems while his teammates battled to secure a place among the elite eight of the Eastern Conference. To their credit, they've hung in there, but the truth is that Datsyuk-less Detroit doesn't scare anyone. Sure, the Wings have gotten good mileage out of their kids, especially the red-hot Gustav Nyquist, but they're a shadow of the puck possession monsters they used to be. It's like they've forgotten how to enter the zone effectively. They wait for mistakes instead of forcing them.

That's not Red Wings hockey ... but that's about to change soon. No word yet on when Pasha will return to the lineup, but if Detroit can hold on to a spot, he'll certainly be ready for the playoffs. And that should make the Bruins and the Penguins sit up and take notice.

For all their flaws, the Wings as a group are loaded with playoff experience, and they have a knack for knocking off higher seeds (the Ducks can provide a reference, if needed). And bringing Datsyuk back into the mix changes Detroit. He makes the Red Wings a more confident -- and more dangerous -- team. And with other players on the verge of returning (Daniel Alfredsson, maybe Henrik Zetterberg) they'll be a formidable first-round foe no matter where they're seeded.

Detroit isn't the only fringe entrant that looks capable of doing some damage. The sixth-seeded Kings are well off the pace in the West, but they look like they're putting it all together at just the right time, with a franchise record-tying 11 wins in March. Anze Kopitar is playing some of the best hockey of his career -- it'll be an embarrassment if he's anything less than a finalist for the Selke Trophy -- and Marian Gaborik has altered the chemistry of the offense. L.A. still isn't scoring a ton, but the club seems to be getting goals when it matters most. For a team that has a world-class goaltender in Jonathan Quick, and an emerging weapon in blueliner Alec Martinez, that could be enough for another deep postseason run.

The Stars might not be ready to go long, but they could be a miserable first round opponent if they manage to sneak into the dance. The line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and (usually) Valeri Nichushkin has been one of the league's best all season, and the trio's speed makes it a difficult matchup. And now that Dallas' depth forwards are clicking and goalie Kari Lehtonen is healthy, the Stars may as well be wearing glass slippers. This team is capable of an upset.

Here's how the rest of the league stacks up after Week 24.

Notable rise: Anaheim Ducks (8 to 4). Montreal Canadiens (11 to 7)
Notable fall: Toronto Maple Leafs (23 to 30)

NHL Power Rankings
1Boston Bruins
Last Week: 1
Boston Bruins (52-17-6)
Instead of battling it out for the Presidents' Trophy, maybe the B's should look for a way to give up home ice advantage in the playoffs. Sunday's 4-3 win over the Flyers made it nine straight on the road for Boston, a new franchise record. Overall, the Bruins moved to a league-best 15-1-2 since the Olympic break, a streak that's gotten a boost from the play of third-line center Carl Soderberg (6-8-14) and rookie Kevan Miller, who has become a surprisingly reliable defensive presence. (Last week: 3-0-0)
2St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 2
St. Louis Blues (50-17-7)
You have to think the Blues are rooting for the Coyotes to keep the Stars out of the eighth spot in the West, right? St. Louis looked sloppy -- Ken Hitchcock's words, not mine -- while losing to Dallas for the second time this month. Something about the Stars' speed really seems to wreak havoc with Hitch's system. The Blues may be the class of the West, but they're hardly invulnerable. (Last week: 2-1-0)
3Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 4
They coughed up more than a third-period lead in Monday night's 3-2 loss to the Wild. They gave away a chance at history. The Kings won 11 games in March, tying a franchise mark set in January 2002. Tough to see a chance like that go by the wayside, but you have to love the way they're playing. And how about Marian Gaborik? He looked like an ill-fitting piece when he was acquired at the deadline, but he's given L.A. exactly what it needed, with three goals and nine points in his last 10 games. (Last week: 3-0-0)
4Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 8
Anaheim Ducks (49-18-8)
If they make the deep run they're capable of this spring, everyone's going to point to March 31 as the moment it all came together. Down 4-0 to the Jets at home on Monday night, Anaheim pulled off the greatest comeback in franchise history, scoring five unanswered goals, including Corey Perry's equalizer with 22.7 seconds remaining and Stephane Robidas' winner 16 seconds into OT. It was a huge win, showing what the Ducks can do under pressure, and it widened their lead atop the Pacific Division. Epic. (Last week: 3-0-1)
5San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 3
San Jose Sharks (47-20-9)
They went 9-3-3 during a grueling March, but that wasn't enough to hold on to first place in the Pacific. A pair of losses to the Jets and the Avalanche -- both winnable games -- dropped San Jose into second behind the Ducks. The Sharks play four of their final six contests at home, where they've consistently been one of the toughest teams to beat. They need to take full advantage of that soft schedule. (Last week: 1-2-0)
6Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 9
It was a memorable week in Denver where the Avs eclipsed the 100-point mark for the first time in 10 years and secured their first playoff berth since 2009-10. But the news wasn't all good: leading scorer Matt Duchene was lost for a month after colliding with teammate Jamie McGinn on Saturday night, leaving Colorado with a massive hole to fill ahead of a postseason date with the Blackhawks. Might be time to embrace their inner Cinderella. (Last week: 3-0-0)
7Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 11
The Habs are hitting their stride at just the right time, winning five straight to slip past the Lightning in the Atlantic race. They key to the hot streak? Start with the play of goalie Carey Price, then consider the hottest line in hockey. Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek have combined for 32 points in their last 10 games, and they're getting it done at five-on-five. Vanek, always known as a finisher, has brought the unit to life with his passing skills. Wonder if that chemistry will convince him to listen to Montreal's contract pitch this summer? (Last week: 3-0-0)
8Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 5
Not to take anything away from Mike Babcock and Patrick Roy, but where's the love for Craig Berube in discussion about the Jack Adams Award? This team was being fitted for a toe tag when Berube was asked to step behind the bench last October. All he's done is turn the Flyers into a pack of ravenous, laser-focused wolves capable of taking down any target. Maybe a strong finish will put him in the conversation -- where he certainly belongs. (Last week: 1-1-1)
9Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 6
A team that's just 4-5-1 in its last 10 games would probably rather focus on the fact that it has won its last two, including a decisive 4-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champs on Sunday, instead of on its inconsistency. But inconsistency has really been the story of these Pens. (Last week: 2-2-0)
10Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 6
What's more alarming? The injury curse that's seen Jonathan Toews join Patrick Kane on the sidelines? The indifferent play that characterized three consecutive losses last week? Or the fact that the Hawks have won just 14 of 34 games since the calendar turned to 2014? We all know how good they can be, but right now they just aren't that good. (Last week: 1-3-0)
11Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 10
Minnesota Wild (39-26-11)
After a pair of sloppy losses to the Canucks and the Blues trimmed their lead over the Coyotes to a single point, the Wild may have turned their season around with come-from-behind wins over Phoenix on Saturday and the Kings on Monday. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was big in both victories, keeping Minnesota close until the offense could get going in the third period. He's now 4-0-2 since joining the club at the deadline. (Last week: 2-2-0)
12Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 12
Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Red Wings ended a stretch of 11 games in which the Bolts had secured at least one point. That's swell and all, but they've also developed a troubling habit of getting off to slow starts lately. They've usually had the firepower to claw their way back, scoring at least three goals in 10 of their past 12 games. Still, being ready to play when the puck drops will be critical down the stretch. If coach Jon Cooper can't get this matter corrected, he can kiss his Adams chances good-bye. (Last week: 2-1-0)
13Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 14
Phoenix Coyotes (36-27-12)
A 9-3-1 tear through March pulled the Coyotes to within a point of Minnesota in the wild card race, but it was another blown lead in a 3-1 loss to the Wild that cost Phoenix the opportunity to pull ahead. That's three times in the last five games that the Coyotes have let a third-period advanatage slip through their grasp -- five points they've left on the table. The inability to finish could cost them in the end. (Last week: 2-1-0)
14New York Rangers
Last Week: 13
Remember that brutal nine-game road trip that saw them open the season 3-6, when they seemed to be on an inexorable journey to an early tee time? Funny thing. Since then, the Blueshirts have gone 21-8-0 on the road, with Sunday's win over the Oilers counting as their 24th road victory of the season, which tied a franchise record. New York has three more chances, starting Tuesday in Vancouver, to set a new mark. (Last week: 2-1-0)
15Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 16
Big win for Mike Babcock and the Wings on Sunday against Tampa Bay. The victory was his 411th behind Detroit's bench, moving him past Scotty Bowman into second place on the franchise's all-time victories list. Babcock could pass Jack Adams for the top spot with three wins this week. That would be an amazing mark, but given what's at stake, the points Detroit would earn for those victories would be even more meaningful. With the Red Wings three points up on the ninth-place Capitals, it's critical for Detroit to go at least 4-2-1 over its final seven games. (Last week: 2-2-0)
16Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 15
Whatever fate awaits the Jackets -- and it's entirely up in the air with eight games to go -- this season will be remembered for the breakthrough of Ryan Johansen. Here's a kid who just six years ago scored five goals in 47 games for Penticton of the BCHL, but who is now in the books as just the third player in Columbus history to score at least 30 goals in a season. He's getting the big winners, too, netting the clincher in three of the team's last four victories, including in Saturday's critical 3-2 decision over the Hurricanes. (Last week: 2-1-0)
17Dallas Stars
Last Week: 18
Dallas Stars (36-27-11)
The Stars are in full-on desperation mode, trying to atone for a brutal four-game skid that almost knocked them out of the hunt for a wild-card spot. They played well enough against the Blackhawks, but really turned it up at home against the Predators (lighting up Pekka Rinne for seven goals) and on the road against the Blues. The win over St. Louis might have been Dallas' most important of the season. Lose that game and the Stars trail the Coyotes by three points. By winning, Dallas didn't just closed the gap, it proved to itself that it could beat anybody if the players kept their feet moving. With the next four games on the road, the ability to play at a high level will be key to the Stars postseason hopes. (Last week: 2-1-0)
18Washington Capitals
Last Week: 17
The Caps are playing a lot of hockey lately, with four of their last five games ending with shootouts. Problem is, they've also lost four of their last five, and it has cost them their spot at the Metropolitan Division table ... and maybe their shot at the playoffs. If Washington falls short, it'll be interesting to see how much of the blame falls on captain Alex Ovechkin, who just completed the month of March without scoring a single point at five-on-five. I'd guess he'll be vigorously defended. He shouldn't be. (Last week: 0-1-2)
19Winnipeg Jets
Last Week: 19
Winnipeg Jets (33-33-10)
Monday night's epic collapse in Anaheim cut the Jets' tragic number to one, and maybe also sealed the fate of Paul Maurice, the coach who briefly turned the season around when he was brought on board in January. He now clearly has run out of answers. That's not to say that this team's failings are on him, though. Winnipeg has proved to be a thoroughly forgettable group of hockey players time and again this season, and that's on the guy who put the roster together: GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. (Last week: 1-1-1)
20New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 20
Is there anything more automatic than a Devils loss in a shootout? They dropped two more last week to move to 0-10 on the season. You can look at the goaltending all you want, but when your shooters score just once in 30 attempts -- with winger Reid Boucher, who is currently skating for AHL Albany, on the verge of entering the history books as the lone Devil to score in a skills session this season -- it's clear where the problem lies. Tough not to look at the three points that separates New Jersey from a playoff spot and wonder what might have been. (Last week: 1-0-2)
21Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 24
Ottawa Senators (32-29-14)
Lots of intrigue around the club as everyone wants to know what captain Jason Spezza plans to do. His contract is through next season, but his interest in signing beyond that will determine whether he's extended or traded this summer -- a decision that will set off a series of dominoes that are waiting to fall. (Last week: 3-0-1)
22Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 21
Looks like the Jim Rutherford era is coming to an end in Carolina, and while he's sure to be feted for his glory days when he finally turns in the keys, don't forget why he's leaving. The Canes have been dreadful for the last five seasons, hobbled by bad drafts, poor signings and trades that failed to deliver. It's time for the GM to move on. Here's hoping Ron Francis is ready to take on the heavy lifting. (Last week: 1-1-2)
23Calgary Flames
Last Week: 22
Calgary Flames (31-37-7)
Their meltdown (four unanswered goals) in Ottawa aside, the Flames are finishing the season strong, having won six of their last 10 games. Coach Bob Hartley won't get any credit when the Jack Adams votes are counted, but he's done as nice a job as any bench boss in the league, molding a young group (of varying talent levels) into a cohesive unit that competes with enviable consistency. There are better days ahead for this bunch. (Last week: 1-2-0)
24Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 25
Reality has finally set in. That little three-game flight of fantasy behind them, it's now apparent to all that the Canucks are going to miss the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. All that's left now is to see if Alex Edler can regain the "lead" from Alex Ovechkin for the league's worst plus-minus, and to suffer through a visit from ex-coach Alain Vigneault, whose success with the Rangers will remind everyone that he used to win in Vancouver, too. (Last week: 1-1-1)
25Nashville Predators
Last Week: 26
I saw the Preds play only once last week, but was struck by something I've noticed about them several times this season: their ability to create chances by getting behind the opposing defense, followed by an inability to finish. How much longer will they simply accept being offensively inept? They're absolutely brutal at five-on-five, ranked 27th in league. Until they address that, this is a team of little to no consequence. (Last week: 2-1-1)
26New York Islanders
Last Week: 27
Wins, losses, Kardashians ... everything that used to matter seems so trivial now that there's something truly powerful to cling to: the very real chance that Charles Wang is on the verge of selling the team and ending his reign of incompetence. Of course, there's no guarantee that the new guy will be any better, but for a fanbase that simply needs a reason to believe, this is the best of all possible ways to end another disastrous season. (Last week: 2-0-1)
27Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 28
Edmonton Oilers (26-40-9)
Maybe they should look into relocating to the Eastern Conference. Even after a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the Rangers on Sunday night, Edmonton was a reasonable 14-14-4 on the season against interconference opponents, and an even more admirable 5-1-2 against Metro squads. That puts the Oilers on a lot better footing than their mark against their own Pacific Division: an ugly 5-14-4. (Last week: 1-2-0)
28Florida Panthers
Last Week: 29
How bad are things in Florida? The Cats send Martin Brodeur to the showers on Monday night with three goals on eight shots ... and still get blown out 6-3. With Roberto Luongo sidelined by a sore neck, this team is leaking goals. It's been outscored 12-4 since Dan Ellis took over between the pipes during Thursday's loss to the Hurricanes. He's allowed 11 of those goals on just 68 shots. Not good. (Last week: 1-3-0)
29Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 30
Buffalo Sabres (20-45-9)
Big week in Buffalo, where a shootout loss to the Lightning allowed the Sabres to pick up a point for just the second time in 12 (!) games, Dominik Hasek was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame and coach Ted Nolan finally signed a new deal, removing the interim tag from his title. That last bit of news won't thrill all Sabres fans, but no one said Nolan was Mr. Right. He's Mr. Right Now, the perfect leader for a young team that's learning what it takes to compete. (Last week: 0-2-1)
30Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 23
Make it eight and counting for a team that's so emotionally fragile that losing the opening face-off on Tuesday night in Calgary might be all it takes to send Toronto spiraling toward consecutive defeat No. 9. This desolate stretch isn't epic simply for ruining a once-promising season. As one stat geek noted, an eight-game regulation losing streak will happen about once every 29 years ... so at least Leafs fans can say they're seeing something special, right? (Last week: 0-3-0)

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