NHL Power Rankings: Capitals tighten grip on No. 1 as Panthers surge

A eight-game win streak kept the Capitals firmly at No. 1 while the surprising Panthers made a rapid climb to No. 2 in SI.com’s Week 12 NHL Power Rankings.
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It had all the makings of another one of those seasons for the Florida Panthers. The perennial patsies got off to a sluggish 8-9-4 start that buried them in sixth place in the Atlantic Division, 16 points behind the surging Montreal Canadiens, and left them to mark time until the draft.

And then everything changed. An innocuous 3–2 shootout win over the Islanders on Nov. 27 kicked off a surprising 12-3-0 stretch that has the Panthers poised to assume first place with a win on Tuesday night in Montreal.

Florida was supposed to be better this season, but no one expected this. Led by Alexander Barkov, who has emerged as the Panthers} answer to Jonathan Toews, and some stellar goaltending from Roberto Luongo, they’ve overcome a string of injuries and some underwhelming special teams to emerge as a legitimate threat heading into the second half of the season. 

Biggest jump: Calgary Flames (14 to 7)

Biggest drop: Edmonton Oilers (13 to 21)

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1. Washington Capitals

PREVIOUS: 1

RECORD: 27-6-2

Make it eight straight wins for the Caps, who knocked off the Canadiens and Sabres to tighten their grip on first place in the Eastern Conference. It’s an impressive run considering their overall play hasn’t lived up to the results. They’ve spent too much time chasing the puck lately, but have gotten by on the strength of some excellent work by goaltender Braden Holtby and their second-ranked power play. That’s the mark of a great team, though—they find a way even when they’re not at their best. Last week: 2-0-0

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2. Florida Panthers

PREVIOUS: 6

RECORD: 20-12-4

Shot suppression has been key to Florida’s stunning 10-3 December. According to War-On-Ice.com, they Panthers are holding opposing teams to just 45 attempts per 60 minutes this month, fewest in the league. They will have a chance to win their seventh straight game, and take over first place in the Atlantic Division, when they face the Canadiens on Tuesday night. Last week: 2-0-0

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3. Dallas Stars

PREVIOUS: 2

RECORD: 27-7-3

A pair of shutouts—one each for Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen—against divisional rivals Chicago and St. Louis highlighted another impressive week for the Stars. Dallas is now 6-2-1 against its Central Division bunkmates, on pace to finish well ahead of the 8-14-7 record the Stars turned in last season. Last week: 2-0-1

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4. Los Angeles Kings

PREVIOUS: 5

RECORD: 22-11-2

Jonathan Quick made 27 stops to lead the Kings to a 5–0 win over the Canucks on Monday night. The shutout was his second in four starts as well as the 40th of his career, tying him with Frank Brimsek and John Vanbiesbrouck for the most all-time by an American-born goalie. Last week: 2-1-0

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5. St. Louis Blues

PREVIOUS: 10

RECORD: 22-12-4

Brian Elliott may have been relegated to the backup role by the play of Jake Allen, but he’s been terrific when called upon. The veteran keeper, a hard-luck loser in Saturday’s 3–0 defeat in Dallas, has allowed just 12 goals in his past eight appearances, posting a sturdy .937 save percentage. Last week: 2-1-0

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6. Colorado Avalanche

PREVIOUS: 8

RECORD: 18-17-2

Colorado is on a 9-3-1 roll through December that has pulled the Avs to within six points of third place in the Central. They’ve been especially tough against divisional rivals, going 4-1 this month. Last week: 1-0-1

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7. Calgary Flames

PREVIOUS: 14

RECORD: 17-16-2

If only they could play ’em all at home. Wins over the Jets and Oilers extended Calgary’s winning streak at the Saddledome to 11 games, a new franchise record. The Flames have scored at least four goals in each of their past seven games during their sizzling stretch. Last week: 2-0-0

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8. Minnesota Wild

PREVIOUS: 9

RECORD: 19-10-6

It’s been a nice bounceback season for Darcy Kuemper, who’s played his way back into the mix for the Wild with five consecutive strong starts. The veteran stopper is now 4-0-4, with a .926 save percentage and 2.13 GAA, both figures superior to his career averages. Last week: 2-1-0

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9. Detroit Red Wings

PREVIOUS: 7

RECORD: 18-11-7

Man, it’s tough watching Pavel Datsyuk lately. The veteran is looking every minute of his 37 years since returning from ankle surgery. There’s still some magic left in the hands, but the wheels are betraying him. Last week: 1-2-0

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10. Boston Bruins

PREVIOUS: 3

RECORD: 19-12-4

It’s not just that the B]s have dropped three straight. It’s that they dropped three straight with a chance to grab first place in the Atlantic. That 6–3 loss to the Sabres on Saturday may well have been their most complete breakdown of the season. Where’s the killer instinct? Last week: 0-3-0

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11. Chicago Blackhawks

PREVIOUS: 4

RECORD: 20-13-4

Only a Brent Seabrook goal with three seconds on the clock spared the Hawks from being whitewashed in back-to-back losses to the Stars and ’Canes. Duncan Keith wasn’t pointing fingers when he suggested that he and his teammates were being “too pretty” but he might have been looking at Teuvo Teravainen, who was dumped to the third line after a couple of soft efforts. Last week: 0-2-0

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12. Tampa Bay Lightning

PREVIOUS: 12

RECORD: 18-15-4

The Bolts blew a lead with six minutes remaining in the third period on Monday night to a Montreal team that had lost six straight. This is an inefficient way for a team to pull itself back into the playoff race. Last week: 1-1-1

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13. Carolina Hurricanes

PREVIOUS: 19

RECORD: 15-16-5

The ’Canes sit 25th in goals allowed per game at 2.83, but they’re moving in the right direction. They’ve given up just seven in their past five contests, and both Cam Ward and Eddie Lack are showing signs of improvement after miserable starts. If one of them can grab the reins, this team might make some noise down the stretch. Last week: 2-0-0

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14. Nashville Predators

PREVIOUS: 16

RECORD: 18-12-6

The Preds haven’t solved their offensive problems just yet, but at least their power play is back on track. Nashville went 2-of-2 with the extra man in Monday’s 5–3 win over the Rangers. That moved them to 12-of-41 for December (29%), a far sight better than their 7-of-48 performance (14.6%) in November. Last week: 1-1-0

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15. Ottawa Senators

PREVIOUS: 17

RECORD: 18-12-6

With just three wins in their past eight games, the Sens might want to figure out a way to tighten it up in their own zone. Ottawa is allowing a league-worst 34 shots per game, and all that time spent chasing the puck is limiting them to 27.5 shots of their own, the third-fewest. Last week: 1-0-1

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16. Philadelphia Flyers

PREVIOUS: 15

RECORD: 15-13-7

The move to left wing suits Jake Voracek. The big winger has put up points in five straight games (3-5-8) since being shifted and finally is starting to look like the player the Flyers need him to be. Last week: 0-1-0

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17. Toronto Maple Leafs

PREVIOUS: 21

RECORD: 13-14-7

No one’s blocking dates at the Air Canada Centre for mid-April just yet, but Toronto’s 5-1-2 run suggests this team could be more than just a spoiler in the second half. The Leafs’ 13th-ranked defense has cut nearly half a goal per game off the ledger as compared to last season, down to 2.65 from 3.13. Last week: 1-1-0

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18. New York Islanders

PREVIOUS: 11

RECORD: 19-12-5

The offense has gone south and so have the Isles. New York has lost four of five after dropping a 3–1 decision to the Maple Leafs, and has scored just three goals total in those losses. Maybe that’s not surprising given the personal offensive struggles of John Tavares. The captain has been blanked in eight of his past 10 games and has just one goal in that stretch. Last week: 0-1-0

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19. New Jersey Devils

PREVIOUS: 18

RECORD: 17-14-5

The Devils have dropped out of the playoff picture in the East, and they have their inconsistency to blame. They haven’t won consecutive games since Nov. 12-14. That inability to bank points in bunches is killing them. Last week: 1-1-0

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20. Buffalo Sabres

PREVIOUS: 20

RECORD: 15-17-4

The Sabres are another team that’s done a nice job of trimming their goals-against this season. After allowing just two to Washington’s Eastern Conference-leading offense on Monday, Buffalo is averaging only 2.53 goals-against, good for 14th in the league. That’s a marked improvement over the 3.28 (29th) the Sabres gave up in 2014-15. Last week: 1-1-0

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21. Edmonton Oilers

PREVIOUS: 13

RECORD: 15-19-3

A 5–3 loss to Calgary—Edmonton’s fifth defeat in six games—highlighted its continuing woes on the power play. The Oilers have gone five straight without scoring with the extra man, and have allowed two shorties in that stretch, including a killer to the Flames. Maybe the big body of newcomer Zack Kassian might eventually help tilt the balance their way if he can keep his nose clean and he skates in a straight line to the front of the net. Last week: 0-1-0

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22. New York Rangers

PREVIOUS: 22

RECORD: 20-13-4

With one game left on their December schedule, the Rangers have just two regulation wins to show for their month’s work. Henrik Lundqvist, their savior in their early going, has been pulled in four of his past seven appearances and sports an .863 save percentage over that stretch. Woof. Last week: 1-1-0

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23. Anaheim Ducks

PREVIOUS: 25

RECORD: 13-15-6

For a team scrapping to find some level ground, the little things matter. Sunday’s 4–2 win over Philly was the Ducks’ third victory in four games at the Honda Center. And Ryan Getzlaf’s goal—his first to beat a netminder this season—broke an 0-for-18 slump by the power play. If the captain, and the special teams, start clicking, the Ducks could make some noise in the second half. Last week: 1-0-1

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24. Pittsburgh Penguins

PREVIOUS: 23

RECORD: 17-15-3

The Penguins can’t seem to find any traction offensively, but at least their defense is tightening up under new coach Mike Sullivan. After allowing six goals to the Bruins in a half-hearted effort back on Dec. 18, Pittsburgh has surrendered a total of six in their past four games. The Pens have also allowed an average of 26 shots in those games, well below their season average of 31.5. Last week: 1-1-0

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25. Winnipeg Jets

PREVIOUS: 26

RECORD: 16-17-2

The play of rookie goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been up and down, but he looked the part of the team’s future starter during a 1–0 win over the Penguins on Sunday night. The 30-save performance earned him the first shutout of his career. Last week: 1-1-0

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26. arizona Coyotes

PREVIOUS: 30

RECORD: 15-15-3

UFA-to-be Mikkel Boedker has contributed to each of Arizona’s past five goals (1-4-5), including the OT marker in Sunday’s 2–1 win over the Avs. That’s a nice little reminder of his value to the team just ahead of the contract talks which are expected to start next month. Last week: 1-0-0

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27. Vancouver Canucks

PREVIOUS: 28

RECORD: 14-15-9

Glass half-full: The Canucks closed out the 2015 portion of their schedule on a relative high, going 3-1-1. Glass half-empty: They were wiped out by the Kings, 5–0, in their finale for the year and are missing three of their top-four defenders moving forward. If they get anything less than stellar goaltending, this team is roadkill. Last week: 2-1-0

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28. Montreal Canadiens

PREVIOUS: 24

RECORD: 21-14-3

No one’s planning a parade along the usual route just yet, but at least the Habs put their dismal six-game losing streak behind them with Monday’s 4–3 win over the Bolts. Tomas Plekanec finally broke his 21-game goal scoring drought and Max Pacioretty, facing the first crisis of his captaincy, assisted on the tying goal before clinching it with his SO goal. Montreal needs those two to start clicking if the Habs hope to regain some of the ground they’ve given up. Last week: 1-0-0

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29. San Jose Sharks

PREVIOUS: 27

RECORD: 17-16-2

Hard to tell what’s more troubling: the fact that the Sharks have allowed 21 goals in their past five starts or that Monday’s loss to the Avs was San Jose’s 10th home defeat of the season, the most of any team in the league. But hey, they’re changing up the goal song and in-game entertainment at SAP Center, so upcoming losses will at least feel like a whole new experience. Last week: 1-1-0

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30. Columbus Blue Jackets

PREVIOUS: 29

RECORD: 13-22-3

It’s not the lack of talent that’s killing this team lately. It’s the lack of discipline. The Jackets were whistled for 23 infractions in their last three losses, cementing their standing as the league’s most penalized team. And it’s not even close. Columbus has been assessed 518 minutes so far this season. Vancouver is next at 458. Last week: 0-2-0