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NHL Power Rankings: Sharks lead pack into second half

With the All-Star break over, the upstart San Jose Sharks are poised to lead the NHL pack into the playoff stretch drive.

And just like that, we’re in the home stretch. Four weeks out from the Feb. 29 trade deadline. Ten weeks from the end of the season.

While the inclination might be to ask, “Where did the time go?” the better question is, “What comes next?” For this week’s Power Rankings, we’re taking a look not just at where each team is at for the moment, but where they’re heading as the 2015-16 season winds down. Some are ready to build on early success. Others are trying to separate themselves from the pack. And still others are just hoping to salvage something from the wreckage. No matter where your favorite team sits, things are about to get interesting.

• Bold crystal ball predictions for the stretch drive

Biggest jump: Nashville Predators (20 to 10)

Biggest drop: Arizona Coyotes (8 to 16); New Jersey Devils (9 to 17)

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1. San Jose Sharks


RECORD: 26-18-4

The Sharks have been maddeningly inconsistent this season, but their current 8-0-2 run can’t be denied. They’ve addressed their problems at home, going 5-0-2 in their past seven at the SAP Center and are a more complete team with Logan Couture back in the lineup. The key to the second half could be the play of goaltender Martin Jones. He’s done well in his first season as a starter, but the workload is piling up. Can he manage the grind? Last week: 1-0-0

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2. Washington Capitals


RECORD: 35-8-4

Should Caps fans be worried about the team’s middling possession numbers catching up with it? Not in the least. The way Washington grabs a lead and holds on—a league-best +9 goal differential in the first period and +22 in the second—forces opponents to fire away in an effort to catch up. The fanciest stat this team concerns itself with is the final score. Last week: 0-0-1

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3. Tampa Bay Lightning


RECORD: 27-18-4

The Bolts have put their early inconsistency behind them, running up a 16-7-1 mark since Dec. 1. Chalk it up to icing a full roster after weeks of shuttling players on and off of IR. If they can stay healthy, they can make a run at the Atlantic Division title. Expect them to hold on to pending UFA Steven Stamkos for the playoffs. It's risky, but it's the best option available to them. Last week: 1-0-0

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4. Los Angeles Kings


RECORD: 30-16-3

Bouncing back from a disastrous 2014-15 campaign, the Kings look like themselves again: Heavy, nasty, defensively sound ... and touch-and-go on offense. Milan Lucic has been a nice add, and Tyler Toffoli has been a revelation, but there’s not much help coming from outside the top-six. GM Dean Lombardi has already addressed depth concerns with the trade for Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn. It’s a good bet though that he’s not done tinkering. Last week: 1-0-0

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5. Florida Panthers


RECORD: 29-15-5

If the Panthers are going to secure their hold on first place in the Atlantic, now’s the time to do it. They’ll play eight of their first 11 at home coming out of the break and could put some space between themselves and the pack with a successful stand. Expect GM Dale Tallon to get busy bolstering his roster ahead of the deadline. Last week: 1-0-0

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6. Chicago Blackhawks


RECORD: 33-16-4

Forget about dropping three of four before the break and being outscored 11-3 in the process. The Hawks have revealed their potential several times during the course of this season, including the 12-game winning streak that powered their move to the top of the Central Division. As long as they can stay healthy, Chicago is well situated to repeat as Stanley Cup champs. Last week: 0-1-0

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7. Anaheim Ducks


RECORD: 22-18-7

The Ducks haven’t lived up to their status as a preseason Cup favorite, but they finally seem to be approaching their potential. All-Star netminder John Gibson has been full marks for the hype, and their top-ranked penalty kill has a game-changer. Now it’s up to players like Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Jakob Silfverberg and others to start cashing in on their chances with some consistency. If that isn’t happening in short order, look for GM Bob Murray to load up his cart before the deadline. Last week: 1-0-0

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8. Colorado Avalanche


RECORD: 27-22-3

The Avs have put their own sloppy start behind them with a solid 18-8-2 run keyed by a commitment to team defense and a solid stretch of play from netminder Semyon Varlamov. The trick to keeping the ball rolling? Continue their dominance of the Central. They have 12 divisional games remaining this season. Those results will determine if they move on. Last week: 1-1-0

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9. Carolina Hurricanes


RECORD: 23-20-8

They’re on a terrific run of late, moving to 7-2-1 in their past 10 games with a 5–0 thrashing of the Hawks before the break. Could these Canes actually make the playoffs? Sure ... but it’s going to take some terrific goaltending to get them there. Eddie Lack has been on a nice run since Cam Ward’s injury, but his season save percentage of .904 suggests this is an uphill battle. Last week: 1-0-0

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10. Nashville Predators


RECORD: 24-18-8

Even after giving up Seth Jones in the Ryan Johansen trade, defense continues to be the backbone of this team. The Preds have won four straight, allowing a single goal in each. Pekka Rinne was between the pipes for three of them, hinting that he might rediscover the elite form that’s eluded him for much of this season. If he finds his swing, Nashville has a legitimate shot at a wild card. Last week: 2-0-0

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11. Pittsburgh Penguins


RECORD: 24-17-7

The Penguins hit the break with three consecutive wins and finally seem to have their game back on track. Blueliner Kris Letang has been brilliant since returning to the lineup, keying a transition game that has Pittsburgh poised for a strong second half. If coach Mike Sullivan can light a fire under Phil Kessel, watch out. Last week: 1-0-0

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12. Detroit Red Wings


RECORD: 25-16-8

A team in transition, the Red Wings have been one of the season’s best surprises. Coach Jeff Blashill has been a steady and resourceful presence behind the bench. Petr Mrazek has excelled as he’s been given a larger share of goaltending duties and rookie Dylan Larkin looks like the second coming of Jonathan Toews. A 25th consecutive playoff berth seems likely, but they could use a little more scoring. Last week: 0-0-0

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13. St. Louis Blues


RECORD: 28-16-8

The Blues were devastated by injuries in the first half, losing 189 man-games and suffering a greater impact from their diminished roster than any other team. Getting Jaden Schwartz back in the lineup after the All-Star break could mean as much to the Blues as a major deadline pickup. He’ll make an difference on and off the ice. Last week: 0-0-0

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14. New York Rangers


RECORD: 27-15-5

Time for the passengers on this team to start earning their fare. Players like Derek Stepan, Rick Nash and Chris Kreider are pulling heavy ice time (ranking third, fourth and fifth among the team’s forwards) but aren’t producing. And the power play is in a deep rut, coming off a 2-for-31 January. There’s a playoff spot to be had, but they’re letting it slip away. Last week: 0-0-0

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15. Dallas Stars


RECORD: 31-14-5

The Stars are a virtual lock to make the playoffs thanks to their franchise-best start, but it will be a short ride if they don’t address some serious issues. Dallas leads the league with 550 giveaways, evidence of its descent into sloppy decision-making and defensive play. The Stars could use a steady, right-shooting presence on the back end. It would surprise no one if GM Jim Nill made a major acquisition before the deadline. Last week: 0-0-0

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16. arizona Coyotes


RECORD: 24-20-5

You never want to see any player get hurt, but losing goalie Mike Smith long-term to an abdominal injury has worked out pretty well for the Coyotes. They’re discovering that they might have something in Louis Domingue, the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for January and the player who has kept them in the playoff hunt well beyond anyone’s expectations. His play, along with that of stellar young forwards Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, give this team a chance down the stretch. Last week: 0-1-0

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17. New Jersey Devils


RECORD: 25-20-5

Cory Schneider has given this team playoff-caliber goaltending, and Kyle Palmieri has been one of the season’s top surprises, setting a new personal best with 20 goals at the break. Still have to wonder how far this team can go when the plan is to win every game 2–1. GM Ray Shero has cap space to work with. If he can find scoring help before the deadline, he owes it to this team to make the deal. Last week: 0-1-0

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18. Philadelphia Flyers


RECORD: 21-18-8

With 15 games in 29 days, February will tell the story of Philadelphia’s season. Like the Devils, the Flyers need scoring (their 107 goals rank 29th). Unlike the Devils, they have an abundance of assets to work with. The question: Is GM Ron Hextall willing to part with one of his many defensive prospects to shore up his forward corps? If not, the playoffs are a pipe dream. Last week: 1-0-0

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19. Boston Bruins


RECORD: 26-18-5

The B’s come out of the break holding on to a wild card spot. Of course, they were in the same situation at this time last season and look how that turned out. That team was sabotaged by injuries. This year? It’ll likely be the worst defense that Boston has iced in years that crushes their postseason dreams. GM Don Sweeney has a tough call ahead with pending UFA Loui Eriksson. Signing him puts a strain on their cap moving forward. Moving him is basically the hoisting of the white flag. Last week: 0-1-0

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20. New York Islanders


RECORD: 25-16-6

It’s amazing that the Isles are in the position they are given how many players underperformed in the first half. Captain John Tavares was an All-Star by default. Anders Lee and Ryan Strome are shadows of what they were in 2014-15. With Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen headed for free agency there could be significant changes ahead. Last week: 0-0-0

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21. Vancouver Canucks


RECORD: 20-19-11

The story of Vancouver’s first half can be summed up in one stat: their league-worst 3-9 mark in the overtime. Maybe that’s an accurate reflection of the lack of depth and experience beyond the Sedins, but other teams are finding a way to win. If the Canucks are going to extend their season, they have to start banking their share in three-on-three overtime. Last week: 0-1-0

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22. Calgary Flames


RECORD: 21-24-3

For all the good of the first half—the play of Johnny Gaudreau, their 11-game home winning streak, their excellent record in OT—the Flames are a playoff afterthought. The reason? Their special teams play. That 75.5% penalty kill (29th) and 13.5% power play (30th) have cost them far too many games. The personnel seems to be on hand. The pressure falls directly on coach Bob Hartley then to get both units back on track. Last week: 0-1-0

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23. Ottawa Senators


RECORD: 23-21-6

The Sens are badly banged up, and the recent performance of his diminished lineup left coach Dave Cameron to wonder if his depth players can carry the extra weight. The bigger question is whether they have the defense to spark another miracle run down the stretch. The Sens are allowing 3.02 goals-against so far this season, 29th in the league. Unless they cut off close to a goal per, they’re toast. Last week: 0-1-0

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24. Columbus Blue Jackets


RECORD: 19-27-5

Aside from turning the final three months into a lengthy tryout for next season, the Blue Jackets have to solve their Sergei Bobrovsky problem The former Vezina Trophy winner has already suffered three injuries to the left side of his groin this season and his long-term viability as the team’s starting goaltender is officially up in the air. Last week: 1-0-0

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25. Winnipeg Jets


RECORD: 22-24-3

All signs point to another lost season for the Jets, who come out of the break nine points out of a playoff spot and seemingly content to tread water (5-6-1 in January). But they will be the center of attention over the next four weeks as the hockey world waits for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to commit to, or cut ties with, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien. The real challenge though: finding a taker for Ondrej Pavelec now that Connor Hellebuyck has settled in as the starter. Last week: 1-0-0

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26. Minnesota Wild


RECORD: 23-17-9

Going strictly by the numbers, the Wild enjoyed their best first half in franchise history (52 points in 41 games). But whatever momentum they had dissipated during a dismal 3-7-3 January that knocked them out of playoff position. Another late-season surge is possible, but only if slumping scorers like Zach Parise (3-0-3 in his past 10 games) and Mikko Koivu (0-3-3 in his past 10) start playing up to their paper. Last week: 0-0-0

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27. Buffalo Sabres


RECORD: 20-26-4

It’s not a big deal that guys like Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis aren’t producing—they are merely placeholders. The problem is the diminishing returns from players the Sabres are counting on long term like Zemgus Girgensons, Marcus Foligno and Jake McCabe. Onus is on them to step it up in the second half. Last week: 1-0-0

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28. Edmonton Oilers


RECORD: 19-26-5

Did we expect too much from this team? After a summer of change, it felt like the Oilers were due for a step forward this season. Instead they’ve struggled with injuries and inexperience and seem destined for another finish in the Western Conference cellar. At least the future (re-)starts on Tuesday night when Connor McDavid returns to the lineup. Last week: 0-0-0

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29. Toronto Maple Leafs


RECORD: 17-22-9

Mike Babcock can work miracles behind the bench, but he can’t score goals. Neither can the Leafs, who have potted 11 in their past 10 games. The second half promises 10 more weeks of growing pains and several moves ahead of the deadline. The big question: Can/will they move one of their goalies? Last week: 0-2-0

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30. Montreal Canadiens


RECORD: 24-22-4

With the Canadiens immersed in their worst stretch of hockey since the 1939-40 season and the playoffs slipping away from their grasp, they need to inject a little positivity into their white-knuckle roster. Does GM Marc Bergevin have the guts to reverse his decision and call up All-Star Game hero John Scott? Last week: 0-1-0