- Boston Bruins (4) – 8-2 in their last 10 and averaging over 3 goals per game in that stretch, I would not want to be an Eastern Conference team that has to face them often. They have claimed the top spot this week with an astounding 2nd in goals per game and 1st in GAA ranking in the NHL. Enforcers Marchand and Lucic are finding the back of the net and the points are piling up which can only lead to success with this team. Lucic only received a 1 game suspension for his latest hit on Zac Rinaldo so I don’t foresee a drop off for the Bruins physical and aggressive style of hockey this week.
- Chicago Blackhawks (9) – In what some will consider to be a minor coup, the Hawks have jumped the Red Wings this week with some impressive play. A slight improvement on their GAA (2.7) in their last 10 and that is due to moving Ray Emery into the starting spot over the still slumping Crawford. The health of defenseman Brent Seabrook is now in question as he possibly suffered a concussion during Sunday nights 4-2 victory over the Flames which will only add pressure to Emery. They have a relatively soft schedule before the December 30th showdown with the Detroit Red Wings so I look to the Hawks to hold down the number one spot for at least another week.
- Detroit Red Wings (1) – The Wings continue to be a dominant force at home where they haven’t lost since November 3rd and some what of an enigma on the road. A strong 4-1 victory in Pittsburgh was followed up by a flat 4-3 loss to the lowly Nashville Predators. They have 3 game Canadian tour and a game in Nashville before they start a brutal 6 game stretch that includes 2 games against both the Blues and the Blackhawks. Things should start taking shape in the middle of January and I expect the Red Wings to be towards the top of the heap in a tough division.
- Philadelphia Flyers (2)- Their 7 game win streak was brought to a halt at the hands of a 6-0 drubbing by the Bruins, but this team continues to score a ton of goals. The injury of Chris Pronger will hurt this already struggling defense/goal tending and they will not be able to get by on too many games without Claude Giroux. I can see the Flyers making a move to pick up a defenseman if they hope to keep pace with the Bruins and give Bobrovsky some more starts in net to see if he can be their long-term solution.
- Minnesota Wild (3) – After reeling off 7 straight wins they Wild came back down to earth with 3 straight losses as they continue to struggle to find the back of the net. Minnesota is a team with a lot of the right parts it is just that the parts are not performing up to the level that they are capable of. Dany Heatley continues to struggle with consistency and is looking more like the player of last year who only netted 26 goals when he had averaged over 40 the previous 5 seasons. Pierre-Marc Bouchard returns only to see Mikko Koivu out with a leg injury, which the Wild cannot afford to go many games without.
- Vancouver Canucks (5) – The Canucks have been slowly creeping up on the Wild and it all comes to a head with their Northwest Division showdown tonight. Their 4 game home stretch also includes a Wednesday against the Red Wings so we should have a good handle on the current status of the Western Conference elite. They continue to be a beast on the power play and have gotten the goal tending situation under control, there is no reason to believe that the Canucks won’t win their division and be a top 2-3 seed in the West come playoff time.
- St. Louis Blues (10) – The Blues have impressed, even with their poor penalty kill and even poorer power play (30th in the league) it would seem like Ken Hitchcock has this team believing. The poor execution with a man advantage will continue to punish them if they hope to hang in their dogfight of a division (2-14 in their last 5 games is not going to cut it) and they are going to have to continue to score goal to take some pressure off the goalie. They have two home games against the Red Wings before the end of the month and the Blues will look to stay hot through the end of the year.
- New York Rangers (7) – They have hurdled the Penguins into second place in their division but it was a result of the Pens .500 play in their last 10 and the Rangers only slightly doing better at 6-3-1. Gaborik is turning into the star that they expected and Henrik Lundqvist is putting up another all-star caliber season. Brad Richards is finally turning the corner and becoming the leader that the team needs on the ice but who is going to step up as a 3rd option? Will Ryan Callahan keep it up? His 7 points in the last 9 games is a bit marred by his -4 +/- in that same span. This team will need to solidify its identity if it wants to pass the Flyers for the top spot in their division.
- Florida Panthers (8) – Yes I continue to doubt the Panthers because they continue to wallow in mediocrity in what is arguably the worst division in all of hockey. The +6 goal differential and three straight losses to tough Eastern Conference competition followed by 2 weak wins has me seriously doubting the Panthers. It isn’t all negative from me about the Panthers, as Kris Versteeg is having a hell of a season and truly exciting to watch. I am going to say it now, don’t be surprised to see Florida in third place in their division by the end of the year.
- Pittsburgh Penguins (6) – The suddenly struggling Pens almost dropped out of my top 10 this week but their 8-3 win over Buffalo saved them……..for now. Tomorrows game against the Chicago Blackhawks should show us if they have worked thru their issues which include Mar-Andre Fleury’s sub .900 save percentage in the last 5 games. The team was gelling without Crosby, who made his brief appearance and left the team looking for their cohesion again.
I apologize for the tardiness of my doctrine this week, I have been feeling a little under the weather the last 24 hours. Maybe it is a cold or maybe it is a serious case of mediocrity that I am seeing out of the teams that I expect to see at the top of this list. Either way I am going to need a nice warm blanket and plenty of rest, maybe by the end of December the NHL will bring me some good cheer and good health.
Coach Ryan’s Sound Off of the Week:
I didn’t think Cal would move the Hawks above the Wings and for that I have to give him credit. I think regardless when it comes to playoff time these two could meet in what could be the playoff matchup of the year. I also pay notice in both of our lists dropping the Pens down to the bottom of the list, and rightfully so. It seems this week we disagree on the Canucks and the Panthers but being that the Canucks were so low I had a harder problem moving them up that high and really the Panthers at five? I don’t mind keeping them out of the top ten but perhaps a road trip down to Sunset, FL would give Cal the extra incentive to start giving credit to those rink rats in Southern Florida.