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Power Rankings

Lightning poised for run at second consecutive Southeast Division title

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The Eastern Conference is loaded at the top, with New Jersey, Ottawa, Philadelphia and Toronto in a dogfight for the No. 1 seed.

But the Tampa Bay Lightning could throw themselves into the mix for the battle for the top spot if they can keep up their impressive play. The Lightning went 2-0-0-1 last week and are 8-2-0-2 in their past 12 games, losing to the Senators and Panthers in regulation, and the Avalanche and Canucks in overtime. That means Tampa Bay's only losses since Jan. 3 have come to three of the top five teams in this week's rankings, and to its cross-state rival in a game in which Roberto Luongo made an NHL season-high 50 saves.

After racing to a 7-0-1 start, Tampa Bay went 8-14-5-1 over the next nine weeks and fell behind the surprising Atlanta Thrashers in the Southeast Division. But the Lightning have turned it around in the new year and now own a six-point lead on the Thrashers with three games in hand. Unless the wheels fall off in the final 9 1/2 weeks of the season, Tampa Bay looks like a good bet to win its second straight Southeast crown.

The main event during the Lightning's slump was a feud between head coach John Tortorella and star center Vincent Lecavalier. Even though Lecavalier's numbers are down from his career-high totals last season, he is plus-2 and has done a decent job killing penalties. Tampa Bay needs more production from Lecavalier at even strength and on the power play, but he vowed last week to pick up his play in the second half of the season.

And since the Lecavalier-Tortorella feud has since simmered down, an all-out goalie controversy has broken out in Tampa.

Backup John Grahame is clearly outplaying starter Nikolai Khabibulin, and the Lightning seem to play with more confidence when Grahame is in net. They won't anoint Grahame as the official No. 1 guy, even though he's played seven of the past 10 games.

Khabibulin has a $6.5 million team option for next season, while Grahame is scheduled to make $1.25 million. A second straight playoff appearance would put some additional money in the franchise's coffers, but it doesn't take Warren Buffet or Donald Trump to realize that Grahame gives you more bang for your puck-stopping buck.

General manager Jay Feaster says he wants to keep both, and having two talented goalies is a nice luxury to have, but the Lightning need help in other areas if they want to compete with the acknowledged Eastern Conference big four in the playoffs.

As nice as it would be to trade Khabibulin for a scoring forward or another defenseman, Tampa Bay would take goaltending from a strength to a weakness by doing so. The Lightning have no goalies in the AHL, with only Brian Eklund and Evgeny Konstantinov of ECHL Pensacola among their prospects.

Tampa Bay made a bold move to fill its biggest weakness Tuesday by trading 2001 No. 3 overall pick Alexander Svitov and a 2004 third-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for puck-moving defenseman Darryl Sydor and a 2004 fourth-rounder.

"Darryl Sydor is the top four defenseman we have been searching for quite some time now," Feaster said. "He will bring veteran leadership and significant playoff experience to our hockey club as he has already played more than 900 NHL regular season games and almost 100 Stanley Cup playoff games at the age of 31."

Sydor will team with Jassen Cullimore, Cory Sarich and Pavel Kubina to form the Lightning's much-improved top four, while Brad Lukowich and Dan Boyle will likely stay together on the third pair, with Nolan Pratt providing depth.

Lecavalier has been playing with Ruslan Fedotenko and All-Star Martin St. Louis lately. St. Louis' finishing ability meshes well with Lecavalier's playmaking skills, and Lecavalier had helpers on two of St. Louis' three goals in Saturday's 6-2 win in Calgary.

Tampa Bay's second line of Fredrik Modin, Brad Richards and Cory Stillman has picked up its play, while the checking unit of Dave Andreychuk, Tim Taylor and Ben Clymer has been superb defensively. But it's the fourth line of Chris Dingman, Martin Cibak and Dmitry Afanasenkov that has stood out lately, despite having just five combined goals this season.

Tortorella rolls his four lines and distributes the minutes nicely, with no Lightning players in either the top 15 among forwards or defensemen for average time on ice. The impressive recent play of the fourth line has allowed Tortorella to give less minutes to his scoring lines and keep his top guns more fresh.

The Bolts have a golden opportunity to put some ground between themselves and the Thrashers this week. Tampa Bay plays a home-and-home series with Pittsburgh on Tuesday and Thursday, plays host to Atlanta on Saturday, and then travels to Philadelphia on Monday to kick off a three-game road trip. With the Thrashers hosting the Blues and Maple Leafs in Atlanta before their weekend meeting with the Lightning, Tampa Bay could have a 12-point division lead after this weekend if it goes 3-0 and Atlanta goes 0-3.

SI.com's Jon A. Dolezar
Rank LW Team
1 1 Colorado Avalanche (28-11-8-2)
The Avs have the league's best winning percentage (.673), power play (23.1), road record (14-3-6-2) and the fewest total losses (13). That's good enough for a third straight week at the top of the list in my book.
2 2 Ottawa Senators (27-12-7-3)
How on Earth did Jason Spezza get left off the YoungStars Game roster while Derek Roy made it? I know the NHL claims to want as many rookies as possible, but that wasn't the guideline it set forth when the YoungStars Game started two years ago. Sure, the league wanted to have a Sabre represented on All-Star weekend, but Roy over Spezza is a joke.
3 4 New Jersey Devils (25-12-10-1)
It's still possible that life without Scott Stevens could get a little hairy for the Devils, but a 3-1 mark last week and scrappy wins over the Canadiens and Thrashers over the weekend were morale boosters.
4 9 Toronto Maple Leafs (27-12-8-3)
Bryan McCabe has 29 points in 43 games to put him sixth in scoring among defensemen. If the Leafs can finagle now-injured Sergei Gonchar from the Capitals before the trade deadline as is the rumor, their blueline would be among the best in the league. Not bad for a team that was in panic mode about its defensemen before signing Ken Klee in the preseason.
5 7 Vancouver Canucks (27-14-7-2)
Markus Naslund is on pace for a 99-point season, which would be five short of the career-high total he set last year. But Nazzy is playing a more complete game and is doing a greater percentage of his damage at even strength this season (44 points), after scoring 54 of his 104 points last season on the power play.
6 3 Detroit Red Wings (28-15-7-2)
No matter how many times Pavel Datsyuk scores on Marty Turco in his career -- including his wrist shot from the top of the left circle in the first period of Monday's 2-2 tie -- it will never approach his breakaway goal on Nov. 12 when he undressed Turco with one of the craziest dekes ever.
7 5 San Jose Sharks (23-12-11-4)
The Sharks split a home-and-home with the Coyotes last week, each team winning on the road. San Jose is still 7-2-0-1 in its past 10 games, but Toronto and Vancouver each had perfect weeks and deserve to jump the Sharks (not that any of these teams are yet jumping the shark) based on more consistency over the course of the entire season.
8 8 Philadelphia Flyers (25-11-10-5)
The first-place Flyers are four points up on the Devils in the Atlantic Division, but New Jersey has three games in hand. Philadelphia went 3-1 last week, but the wins were against the New York Rangers, Buffalo and Washington, who are a combined 53-74-17-7. The Flyers have a shot at another six-point week with games at Florida, at Pittsburgh and home against Tampa Bay.
9 6 St. Louis Blues (25-16-6-1)
A surprising goal-scoring slump was the main culprit for the Blues' disappointing 0-3 week, as they were outscored 8-3 in losses to Columbus, Dallas and Dallas again. The Blues had been able to mask their defensive deficiencies with Al MacInnis and Barret Jackman out, but they could use another puck-moving defenseman before the trade deadline to help Chris Pronger. But it's going to be a tight market for blueliners and needy teams probably will overpay.
10 14 Tampa Bay Lightning (23-16-6-3)
The Lightning have tough guy Andre Roy on the bench if they need him, and they could call on AHL All-Star Eric Perrin if added scoring punch is required. Even if injuries hit down the stretch, Tampa Bay should be able to weather the storm.
11 11 Boston Bruins (22-14-10-4)
For your Bruins news over the next week, please see page 18 of the sports page in the Boston Globe or Boston Herald. With the Patriots playing in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston on Sunday, the B's don't stand much of a chance to get noticed in New England unless Joe Thornton goes down with a season-ending injury.
12 10 Montreal Canadiens (24-18-6-2)
Mike Ribeiro has a good argument about why he should have been named an All-Star reserve for the East, but he would've been third in line, at best, behind Slava Kozlov and Marc Savard. Besides, the Canadiens will be well represented in St. Paul by Sheldon Souray and Jose Theodore in the All-Star Game, and Michael Ryder in the YoungStars Game.
13 15 New York Islanders (24-20-4-1)
Rick DiPietro has grabbed the starting job from Garth Snow, and the Isles' playoff hopes are firmly in the hands of the brash 22-year-old netminder. DiPietro's 3-0 shutout of the Thrashers on Saturday was his second in six games and he's gaining confidence with every start, as evidenced by his .938 save percentage in January.
14 13 Calgary Flames (24-17-4-3)
The Flames are hoping Miikka Kiprusoff's knee injury magically heals more quickly than originally hoped, because Roman Turek's hot-and-cold play in the five games since he returned isn't helping the team's confidence. Calgary is just 5-7-2 in its past 14 games, and fans are praying that a December surge wasn't just a tease on the way to another spring without postseason hockey.
15 16 Dallas Stars (23-20-9-0)
To paraphrase Eminem, will the real Dallas Stars please stand up? The Stars are 10-4-4-0 since Dec. 19 and look like they could be a threat in the Western Conference playoff race before it's settled.
16 12 Nashville Predators (24-18-6-2)
The Predators got cut back down to size on the always-tough three-game Western Canada road swing, losing decisively to the Flames and Canucks, and beating the Oilers by a goal. The highlight was Jordin Tootoo using Jarome Iginla's face as a punching bag; the lowlight came moments later when Nashville's rookie pest brushed off his hands in a bush-league gesture that disrespected one of the game's good guys.
17 17 Phoenix Coyotes (18-15-13-2)
Brian Boucher's 1.72 goals-against average and .941 save percentage have won him the de facto starting job, even if the team isn't officially saying it yet. The Coyotes would be wise to trade Sean Burke sooner rather than later, so that they can maximize the benefits of whatever their return bounty is.
18 19 Los Angeles Kings (19-15-11-5)
The resilient Kings are just one point behind the Flames and Stars for the eighth spot in the West, despite having four of their top six forwards (Jason Allison, Adam Deadmarsh, Ziggy Palffy and Martin Straka) out with injuries. While Glen Sather makes excuses for the Rangers' injuries, Andy Murray just plugs a new piece into the Kings' scrappy lineup.
19 18 New York Rangers (19-20-7-4)
The 9-1 loss to the Senators in Jaromir Jagr's Rangers debut was a complete aberration. Ottawa is clearly only four or five goals better than New York. In all seriousness, Jagr was spectacular on Monday in his home debut, with his defense as impressive as his three-point output on offense, and the hockey-savvy crowd at MSG gave him a nice hand.
20 20 Atlanta Thrashers (21-23-5-2)
The Thrashers are just 2-9-2-1 in the past 14 games, but help should be on the way with several injured players due back soon. Marc Savard could return from his concussion within the next week, and Dany Heatley is expected to play for the first time this season this week. That's good, since Atlanta has games against St. Louis, Toronto, at Tampa Bay, at Boston and against Philadelphia in the next 10 days.
21 21 Edmonton Oilers (19-22-8-1)
The Oilers are just eight points out of eighth in the West, but they need to start winning at home -- they're a so-so 11-11-3-0 -- more consistently to get a little run going. After a road game at Colorado on Tuesday, Edmonton returns home for a crucial five-game homestand against Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim, St. Louis and Atlanta.
22 22 Minnesota Wild (17-20-15-0)
At least the Wild only tied one of their four games last week. If they finish with more ties than wins, I think I'll poke my eyes out. How can it be fun to watch this team on a regular basis? I know that they skate well and play a disciplined team style, but seriously, Minnesotans, what is fun about this team?
23 23 Florida Panthers (17-21-10-3)
Roberto Luongo's 43-save gem in Boston on Saturday was offset by his twice allowing four or more goals last week. As bad as their defense has been all season, the Panthers' power play has been almost as good of late, going 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) in the past five games. Still, it takes more than an All-Star goalie and a solid power-play unit to win consistently.
24 24 Buffalo Sabres (20-25-5-1)
Jochen Hecht is quietly putting together a terrific season, with six goals, 18 assists and a team-best plus-11 rating in 34 games since coming back in mid-November from a broken left arm. Hecht always has been a plus player, but with 16 points in the past 18 games, he is stepping up his game in the offensive end to make his responsible two-way play.
25 26 Anaheim Mighty Ducks (15-22-8-5)
Did Vaclav Prospal get paid for the first 48 2/3 games of the season? He certainly didn't start earning his $6.5 million salary until his third-period hat trick against the Wild on Friday. Prospal had just eight goals in the first 48 games of the season, but he has four in the past four periods.
26 25 Carolina Hurricanes (16-23-9-2)
The deal for Justin Williams gives the 'Canes a nice young quartet of forwards to build around in Williams, Eric Staal, Josef Vasicek and Radim Vrbata. Assuming that Rod Brind'Amour and Jeff O'Neill are dealt, too, Carolina could at least enter its retooling phase with younger scoring punch for Peter Laviolette to work with.
27 29 Chicago Blackhawks (12-26-7-5)
After going winless in the first 14 decisions of his career, Craig Anderson was long overdue for some good luck. He definitely got that in the form of seven goals of support in Thursday's 7-0 rout of the Blue Jackets for his first career win.
28 27 Columbus Blue Jackets (14-25-7-3)
See immediately above. I don't care if you won your other two games of the week (against St. Louis and Chicago), getting bombed 7-0 by a previously winless 22-year-old rookie netminder is grounds enough to be dropped in the rankings.
29 28 Washington Capitals (14-29-5-2)
As if losing Jaromir Jagr to a trade wasn't bad enough, losing Sergei Gonchar to injury last week was tough, too. But with Gonchar, Peter Bondra, Olaf Kolzig and Robert Lang all potentially headed out of town before the trade deadline, the Capitals better get used to a world without stars.
30 30 Pittsburgh Penguins (11-31-5-3)
Pittsburgh went 0-3 for the week, but I'd say giving up only 14 goals to the Devils, Senators and Avalanche has to be considered a moral victory.

Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com. The Power Rankings will appear every Tuesday during the regular season.

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