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Posted: Tuesday January 19, 2010 1:21PM; Updated: Tuesday January 19, 2010 4:45PM
Allan Muir
Allan Muir>NHL POWER RANKINGS

Blackhawks tighten grip on top

Story Highlights

Goalie Antti Niemi's earning raves as the high-powered Blackhawks remain No. 1

The young, hard-working Islanders are maturing and on an impressive 8-2-1 roll

It's time the Maple Leafs and Oilers started to think about clearing out dead wood

Biggest climb: New York Islanders (12 from 23)

Biggest drop: Calgary Flames (15 from 7)

A reminder: Rankings are based on many factors, and not one is scientific. They're heavily influenced by recent play, taking into account expectations versus achievement, quality of opponents, injuries, hot or cold streaks, lucky bounces, bad breaks, travel schedule, and my uncannily intuitive gut calls on how each team stacks up against the rest of the Original 30. Please note that I, unlike some referees, do not have it in for your team. Also, stats and records are through Sunday, so keep in mind that Monday's action doesn't factor into the equation.

Want to send me a comment about the rankings or maybe a cool video clip that cries out to be shared? Scroll to the bottom of this page for my Mailbag. I read 'em all and if you're halfway civil -- or at least clever in your skewering of my decisions -- I'll try to get back to you.

NHL Power Rankings
1Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 1
The offense is rolling with four or more goals in 11 of its last 14 outings. They blew 10 past the Jackets and Wings to get an eight-game road trip off to a rollicking start. Still, the buzz surrounds Antti Niemi, superb in a 4-3 shootout win over Detroit. His pad save on Henrik Zetterberg's breakaway early in OT provided yet another argument for an expanded role as the playoffs approach. Last week: 3-0
 
2San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 3
San Jose Sharks (31-10-8)
Absent a goal from a forward not named Thornton, Heatley or Marleau since Jan. 2, coach Todd McLellan decided it was time for change. So did struggling winger Devin Setoguchi. McLellan shuffled his lines. Setoguchi shaved his head. Hard to say which did the trick, but the new slaphead scored a pair against Edmonton -- his first lamplighters in 10 games -- putting Bay Area barbers on high alert. Some reliable secondary scoring will be crucial as they embark on a stretch of seven of eight at the Shark Tank. Last week: 3-0-1
 
3Buffalo Sabres
Last Week: 4
Buffalo Sabres (29-11-6)
They scored only four against the Thrashers and Islanders, but that was good enough to extend their streak without a loss in regulation to 10. As quiet as the offense was, Lindy Ruff has to be more concerned with the cracks in the defensive zone: nearly 38 shots allowed per game over that stretch. They're piling up the points, but need to tighten up on the back end. Last week: 1-0-1
 
4Washington Capitals
Last Week: 5
There's something about playing the Leafs that brings out the best in Alex Ovechkin and it might just be the national audience more than Toronto's lousy defense. The captain was again spectacular in Friday's 6-1 rout, opening the scoring 49 seconds in and finishing with a five-point night to move into second place in the NHL scoring race. He now has 18 goals and 32 points in 19 career games vs. the Leafs. Last week: 3-1
 
5Phoenix Coyotes
Last Week: 9
Phoenix Coyotes (28-16-5)
Vernon Fiddler's one of those guys who'll never get the respect he deserves. Undrafted, he floated around the minors, latched onto a depth role in Nashville, moved on to Phoenix. There are 12-year-olds playing house league in Toronto who generate more ink. But when the Yotes make the playoffs, his impact will surprise. Nothing fancy: he simply wins draws, goes to the net, plays a solid physical game. He's thriving on a banging line with Shane Doan and Daniel Winnik that's ideally suited for spring hockey. Watch for him. Last week: 2-1
 
6Colorado Avalanche
Last Week: 10
You can quibble with their lack of killer instinct, but they beat two top-notch foes in Calgary and New Jersey, adding a little steam to a roll that's seen them win 10 of 15 to wrest control of the Northwest from the Flames. Now they'll have to hold it without Milan Hejduk. After struggling with a balky knee for the last month, the veteran winger agreed to go under the knife and will be sidelined 2-4 weeks. The Avs are just 3-3-2 without him this season. Last week: 2-0
 
7New Jersey Devils
Last Week: 2
A superlative 51-save outing by Martin Brodeur in a 1-0 win over the Rangers glossed over a surprisingly soft defense that was exposed later in the week by the Yotes and Avs. There are troubles in the offensive zone as well: eight goals over their last five, not one on the power play. Jacques Lemaire was so desperate to shake up the unit that he used two-goal man Colin White in front of the net against Colorado. Last week: 1-2
 
8Nashville Predators
Last Week: 12
Things couldn't have gone better on a three-game swing through Western Canada. They knocked off the Canucks, Oilers and Flames while limiting them to five goals. The sweep gave them 15 road wins, just one fewer than they had all of last season. They can top that with four of their next five away, including tough matches against the Yotes, Avs and Wings. Their chances look better with Jason Arnott scheduled to return this week after missing the Canadian trip. Last week: 3-0
 
9Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 6
The solution to a three-game skid? Play a team from the East: they're 8-1 against the conference. Alex Burrows had a shorthanded beauty in a 6-2 pasting of the Pens that served to remind that there's more to his game than the ability to bang in rebounds from the crease and tick off referees. It was his 11th goal in his last seven games, giving him 21 on the season, eighth-most in the league. Last week: 1-2
 
10Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 11
The 6-2 loss in Vancouver was a jarring coda, but the injury-riddled Pens took three of the five on their cross-country trip. Evgeni Malkin broke his 11-game scoring drought, Jordan Staal (five assists) firmed his case to be Team Canada's first injury replacement, and Sidney Crosby was given new proposals to consider. The only real concern is Marc-Andre Fleury, who broke a finger in the win over the Oilers. Word is he's out until the end of the week, but with conference rivals (Isles, Caps, Flyers) looming, he may heal quickly. Last week: 2-2
 
11Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 15
Was it really just a month ago that they scratched their way to the top of the West? If not for a fight-filled 4-0 dismissal of the Ducks and a gritty comeback against the Bruins, they might have found themselves out of the playoff picture this week. Watching them, you get the sense they've yet to rediscover the shared level of responsibility they had prior to Ryan Smyth's lengthy stint on IR. Too many guys are trying to do too much. Simplify, and they'll get back on the winning track. Last week: 2-1
 
12New York Islanders
Last Week: 23
A shocker: if the season ended now, Detroit would be out of the playoffs, the Isles in. The threshold's lower in the East, but full marks to Scott Gordon's boys for an 8-2-1 roll that included a 6-0 thrashing of the Wings and a hard-fought 3-2 SO win over Buffalo. Steady veteran Dwayne Roloson got much of the praise, but don't overlook Josh Bailey (12 points in a seven-game scoring streak). The Isles were criticized last season by many (including yours truly) for handing the first-rounder a job for which he clearly wasn't ready. The hard knocks he took then are paying off now. Last week: 2-0
 
13Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 8
Did they get hosed on that shootout call in Dallas? Absolutely. Did it cost the ninth-place Wings a crucial point? Hardly. After going up 2-0 early, they couldn't beat backup Alex Auld over the final 55 minutes and muffed six chances to win it in the shootout. Tough break, sure, but there was no reason to get to that point. Jimmy Howard rebounded nicely from a 6-0 shellacking on Long Island, but he's now started 12 straight. Might be time to give the kid a break. Last week: 1-1-2
 
14Philadelphia Flyers
Last Week: 14
Back-to-back losses to the Leafs and Caps snapped a four-game win streak, a sharp contrast to a recent 8-1-1 stretch that put them back in contention. The defense wasn't nearly as sharp and neither was the goaltending -- and what was Peter Laviolette thinking when he gave Ray Emery his first start in more than a month against the league's most lethal offense? They'll have a chance to work on their issues, and maybe regain some momentum, during a six-game home stand. Last week: 1-2
 
15Calgary Flames
Last Week: 7
Calgary Flames (26-17-6)
Winless in four, and with just one victory in their last seven, there's a sense the other skate is about to drop. The sputtering offense managed just eight goals in six games prior to Sunday's 5-4 loss in Anaheim, and rumors are swirling that they might be willing to subtract from the blueline to add some pop up front. Last week: 0-3-1
 
16Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 19
Anaheim Ducks (22-20-7)
Just when it looked as if the Ducks were in a row, they lost Teemu Selanne (broken jaw) and Saku Koivu (sprained knee). They also learned that complications had delayed Joffrey Lupul's return from back surgery. At least they managed to avoid the use of an ambulance while staging a third-period comeback to beat Calgary 5-4 on Sunday. Their seventh straight win at the Pond kept them within hailing distance of the top eight. Last week: 2-1
 
17New York Rangers
Last Week: 13
After Martin and Mike BrodeurChris Mason held them to one goal on Saturday, they unleashed six and some pent-up frustration on Jaro Halak and the Habs. Ryan Callahan had a career-best four-point outing, including the team's first power play goal in six games. Through the struggles, Henrik Lundqvist is giving them some of the best hockey of his career, holding foes to two or fewer goals in eight straight. Last week: 1-2-1
 
18Boston Bruins
Last Week: 16
Boston Bruins (23-16-8)
They've lost lost four of five, yet not many complaints from Claude Julien, who was happy with what he saw on a 1-1-1 West Coast swing, even after they blew a 3-1 third period lead in LA. "The guys left it all on the ice," he said after the 4-3 shootout loss. Marco Sturm (leg) joined Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard on the sidelines. At least the B's are getting plenty of mileage out of that top-ranked penalty kill. Last week: 1-1-1
 
19Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 18
Minnesota Wild (24-22-3)
After they sent former first-rounder Benoit Pouliot to the Habs for Guillaume Latendresse, one Western scout summed up the swap as a chance for each player "to see the inside of a different doghouse." But at least Latendresse ran his goal total to 13 in 24 games with his first career hat trick during a loss in Glendale, their fourth in a row on the road. No team has more regulation away losses than Minny's 16. Last week: 2-2
 
20St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 25
St. Louis Blues (21-19-7)
Turns out Chris Mason didn't need to slap a "Brodeur" nameplate on the back of his jersey before Saturday's game against the Rangers. The netminder stopped 21 of 22 shots to earn his fourth straight win for the surging Blues. His .946 save pct. is a big part of the hot streak, but so are his teammates' third-period heroics. They outscored foes 5-0 in the final stanzas of a three-game home stand. Last week: 3-0
 
21Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 22
Ottawa Senators (24-21-4)
Hope Bryan Murray took a long look in the mirror before firing Eli Wilson last week. The GM deserves as much blame as the goalie coach for the mess between the pipes. At least Wilson walks away knowing he helped mold Mike Brodeur. The third-stringer earned a pair of wins, blanking the Rangers and shutting down Montreal's fearsome power play to move to 3-0. He's stopped 84 of 87 shots and been a game star in each of his appearances. Last week: 2-1
 
22Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 17
The soft goal giveth, the soft goal taketh away. They picked up a couple of important points by punching beach balls past Marty Turco on Thursday, but squandered momentum with weak efforts against the Sens and Rangers. Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak suffered apparent moments of distraction in losses that pushed Montreal outside the playoff bubble. Perhaps Halak was pondering rumors that he could be dealt to the Stars? Last week: 1-2
 
23Florida Panthers
Last Week: 24
They still have a lot of ground to make up in the chase for eighth, but took a significant step in sweeping a home-and-home set with Tampa. The wins, 3-2 on Thursday and 5-2 on Saturday, featured strong third periods by Tomas Vokoun that helped take the sting out of blowing a 4-1 lead to the Caps on Wednesday. Rusty Olesz is on a roll, following his game-winner on Thursday with two goals on Saturday. Last week: 2-0-1
 
24Dallas Stars
Last Week: 21
Dallas Stars (20-17-11)
It's pretty clear they got a gift on Steve Ott's SO winner against the Wings, but they were full value for the victory. Playing with a short bench after losing Brenden Morrow and Jere Lehtinen early on to injury, they rallied from two down for their third win in four meetings with Detroit. It was another strong effort at the AAC (10-2-2 in their last 14). If only they could muster some of that intensity and focus away. Flaccid outings against Montreal and Philly left them mired in a 1-9-3 road skid. Last week: 1-2
 
25Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Week: 20
Another step-forward, two-steps-back week for a squad that doesn't seem to have the horses to mount a serious challenge in the East. Tuesday's win over the Caps (their first in 13 tries) showed an opportunistic streak absent when they dropped two in a row to Florida. At least their fans are being treated to a breakout season by Steve Downie. The feisty winger has nine points in his last 11 games and his aggressive forecheck has been key to the midseason revival of Vincent Lecavalier. Last week: 1-2
 
26Atlanta Thrashers
Last Week: 28
They snapped an eight-game road schneid by fighting off the feisty 'Canes 5-3 to stay within a point of eighth. Ilya Kovalchuk's hot (no surprise) with three goals in his last four games, but how about Boris Valabik? The massive defender, who only needed to wear orange to complete his pylon impersonation earlier this season, seems to have had his eyes opened by a long stay in Le Chateau Bow Wow. He's played with purpose, pugnacity and a bit of giddy-up since being liberated. Last week: 2-0-1
 
27Carolina Hurricanes
Last Week: 27
Maybe it was just a slip of the tongue, but it sure sounded like Rod Brind'Amour was thinking that his time in Raleigh is winding down. "I'm sure it's going to be real different [next year]," he told the Raleigh News & Observer. "We have a lot of older players who probably won't be around, so it just goes to say they will be younger." They? One player who'll be back is goalie Cam Ward. He's one shy of the franchise wins mark (130). Last week: 1-2
 
28Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 26
Bad enough that they've won just two of nine, but following their unexpected 4-0 romp over the Flyers with a deer-in-the-headlights performance against the Capitals highlighted how soft and mistake-prone they are. As Ron Wilson rightly noted, the veterans were most culpable. Isn't it time for Brian Burke to turn next summer's UFAs into assets that might help turn the page? Last week: 1-2
 
29Columbus Blue Jackets
Last Week: 29
When they look back on all that went wrong (they better order in lunch for that session), the inability to hold a third period lead will rank with shaky goaltending and brutal defensive zone coverage as the leading causes of a self-inflicted demise. After being dominated 3-0 in Chicago, they played well enough to take a 4-3 lead into the third on Saturday before coughing it up en route to a 6-5 loss. It was the league-leading seventh time they'd given away a game in the final 20 minutes. Last week: 0-3
 
30Edmonton Oilers
Last Week: 30
Edmonton Oilers (16-26-5)
The white flag's yet to be raised, but the season ended with the news that Nikolai Khabibulin had surgery on a herniated disk in his back. They've dropped seven straight and have just one win in 15, a stretch of futility that suggests their focus should switch to moving the dead wood and figuring out who can be counted on for the rebuild next season. Last week: 0-3

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