Posted: Mon April 29, 2013 1:42PM; Updated: Tue April 30, 2013 2:41PM
Adrian Dater
Adrian Dater>INSIDE THE NHL

Chicago Blackhawks top NHL Playoff Power Rankings

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Jonathan Toews and the Wild
Jonathan Toews' Hawks ruled the NHL; Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and the Wild barely made the playoffs.
Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

The teams that produced the two best regular-season records may top my Playoff Power Rankings, but this is the NHL, where first-round surprises are usually the rule, not the exception. Most recently, No. 8 Los Angeles upset No. 1 Vancouver last season before rolling to the Stanley Cup, and there's no shortage of historic examples.

PLAYOFF PREP: Staff picks | Upset alert | Key storylines | X-factors | Complete schedule

Yet, the Blackhawks and Penguins really do seem to stand apart from the rest of the competition in their respective conferences as the postseason dawns. It seems unfathomable that we won't see a Chicago-Pittsburgh Cup final. So, that's my pick. (Make sure to quickly place your bets in Vegas going the other way, as the patented Daterjinx will surely work its nefarious magic.)

But it's still going to be a tough road for the Hawks and Pens. The regular season may have been short, but it was also nasty and brutish, and the playoffs figure to be as taxing as ever on the mind and body for the soon-to-be bearded men of the ice. Nothing in this sport is assured, except taxes and the Daterjinx.

WEST PREVIEWS: Hawks-Wild | Ducks-Red Wings | Canucks-Sharks | Blues-Kings
EAST: Penguins-Islanders | Canadiens-Senators | Capitals-Rangers | Bruins-Leafs

Before we get to my appraisal of the 16 playoff teams, let us present a final ranking of the also-rans as they sullenly file off to dig divots on broad, green expanses: 17. Blue Jackets; 18. Jets; 19. Flyers; 20. Coyotes; 21. Flames; 22. Devils; 23. Sabres; 24. Stars; 25. Hurricanes; 26. Oilers; 27. Lightning; 28. Predators; 29. Avalanche; 30. Panthers.

NHL Power Rankings
1Chicago Blackhawks
Last Week: 1
The Hawks lost their season finale to the Blues, but I'm guessing that had something to do with the eight rookies who took the ice while the stars took a well-deserved day off. Chicago was the King Kong of the West from start to finish -- the Hawks' plus-53 goal differential led the NHL -- and appears to be mostly healthy and hungry as the playoffs get going. "The guys are eager, they're excited about where we're at," coach Joel Quenneville told the Chicago Sun-Times. "And having that type of season [helped], where they had some rest, and we didn't tax or overplay our top guys. We're going to need them come playoff time." The Blackhawks are the best team in terms of all-around depth, though goalie Ray Emery's undisclosed injury is a wee-bit concerning in case Corey Crawford needs help. Still, they should have a short first-round series with the Wild, against whom the Hawks were 2-0-1 during the regular season. Just too much Chicago firepower.
 
2Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Week: 2
Will Sidney Crosby be ready for Game 1? "There's not a timeline on Sid and his injury right now," coach Dan Bylsma said. Crosby, who is recovering from a broken jaw, has been practicing with the team of late, so his return does seem fairly imminent. Would the Pens even need him for a first-round series against the Islanders? On paper, it may not seem so, but on the ice, the Islanders have an MVP candidate of their own in John Tavares, a solid veteran goalie in Evgeni Nabokov and a young, spirited team with nothing to lose. So, yeah, the Pens could well need Crosby. But with James Neal and Kris Letang back from recent injuries and Jarome Iginla amped up to play his first playoff series since 2009, this team will be formidable regardless.
 
3Los Angeles Kings
Last Week: 3
Trying to pick the third-best team in the league right now is a toughie. Were the Kings something extra-special this season? No. Would it be a shock if they went out in the first round against St. Louis? Again, no. But they overcame a very slow start and seem to have found something of a groove as they prepare to defend their Stanley Cup title. Jeff Carter (26 goals) was tremendous this season, and coach Darryl Sutter's defense is looking more formidable following the deadline acquisition of Robyn Regehr. (Matt Greene returned from a long stint on the shelf with back woes, but was promptly injured again and his health could be iffy.) Jonathan Quick rediscovered his form, and the Kings allowed three goals or fewer in their final eight games. Sutter's teams tend to get even more stingy in the playoffs. So, yeah, the Kings deserve this spot.
 
4New York Rangers
Last Week: 11
The Rangers will play Washington in the first round for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Should be a great series between two of the hottest teams going. I think the Rangers have the edge with a more sound defense and goalie, and they've shown they can frustrate Alex Ovechkin. "We wanted to move up into sixth (place) because you never know what happens when you go deep into the playoffs," center Brad Richards told reporters. "Sixth, you could get home ice depending on what else happens. You never know. We had a good win (Saturday), but it's going to be ramped up, the next time we play is going to be a lot different out there. I am excited for the playoffs to start." So are we. The Rangers, like the Kings, have been playing some very good defensive hockey of late. That matters in the playoffs. This team could be very dangerous.
 
5St. Louis Blues
Last Week: 12
St. Louis Blues (29-17-2)
The Blues finished the season as winners of three straight and seven of their final 10, and they've got home ice in the first round against the Kings. I probably still like L.A. in this series, but as I said above, it wouldn't shock me at all if the Blues win this thing. Like the Kings, the Blues solidified their defense. The acquisitions of Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold boosted the backline, and overall the Blues are big and fast. But do they have quite enough skill? You still worry a bit about their top two lines, but the possible return of rugged forward T.J. Oshie (ankle) for Game 1 would be a nice plus for The Note. I've always liked this team, but it still has a lot to prove.
 
6Anaheim Ducks
Last Week: 4
Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6)
What's not to like about the Ducks? They had a tremendous season and earned the No. 2 seed, and they'll probably get by the Red Wings in the first round. But I still think they're really only the fourth best team in the West right now. Maybe the best news these Ducks have had all year is that I'm not picking them to go beyond the second round. (Nothing like a fresh Reverse DaterJinx to help a team along.) They will need Saku Koivu to continue his renaissance as a top point producer because you know that Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne are going to see a whole heck of a lot of checking. S, at the ripe old age of 42, is jacked at being back in the postseason. "The playoffs, that's why we play. When every shift, every blocked shot, every shot means something," Selanne told reporters.
 
7Washington Capitals
Last Week: 6
It doesn't matter how you start; it's how you finish. And wow, was that a great finish by the Capitals. I love Braden Holtby in net right now. Last year as a rookie, he proved that he can handle playoff pressure. I, and the rest of the universe it seems, also love how Alex Ovechkin is playing these days. His 32 goals won him a third Rocket Richard Trophy. (Incidentally, during the NHL's last 48-game regular season, in 1994-95, the Caps' Peter Bondra led all scorers with 34 goals.) Washington is playing with good discipline right now. For the first time in 16 seasons, the Caps finished with more power plays (164) than times short-handed (163). But I have the Rangers ranked higher, don't I? Hmm, I'm already nervous about that pick.
 
8Montreal Canadiens
Last Week: 14
A nice little two-game win streak to close out the regular season calmed some of the jitters among the vast Habs fandom. This team looked good beating Toronto 4-1 in the season finale, with Peter Budaj facing only 17 shots in net. Carey Price, though, is expected to be the starter in Round 1, and he did struggle down the stretch. Let's hope for Montreal's sake that the playoffs bring back his mojo. He looked pretty good in his final two starts, including a 4-2 victory at Winnipeg, so it might already be back. If so, the Habs have a good chance of getting past the Sens. If not, Price is going to pay in the Montreal's merciless court of public opinion.
 
9Vancouver Canucks
Last Week: 5
Did the Canucks' final two games, including an embarrassing blowout loss in Edmonton on Saturday night, mean much of anything? I say they did. The biggest reason for concern is, as always, the goaltending. Will Cory Schneider be ready to go for Game 1 against San Jose? If not, are we all ready for another Roberto Luongo show? It's always a media circus in Vancouver, and it'll only be more so if Schneider's mysterious "body injury," as coach Alain Vigneault termed it, remains unhealed. As the National Post put it, Luongo had been the "NHL's most expensive ball cap model." He may have to be The Man now. That doesn't seem good for the Canucks' fortunes in the tournament.
 
10Boston Bruins
Last Week: 7
Boston Bruins (28-14-6)
After a long slump, Milan Lucic had two goals in his previous five games entering Sunday's finale against the Senators. That, to me, is one of this team's best reasons for hope entering the playoffs. It was just too much of a slog in the second half for the Bs. Nathan Horton's hand injury, suffered in a fight with Jarome Iginla, will likely keep one of Boston's most important forwards on the bench. Not good. I might have these guys ranked too low, but they've just been a bit too up and down for me to really feel confident about their chances of making a deep run.
 
11Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Week: 8
Hey, it's just great to have the Leafs back in the playoffs. To me, anything they do from here is a bonus. They had a fine season and deserve to be here. But I see this team being probably a little too easy to shut down offensively in a postseason meeting. Maybe Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk will make that statement look foolish, but I have a feeling they'll have trouble scoring goals. The Leafs are a very good defensive team, so it might not be easy to score on them, either, but goalie James Reimer needs to take it to the next level in net if Toronto hopes to get out of the first round against Boston.
 
12San Jose Sharks
Last Week: 10
San Jose Sharks (25-16-7)
A win over the Kings last Saturday night would have given the Sharks a first-round series against L.A. -- and I think that would have been a better matchup for coach Todd McLellan's group. But that 3-2 loss means the Sharks will instead play the Canucks, a tougher foe because of Vancouver's team speed, especially among its top two lines. Still, it was a great second half for the team in Teal. Defenseman Brent Burns playing winger was a revelation inspired by McLellan. I'm not counting the Sharks out for a first-round upset, but Patrick Marleau had one goal in his final 16 games. Remember his blazing start (nine goals, 13 points in his first five games)? He finished with 31 points in 48. The Sharks will need him to pick up the pace again.
 
13Detroit Red Wings
Last Week: 15
Yeah, these guys won some big games down the stretch and kept their playoff streak alive at 22 seasons and counting. But I don't see them upsetting Anaheim. Goalie Jimmy Howard is the Wings' only hope. Well, the wondrous Pavel Datsyuk, too. And Henrik Zetterberg has been playing well of late. He and Datsyuk bring a wealth of talent and experience. And come to think of it, coach Mike Babcock is one of the best in the business. Detroit's defense has improved. OK, at the very least, the Wings should give the Ducks a good fight.
 
14Ottawa Senators
Last Week: 18
Ottawa Senators (24-17-6)
Erik Karlsson's return is good news indeed for the Sens, who just plain struggled down the stretch after tightening up on defense and playing surprisingly well for most of the season in the wake of an injury wave. His playmaking and puck-moving will boost the offense from the backline, which also benefits from the return of Jared Cowen. Goalie Craig Anderson has been known to get white hot, so Montreal had better be back on its game or the Habs will have their hands full with these guys.
 
15New York Islanders
Last Week: 9
Not many players here have much postseason experience, but goalie Evgeni Nabokov has 80 games on his résumé and will be a comforting presence as the young Isles face the mighty Penguins' onslaught. "We just have to do the same things we've been doing for the last three weeks, and that's play hard to give ourselves a good chance to win," Nabokov told reporters. It'll be fun to see what John Tavares does in this environment -- especially one that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- after 291 regular-season games without a taste of the playoffs. Can these Isles summon the ghosts of the 1993 team that famously upset Mario Lemieux's two-time defending Cup champion Pens? Well, if there's a crack in Pittsburgh's armor it's that 25th-ranked penalty kill. The Isles' power play finished at No. 11, so if the Pens spend too much time in the box, we could have ourselves a wee bit of a series.
 
16Minnesota Wild
Last Week: 16
Minnesota Wild (26-19-3)
Well, they made it. But it wasn't supposed to be that hard. They were thoroughly embarrassed by Edmonton in Game 47, but salvaged a playoff spot with a 3-1 win in Colorado that included a botched goal call that swung the game in Minnesota's favor. Now their reward is a series with the Blackhawks. Good luck with that. The only way the Wild wins this series is if they somehow bottle up and shut down Chicago's four dangerous lines while goalie Niklas Backstrom stands on his head.
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