Two weeks into the NHL season and the lockout seems like a distant memory–a bad dream that has been wiped out by two weeks of on-ice action. After two weeks it is fair to say that–to my surprise–the Western Conference looks stronger than the Eastern Conference (I can hear the screams of east coast bias now!). The first three spots in the Power 10 rankings are all occupied by Western Conference teams–who have a combined record of 19-1-1.
My pre-season top two picks were both from the Eastern Conference. The Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling to stay in the Power 10 (checking in at #8) and the New York Rangers have fallen completely out.
This season has the feel of playoff hockey, with important games being played every single night. And just as the #8 LA Kings showed last year when they shocked the world by becoming the first eight seed to win the Stanley Cup, anything is possible.
On to the list…
1. San Jose Sharks 7-0-0, 14 pts (Last week: 6)
Three of the top five leaders in points in the NHL skate for the San Jose Sharks. Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton both have 14 points, Joe Pavelski has 12 points, and not far behind them is Logan Couture has 10 points. The high-powered Sharks offense has resulted in 29 goals for San Jose so far — most in the NHL. The Sharks have been the beneficiaries of an early season schedule that includes a run of six consecutive home games. The Sharks hit the road once this week (on Monday) to take on Anaheim, before returning home for a huge clash against Chicago on Tuesday.
2. Chicago Blackhawks 6-0-1, 13 pts (Last week: 1)
Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews are all off to great starts and Corey Crawford (1.79 GAA, .931 SV%) has been a beast in net. But for the shootout loss to the Wild this week, the Blackhawks would have held the #1 spot for the second week in a row. The Hawks will get a chance to wrestle the top spot back when they travel to San Jose on Tuesday.
3. St. Louis Blues 6-1-0, 12 pts (Last week: 3)
Elliot and Halak continue to give the Blues a chance to win every game. In this compact season, with so many back-to-back games, you are going to need two good goalies to make a run — and the Blues certainly do. The Blues defense has been equally as stout, resulting in St. Louis having surrendered just 14 goals in 7 games. Offensively, the Blues are being paced by rookie winger Vladimir Tarasenko — an early season rookie of the year candidate — who has 5 goals and 4 assists. St. Louis has a relatively light schedule this week — hosting the Predators on Tuesday and Detroit on Thursday.
4. Boston Bruins 5-1-1, 11 pts (Last week 4)
A brutal 7-4 loss at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night certainly pierced a hole in their aura of invincibility. Six of the Sabres goals were surrendered by goalie Tuukka Rask before being pulled from the game. There were questions about Rask’s ability to step into Tim Thomas’ skates before the season, questions that largely had been answered positively before the Thursday night meltdown. Bruins fans should be delighted that the team decided to keep rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton with the team for the year. The Bruins have the lightest schedule in the league this week, on the road in Toronto on Saturday and in Montreal on Wednesday.
5. Ottawa Senators 5-1-1, 11 pts (Last week: 5)
Ottawa lost a heartbreaking shoot out to the Penguins last weekend and then beat the Capitals and Canadiens on back-to-back nights. What should have been a solid week by the Senators was marred by the loss of center Jason Spezza — who will miss two months with a back injury. It is a potentially devastating blow to the Senators chances in this shortened season. For Ottawa to continue to contend they will need to get more lights out goal tending from Craig Anderson — who is giving up just 0.99 GAA and stopping a spectacular 96.7% of the shots against him. In division matchups against the Sabres and the Canadiens loom large on the schedule for Ottawa this week.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1-0, 10 pts (Last week: NR/Waiting list)
The resurgent Lightning make their first appearance in the Power 10 rankings this year, checking in at number 6. The Lightning’s hot start is thanks in large part to the play of 37 year old Martin St Louis who leads the team with 12 points off of 3 goals and 9 assists. Last year’s league leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos has also chipped in 4 goals and 7 assists for Tampa Bay. Tampa is tied for the league lead — with San Jose — with 29 goals on the year. Defenseman Sami Salo, who is 38, leads the league with a +10. Are they for real, can their aging veterans keep up this pace? This week will give us a good idea, as they Lightning take on the Rangers, Flyers and Devils.
7. New Jersey Devils 3-0-3, 9 pts (Last week: NR)
Probably no team’s absence from last week’s Power 10 was more criticized than that of the New Jersey Devils. I admit that I was unconvinced by their quick start, and I readily admit that I continue to question whether or not this team is built to compete over the long haul. However, at some point you can’t question the results, and the Devils do sit a top the Atlantic Division. Their stay in the Power 10 may not be a long one, however — they tallied 3 points this week, all in overtime/shootout losses. A brutal week lies ahead for last year’s Stanley Cup runner-up: on the road in Pittsburgh, on the road against the suddenly resurgent Islanders, and then at home against the Rangers and Lightning. If the Devils are to remain in the Power 10 — and atop their division — they will need to muster more offense than the 16 goals they have scored in 6 games.
8. Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3-0, 8 pts (Last week: 2)
A precipitous drop for the schizophrenic Pittsburgh Penguins, who opened the season on top of the Power 10 rankings and checked in last week in the 2nd spot. The Pens feel a lot like the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers: the talent to beat the good teams (wins over the Rangers – twice, Flyers and Senators) but with an unsettling ability to play down to their opponents (losing to the Leafs, Jets and Islanders). Head coach Dan Bylsma has been trying everything — maybe too much of everything — juggling line combinations and the power play configuration. The good news for the Pens is that MVP Evgeni Malkin is heating up (2 G, 6 A), James Neal is continuing his pace from last year (leading the team with 5 goals), Tomas Vokoun has been solid sharing time in net with Marc-Andre Fleury, and young defenseman Simon Despres just had a break out game against the Rangers. Better news for the Pens may be coming in the form of Zach Boychuk — the former first rounder — who Pittsburgh claimed off waivers this week from Carolina. Boychuk has game-changing speed and could finally provide some stability to the Malkin and Neal line. The Pens have a big week starting off with the Devils at home, a home and home series with the Caps, and a trip to Long Island.
9. Edmonton Oilers 4-2-1, 9 pts (Last week: 8)
There is probably no more exciting and entertaining player to watch than Oilers rookie Nail Yakupov. Yakupov plays with a contagious joy on the ice, and his post-goal celebrations are already legendary (even if curmudgeon Don Cherry doesn’t approve). Rookie defenseman Justin Schultz has gotten over 20 minutes of ice time in every Oilers game and tallied 2 goals and 3 assists — already showing why he was a hot commodity in the offseason. The Oilers are on the road against Colorado this week, before returning home to host the Canucks and the Stars.
10. Minnesota Wild 4-2-1, 9 pts (Last week: NR/Waiting list)
The Wild, the winner of the Parise and Suter sweepstakes in the offseason, make their first appearance in the Power 10 rankings this year. Parise has provided the Wild with the offensive spark they had hoped for — with 5 goals and 4 assists so far. Niklas Backstrom has looked solid in goal for Minnesota so far, but you need two goalies in this compacted season, and goalie Josh Harding has struggled. Vancouver comes to town this week in a matchup of two teams expected to battle for first in the Northwest Division.
New York Rangers 3-4-0, 6 pts (Last week: 7)
It is really hard to figure out how a team so loaded with talent could be struggling so mightily. I expect the Rangers to right the ship eventually, but the loss of Captain Ryan Callahan is a serious blow.
Dallas Stars 2-4-1, 5 pts (Last week: 9)
After a hot start, the Stars have lost 3 games in a row. Already 40-year old Jaromir Jagr has been forced to miss time on ice due to injury. The return of Jamie Benn is a boost for the Stars, but this team will only go as far as its aging veterans will take them.
Vancouver Canucks 3-2-2, 8 pts (Last week: 10)
The good news for the Canucks is that Roberto Luongo has looked great in net, the bad news is that complicates the question of if, how and when to deal Luongo.
On the waiting list:
Montreal Canadiens 4-2-0, 8 pts
New York Islanders 4-2-1, 9 pts (Not a typo!)
Anaheim Ducks 3-1-1, 7 pts
Follow Chris R. Barron on Twitter @ChrisRBarron