Welcome to The Hockey Writers’ Power Rankings, the top-13 teams in the NHL this week as ranked by members of The Hockey Writers.
The road to the Stanley Cup looks like it’s going to go through Raleigh.
The Carolina Hurricanes, the NHL leader in points (79) and points percentage (.745), are the new leader in The Hockey Writers’ weekly power rankings after getting 12 of 13 first-place votes. Carolina has won five in a row, putting the Hurricanes on the verge of clinching the Central Division title — and avoiding a first-round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the other two Central powerhouses, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.
Golden Knights Drop One Spot
Last week’s top team, the Vegas Golden Knights, dropped to second place after splitting four road games. Vegas got the remaining first-place vote.
The Colorado Avalanche, who are battling the Golden Knights for first place in the West Division, are third, followed by the Lightning and Panthers.
The Nashville Predators, Carolina’s likely opponent in the first round, are the lone newcomer this week at No. 13. The Predators returned after a one-week absence, replacing the New York Rangers, who lost all four of their games.
To create the THW power rankings, 13 members of The Hockey Writers staff rank their top 13 teams. The team picked first by a voter receives 13 points, a second-place selection is worth 12, a third-place vote gets 11, and so on down to No. 13, which is worth one point.
Here are this week’s rankings:
1. Carolina Hurricanes (36-10-7)
Last week: 2
Upswing: The Hurricanes couldn’t have asked for more from their captain, Jordan Staal. Not only has he provided the leadership a top team needs, but he’s also having his best offensive season in years with 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 51 games. That’s a 25-goal, 60-point pace over a full season — pretty good for someone who’s never finished with more than 50 points, a total he reached in 2011-12. Four of his goals have been game-winners — and he’s also winning 57 percent of his faceoffs.
Downturn: The Hurricanes have a three-headed goalie system, meaning that Petr Mrazek, James Reimer or Alex Nedeljkovic will be checking out the food in the press box before every playoff game. Each of the three has played well enough to earn the starting role, but there’s only one net.
2. Vegas Golden Knights (37-13-2)
Last week: 1
Upswing: Vegas could get back one of its biggest advantages by the time the playoffs begin. According to The Athletic, owner Bill Foley has submitted a proposal to have T-Mobile Arena at 50 percent capacity (8,500 to 9,000 fans) when the Golden Knights return home to face the St. Louis Blue on Saturday — and he hopes to bump that number up to 80 percent by June 1. Having that many fans in the arena should give Vegas an advantage over any opponent; no other team is allowed to admit anywhere near that many fans. Vegas has been tough enough to beat with no or limited fan support, with a 19-4-2 (.800 points percentage) record and a maximum of 3,950 fans allowed to attend each of the past nine home games.
Downturn: The Golden Knights looked like a sure bet to win the West after their 5-2 win against the second-place Avalanche eight days ago. But a 2-2-0 road trip that included a lose-from-ahead 6-5 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Monday — a 5-4 lead with 2:00 remaining turned into a regulation loss — has left Vegas likely having to defeat Colorado again on May 10 to finish first. They would like to avoid Minnesota in the first round; the Wild won five of their eight meetings this season and lost just once in regulation.
3. Colorado Avalanche (34-13-4)
Last week: 3
Upswing: Colorado’s Stanley Cup hopes look better now that starting goalie Philipp Grubauer is back after waiting 18 days between starts because he was on the NHL’s COVID-19 list. Grubauer had a 25-8-1 record before the mandatory break after a positive test, then returned with consecutive wins against the San Jose Sharks, including a 3-0 victory in his first game back on April 30.
Downturn: The Avs cost themselves two points on Wednesday when they couldn’t close out the Sharks and complete a sweep of their four-game series. Colorado led 2-0 late in the second period but surrendered three unanswered goals in a 3-2 loss. It was the sixth time this season that the Avalanche had a multiple-goal lead and lost the game.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (36-14-3)
Last week: 4
Upswing: The Lightning look like defending Stanley Cup champions, with a 6-0-1 record in their past seven games to keep the heat on the Hurricanes. That includes a 6-2 win against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday. It was a typical Tampa Bay win — six players scored goals to give goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy plenty of support in his NHL-leading 31st win. The win moved Tampa Bay into a tie with the Panthers for second in the Central Division, but the Lightning have a game in hand. They’ll host Dallas again Friday before ending the season with games at Florida on Saturday and Monday.
Downturn: Tampa Bay did a lot of financial juggling during the offseason to keep center Anthony Cirelli, one of the best shutdown centers in the NHL, who also produced about 45 points per 82 games – excellent offense from a No. 3 center. But Cirelli has struggled at both ends of the ice in the past six weeks: He has no goals, three assists, and is minus-6 in 21 games since his last goal on March 20.
5. Florida Panthers (35-14-5)
Last week: 6
Upswing: Aleksander Barkov has been doing his best to keep the Panthers in the Central Division race. He has 18 goals in his past 23 games after scoring in overtime on Monday to give Florida a 5-4 victory against the Stars. “When he’s playing on top of his game like this, I think he’s unstoppable,” defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said after Florida’s captain scored his team-leading 26th goal.
Downturn: The Panthers can do nothing but watch and wait while the Hurricanes and Lightning play their game in hand. Each faces a non-playoff team. The Panthers have been eliminated from the chase for the division title and will need to sweep Tampa Bay in home games Saturday and Monday to finish second and have the home-ice advantage against the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.
6. Pittsburgh Penguins (35-16-3)
Last week: 9
Upswing: The Penguins had been winning without much help from Sidney Crosby, who had just three points in a six-game span before breaking out on Tuesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring two goals and setting up another in a 7-3 win. Maybe all Crosby needed to snap out of his funk was a game against their in-state rival: He scored six goals and finished with 10 points in seven games against the Flyers this season. He also has 115 points (49 goals, 66 assists) in 77 regular-season games against Philadelphia, including 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists) in the past 23 games.
Downturn: One area where the Penguins have to improve is penalty-killing. They enter their final two regular-season games (both at home against the Buffalo Sabres) 25th in the NHL at 77.6 percent. They also need to improve on their faceoffs; Pittsburgh ranks 22nd in the league at 49.1 percent.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs (33-13-6)
Last week: 7
Upswing: Not even a wrist injury that forced him to make adjustments to his shot and the way he holds his stick can keep Auston Matthews from becoming the first Maple Leaf to lead the NHL in goals since Gaye Stewart (37) in 1945-46. Matthews needs one more for 40, and he’s scoring at a pace that would put him over 60 goals in an 82-game season.
Downturn: Jack Campbell figures to enter the playoffs as the starter, but that’s uncharted territory for the 29-year-old, who has never played in an NHL postseason game. It’s hard to criticize his regular-season numbers (15-2-2, 2.12 goals-against average, .925 save percentage), but they won’t mean anything when mid-April comes, and the stakes are raised.
8. Minnesota Wild (33-14-5)
Last week: 8
Upswing: Kirill Kaprizov has eliminated almost any doubt that he’ll win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. He had two more goals Wednesday in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Golden Knights, giving him 26 for the season — 10 more than any other rookie. His 47 points are also tops among first-year players; he leads Jason Robertson of the Stars by four.
Downturn: The Wild had a chance to get even closer to Vegas and Colorado on Wednesday, but they couldn’t hold a 2-1 lead in the third period and ended up settling for one point after losing in overtime. The missed point left them one behind the second-place Avalanche (who have a game in hand) and five behind the first-place Golden Knights entering their final four games.
9. Washington Capitals (34-14-5)
Last week: 5
Upswing: First place in the East is theirs for the taking after Washington polished off the New York Rangers in back-to-back games at Madison Square Garden. Not even a seriously depleted lineup could keep Washington from sweeping the two-game set, which gave the Capitals 73 points. They’re even with the Penguins but have a game in hand, meaning that two regulation wins in their remaining three games (two against the Flyers, one against the Boston Bruins, all at home) will assure the Caps of the division title.
Downturn: Alex Ovechkin’s hoped-for return on Monday lasted one shift. Ovechkin, who missed four games with a lower-body injury, felt good at practice Sunday and during the morning skate but left the game after his first shift. He didn’t return and sat out the 4-2 win against the Rangers on Wednesday. There’s no word as to whether he’ll return before the playoffs.
10. Boston Bruins (31-14-7)
Last week: 10
Upswing: The arrival of left-winger Taylor Hall from the Buffalo Sabres at the deadline has revitalized No. 2 center David Krejci. He’s put up 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 13 games since the trade after managing just two goals and 23 points in his first 35 games.
Downturn: If the Bruins fail to finish first, it will mostly be because of their inability to beat the seventh-place New Jersey Devils. A 4-3 overtime loss to New Jersey left the Bruins with a 3-3-2 mark against a team that has been out of the playoff chase for weeks — and one that struggled against the other three playoff teams in the East.
11. Edmonton Oilers (32-17-2)
Last week: 11
Upswing: The playoffs are a lock and home-ice advantage is all but wrapped up for the first round. So is Connor McDavid’s third NHL scoring title in five seasons, but the question is whether he can reach 100 points in a 56-game season. He has 93 points (31 goals, 62 assists) in 51 games, an average of 1.82 points per game. He needs seven points in Edmonton’s remaining five games (1.4 per game) to reach triple digits. McDavid had nine points (three goals, six assists) in three games after being held off the scoresheet by the Calgary Flames last Thursday.
Downturn: The Oilers will need more from players like forward Kailer Yamamoto in the playoffs. After producing 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 27 games last season, he has 20 (eight goals, 12 assists) in 49 games — including none in his past seven games. Yamamoto, Edmonton’s first-round pick (No. 22) in the 2017 NHL Draft, hasn’t scored a goal in 10 games.
12. New York Islanders (31-16-6)
Last week: 12
Upswing: The Islanders clinched a playoff berth for the third consecutive season with an emphatic home-and-home sweep of the archrival Rangers. The 4-0 and 3-0 wins gave the Isles three straight trips to the playoffs for the first time since they qualified between 2002 and 2004. The back-to-back shutouts also gave Semyon Varlamov the NHL lead with seven, including four against the Rangers.
Downturn: First-line center Mathew Barzal was scratched for New York’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Sabres on Tuesday, one night after one of his poorest games of the season was capped by a turnover that led to the deciding goal in Buffalo’s 4-2 win. The two losses came against Michael Houser, who last played a pro game with Cincinnati of the ECHL last season and was the sixth goalie to play a game for the Sabres this season.
13. Nashville Predators (29-23-2)
Last week: Not ranked
Upswing: If the Predators make the playoffs, Juuse Saros should get some Vezina Trophy votes as the top goalie in the NHL and perhaps even for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Since March 18, when he returned from a lower-body injury, Saros has a 15-6-1 record with a 1.94 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage, and three shutouts. The 15 wins are tied with Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy for the NHL lead during that span, and his save percentage is the best of any goalie who’s played at least 10 games.
Downturn: Nashville had a chance to wrap up a playoff berth by winning Wednesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets but couldn’t hold two one-goal leads and ended up losing 4-2. The Predators can eliminate the Stars with one point in their season-ending two-game set against Carolina at Bridgestone Arena, but they could have removed a lot of pressure by closing out one of the league’s weakest teams.
Also receiving points: St. Louis Blues (6), Winnipeg Jets (1)
Dropped out: New York Rangers
Longtime NHL writer and editor. Covered first NHL game in 1975 (and hundreds since). Have done several books, hundreds of magazine/newspaper/online stories. Big fan of hockey history.