As the season heads into the final stretch tonight, our experts (Scott Burnside, E.J. Hradek and Pierre LeBrun) separate a few of the contenders from the pretenders:
Atlantic Division: New York Rangers
The Rangers will be looking to find more consistency through the final third of the season. They are just 5-5-0 in their past 10 games and will need to string some wins together if they're going to fend off Carolina (or perhaps Buffalo) down the stretch. That said, coach John Tortorella has somehow managed to keep his team afloat through injuries to top personnel such as Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Erik Christensen, Ruslan Fedotenko and Vaclav Prospal.
The Rangers can expect to get Callahan back this week; Prospal, who has yet to play a game this season while recovering from a knee injury, may return, as well. Tortorella will have to hope it helps jump-start the enigmatic Marian Gaborik, whose production is well off last season's pace. In the end, we don't see the Rangers falling much further than seventh (they were sixth as of Monday). Come playoff time, this is the kind of team that could give a higher seed such as Boston all kinds of problems. Still, without a top center and an inexperienced blue line, we don't see this Rangers squad as a contender. Not yet, anyway.
I think the Rangers are moving in the right direction. They are a young, hard-working group that competes hard in all three zones. Plus, they have a top stopper, Henrik Lundqvist, who will keep them in just about every game. At this point, I see them more as a sleeper that will give an opponent a tough time. I just don't think they have enough to be considered a true contender ... yet. But they're getting there.
Contenders for a playoff spot, but pretenders for the Stanley Cup. Ranked fifth in the NHL in goals against per game, the Rangers' work ethic and commitment to defense suggests a team that won't slip-slide away in the home stretch. But a Stanley Cup championship is out of reach this season because goals are too hard to come by without a bona fide No. 1 center.
Northeast Division: Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens hit the post-All-Star run in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. We don't see them challenging for the top spot in the Northeast, as they have for most of the season (they are four points back of Boston), but we also don't see them falling completely out of the playoff picture.
Terrific team defense (they rank sixth in goals allowed per game and on the penalty kill) should keep them in the top eight. The Habs play six of eight at home coming out of the break and are dynamite at the Bell Centre. On the road, though, they will have to play better (their 11 road wins are tied for the fewest among the current East playoff teams). As for the postseason, we don't think this team has another Cinderella run in it. Look for the Habs to be cannon fodder for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
After their surprising playoff run last spring, it's tough to slap the pretender label on them. They are a well-coached, veteran group. Still, I'm just not sold the Habs will have the same kind of good fortune this time around.
Like the Rangers, the Habs are contenders for a playoff spot, but pretenders for the Cup. Carey Price has been a rock in goal, but the losses of Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov on defense have been harmful. If the Canadiens want to have any chance of repeating last spring's magical run, GM Pierre Gauthier needs to get on the horn to try to land Chris Phillips or Tomas Kaberle. We don't see a long playoff run this season.
Southeast Division: Washington Capitals
A lot of discussion about the Caps' lack of scoring punch. Alex Ovechkin has only two power-play goals (he had 13, 19 and 22 power-play goals the past three seasons, respectively) and Alexander Semin disappeared from the score sheet before being knocked out with a groin muscle injury. The streaky Semin should return with his brand-new contract in hand, and his production will be key down the stretch and into the playoffs if the Caps are going to erase last season's disappointing first-round exit against Montreal.
Still, this is a very different Caps team than a year ago. It is harder to play against, ranking seventh in goals allowed per game and second on the penalty kill. It is on pace for one of its best defensive seasons, and we think it will overtake Tampa Bay for the Southeast Division crown, which will be key in avoiding Philadelphia or Pittsburgh in the first round.
There's a lot of talent in D.C. I think we all know that. I get the sense the Caps are stalled right now; something seems to be missing. I'll be interested to see if GM George McPhee makes a move or two before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. While they're still seeking just the right mix, I see them as a contender.
Well, of course they are. But they've got their fans more than worried. Last season's top-scoring team is 17th in goals per game. Shocking, quite frankly. Yes, it has improved defensively, but this team was built to score goals. A playoff berth is a given, but can the Caps finally break through? The hope is their new-found defensive game will pay dividends come playoff time.
Central Division: Chicago Blackhawks
At the beginning of the season, we picked the Blackhawks to return to the Stanley Cup finals. Yes, there has been a dramatic lineup overhaul since June's magical Cup run. Don't care. Look for Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to return to dominant form down the stretch. Corey Crawford has inspired confidence, as he has usurped veteran Marty Turco as the go-to guy in the Hawks' net. Marian Hossa has been hampered by injury but should be back to elite status by the playoffs.
Critics suggest the loss of players such as Dustin Byfuglien, who is having a Norris-worthy season in Atlanta, and Andrew Ladd will be felt keenly in the playoffs, and that may be true. But we think players such as Dave Bolland, who was so dynamic during the playoffs last season; rookie Bryan Bickell; and Troy Brouwer will answer the challenge. The Hawks may not enjoy home-ice advantage to start the playoffs, but we don't think many teams will relish facing the defending Cup champs come mid-April.
The problem is simple for the defending champs: You can't defend your title if you don't make the playoffs. With 20 of their final 32 games on the road, the Hawks aren't a cinch to earn a spot. If they get there, however, I don't think anyone will be eager to face them in the first round. That means they're still a contender.
We just can't bring ourselves to believe the Cup champs will miss the playoffs. Yes, half the team is gone from last season, but the core remains strong. If GM Stan Bowman can add a piece on defense before the trade deadline, the Hawks will be a scary lower seed come playoff time. One note of concern: They're relying on rookie goalie Crawford. Then again, Antti Niemi was wet behind the ears last season and that seemed to work out just fine.
Northwest Division: Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks are the sexy pick to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, and there are many who think the Cup will come home to Canada for the first time since 1993. We're not those folks. Yes, goalie Roberto Luongo has been very good for the most part and the offense is intimidating, especially with Ryan Kesler having a breakout season with 27 goals, but the loss of Alexander Edler on the blue line is a big loss. Suddenly, a team that had a glut of defensemen is now looking more vulnerable.
Sami Salo should return from injury, but he is injury-prone, to say the least. The Canucks should get out of the first round (unless they face arch-nemesis Chicago), but we're still not sure Luongo has the internal fortitude to get the Canucks much farther.
Coach Alain Vigneault's team clearly is a contender. They are well-stocked up the middle with centers Henrik Sedin, Kesler and Manny Malhotra, respectively. Can they get it done in the spring? Can Luongo take the Canucks where they want to go? Those are the big questions. We'll see if they have the answers.
Big-time contenders for the Cup. This is their time; their window is now. Sedin and Kesler are a strong 1-2 punch at center. Luongo is looking dynamite so far this season, but he won't silence his critics without a long playoff run. The injury to Edler is significant because he played a ton of minutes in all situations and is not replaceable.
Pacific Division: San Jose Sharks
After supposedly getting the playoff monkey off their backs last spring by advancing to the Western Conference finals, the Sharks have struggled through an up-and-down season that has seen them flirt with the idea of missing the playoffs altogether. We don't think that's going to happen, but we don't see the Sharks being the kind of team that can simply turn on the playoff switch and take its game to another level.
Yes, Niemi won a Cup with the Hawks last season, but he doesn't inspire much confidence for us. Then, there is the annual question of whether players such as Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley can elevate their games when it matters. History suggests they can't, and in the end it wouldn't surprise us one bit if the Sharks were one-and-done come April. That's assuming they don't fall out of the playoff picture altogether.
After terrific puck-mover Dan Boyle, the Sharks aren't mobile on defense. That means they get stuck in their own zone too often. That's not good. I think this group might have hit its peak by going to the conference finals last spring.
The Sharks need help on defense. Rob Blake retired and was never replaced. Having said that, one interesting dynamic for the Sharks this season is they're not in first place and will go into the playoffs (if they make it) under the radar. Having the spotlight removed might make them a dangerous opponent. Cup contenders? That's a stretch at this point, but not totally out of the question.
Pacific Division: Los Angeles Kings
After making the playoffs last spring and challenging the Canucks in the first round (they lost in six entertaining games), the Kings seemed positioned to join the big boys at the top of the conference standings. Hasn't happened. The Kings have gone through long stretches of dispirited play and hit the All-Star break outside the playoff bubble in 11th place, one point out of eighth.
GM Dean Lombardi has had to publicly defend coach Terry Murray and shelled out $50,000 after complaining about NHL replay officials. The Kings have all kinds of cap room and assets, but we don't know if there's an impact player that will be available to move the Kings forward. We must admit, this lineup looks like it has it all -- gritty veterans, Stanley Cup experience, dynamic young players along the blue line and up front -- and yet, something seems to be missing.
Hradek: Contender. Murray's team is riding a roller coaster this season. The highs have been high and the lows have been low. I can't label it a pretender, though. The Kings have a legit No. 1 center, nice balance on defense and a pair of good young goalies. Right now, it's hard to predict which way they'll go this season. If they get into the playoffs, they could make a long run. They're contenders because they have the right mix. Lombardi is also positioned to add a significant piece if one becomes available before the trade deadline.
They began the season as Cup contenders, but right now I don't think they are. Contender for a playoff spot? You bet. Los Angeles is missing a high-end piece up front. Not enough creativity offensively. Let's see what Lombardi does before Feb. 28 to help his team. The Kings entered the break on a five-game winning streak and seemingly have turned their season around. But Cup contender? Not so sure anymore.