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NHL Power Rankings: Who is playing their way out of postseason early?

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NHL Power Rankings: Who is playing their way out of postseason early?

With December here, it’s time to give last rites to some of the teams that have already played their way out of the playoffs this season.

Mathematically, of course, every team is still alive, but realistically any team that hopes to be in the postseason can’t fall more than a handful of points out of the playoff picture this late into the regular season. The Buffalo Sabres are already 13 points out of a playoff spot in the East, and have been an uninspired mess since the very first few days of the season.

The Flyers are eight points out of a playoff spot after losing their 10th game in a row on Saturday afternoon, and have five teams in front of them in the playoff pole position. That’s pretty much a wrap already for the Broad Street Bullies.

In the West it’s only Arizona that has already played their way out of the postseason while 12 points outside the playoffs. That’s nothing new for the Coyotes fans out there, of course. But if trade rumor hounds want to start looking to the places where rumors are going to come from, right now it’s the Sabres, Flyers and Coyotes that are already closing in on “wait until next year” time with teams that dropped like a stone right out of the gate.  

Anyway, without further ado here are this week’s preseason power rankings:

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (15-2-2, rank last week: 1) – The Bolts are on a bit of a mini-skid with four losses in their last seven games, but they still have quality wins over San Jose and Chicago during that stretch. They are the class of the Atlantic Division.

2. Winnipeg Jets (16-6-4, rank last week: 3) – How about those Winnipeg Jets? They continue to win and keep their fine standing in the Western Conference, and look like that potential is finally turning into actual results on the ice. It is a crazy amount of young talent on that team when you look at the roster.

3. Nashville Predators (16-7-3, rank last week: 10) – The Predators are winning and Viktor Arvidsson is dishing the ring for postgame wedding engagements in Nashville. It sounds like the Preds are over that little Stanley Cup Final hangover from the beginning of the season.

4. Los Angeles Kings (16-8-3, rank last week: 6) – Everybody was talking about Drew Doughty’s contract and his NHL future over the last couple of weeks, and with good reason. He continues to dominate while playing 27 minutes of ice time per game.

5.   St. Louis Blues (17-8-2, rank last week: 2) – The Blues have lost three in a row for the first time all season, and fell short against fellow Western Conference hopefuls in Los Angeles, Minnesota and Anaheim. It’s still been a very good season for the Blues thus far, but this has been a down note lately.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets (17-9-1, rank last week: 7) – The Blue Jackets have won eight of their last 10 games and won six in a row during that stretch. Many of those wins were one-goal games as Sergei Bobrovsky continues to refuse to turn over his badge (inside joke for the Jay and Dan fans up in Canada).

7.  Toronto Maple Leafs (17-10-1, rank last week: 4) – The Leafs are 9-3-1 in their last 13 games and continue to stay within striking distance of the Lightning. No pun intended. Okay, maybe it was.    

8.  New Jersey Devils (15-7-4, rank last week: 5) – The Devils are still heavily in the mix for the playoffs after a surprising first couple of months to the season, but it’s going to take a while for the stink to come off a 5-0 loss to the Arizona Coyotes this weekend. Ouch.

9. New York Islanders (15-8-2, rank last week: 11) – The Isles have cranked out 39 goals in their last nine games and continue to push upward in the Metro Division with some pretty impressive numbers across the board. It looks like Doug Weight behind the bench has been very good for that team.   

10. Pittsburgh Penguins (15-10-3, rank last week: 8) – Boy, this Tristan Jarry has come out of nowhere and been exactly what the Penguins needed while ripping off four wins in a row. Matt Murray better be careful that he doesn’t get Mark-Andre Fleury-ed.

11. Vegas Golden Knights (15-9-1, rank last week: 9) – I don’t think anybody foresaw William Karlsson as the leading goal-scorer for Vegas, or that the Golden Knights would be in a playoff position two months into the season. Welp, so much for all those know-it-all talking heads.

12. Dallas Stars (15-10-1, rank last week: 25) – The Stars have racked up four wins in a row and started to get the defensive side of things under control a bit. There’s still a long way to go, but maybe Ken Hitchcock’s message is starting to sink in.

13. San Jose Sharks (14-9-2, rank last week: 13) – One goal in 25 games for Brent Burns after he scored 56 goals over the previous two seasons, and won the Norris Trophy last season. How the heck does that even happen?

14. Washington Capitals (15-11-1, rank last week: 18) – Five wins in their last seven games, and they’ve done a good job of cracking down defensively after giving up six goals in back-to-back losses to Nashville and Colorado. They are in a playoff spot, but just barely right now.

15. New York Rangers (14-10-2, rank last week: 23) – The Rangers have won each of their last five Henrik Lundqvist starts, and King Henrik has only given up six goals over that time span. That’s exactly what the Blueshirts needed to kick them back into gear, but they’re still on the outside looking in for the playoffs.

16. Vancouver Canucks (13-10-4, rank last week: 19) – The Canucks are hanging around, and it looks like Anders Nilsson is pushing for more playing time between the pipes behind a group of talented, young players.

17. Minnesota Wild (13-10-3, rank last week: 15) – The Wild really feel like an also-ran in the Western Conference right now, and perhaps that’s accentuated even more by how average Devan Dubnyk has been this season. If he’s not superhuman then neither are the Wild.

18. Montreal Canadiens (13-12-3, rank last week: 26) – The Habs usher Carey Price back into the proceedings, and they all of a sudden rip off five wins in a row while upping their goal-producing gusto as well. Price’s importance to that Habs team is nothing short of amazing.

19.  Boston Bruins (12-8-4, rank last week: 24) – The Bruins have won six of seven games, and they’re finally healthy for the first time all season. It’s going to be a different kind of challenge to keep everybody happy once roles get changed with good health, but it’s a big development that Tuukka Rask is finally on track.

20.  Calgary Flames (14-11-1, rank last week: 17) – A whopping 36 points in 26 games for Johnny Gaudreau is something special, but the Flames as a team are scrapping just to try to get into the playoff picture.

21. Chicago Blackhawks (12-9-5, rank last week: 16) – Did you hear the one about the Chicago Blackhawks playing in another outdoor hockey game? Yeah, me too.

22. Ottawa Senators (9-9-6, rank last week: 12) – Matt Duchene has one goal and a minus-9 in his first 10 games as a member of the Senators, which has to be pretty disappointing given the investment they made to get him.

23. Carolina Hurricanes (11-9-5, rank last week: 17) – Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho are the two leading scorers for the Hurricanes, so there’s reason for excitement with the young players. But once again the Canes are rounding up the rear in the Metro Division.

24. Anaheim Ducks (11-11-5, rank last week: 22) – The Anaheim Ducks are trying to bolster their offense by adding Adam Henrique, but the jury is out on how well it’s going to end up working for a team scoring 2.6 goals per game.  

25. Detroit Red Wings (10-12-5, rank last week: 14) – The Red Wings have lost seven in a row, and are in serious danger of dropping completely out of the playoff picture in early December. There are trying times for Jeff Blashill.  

26. Colorado Avalanche (12-10-2, rank last week: 20) – Harvard’s Alexander Kerfoot is turning out to be a pretty good signing for the Avs with eight goals and 18 points in 24 games this season. Avs have been okay this season, so at least there’s that.

27. Philadelphia Flyers (8-11-7, rank last week: 27) – The Flyers have lost 10 games in a row while completely nose-diving to the bottom of the Metro Division. Cue the whispers about Dave Hakstol being in jeopardy and everybody being on the trade block.

28. Edmonton Oilers (11-14-2, rank last week: 28) – The Oilers were already struggling and now they’ve lost Cam Talbot to injury as well. It just looks more and more like this is going to be a lost year for the Oil given how bad things are right now.

29. Florida Panthers (10-13-3, rank last week: 29) – The Panthers are 28th in goals against, 29th in power play success rate and 30th in the penalty kill this season. That is exactly why they’re circling the drain in the East.

30. Buffalo Sabres (6-17-4, rank last week: 30) – The Sabres have lost another four games in a row, and things are absolutely miserable in Big Buff Land. It’s only a matter of time until Evander Kane gets dealt somewhere.

31. Arizona Coyotes (7-18-4, rank last week: 31) – Second-to-last in offense, and dead least in defense in the NHL. At least they’ve got Clayton Keller, but he’s cooled off a bit while racking up a whopping minus-17 mark in 29 games.   

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Rask answers Bruins' call against mighty Lightning

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Rask answers Bruins' call against mighty Lightning

BOSTON – It wasn’t a spectacular, stand-on-his-head performance from Tuukka Rask on Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But it didn't have to be.

Rask simply made the key save at the vital part of the game and played well when called upon in making 19 stopsin Boston’s 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at TD Garden. He's struggled pretty much all season, but made the clutch stop at the important time in the game.

Certainly it was the kind of winning performance that the Bruins require out of both goalies, but weren’t getting anything close to out of their No. 1 (Rask) this season.

“He’s a goalie, he’s a pro, and he’s a competitor," said coach Bruce Cassidy. "I think at some point as a goalie, you need wins. Was this the time? Probably. There’s a lot of chatter lately. So for him to step up and get it done, and for us to play well in front of him – not have to stand on his head, that’s the other thing. . . . I think he’s going to feel good about it and sleep well tonight.”

While it’s pretty clear the pressure was squarely on Rask headed into the start against the NHL’s most explosive offense, the Finnish netminder brushed a lot of those notions off after the game like they were Tampa testing shots from the outside. Instead he saved his best on a side-to-side kicking leg pad save on a Nikita Kucherov bid in the final 30 seconds of the second period, and also had the good fortune of a Tyler Johnson net drive harmlessly bounce off the far post at a precarious time in the game.

Rask gave up a couple of goals, but talso seemed to have a unique ability to step right back into his role.

“I needed it. I need [the wins]. It was good to see, there was a post-and-out today. That’s always a positive,” said Rask. “So enjoy the little things I guess, because you know, so many times [the second period scoring shot] hits my heel and goes in, and today it didn’t.

“Well those are the saves the people expect you to make, and you talk about after the game that, you should have saved that and keep the lead,’ and now you talk that it was a timely save. So it’s something that you always do, you want to do, and you try to do, and hopefully more often than not you actually save those.”

On Wednesday night, Rask made those timely saves against the mighty Lightning, and is simply hoping to be able to extend a winning streak.

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Haggerty: Resurgent Bruins deserve a hand

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Haggerty: Resurgent Bruins deserve a hand

BOSTON -- It’s time to give the Bruins some credit for hanging in there, and hanging tough, through the difficult times this season.

Clearly the B’s caught the Tampa Bay Lightning at the right time, thanks to the NHL schedule-makers and to Tampa’s own four-losses-in-six-games slump. But they still got the better of Hart Trophy candidates Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov while hanging on for a 3-2 feel-good win over the Bolts, who were playing their second of a back-to-back, at the TD Garden on Wednesday night.

BRUINS 3, LIGHTNING 2

The Bruins dominated in the first period, outshooting the Lightning 19-5 and taking advantage of them having played the night before in Buffalo, but it became a much more competitive game after that. It was up to the B's to hold on and close things out against the high-powered Lightning, and that’s exactly what they did while finally getting some timely saves from their franchise goaltender.

“I think we played a really strong game, for the most part,” said Bruce Cassidy. “They had a push that we had to respond to, and we did eventually.”

The Bruins have now won five of their last six games and bull-rushed their way back into a playoff position, having climbed over the Detroit Red Wings into third place in the Atlantic Division. It’s still early yet, obviously, and Boston is still missing some significant core players due to injury, but the B’s should be proud of the way they’ve withstood massive adversity in the season’s first two months.

“I think there’s a lot of character in this room and I think that just speaks for where we are,” said Riley Nash, who scored an important goal in the first period to extend Boston’s lead. “Our leaders have done a fantastic job, they’ve played great, and I think a lot of the guys that have been getting called up and filling in have done a phenomenal job . . .

“You want to know that when a guy comes up he’s ready to go and a lot of those guys have really stepped in and played well. [Danton] Heinen, for example, he’s been down for a little bit but came up and he’s been one of our better forwards for the last two, three weeks.”

It’s a credit to the Bruins players, both young and older, for stepping up when the opportunity presented itself, and it’s also an impressive balancing act from coach Bruce Cassidy and his staff. They’ve tinkered and experimented with combinations and players, and Cassidy has even gone with seven defensemen to get a pair of wins against contenders Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay over the last week.

Whether it’s changing around the game-to-game lineup, tightening up the systems when the personnel changed radically due to injury, or coaching up AHL players like Jordan Szwarz when they’ve been summoned to help, Cassidy has handled it all with optimistic determination and an unwillingness to use any of it as a self-pitying excuse for losing efforts. That’s a great deal of challenge for Cassidy in his first full year guiding the Bruins, but he’s been up to the task.

“It’s a big [win],” said Brad Marchand, who topped 22 minutes of ice time with a pair of assists in a strong performance after missing 8 of the last 10 games with injury. “I don’t think we saw their best game, but we definitely were ready and excited to play them. We want to continue to get better and I think we’ve done it, the last little bit. You’re really seeing guys come into their own and really step up. And we need that going forward. When we get more guys back, it’s going to help us even more. We’re going to be playing good hockey. It’s fun to watch.”

Those traits have filtered down into the Bruins dressing room and allowed young players like Heinen, Jake DeBrusk and Charlie McAvoy to step up and support the remaining veteran players. Those traits have also allowed Cassidy and his coaches to navigate through a bit of a goaltending controversy, and start to come out on the other side of it with Tuukka Rask building up his confidence level and effectiveness.

None of this is all that exotic over the course of an 82-game regular season, of course, but the sheer volume of injuries could have been the kind of thing to break a team’s spirit early in the season. Instead the Bruins have built character and mental toughness while fighting to stay relevant in a city currently dominated by the Celtics and Patriots, and those qualities will serve them well down the stretch.

Those are exactly the kind of traits that are needed when things tighten up in the second half, and those are exactly the kind of things that separate playoff contenders from playoff pretenders at crunch time. The Bruins have shown in the first few months of the season that they have the moxie and the makeup to be in that playoff conversation.

Now it’s a matter of them healing up, finally icing the lineup that they hoped to have on Opening Night but never actually have this season, and following through on the promise they’ve shown in the last six games.

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