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NHL Power Rankings: How will the West be won?

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NHL Power Rankings: How will the West be won?

By JoeHaggerty
CSNNE.com

Its been a crazy season of hockey in the Western Conference, and that continues right into the final two months of the season.

The Canucks and Red Wings are clearly the crme of the Western Conference standings as both squads have been unfazed by a significant number of injuries. But the rest of the conference is overwhelmed by the kind of parity that gives the top 11 teams some kind of notion that they could be playoff-worthy, and has kept many Western Conference teams from selling off their wares with playoff aspirations still living and breathing.

Only five points separated the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference from the No. 11 team (Chicago) still scrapping for the postseason after cruising to a Stanley Cup championship last season. What does that mean for the NHL?

It means there are going to be some epic games down the stretch in the Western Conference, and some desperate hockey by teams clinging to playoff dreams over the next few weeks particularly for a Bruins team playing a lot of Western Conference opponents over the next three weeks.

Without further ado, here are this weeks power rankings:

1. Vancouver Canucks (38-13-9, last week: 1) Its looking more and more like this is simply Vancouvers year. Daniel Sedin is leading the NHL in scoring, the Canucks lead the NHL by a wide margin with a plus-60 goal differential and the team is starting to get some of its injured defensemen back in the next few weeks.

2. Philadelphia Flyers (39-15-5, last week: 2) The Flyers are deep at forward and defense, theyre dominating in their division and theyve proven to be road warriors this season. Not much to prove during the regular season, but their goaltending headed into the playoffs is S-U-S-P-E-C-T.
3. Detroit Red Wings (37-16-6, last week: 3) Detroit has won five in a row and the mojo has definitely returned to Motown. The resurgence of Todd Bertuzzi for the Wings is one of the best stories in the NHL this season, and the Wings look like theyll be a beast in the playoffs.

4. Phoenix Coyotes (32-19-9, last week: 8) The Coyotes have won seven games in a row and Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 190 of 201 shots during that span the basic reason beyond the Desert Dogs recent rise up the standings.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning (34-18-7, last week: 4) The Bolts have lost four of six and look like theyre headed back down on the NHL roller coaster ride. Steve Yzerman went out and grabbed Eric Brewer in what continues to be an active winter for the new Tampa GM. Something tells me hes not the answer.
6. San Jose Sharks (33-21-6, last week: 14) Antti Niemi has stepped up for the Sharks and tossed three shutouts in the last eight games while Antero Nittymaki gathers rust on the shelf due to injury. The improved goaltending and renewed effort has made the Sharks finally appear like themselves after a sluggish first half.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins (36-19-5, last week: 6) Life without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby isnt a slice of pie, but at least theyve added James Neal to the mix from Dallas. Its all about Sid the Kid and when he can potentially return at this point for Pittsburgh.

8. Boston Bruins (33-19-7, last week: 7) The Bruins finally landed a prize named Kaberle theyve been yearning for over the last three years, and he could make all the difference in the world for the Black and Gold power play.
9. Calgary Flames (31-22-8, last week: 17) The Flames are the hottest thing in hockey since Christmas-time, and have become a stunning turnaround story. The Heritage Classic was symbolic of whats going on with Jarome Iginla and the Flames in Western Canada, and its pretty special.

10. Washington Capitals (31-19-10, last week: 11) The Capitals are looking to make some moves, but havent found a partner quite yet after moving their big Tomas Fleischmann chip earlier this season. It sounds so strange to hear the Caps badly in need a playmaking center.

11. Nashville Predators (31-20-8, last week: 12) Good to see Mr. Underwood had three points in his first four games with the Preds, and Jordin Tootoo has returned from an alcoholsubstance abuse program stint. Things are looking up in Nashville.

12. Los Angeles Kings (32-23-4, last week: 15) The long and winding road trip is finally over for the Kings as the Grammys finally unlocked the Staples Center. Now the Kings dont play outside the state of California until March 9. Time for them to make up some ground.

13. Montreal Canadiens (31-22-7, last week: 10) Should the Habs take it as a danger sign that they made no moves while the Bruins got much better in three trades, and then mailed things in against the Flames at the Heritage Classic? I would if I were them.

14. Dallas Stars (31-22-6, last week: 9) Two wins in their last 12 games, Brad Richards looks like he has a concussion, and the Stars just dumped James Neal and Matti Niskanen on Pittsburgh. Things are looking perilous in the Lone Star State.

15. Minnesota Wild (31-22-6, last week: 13) The Wild are tip-toeing all over the playoff bubble, and now theyve lost heart and soul player Mikko Koivu for the next few weeks. Not so Wild anymore, are they?

16. Anaheim Ducks (32-24-4, last week: 17) Scary stuff for the Ducks as All-Star goaltender Jonas Hiller is sidelined with dizziness and lightheadedness. He looked like he was going to carry them to a playoff spot before his problems cropped up for a second time. Too bad.

17. Chicago Blackhawks (31-23-6, last week: 18) So Blackhawks scorer Patrick Kane likes to party, eh? And this is news and surprising to anyone because . . .
18. New York Rangers (31-26-4, last week: 18) The Blueshirts have lost Marian Gaborik to a concussion, and have no idea when he actually suffered the injury. Perhaps it was from the John Tortorella browbeating he took earlier this season. It all sounds problematic to me.
19. Carolina Hurricanes (28-24-8, last week: 19) The Hurricanes should be down on bended knee thanking the hockey gods that theyre in the Eastern Conference. Because otherwise theyd be little more than a whimpering tropical storm with no city to torment.

20. Columbus Blue Jackets (29-23-6, last week: 20) Matt Calvert, Antoine Vermette, Derek MacKenzie and Anton Stralman all scored in the BJs win over the Blackhawks last week. Who are these guys?

21. St. Louis Blues (27-22-9, last week: 22) Itll be interesting to see how Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk shake things up for the Blues. They looked so good early in the season, but havent been that team for a long, long time.

22. New Jersey Devils (25-30-4, last week: 25) The Devils are 15-1-2 in the last 18 games. Could they possibly sneak into the playoffs if they continue this way over the next two months?
23. Buffalo Sabres (27-25-6, last week: 24) Buffalo emptied the tank to simply make a cameo in the playoff picture, and then dropped three straight after all that hard work. Just not going to happen this season in Buff.

24. Atlanta Thrashers (25-25-10, last week: 21) The Thrashers have made their big move to acquire Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler. Not sure thats enough to spark Atlanta, but they needed to do something. A record of 1-6-1 in February just isnt going to get it done.
25. Toronto Maple Leafs (25-27-7, last week: 27) Give Brian Burke credit for accumulating some draft picks over the last few weeks after giving their own away for a one-dimensional scorer. Did that sound like a backhanded compliment? Because it was totally supposed to.

26. New York Islanders (23-30-7, last week: 29) The Hockey Team Behaving Badly has earned the honor of having the NHL watch them like hawks for the rest of the season. So they have that going for them.

27. Florida Panthers (25-27-7, last week: 26) Dennis Wideman is one power play goal away from setting the franchise record in Florida this season. Didnt see that one coming.
28. Colorado Avalanche (25-27-7, last week: 23) The Avs have dropped 10 games in a row, and gave up a couple of young, talented assets to secure themselves a primo defenseman in Erik Johnson. Wait until next year in Denver.

29. Edmonton Oilers (19-32-8, last week: 29) Taylor Hall is still showing moments of brilliance like his hat trick against the Thrashers, but the Oil really need to start putting things together down the stretch as a statement for next year.

30. Ottawa Senators (19-31-9, last week: 30) Last one out in Ottawa turn out the lights because it looks youll be seeing the Binghamton crew at Scotiabank Place for the rest of the season.

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

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Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

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Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

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