Today, in From the Pressbox:
We look at the playoff races in both Conferences, who's in, who's out, who's on the bubble, and one reason why each team is where it is right now.
Penguins - The team with the most superstars and tons of skill has cruised to the top of the East. Despite injuries to front-liners like Crosby, Letang and Neal, they still roll along. Not many other teams could withstand such injuries.
Canadiens - The biggest surprise team this season, led by new coach Michel Therrien, has parlayed a pack of swift skaters and opportunistic scorers into a real threat in the East. The addition of Michael Ryder (16 points in 16 games) plus the solid play of workhorse goalie Carey Price (2.26 GAA in 31 appearances) have been crucial.
Bruins - The intimidation factor of this tough team plus a soft schedule allowed the big, bad Bruins to pile up points early on. They have slipped a bit due to a busy schedule and seen some key injuries (including Patrice Bergeron, with a concussion) that have eroded the aura of their invincibility in the second half.
Maple Leafs - Another surprise on the surface, as they have really improved their special teams and been able to roll three offensive lines, with a fourth line that has caused them to be viewed as one of the league's toughest teams. They have also received solid goaltending from the tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens.
On the Bubble
Senators - The NHL's feel good story because they overcame a series of crippling injuries to key players like Craig Anderson, Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. The young Sens bought into Coach Paul McLean's defense-first approach and have the third lowest goals against average in the league. (2.09). They have one of the league's best home-ice records, too.
Capitals - This team has come on strong in recent weeks, largely on the back of super sniper Alex Ovechkin (26 goals, 43 points) and has vaulted to the top of the Southeast Division. They have the deepest talent of any team in the Southeast and should grab the coveted third seed.
Rangers - The Broadway Blueshirts have underachieved for much of the season, but reshuffled the deck at the trade deadline moving out Marian Gaborik, while improving their offensive depth. That, coupled with the expected stellar work of a stingy blueline and perennial all-star goalie Henrik Lundqvist (2.13 GAA) should get them in.
Islanders - John Tavares (40 pts) has arrived as one of the top players in the NHL. They have surrounded him with other skilled forwards and boast two of the league's top offensive blueliners in Lubomir Visnovsky and Mark Streit and one of the most experienced playoff-tested goalies in the league (Evgeni Nabokov). They also have a strong road record (11-5-2).
Devils - New Jersey got off to a strong start but was not able to withstand an injury to Martin Brodeur that saw them fall in the standings. Now he's back but an equally damaging injury to scoring leader Ilya Kovalchuk has stifled the offense lately.
Jets - Winnipeg is only two points behind the Caps in the Southeast race, which represents their best chance to qualify for the playoffs. They led that group for much of the season, but their play has tailed off of late. A lack of front line offensive talent seems to have caught up with them, but their defense and strong goaltending from workhorse Ondrej Pavelec (2.82 GAA) still gives them a shot at the division title.
Wait Until Next Year
Sabres - Dissention in the dressing room, with sniping from Ryan Miller getting plenty of air time in the media have been a focal point to indicate that the mix of players was not a good one for the Sabres. They began the required dismantling at the trade deadline, moving some big contracts and look to rebuild starting next year.
Flyers - The formerly deep (in offense) Flyers have had no answer for injuries to Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell. Their absences were too much for an ordinary defense corps and substandard goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov (2.88 GAA, .896 save pct. to overcome.
Hurricanes - They had a 12-8-1 mark when top goalie Cam Ward went down with a sprained MCL in his knee. The club's record since then is 4-12-1. Despite the collection of offensive talent that includes the Staal brothers, Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner and the emergence of Jiri Tlusty (17 goals), Ward has been irreplaceable.
Lightning - Tampa Bay's team is still defined as the prototypical one-line offense in the entire league. Despite a league-leading 25 goals from Steven Stamkos and 47 points from Martin St Louis, the offense drops off quickly after that and coupled with inexperience in goal, there is simply not enough overall depth to compete on a daily basis yet.
Panthers - The highlight of their season seems to be the emergence of young Jacob Markstrom in goal, who has posted a credible 2.68 GAA and rookie Jonathan Huberdeau leads the offense with 13 goals and 14 assists. Other than that, there is a serious lack of depth and talent that GM Dale Tallon needs to continue to address.
Blackhawks - After posting a remarkable 21-0-3 record to open the season, the Hawks have been on cruise control. This deep veteran squad has a great chance to go very far into the post-season, having dealt with little adversity all along. They will be getting Marian Hossa back after a 6-game injury absence and have to be pleased that the goaltending tandem of Ray Emery and Corey Crawford (combined 2.03 GAA).
Ducks - They have avoided salary issues with their two top players (extending both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf), who have conspired to lead a deep offense while veterans Sheldon Souray and Francois Beauchemin anchor the blueline. Rookie goalie Viktor Fasth (2.21 GAA in 20 appearances) has been a revelation.
Canucks - Vancouver has been haunted all year long by the cloudy controversy surrounding Roberto Luongo's future and his contract. The trade deadline was perceived as a time to put that to bed until the offseason. On the ice the team has responded with three straight wins since then. Otherwise, it will be the same formula as usual here: an offense led by the Sedins and a deep veteran blueline.
Kings - The defending champs seem to have rounded into form as their top five scorers have all notched at least 25 points and they have all been there before. A confidence is plainly visible in the way they have played in the last couple of weeks. Drew Doughty overcame a sluggish start, but has ramped things up, returning his form as the anchor on the blueline. They appear ready to defend the title.
Sharks - San Jose is another experienced club that started slowly and had displayed a lack of scoring early on. However, the old hands have settled in and the Sharks have carved out a 9-4-1 record in the second half, largely on the strength of that improved productivity. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have risen to the head of the Sharks' stats sheet and a solid core of secondary scoring has fallen into place.
Wild - Key additions Zach Parise (club leader with 15 goals) and defenseman Ryan Suter (who leads the rearguard with 29 points) have given new life to the offensive side of Minnesota's game, without sacrificing a team-wide emphasis on the defensive side of the puck. The acquisition of Jason Pominville should solidify a potent second scoring line.
On the Bubble
Blues - Last year's stingiest team has taken a backward step, mostly because Brian Elliott (3.14 GAA in 14 starts) has not come close to his arks of last season. Rookie Jake Allen (with a 2.33 mark in his 13 appearances) has propped things up but has also muddied this goalie situation. Rugged winger Chris Stewart has bounced back from a poor year last season, but a number of his peers have gone the other way.
Red Wings - After losing Lidstrom and Holmstrom to retirement, the Wings have taken an expected step backwards. Datsyuk and Zetterberg still lead the offense, but the supporting cast has fallen short in trying to make up for the key departures. Still, the Wings have unveiled another two potential "Euro stars" as newcomer Fabian Brunner has chipped in with 11 goals and 11 assists, while defenseman Jakub Kindl is second on the club with his (+11) rating.
Coyotes - Once again this no-name cast of characters has hung around the playoff race despite off-ice rumors involving the unsolved ownership situation. The team-wide commitment to defense (a 2.56 GAA) allows this mediocre offense to stay competitive despite the fact that Captain Shane Doan leads them with only 24 points in 39 games played.
Stars - Dallas dealt away two key offensive pieces as they moved Jaromir Jagr and Derek Roy at the trade deadline and it looks like they got the short end of the Michael Ryder for Erik Cole trade, but they are still among this group of teams that are closely bunched in the Western standings. Goalie Kari Lehtonen (2.66 GAA, .916 save pct. in 30 games played) has given them a chance every night.
Oilers - Only Taylor Hall, with 41 points in 36 games, turned around a sluggish start that seemed to plague all of the highly touted young guns in this lineup. Eberle, Yakupov and Nugent-Hopkins have all struggled to meet expectations with prolonged scoring droughts this season. With more consistency from that core they could still squeeze into a playoff spot.
Blue Jackets - Columbus has effectively swapped Marian Gaborik for Rick Nash in a pair of unrelated trades over the last two seasons, hoping that Gaborik is a little happier to be there than the departed Nash. The addition of some other talented young players has helped, none more than goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was acquire from Philadelphia in the off-season. He's been very good, with a 2.12 GAA and a .927 save pct.in 29 starts.
Predators - The loss of Suter in free agency created a hole that weakened the Predators at both ends of the ice. Rookie defenseman Roman Josi (16 points and (0) rating) has done more than anyone could have expected to try to partially offset that loss. David Legwand and Mike Fisher lead a nondescript group of forwards that has kept this club on the fringe of the playoff race.
Wait Until Next Year
Calgary - In trading the long-time face of the Flames, Jarome Iginla, the Flames sent out a clear signal that a complete rebuild is in order here. That fact was underscored when they moved out veteran blueliner Jay Bouwmeester at the trade deadline. Apparently, goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is planning to retire at season's end, too. It's time to start over in Cowtown.
Colorado - Their current 1-8-1 streak has them mired in last place in the West. On the plus side, free agent singing P.A. Parenteau has been as good as advertised with 37 points to lead the team. Matt Duchene is right behind him with 36 points. The bad news: no one else has even registered 20 points. The goalie tandem of Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere (combined 3.11 GAA) is not good enough to offset this anemic offense.
Paul Bruno has been writing about the fantasy sports scene for several years and is an accredited member of the sports media in Toronto for over 20 years. You are invited to send your feedback and you can follow him on Twitter (statsman22).