NHL Power Rankings: Penguins flying high to end season; Flames, Avs, Panthers stay comfy in the basement

This is Sam McCaig’s final Power Rankings column of the 2012-13 NHL season.

POWER RANKINGS: Rating the NHL teams from 1 to 30

1. Pittsburgh Penguins: One of their biggest challenges will be finding chemistry on the fly as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Paul Martin work their way back into a lineup that’s still adapting to trade acquisitions Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray. It’s a good problem to have.

2. Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks were the NHL’s biggest story in the first half of the season, reeling off an league-record 24-game point streak before they suffered their first regulation-time loss. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa headline a potent offensive arsenal, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the go-to guys on defense in any given situation, and the goaltending duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery has been nothing less than phenomenal.

3. Anaheim Ducks: The best NHL team that received the least acknowledgement this season. Ryan Getzlaf put together an MVP-caliber campaign on the Ducks’ top line, and secondary scoring came in the form of ageless veterans (Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu) and up-and-comers (Andrew Cogliano, Kyle Palmieri). Reclamation projects Sheldon Souray and Francois Beauchemin were a revelation on the blue line, while Viktor Fasth stepped up big-time when starting goalie Jonas Hiller was dealing with early injuries. As always, Anaheim’s a tough team, too.

4. Boston Bruins: The Bruins aren’t exactly ending on a high note, but the 2012 Stanley Cup champs have all the pieces in place to make a championship run – and that was true before they added Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline. Boston joins Pittsburgh as the two truly elite teams in the East.

5. Los Angeles Kings: As defending Cup champions, we’re bumping the Kings up a notch or two. They’re not sneaking in as a No. 8 seed like last year – but they’re not going to sneak up on anybody, either, like they might have done in the early rounds last year. Few teams can keep up with the Kings’ flock of fine (and relatively young) forwards, and Drew Doughty is a game-changer on defense. Jonathan Quick, of course, claimed the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last spring.

6. Vancouver Canucks: They didn’t have too many games with a full roster, but the Canucks head into the playoffs about as healthy as they’ve been all season. Cory Schneider gets his first full chance as a playoff No. 1 – but don’t worry, Roberto Luongo’s still around if Schneider falters. The Sedin line continues to produce a goal or two a game. Whether or not Ryan Kesler – who missed 30 games this season – can find his stride as an impact player is critical for the Canucks’ success.

7. Montreal Canadiens: The Habs were the breakout story of the season…until the final two weeks of the season, when the wheels fell off and Carey Price’s Vezina candidacy took a big hit. If Montreal (and Price) can rediscover their mojo, they’ve got a chance to make some noise with three scoring lines and Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban running things on defense. Otherwise, they might be first-round fodder (and even worse, it could be the rival Maple Leafs who eliminate them).

8. St. Louis Blues: If you had to pick a team to pull a Kings – ie. quietly cruise along all season and then break out in the playoffs – you could do worse than the Blues. Fast and physical, deep and talented, and the goaltending has found its form after struggling most of the season.

9. Washington Capitals: Adam Oates has the Caps on the same page after they spent the first half of the season reading from entirely different books. Alex Ovechkin, who looked like he had lost his superstar form, has risen again as a goal-a-game player. The Southeast Division was a laughingstock, but the Capitals are ready to give opponents fits rather than giggles.

10. San Jose Sharks: Now that the expectations have lowered and the widow of opportunity is closing on the Sharks, they’ll probably deliver their best playoff performance to date.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs: The team that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 gets its first playoff taste since 2004. The Leafs aren’t at the Penguins/Bruins level in the East, but they’re among several contenders at the next tier. And it’s playoffs(!), when anything can happen…

12. Detroit Red Wings: No, the Wings hadn’t clinched a spot when this was written. But 21 straight seasons in the playoffs buys them a little leeway. If Detroit can make it 22 years in a row, they’re a pretty intimidating first-round foe.

[Also: Former NHL GM sues internet trolls]

13. New York Rangers: The regular season wasn’t the cakewalk that some had anticipated for the Blueshirts. But they’re in, they’ve got Henrik Lundqvist, and a late-season rebuild via the trade wire seems to have paid off. Like the Wings, the Rangers are a tough draw as a No. 7/8 seed.

14. Minnesota Wild: Like the Wings, the Wild hadn’t clinched anything when this was written. (But they might be now if they beat the Oilers last night.) Zach Parise has helped Minnesota’s traditionally mild offense spread out – and increase – its scoring, while Ryan Suter has emerged as a front-runner for the Norris Trophy. Niklas Backstrom, as always, provides stellar netminding.

15. Ottawa Senators: Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson are back, so teams that overlook Ottawa do so at their own peril. The Sens have maxed out under coach Paul MacLean, and acquitted themselves well as playoff underdogs last season. It’s difficult to envision the Sens going on a long, deep run, but could they pull off an upset? Absolutely.

16. New York Islanders: MVP candidate John Tavares, Lubomir Visnovsky and Evgeni Nabokov carry the load, and the rest is a patchwork of blossoming youngsters, journeymen veterans and waiver-wire pickups. But it got the Isles to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

17. Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets can qualify for the playoffs for the second time in their 12-season history if they win their final game and the Wings lose (or if they win and the Wild implode in their final two games). Whatever happens, we might look back on 2012-13 as the season that Columbus finally, truly arrived as an NHL franchise.

18. Winnipeg Jets: The season ended in frustration for the Jets, just one win off the playoff pace. Inconsistency doomed them this season; an encouraging winning stretch was always inevitably followed by a step back into old losing habits.

19. New Jersey Devils: Injuries to Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur resulted in a 10-game losing skid down the stretch as the 2012 Cup finalists dropped out of playoff contention.

20. Dallas Stars: The Stars were sellers at the trade deadline…and then immediately ripped off a winning streak that took them to the fringe of the playoff race. They ran out of games and gas at the end.

21. Phoenix Coyotes: Last season’s otherplayoff darlings as they surprisingly advanced to the West final for the first time, the Coyotes were on the wrong side of the razor-thin playoff margin this time around.

22. Philadelphia Flyers: The most disappointing team in the league this season. High expectations were washed away by a slow start and an onslaught of injuries.

23. Nashville Predators: The Preds made the playoffs seven times in the past eight seasons, but not this year. Suter’s departure hurt, and so did the dearth of scorers.

24. Buffalo Sabres: It was so bad they fired longtime coach Lindy Ruff and there’s talk of trading lynchpins Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek.

25. Edmonton Oilers: There was hope the Oilers would turn the corner this season and return to playoff relevance. They hung around and were in eighth place in early April, but it didn’t go well – at all – down the stretch. A couple more dependable defensemen might make the difference.

26. Carolina Hurricanes: Let’s just say the ‘Canes won’t be trading goalie Cam Ward anytime soon. Carolina fell apart without its No. 1 goalie (and backup Dan Ellis, who also went down for a while).

27. Tampa Bay Lightning: After making it to Game 7 of the East final in 2011, the Bolts have failed to qualify for the postseason the past two years. They can score; we all know that. The big hope is that Ben Bishop or Anders Lindback emerges as a bona fide No. 1 stopper.

28. Calgary Flames: Talk about the end of an era. The Flames traded Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff might retire.

29. Colorado Avalanche: The Avs never recovered from Gabriel Landeskog’s concussion and Ryan O’Reilly’s holdout. A lost season in Denver.

30. Florida Panthers: For the 11th time in 12 seasons, the Panthers missed the playoffs. Like, really missed the playoffs.

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