Before we put a bow on the regular season, consider what we've learned in the final days ahead of the playoffs:
The Penguins have established themselves as the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference by winning 16 of their final 20 games.
The Capitals were dominant in a 5–1 win over the Blues on Saturday, but look vulnerable after a sluggish home stretch.
The success of three teams in the West—Dallas, Anaheim and San Jose—could hinge on the ability of their coach to name the right player to man the pipes.
The Panthers could have a cake walk to the Eastern finals.
Discount Dallas at your own peril. This team really is that good.
It's sad to imagine what the Lightning could have been if only they'd stayed healthy.
The Flyers are going to be a handful. So will the Predators.
One of the league's top-five teams, either St. Louis or Chicago, will be golfing inside of two weeks.
The Bruins are a middle-of-the-road team trending the wrong way.
It's been a blast so far. Can't wait to see what happens next.
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Biggest jump: Winnipeg Jets (28 to 22)
Biggest drop: Colorado Avalanche (23 to 30)
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Their eight-game winning streak came to an end in the season finale, but the real story of that 3–1 loss to Philly was the injury to goaltender Matt Murray. The rookie netminder had played well enough while standing in for Marc-André Fleury (concussion) that there was little concern if he was needed to start their first-round series against the Rangers. Now the Pens could be forced to trot out Jeff Zatkoff and Tristan Jerry. Keep an eye on this one. Last week: 2-1-0
2. Dallas Stars
It took a 9-2 run, and a little help from the Capitals, but the Stars finally clinched the Central Division title on Saturday night, earning home ice through the Western Conference Finals in the process. The question now: Who is between the pipes when the playoffs get underway? Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen both posted 3-1 records over the Stars' final eight games, with Niemi allowing eight goals and Lehtonen nine. Lindy Ruff has a potentially season-defining call to make. Last week: 2-0-0
3. St. Louis Blues
If the Blues are going to snap their string of first-round exits, they'll need Vladimir Tarasenko to be a difference maker. Fortunately, it looks like he's ready to answer the call. St. Louis's offensive spark plug buried his career-high 40th goal of the season on Saturday, giving him 11 points in his past eight games. Last week: 1-1-0
4. Florida Panthers
The Cats capped off the regular season with a 5–2 win over the Hurricanes on Saturday that established new franchise records for victories (47) and points (103). Florida also set a new single-season mark with five 20-goal scorers: Aleksander Barkov (28), Jaromir Jagr (27), Vincent Trocheck (25), Reilly Smith (25) and Jonathan Huberdeau (20). Last week: 2-1-0
5. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks clinched their fourth consecutive division title with Sunday's 2–0 win over the Caps. With the shutout, they allowed just seven goals in regulation during their final five games, good enough to earn John Gibson and Frederik Andersen the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against. Now comes the hard part for coach Bruce Boudreau: deciding on a starter for the playoffs. It seems like he can't go wrong either way, but it's a good bet that Andersen gets first shot. Last week: 2-1-1
6. Washington Capitals
With just four wins in their past 10 games, the Caps have done a terrific job of lowering expectations ahead of the playoffs. Don't sleep on 'em yet, though. Alex Ovechkin netted the hatty in Saturday's win over the Blues to reach 50 goals for the seventh time, and Braden Holtby earned his 48th win, tying Martin Brodeur's single-season record. This is a great team ... but one that desperately needs to flip the urgency switch ahead of Thursday's opener with Philly. Last week: 1-1-2
7. San Jose Sharks
Pete DeBoer is another coach with a tough call to make. Both James Reimer and Martin Jones posted shutouts in their final starts of the season to move San Jose to 11th in goals-against (2.52). That's a massive improvement over the team's 24th-ranked 2.76 GAA of last season and sets the Sharks up for low-scoring series against the Kings. Last week: 2-1-0
8. Nashville Predators
Saturday's loss in Dallas aside, the Preds have to like the way they were playing heading into the postseason. From Feb. 12 through the end of the regular season, Nashville compiled a 16-6-6 record, tied for third-best in the NHL over that span. With little fanfare, the pieces appear to be in place for a long run this spring. Last week: 2-1-0
9. Los Angeles Kings
Is this team ready for the playoffs? Four wins in their final 11 games cost the Kings their chance at the Pacific Division title and raised questions about a defense that might be a little soft in front of Jonathan Quick. The offense has been at a low boil as well. This is a good team, but a vulnerable one as well. Last week: 2-1-0
10. Chicago Blackhawks
Getting Corey Crawford back in the lineup ahead of the playoffs is a huge boost for this team. So was the return of Marcus Kruger. The defensive wizard boosted Chicago's struggling penalty kill down the stretch, helping to hold opponents to just one power play goal over the season's final eight games. Their 95.2 % kill rate over that period was tops in the league. Last week: 1-0-2
11. Philadelphia Flyers
Claude Giroux was honored over the weekend as Philly's team MVP, but the award could just as easily have gone to Steve Mason. The goaltender started 17 of the team's final 18 games, going 10-4-3 to engineer an unlikely berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs. His stop on Kael Mouillierat early in Saturday's 3–1 win over the Pens may have been the moment that made it happen for the Flyers. Last week: 2-1-1
12. New York Rangers
Not that there's any thought of starting anyone other than Henrik Lundqvist when the playoffs get under way but the veteran keeper has struggled lately, winning just four of his past 13 decisions. Meanwhile, backup Antti Ranta improved to 7-1 in his past eight with Saturday's 3-2 win over Detroit. Just sayin' ... Last week: 2-1-0
13. New York Islanders
A loss in their season finale was as good as a win for the Isles, who may have stumbled into an easier first-round matchup as a result. By finishing third, New York dodged the red-hot Penguins and landed a date with the Panthers, a team whose lack of playoff experience dovetails nicely with their own. Captain John Tavares enters the playoffs hot, with nine points in his final five games. Last week: 2-1-1
14. Detroit Red Wings
It wasn't pretty, but in the end the Wings had deposited just enough points in the bank over 82 games to earn their 25th consecutive trip to the postseason. That's the longest current run in the four major sports and tied for the third-longest in NHL history. Expectations aren't high moving forward, but facing a banged up Lightning squad in the first round, Detroit has a chance to exact some revenge for last springs' first-round ouster. Anything beyond that is gravy. Last week: 1-2-0
15. Tampa Bay Lightning
The hockey gods are not smiling on the Bolts. With Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos already on IR, Tampa lost the services of Tyler Johnson (knee) in Saturday's otherwise meaningless game against the Canadiens. No telling yet how long he'll be out, but if he misses any action in the opening round it'll be devastating. Ryan Callahan, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov all are question marks as well. Last week: 1-2-0
16. Buffalo Sabres
With 24 goals, Jack Eichel became the first rookie to lead the Sabres in goals since Ray Sheppard (1987-88). Sam Reinhart, another rookie, finished one off the pace at 23. With those results it's easy to forget the disappointment of another season on the sidelines and focus on the promise of what lies ahead. Last week: 2-1-0
17. Ottawa Senators
The future starts now in Ottawa. The day after the team closed its season with a 6–1 victory over the Bruins, veteran GM Bryan Murray stepped aside for assistant Pierre Dorion, ushering in a new era for a franchise that has some tough decisions to make over the summer. Last week: 2-1-0
18. Carolina Hurricanes
No, they're not going to the playoffs ... but they're not going to Quebec City, either. Current owner Peter Karmanos is looking to sell, but he promised the team's fans that much last week. That vow, and a slightly improved record in Carolina's second season under coach Bill Peters, will have to get the team's supporters through another long summer. Last week: 1-2-0
19. New Jersey Devils
Cory Schneider picked up his career-high 27th win of the season. Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri set new personal bests by reaching the 30-goal plateau. Devante Smith-Pelly scored eight goals and 13 points in 18 games after being acquired at the deadline. But it didn't amount to much as the Devils head into another off-season without reaching the playoffs. Last week: 1-2-0
20. Minnesota Wild
That loud beeping sound you hear is the Wild backing into the playoffs. Minnesota dropped its final five games of the season, scoring just six goals in the process. The inevitable sag after clinching a spot, or signs of trouble ahead? We'll find out quickly when they take on a Dallas team that's playing as well as any in the league. Last week: 0-2-0
21. Montreal Canadiens
All indications are that GM Marc Bergevin will soon announce that coach Michel Therrien will be back behind Montreal's bench for 2016-17. So you've got that to look forward to, Habs fans, which is nice. Last week: 2-1-0
22. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets finished the season with four straight wins over playoff-bound teams, but more importantly they got a good look at some of the players who could be a big part of a franchise turnaround down the road. They're on the right path, but need a few smart moves this summer to expedite the journey. Last week: 3-0-0
23. arizona Coyotes
Some fine young talent in the cupboard along with a shot at drafting local hero Auston Matthews, but the rebuild will go on without GM Don Maloney was given his walking papers on Monday after nine years at the helm. Here's hoping we haven't seen the last of captain Shane Doan, who scored 29 goals at age 39. Sure looked like he has some high-end hockey left in him. Last week: 0-2-1
24. Calgary Flames
No need for an autopsy. The Flames allowed a league-worst 256 goals this season, an obviously fatal wound. Still, they managed to finish just 10 points out of a playoff spot which suggests they can turn this thing around quickly by adding competent goaltending over the summer. Last week: 2-0-1
25. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Jackets finished the season strong—where have we heard that before?—winning four of five, including a wild finale against the Hawks. But all that meant was a reduced chance at drafting an impact player like Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine and another summer of selling the lie that this team is better than it really is. Last week: 3-0-0
26. Boston Bruins
Hard to tell what's worse: that the Bruins finished the season losing nine of their final 12 games (3-8-1) or that, in their must-win finale, they allowed four goals in a period for the first time all season. It was a disaster of a season, one for which the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of a management team that failed by trying to go in two directions at once. Last week: 1-1-1
27. Vancouver Canucks
If Alex Burrows is one of the players who is sacrificed this summer, we're glad he got the chance to send one more arrow into the heavens in memory of fallen teammate Luc Bourdon in Saturday's 4–3 win over the Oilers. Last week: 1-2-0
28. Edmonton Oilers
“The skill and talent is there with this group,” coach Todd McLellan said in the wake of another lost season in Edmonton. It seems like a generous assessment, especially with major changes on the horizon. Expect at least one core player (best bet: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) to be dealt from this group in an effort to create a better balance moving forward. Last week: 1-1-0
29. Toronto Maple Leafs
With a loss Saturday in New Jersey, the Leafs reached their primary goal for the season: a 30th place finish and the maximum number of draft lottery balls that come with it. Still, they were a more focused and more promising group than the one that finished in a similar position last season, which bodes well for the future. Last week: 1-2-0
30. Colorado Avalanche
With a wild card berth on the line, the Avs dropped eight of their final nine, including each of their last six. That won't cost coach Patrick Roy his job—GM Joe Sakic said as much on Saturday—but it might lead to a restructuring of the team's young core during the off-season. Last week: 0-3-0