With less than a week remaining in the regular season, this is about the time when hockey fans determine their Cup favorites. Today we bring you our top five contenders… tomorrow will be the pretenders (so don’t expect all of the best teams on this list).
1. Chicago I doubt I would have had the Blackhawks number one on this list a couple weeks ago. But with Antti Niemi grabbing the starter’s role over Cristobal Huet (and playing well), I’m more confident that this team can go deep. You have to remember, last year they had an up-and-down March, followed by a dynamite April… and they advanced to the conference finals. If they follow that same path, they could very well get the top seed in the West and draw Colorado in round one. Even without Brian Campbell for the first round, they can get past the Avalanche.
Joel Quenneville doesn’t have a good track record in the playoffs, and Marian Hossa has come short in the finals the last two years. With a ton of talent up front and on the back end, though, I like the Hawks’ chances to ultimately advance to the conference finals (or further). Don't ask me why, but I can just picture Jonathan Toews holding the Cup next to Gary Bettman this year.
2. Pittsburgh Out of all the past champions, the Pens may have the best chance to repeat for the first time since Detroit did in 1997 and 1998. The Eastern Conference is not as tough as it was last year, and Pittsburgh is still the ‘team to beat’ over Washington (if you ask me). With the deadline additions GM Ray Shero made, they can win the Cup again. They have a 1980 Oilers-feel to them, and have the pieces to go deep every year.
Crosby, Malkin, and Staal provide the best 1-2-3 punch down the middle in the league… which is where depth is most crucial in the playoffs, in my opinion. And then you have Marc-Andre Fleury, who has picked up 30 wins in the last two postseasons. If they can play just as well defensively as they did last spring, they could make their third straight finals appearance.
3. Detroit Two months ago, the Wings were fighting for their playoff lives; heck, even at the beginning of March they were still on the bubble. Thanks to good health and goaltending, though, Mike Babcock and company are the hottest team in the league. From what I’ve seen, Jimmy Howard isn’t one who will be fazed by the playoff pressure; he has more than enough experience and depth in front of him.
The only thing I’d worry about with the Wings is if they can advance to the finals for a third straight year. This would probably be more of an issue for them as opposed to Pittsburgh, given their age. But with all of the injuries, not everyone has played a full season… meaning they don’t have as much wear-and-tear on their bodies. Could we see a ‘three-match’ between the Wings and Pens??
4. Vancouver Are the Canucks the team that will break Canada’s Cup drought? It all depends on Roberto Luongo. He’s been shaky since the Olympic break, and has horrid memories of his second round performance last spring. There’s no question he has the ability to carry a team all the way to the finals; but he’s let in too many soft goals in his postseason career. Will winning a gold medal change his luck and boost his confidence? We'll see.
Other than Luongo, the Canucks have a deep roster that, when healthy, can do some damage. The Sedin twins have taken their game to another level this year, and you can make the argument that Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows are both better than they were a year ago. The key is ‘when healthy’, though. Without Willie Mitchell and Ryan Johnson (two key ‘warriors’), they may struggle to advance far… but they certainly have the potential to.
5. New Jersey Lou Lamoriello had one thing in mind when made the blockbuster trade to acquire Ilya Kovalchuk: Lord Stanley. You can bet this team will have great drive and determination to get it done this year. With Jacques Lemaire behind the bench, they’ll be better suited to make a deep run… rather than with, say, Brent Sutter! I’m expecting Martin Brodeur to be better this postseason that he has been in recent years.
The big key with the Devils is Kovalchuk. He has more-than-solid pieces around him (Parise, Elias, Langenbrunner, Zajac, etc); but the team hasn't been able to find consistency with him in the lineup. ‘Kovy’ has started contributing more recently, so maybe he’s finally feeling comfortable. If that’s the case, look out for New Jersey.
Where are the Caps and Sharks, you ask?!? Remember to check back tomorrow for the Top 5 Pretenders…
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.