It's the best time of year!
We are just five days away from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and teams only have one or two games left on the schedule. Here are my top five contenders (and pretenders) for this postseason.
(Note: I’m not saying the pretenders can’t win the Cup; it’s solely a prediction that they won’t.)
1. Vancouver Canucks
When was the last time someone was as heavily favored as the Canucks are going into the postseason? Look no further than last year’s Washington Capitals – and we all know what happened there. Moreover, the last two Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone down in round one. But this Canucks team seems to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder, looking to prove they can go deep in the playoffs despite owning the league’s best record.
Statistically, I don’t think the Canucks could have done any better this season. They own the best power play and penalty kill in the league, as well as sitting at the top in goals-for and goals-against. Oh, and they have the top point-getter in the league (and Hart Trophy contender), Daniel Sedin.
The biggest key to the Canucks winning their first Stanley Cup will be Roberto Luongo. The ever-popular goaltender has struggled in the last two postseasons and has a lot of critics to silence. More rest and a re-tooled defense have helped Luongo be more consistent this year.
Despite a few key injuries and the fact that the franchise is in new territory as a favorite to win it all, Vancouver is the team to beat going into next week’s playoffs – not only in the West, but the entire NHL.
2. Washington Capitals
At this time last spring, I felt the Capitals were pretenders because of the way they played. Now that Coach Bruce Boudreau has tweaked their style, the nation’s capital is primed to see hockey well into May or beyond.
Washington’s stars didn’t come close to putting up the earth-shattering numbers they did a year ago. Instead, they have sacrificed goal-scoring for better defensive play and more comfort in the 2-1-type games. Alex Ovechkin and company have improved their penalty kill, goals-against average and record in one-goal games – all of which are important come playoff time.
The Caps now possess the necessary intangibles to make a long run in the playoffs. This group battled adversity for much of the season’s first half, but are now a better team because of it. Now it’s up to Ovechkin to prove the doubters who believe he is not a ‘big-game player’ wrong. Sidney Crosby has his ring… is it the time Ovechkin gets his name etched on Lord Stanley?
3. Detroit Red Wings
Over the years, Detroit has proved that no matter how vulnerable they look in the final weeks of a season, no matter their age or who’s in net, they are always a dangerous team this time of year. Since the start of the 1995 playoffs (16 postseasons), the Wings have won four Stanley Cups, including 12 trips to the second round, eight to the conference finals, and six to the Cup final.
Despite being the oldest team in the league, what I like about this year’s Red Wings is their depth. The secondary scoring is as good as there is, as they have three lines that can strike, along with a good energy line. Defensively, they are deep and experienced. Jimmy Howard, who was better in his rookie campaign, is the x-factor in net.
I learned a long time ago that the Red Wings can never be counted out in the playoffs. If Coach Mike Babcock can get the best out of his team in the big moments, there’s no reason why they can’t add another long playoff run to their resume.
4. Boston Bruins
I was honestly hesitant to label Boston as a ‘contender’ because of their past; but they actually may be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference right now. When Claude Julien’s gang is at the top of their game, they are difficult to beat – especially in a seven-game series.
Boston may be the best-positioned in net of all 16 playoff teams; if Tim Thomas happens to falter, Julien can call upon last year’s playoff starter, Tuukka Rask. Their defense has stalwarts like the bruising Zdeno Chara and puck-mover Tomas Kaberle. Up front, they don’t have a pure goal-scorer, but more than a handful of forwards that play well on both ends of the ice.
I think the Bruins will be motivated to bounce-back after last year’s second-round collapse, which would make them a scary team to go up against starting next week.
5. San Jose Sharks
San Jose still has yet to prove they can win on the big stage in the playoffs. The franchise has yet to even reach a Stanley Cup final in 13 trips to the ‘second season’.
With that being said, they have put together a helluva second half. Since Jan. 13, Team Teal is 26-5-4 (!), going from playoff bubble team to Pacific Division winners. Antti Niemi has had a lot to do with their success, winning 25 of those 26 games in 34 consecutive starts. Remember, he backstopped Chicago to the Stanley Cup just last year.
If Joe Thornton can produce consistently and Niemi makes enough stops in key moments, could the Sharks slay the demons and get past the conference finals? I’m not drinking the Kool-aid just yet, but I’m sipping on it.
Is this the deepest team in the NHL? Arguably, yes. Can they win the Cup? Of course. But the way the 2010 Eastern Conference Champions have performed in the second half of the year doesn’t make me believe another run to the Cup final is in the cards.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
This pick of Pittsburgh as a pretender comes with a disclaimer; if Sidney Crosby makes a return in the playoffs (and is effective), it will obviously increase his team’s chances of going far. But judging by GM Ray Shero’s comments from last week, there isn’t much optimism for a return this season.
Pittsburgh is the only team that has not won a game when trailing after two periods this season; they may not win many playoff games if that doesn’t change. Alex Kovalev and James Neal were brought in to help produce offense, but they have only combined for three goals thus far. Since Crosby went down, though the team has stayed in the hunt for the division and conference, they are averaging a goal less per game.
It would be a great story if Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and a solid blueline carried the Pens to the conference finals, or deeper, without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I just don’t see it happening.
3. Los Angeles Kings
The injuries to Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams have thrown a wrench into any of the Kings’ plans of marching through the Western Conference. They can definitely get past the first round – especially if it’s a matchup against Nashville or Phoenix. But can they top Vancouver, San Jose or Detroit in a seven-game series? Not without Kopitar.
At times this year, Terry Murray’s club has looked like a Stanley Cup contender; when they haven’t, they don’t even look like a playoff team. This is a young team that plays good defense, has size up front and a bright future; but I’m doubtful that they’ll make a long run this spring.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay’s firepower up front can undoubtedly match up with anyone; between the duo of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, along with veterans Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone, the dynamic offense can carry the Bolts past the first round. However, deficiencies on the back end will be exposed at some point. The blueline is slow of foot, while goaltender Dwayne Roloson is 41 and has had an up-and-down stay in Tampa.
This will be Guy Boucher’s first postseason as a coach; and although the Lightning have a handful of veterans that are experienced in the ‘second season’, this group hasn’t been together for a playoff run. Their time will come.
5. Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago makes this list since they are the defending champs. Not only are they not playing their best hockey right now, but it’s the toughest trophy in sports to win in back-to-back years (the last to do so were the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings). They certainly boast a lot of talent, but the depth just isn’t the same as it was last postseason.
If Chicago makes the playoffs, they’ll likely only be the eighth or seventh seed in the West; and that’s the thing – IF they get in. The ‘Hawks are more worried about holding onto a playoff spot than repeating as Cup champs.
Photos credit: Getty Images
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