Which team is going to win the Stanley Cup, and why.
With the trade deadline fast approaching, it’s time for a little playoff speculation. The four current division leaders are the Capitals in the Metropolitan, the Canadiens in the Atlantic, the Wild in the Central and the Sharks in the Pacific. The current playoff picture has Capitals at one, Pittsburgh at two, Columbus at three, Montreal at four, Ottawa at five, Boston at six, New York (Rangers) at seven, and Toronto at eight, for the Eastern conference. Over in the West, the Wild are at number one, San Jose at two, Chicago at three, Edmonton at four, Anaheim at five, St. Louis at six, Nashville at seven and Calgary at eight. So who’s going to win it all from that group, or will it be a team not yet in the playoff picture?
It’s always possible for lower seeded teams to fall out of the race for the playoffs, and there are a few teams that look like their spot might be stolen. Toronto is barely hanging on to the last spot in the East, and in all honesty, the top three in the Atlantic division are up for grabs. Over in the West, St. Louis isn’t clear of any competition for the third spot in the Central’s top three, and Calgary only holds the last wild-card spot by a point, so anything is possible. Bubble teams that aren’t in yet but have a strong possibility of making it at the season’s end include the Kings, Flyers, Jets, Panthers, and Islanders.
The Kings have been unlucky with their season, losing all-star and Olympic netminder Jonathan Quick to a serious groin injury before the season started. Quick is just about ready to come back, and once the Kings come off their bye week, expect a serious amount of points to be tallied, especially with young winger Tyler Toffoli coming back from a long-term injury as well.
The Flyers are hoping to not become the first ever team in history to have a ten game win streak and miss the playoffs in the same year. The Flyers won ten games in a row? I find myself asking that same question every time I watch them play. Whether it’s defensive mishaps, sluggish (sometimes nonexistent) offense, or sloppy goaltending, Philadelphia has had their fare share of problems since winning those ten games back in November/December. Why are they on this list? I’d say it’s 5% hometown team, 95% anything is possible with this squad. Last season, the team looked to be floundering, until a magical run full of outstanding goaltending, and a flurry of scoring from key players led them to a last second eighth seed. After three brutal games against the President’s trophy winning Capitals, the Flyers put on another show and took Ovechkin, Holtby, and the star-studded team from Washington to six games, eventually losing 1-0 in Philly. So yeah, anything is possible with this team.
Winnipeg. Who would have thought to hear that name on a playoff list? Patrick Laine has really done something for this team. The rookie leads the team in goals with 28, and is second in points, with 52, only to Mark Scheifele, who’s at 60. Laine has really been a difference maker for this team. The second overall pick in last year’s draft and only 18, the young forward has sparked something in Winnipeg that hasn’t been seen since the Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne, played back in the early 90’s. It’s unclear if the Jets will be able to make that final push, as they seem to be constantly up and down with winning or losing games. But, nevertheless, they’re only one point out right now, and as I said above, anything is possible.
The Panthers and Islanders are also just as close, with players like Jaromir Jagr and Vincent Trocheck down in Florida putting in work to earn a playoff spot, as well as captain John Tavares in New York leading his team in almost every game, desperately looking to get back to the playoffs after a first-round exit last year.
Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely any of the bubble teams mentioned win the Cup, so let’s move on to teams who are currently holding a playoff spot. Of the teams in, Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa, and Anaheim seem to be the least likely to make it very far in the playoffs. Toronto is an incredibly young team, with one of their lines entirely composed of rookies. Albeit, the rookies are some of the best in the league right now, but skill is no substitute for experience when it comes to playoff hockey, and seven game series are long and arduous. Calgary and Ottawa, while possessing a few star players, don’t display the level of play needed to make it past one, maybe two playoff series. Anaheim is one of those teams who is always good, but can never seem to find what it takes to succeed in the playoffs. The Capitals are another team with that ailment. The Caps are on track to win the President’s Trophy for the second year in a row and have yet to win a Stanley Cup, only making it to the Finals once in their history. That doesn’t mean it won’t be possible this year, but, based on history, it isn’t looking good. Now teams that have a better shot, but still not the best.
Edmonton, San Jose, Boston, Montreal, and Columbus all have a decent chance at winning it all. Edmonton’s hopes and dreams rest of the young, but capable shoulders of “the next Sidney Crosby”, Connor McDavid. McDavid has been putting on an MVP-caliber season, in only his second year. After coming off a broken collarbone his rookie season, McDavid has not disappointed, living up to the hype almost completely. Paired with some excellent goaltending from Cam Talbot, and the solid play from Leon Draisaitl, Mark Letestu, and Milan Lucic, the Oilers will probably win a series, but I don’t see them going much further. After the first round, competition is much more stiff, and the Oilers aren’t yet good enough to matchup with teams like the Blackhawks or Wild. San Jose and Montreal both possess a good goaltender and some solid skaters, but both seem to lack something in the composition of their teams. San Jose is getting older, with their top skaters still being Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski. Brent Burns provides some light from the blue line, and Martin Jones is a solid netminder, but they can’t stop time from taking its toll on the best players. Montreal, on the other hand, seems to just lack team camaraderie. Max Pacioretty, Shea Weber, Alex Galchenyuk, and Carey Price definitely bring the talent, but the team as a whole seems lacking in chemistry. Maybe recently appointed coach Claude Julien will turn things around in time for Montreal to go deep into the playoffs. Boston and Columbus seem to have the most pieces in place to succeed come April, but neither are convincing Stanley Cup winners. Columbus, while scoring goals upon goals, make a few too many mistakes for a Stanley Cup contender, which may be because of their young defensemen. Boston has the players and a new coach they seem to look up to, but Bruins teams that won cups in the past have had a different air to them, and this team doesn’t feel the same.
St. Louis, New York (Rangers), and Nashville have not been mentioned, but all three have been incredibly rocky this season in terms of results, which is never a recipe for playoff success. Which leaves three unnamed teams: Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Chicago.
While it pains me to say, Pittsburgh can never be counted out of the Stanley Cup race. Even after a convincing defeat to the Red Wings in Pittsburgh, this Penguins team is still top notch. Matt Murray is simply incredible in net, building off his playoff success from last season. Players like Crosby, Kessel, and Malkin continue to impress, and of course defensive mastermind Kris Letang is not getting any worse. The Penguins are constantly a force to be reckoned with, and if they don’t make the Finals, they will take whatever Eastern team that does to seven games in the conference finals.
It might seem insane to have the Hawks in this top three list, and two weeks ago I would have said the same, but, like Pittsburgh, never count out Chicago. Patrick Kane is putting on a late show, and the rest of the team is following. Jonathan Toews, while not performing to his usual standard, is always successful on the ice, and young forward Artemi Panarin continuing to shine. On defense, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa are still showing excellent play at the blue line, and anything that does get past is usually met by Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks aren’t the best team in hockey right now, but, like the Patriots or San Francisco Giants, they can never be counted out.
And finally, the Minnesota Wild. I wrote an article about their success earlier in the season, so I won’t dwell on the specifics too much. Devan Dubnyk is currently the best goalie in the league, and if he doesn’t win the Vezina Trophy this year, it will be the second biggest robbery of the season, only behind one of his 1,258 saves. In front of Dubnyk, blueliners Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, Marco Scandella, and Jared Spurgeon have played tremendously, with Suter leading the league in +/- with a 22. Forwards Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise, Eric Staal, and Nino Niederreiter provide goals at an incredibly fast pace, with the Wild being tied for most goals in the league with the Capitals at 195. The Wild appear to have all the stereotypical pieces of a championship winning team: The older, experienced captain who’s gone through his fair share of failures in his career, has seen it all and is ready to lead a serious team. The young guys who are performing admirably, and are eager to bring success to a state that has yet to experience it. The older guys, like Suter, who have seemingly found new life. And the goalie, Dubnyk, to add the security that should a puck happen to make it down to his crease, Doobey will almost always make the save. This team seems to have it all, and that’s why they’re my pick for this year’s Stanley Cup Champions.