The NHL playoffs are arguably one of the greatest events in sports. 8 seeds upset 1 seeds, such was the case in 2006 when the Edmonton Oilers upset the mighty Detroit Red Wings, and it doesn’t shock you. Anything can happen in a 7 game series. A goalie can get hot at the right time and shut down an entire team, one bounce of the puck can change the momentum of a whole series. The greatest thing about the NHL playoffs is the unpredictability of it all. With that being said, I now will try to give you a rundown of who the contenders are, who the pretenders are, and who just might shock the world and be the next 2006 Edmonton Oilers or 2003 Anaheim Mighty Ducks by reaching the Stanley Cup Finals as 8 and 7 seeds in the West.
When I look at how the playoff situation is looking right now, I see 3 contenders in the east. I see Boston, New York, and the team I consider the favorite to win it all, the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the west I see only 2 true contenders and those would be the Vancouver Canucks and our own Detroit Red Wings (barring any major injuries entering playoffs). The pretenders I have chosen this year are the number 1 seeded team in the NHL in the St. Louis Blues as well as the 3 seeds in the east and west in the Florida Panthers and the San Jose Sharks. I have 2 dark horses chosen and both happen to be the 5 seeds. I think the Nashville Predators in the west and the Philadelphia Flyers in the east are 2 teams who can be very scary for any of the top tier teams in this league and just might have what it takes to make a Stanley Cup playoff run.
For once, I feel as if the top teams in the east are superior to those in the west. Although Pittsburgh as of now stands as the 4th seed in the east due to their divison leader being a very strong team as well, they are the team to beat in the NHL right now. With their offensive firepower they have, even before Sidney Crosby came back, they are able to score at will. The proof is in the pudding. They currently have 2 of the top 4 goal scorers in the NHL. Evgeni Malkin is 2nd only behind the one and only Steven Stamkos with 46 goals and teammate James Neal comes in at 4 on the list of top goal scorers with 37. Not only do they have great offense, but they have something that every Stanley Cup Champion needs…..a great goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury currently leads the NHL in wins with 41. There’s not much else to say about them. The stats don’t lie, they are the number 1 scoring team in the league, they are a top 10 power play team and a top 5 penalty kill team and have the 4th most points in the NHL. They did this without having their captain for a majority of the year. All of those factors including having won a cup once already before makes them my favorite to win the cup this year.
Other teams who can make a run in the east are the two original six teams, Boston and New York. Out of these 2 teams I give the advantage to the Rangers because of goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist is a top tier goalie and has played outstanding this year with a 1.93 GAA and an outstanding .932 save percentage which is good enough for 3rd in the NHL. I think they are a hungrier team than the Boston Bruins who come off a Stanley Cup winning year in 2011. The Bruins shouldn’t be counted out either. If they get good goaltending, they could easily run the table and win the cup. They’re top 5 in both goals for and goals against this year. They have amazing depth on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck. One name jumps out at you and that’s Zdeno Chara. Other than that, a lot of people don’t care or know about Rich Peverley, Krejci, Horton, Lucic, Seguin, Corvo and all the other solid players on their roster. Just because a team doesn’t have a Datsyuk, Malkin, Ovechkin or Crosby doesn’t mean they can’t win it all.
The contenders in the west scare me because these teams both hold a lot of unanswered questions. We don’t have to say anything about the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings. Both are highly skilled great all around teams. However, each team holds it’s own set of problems. With Vancouver i think it’s simple. It’s all psychological. Can they get over the hump and get it done? They are a lot like the San Jose Sharks in the fact that both simply cannot win it all. Both San Jose and Vancouver fall to pieces when it means most. Detroit has a different set of problems. Can Detroit get healthy before playoffs and can they stay healthy throughout the playoffs? If the wings stay healthy, I say almost no team can beat them and I can see them making it to the finals for round 3 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. That is only if Jimmy Howard is in net and not letting the “softies” go by him.
I have already given a reason for why the Sharks are chosen as a pretender, but both San Jose and Florida share other reasons why both can be called pretenders in this year’s playoff. San Jose and Florida both play in the weakest division in their conferences. This means San Jose and Florida get to beat up on their division foes all year and automatically receive at worst the 3 seed because they are a division leader. Another reason for Florida being a pretender is the lack of experience. Florida being in the playoffs is a surprise, but being on top of that a top 3 seed is just ridiculous. Home ice is a non factor seeing as no one wants to watch a hockey game down there. I just don’t see how either of these teams could make a run. Along with these 2 I chose the St. Louis Blues as a pretender. As much as I like the young talent they’ve assembled there, I don’t know if they can keep it up. None of the players have enough experience to know what it takes to win in the playoffs. I see this team being great in a couple years, but for now I just don’t see it. I mean honestly, how long can Brian Elliot keep stopping the puck like he has been? Only time will tell.
Now for my 2 “sexy” picks in the mix for a Stanley Cup. In the east it’s the “broad street bullies” Philadelphia Flyers and the Nashville Predators. If you’re looking for underdogs to root for this year, here you have them. They’re both the 5th seed in their conference and both have potential to even meet up in the Stanley Cup Finals. With Philly, they have just about everything except goaltending. Bryzgalov and Bobrovsky have not played to their potential this year and if they’re going to have any chance to win the cup, then Bryzgalov needs to step up to the plate and be the guy for Philly. They have a good mix of veterans and young guys and a ton of skill on offense with Claude Giroux leading the way. The team is 3rd in the NHL in goals per game, but 20th in goals allowed per game. If that doesn’t set of an alarm in your head, I don’t know what will. The good thing is they have size on defense in guys like Coburn as well as skill on defense such as Timonen. On offense they have a great balance of grit and skill. These things are huge when it comes to playoff hockey. Let’s just hope Bryzgalov returns to old form.
As for Nashville, they weren’t threatening until around the trade deadline. They have made so many great moves and have really come into their own. They made 4 significant moves that vastly improved the makeup of their team. It starts with Hal Gill. Their strength was defense and they added to it with Hal Gill, a big tough D with a ton of playoff experience. He is the perfect D-man for a playoff run. They also added firepower on offense by trading for Paul Gaustad from Buffalo and Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal. Kostitsyn doesn’t just add firepower, but great chemistry seeing as he became reunited with his teammate and brother, Sergei Kostitsyn. It didn’t just stop there. They went out and grabbed a player from the KHL. Alexander Radulov, the 25 year old who played in Nashville for 2 years, made the jump from Russia back to the NHL. He is the KHL’s all time leading scorer and holds the record for most points in a season. He averaged over a point per game over there. Not to say that’s surprising, because he faired well in the NHL too for those 2 years and in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) he posted an astounding 61 goals 91 assists and 152 points in just 62 games. With these additions to an already solid team with a great goalie like Rinne and a top defenseman like Shea Weber, I can see this team being a tough potential matchup for the Detroit Red Wings in the first round.
As of now, the playoffs are still a work in progress as teams on the bubble try to make it in. Teams who have clinched are trying to get home ice advantage, or play for a more favorable matchup. Unfortunately right now, it looks like all roads will lead to the Pittsburgh Penguins who really look unstoppable in a 7 game series. I can’t wait for playoff hockey and to see which team gets the lucky bounce that brings them the Stanley Cup.
Author: Anthony Walker