Even though fall brings all of the excitement of football, playoff baseball, and the start of the NHL/NBA, I still think that spring is the most exciting time to be a sports fan. After this year’s thrilling finish to March Madness, both the NBA and NHL playoffs are now set to start in short order, and both should be equally exciting. But today I’m talking hockey and which teams I think have the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup. I’ll spare you from sitting through my entire series-by-series breakdown, but I will provide my complete NHL.com playoff bracket and my reasoning for choosing each of the contenders that I did.
The field is exceptionally challenging this season, and there is a core of about five teams that all have a very strong chance of making a Cup run. The field is so strong, that the writers at NHL.com seemed to have a hard time making up their minds when it came to choosing the top contender. The teams that I believe have the best chance of winning it all are as follows: The Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the San Jose Sharks. Notably absent from this list are preseason favorites such as the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers, and Tampa Bay Lightning, but I will explain my reasoning.
It’s generally accepted that a few factors are necessary for a team to go from Stanley Cup pretender, to actually being a contender. These factors include strong possession numbers, at least three productive centers, a stifling penalty kill, and a clear number-one goalie. The four-team list of pretenders I have above all lack in one of those areas and will have a hard time making up for that deficiency when pitted against the top teams mentioned earlier.
For instance, the Blackhawks and Rangers lack strong possession games and penalty kills. These are two major aspects of postseason play that teams struggle to win without. Meanwhile, an uncertain goaltending situation in St. Louis and injuries to Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson in Tampa make these two teams long-shots to take the Cup as well.
As for those top teams, a quick look at their lineups and stats does a lot to validate them as the class of the NHL entering the postseason. The Kings, Ducks, and Sharks all come out of the physical Pacific division where heavy competition near the top of the division means that each of these teams has already been battle-tested this season. Each team also possesses some incredible skill on the blue-line and a few of the best forwards in the league up front. Unfortunately the Kings and Sharks play each other in the first round so one of them will be eliminated right away, but I fully expect the Western Conference representative to come from this division.
The Stars are an interesting case since they seem to follow in the path of the old Washington Capitals teams led by Alex Ovechkin; they have plenty of offense, but goaltending and defense are huge question marks. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin might be the best forward combination in the NHL (not to mention Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, and Ales Hemsky right behind them) and John Klingberg is an exciting player to have on the blue-line. However, the team’s goaltending has been a major cause for concern all season and will make it very difficult for Dallas to pull away from the Pacific teams coming out of the West.
As for the Eastern Conference, I only see Washington and Pittsburgh having any real shot at taking the Cup away from the West. The Capitals sprinted through another league-best season as Ovechkin was joined by Evgeny Kuznetsov up front to provide the offense in front of goaltender Braden Holtby. The play of those three will likely determine how far this team advances into the postseason as they attempt to use star-power to overcome mediocre possession figures.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is the team that I think everyone needs to keep an eye on. After Sidney Crosby overcame his horrendous start, the Penguins became the hottest team in the NHL and dominated in the second half of the season. And perhaps most importantly, they did it without some of their best players. Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Olli Maatta all missed significant time down the stretch, and their postseason returns will only make the Penguins a more dangerous team overall. Add in a Norris contender in Kris Letang and a streaking Carl Hagelin and the Penguins suddenly look like the team to beat.
So to conclude, here is my complete bracket and a few of my picks.
Cup Champ: Pittsburgh Penguins
Conn Smythe: Kris Letang
Dark-Horse Contender: San Jose Sharks
Unsung Heros: Carl Hagelin, Brayden McNabb
Biggest Disappointment: Tampa Bay Lightning