Note to the editor: all season totals stats come from the NHL Standings source; all similar stats mentioned come from the NHL Stats source.
The NHL season has drawn to a dramatic close, with two teams vying for a playoff spot with the chance to win it all in their hands on the final game of the season both blowing their opportunity. The recipients of this good fortune are breathing a sigh of relief – and looking forward to the long road ahead. In June, one of these sixteen teams will get to drink from the fabled chalice that is Lord Stanley’s Cup, but which ones have the best chance? Let’s rank up the candidates from least likely to most.
16. Los Angeles Kings – Season totals: 46-30-6, 38 ROW, 219 GF, 198 GA, +21 GD, 98 Pts.
On paper, the Los Angeles Kings look like a middle-of-the-pack playoff team. There’s just one problem: they’ve been hit with the injury bug at the worst possible time. No Anze Kopitar. No Justin Williams. Their top line has been decimated. Without a first line double-shifting and leading the way in scoring, Jonathan Quick is going to have to carry this team on his back. It’s going to be a gauntlet just to get through the Western Conference, and there’s likely not enough there for 16 more wins. Oh, and one more stat: this team is 10-2 in the shootout, and there’s no shootout in the playoffs. Hey, one team has to be on the bottom.
15. Phoenix Coyotes – Season totals: 43-26-13, 38 ROW, 231 GF, 226 GA, +5 GD, 99 Pts.
Ilya Bryzgalov is the type of goaltender that can steal this team all the way to the finals. The problem is he hasn’t played like it this season. He’s been very hot at times, and followed it up by going extremely cold. Can this team find the balance to ride all the way through to the Finals? First, they have to play better against a team that is, on paper, better than they are in Detroit. Next, they have to better their power play (12th among playoff teams) and penalty kill (last among playoff teams). Then they’ll have to beat two more Western Conference juggernauts. Add in the fact that this Phoenix franchise has yet to win a playoff round, and it’s an unlikely story.
14. Tampa Bay Lightning – Season totals: 46-25-11, 40 ROW, 247 GF, 240 GA, +7 GD, 103 Pts.
Once the most surprising team with the hottest player, both have cooled off down the stretch. Steven Stamkos has notched only 5 points since St. Patrick’s Day, over an 12 game span where the Lightning went 7-3-2. That’s good, but Stamkos’ performance is not quite good enough in the postseason. Throw in questionable goaltending and a mediocre goal differential, and the Lightning have a tough road ahead of them. One positive note is that they are 6th in the league on the power play, and 8th in the league in penalty kill, so their special teams aren’t a burden.
13. New York Rangers – Season totals: 44-33-5, 35 ROW, 233 GF, 198 GA, +35 GD, 93 Pts.
They had to sweat it out on the final weekend, but they’re in. Unfortunately, they lost a major catalyst in their offense just before the playoffs in Ryan Callahan. Nobody should doubt Henrik Lundqvist can carry this team far if he has to, and the goal differential should speak volumes about this team’s potential. However, it was given life thanks to the shootout (9-3 on the season), and again: there’s no shootout in the playoffs. This team is going to go as far as Lundqvist will carry them.
12. Montreal Canadiens – Season totals: 44-30-8, 41 ROW, 216 GF, 209 GA, +7 GD, 96 Pts.
Montreal’s first round matchup certainly looks good; after all, they’re 4-2-0 in the season series against Boston. However, two of the last three seasons have seen Boston and Montreal square off in the playoffs, and Boston has had the better of Montreal, winning an aggregate of 7 games to 4. So what can carry the Habs? Special teams is balanced (7th in the NHL in power play, 7th in penalty kill), but Carey Price is going to have to channel his inner Jaroslav Halak to carry Montreal to the promised land.
11. Chicago Blackhawks – Season totals: 44-29-9, 38 ROW, 258 GF, 225 GA, +33 GD, 97 Pts.
The defending Stanley Cup Champions backed into the postseason on the final day of the regular season. Their reward? A first round draw with the Vancouver Canucks, the President’s Trophy winner. It shouldn’t be a problem for this team, as they have dispatched Vancouver in six gameseach of the last two postseasons. Realistically speaking, it’s a tall order to get through the West again. They do have the fourth-best offense in the league, and one of the best goal differentials (7th), but their goaltending is suspect. Add in the fact that they’ve got to win as a #8 seed, and a repeat is doubtful.
10. Pittsburgh Penguins – Season totals: 49-25-8, 39 ROW, 238 GF, 199 GA, +39 GD, 106 Pts.
Without superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for more than half of the year, all the Penguins did was rack up 104 points and take the Atlantic Division down to the final weekend. This is a team that’s been there very recently, and could be well on their way to yet another Cup Final. However, they’re going to rely on Marc-Andre Fleury remaining stellar, even as the intensity kicks up a notch. With Crosby’s return still in doubt, this team could be sitting ducks; even if it does advance past Tampa Bay.
9. Buffalo Sabres – Season totals: 43-29-10, 38 ROW, 245 GF, 229 GA, +16 GD, 96 Pts.
One of the hottest teams in the second half of the season, Buffalo made a surprising turnaround to place 7th in the Eastern Conference. There are two things that warrant a high ranking for Buffalo: the first is Ryan Miller. Anybody who watched the Olympics last winter saw just how far this guy can take a solid team around him. The second is a first-round draw with the suddenly ice-cold Philadelphia Flyers. Throw in the added secondary scoring and a more solidified defense that was sorely missed in the first half of the season, and Buffalo could go on a surprising run.
8. Nashville Predators – Season totals: 44-27-11, 38 ROW, 219 GF, 194 GA, +25 GD, 99 Pts.
This team making the playoffs shouldn’t be a surprise. What should be a surprise is if this is finally the year that they win a round. Nashville has yet to taste playoff glory, even though it is no stranger to the postseason. This year feels different, though: Pekka Rinne is likely the best goaltender in the NHL, and all four lines can roll against any other teams’ top line and defend. Whether or not they can score consistently enough to make it far is a different story. However, with this goalie, anything is possible.
7. Anaheim Ducks – Season totals: 47-30-5, 43 ROW, 236 GF, 234 GA, +5 GD, 99 Pts.
This team sure does know how to catch fire. Right before the playoffs, despite losing their All-Star goalie for over a month, Anaheim surged ahead to home-ice advantage. However, their goaltending is still suspect, while their offense is flourishing. Can Anaheim go far with its All-Star goalie shaking off vertigo? Stranger things have happened, and don’t be surprised if this team looks like a serious contender early.
6. Detroit Red Wings – Season totals: 47-25-10, 43 ROW, 261 GF, 241 GA, +20 GD, 104 Pts.
Is there any team less guilty of mailing it in than these Red Wings? A dismal 4-5-2 over their last eleven games, this old team has looked tired. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and an optimist can view this as experience resting their legs for the postseason grind. It’s hard to bet against this team, especially with their recent history. It’s not going to be the smoothest of rides, and a lot of this burden is going to fall on the young shoulders of Jimmy Howard.
5. Philadelphia Flyers – Season totals: 47-23-12, 44 ROW, 259 GF, 223 GA, +36 GD, 106 Pts.
I may have spoken too soon. Going 3-4-3 over their last ten games, the defending Wales Trophy winners went from #1 seed lock to Atlantic Division fallout. Narrowly escaping with the division crown, and a #2 seeding, their first round date is with the red-hot Buffalo Sabres. Even with a strong offensive attack and a deep defensive unit, this team is going to have to catch lightning in a bottle with their goaltending, as Sergei Bobrovski has looked like a rookie as of late, winning just three of his starts since March. Brian Boucher may once again be the guy up to the task, and the Eastern Conference is certainly wide open.
4. Boston Bruins – Season totals: 46-25-11, 44 ROW, 246 GF, 195 GA, +51 GD, 103 Pts.
Tim Thomas must be a man playing with a vengeance. Four lines that can roll with anyone else, the second-best goal differential in the NHL in a team that plays physical, and a defense that is as deep as it is large, it’s tough to argue against this team as a legit contender. There has been worry about their lackluster play as of late, but this team seemed to go through a similar lethargic phase just before the playoffs last year. A first-round matchup with Montreal may be just the jolt this team needs to be ready to finally get over that Eastern Conference Semifinals game 7 hump. A couple more stats: This team is also just 2-6 in shootouts, and 1-5 in overtime, the lone goal coming off of a power play. There are no shootouts, and they don’t play 4-on-4 overtime in the playoffs.
3. San Jose Sharks – Season totals: 48-25-9, 43 ROW, 248 GF, 213 GA, +35 GD, 105 Pts.
Don’t look now, but the choker label just might be peeling off of this team. They’re also quietly one of the most dominant teams over the second half, running up a 27-6-4 record since January 15th. In addition, San Jose has the second-best power play in the NHL, which is only offset by their terrible penalty kill (15th among playoff teams). Throw three lines off consistently good offense in with a goaltender that has a Stanley Cup ring already in Antti Niemi, and the Sharks are a legitimate threat to win it all.
2. Washington Capitals – Season totals: 48-23-11, 43 ROW, 224 GF, 197 GA, +27 GD, 107 Pts.
For all the talk of struggles in the middle of the season, for all the f-bombs thrown on cable television, for all of the offensive firepower that has “underperformed,” this team has taken the entire season to make the adjustment from offensive juggernaut to balanced hockey team. They have a goaltending tandem that can stack up with just about any other team, and they’ve finally learned how to play defense efficiently. Somehow, they managed to snag the top seed in the Eastern Conference for a second straight season. This team will be unlikely to fall early.
1. Vancouver Canucks – Season totals: 54-19-9, 50 ROW, 262 GF, 185 GA, +77 GD, 117 Pts.
So let me get this straight: the best offense in the league, the best defense in the league, the best power play in the league, the second best penalty kill in the league (those bums), the best home record in the league, the best road record in the league, the best overall record in the league, and the best face-off win percentage in the league. Is there any reason why this team should not be the favorite? The Stanley Cup is theirs to lose.
NHL Standings, NHL.com
NHL Stats, NHL.com
Kings Team Report, Yahoo! Sports
Steven Stamkos Game Log, Yahoo! Sports
If the Playoffs Started Today, Yahoo! Sports
2010 Conference Semifinals: Blackhawks vs. Canucks, NHL.com
2009 Conference Semifinals: Vancouver vs. Chicago, ESPN NHL
Sergei Bobrovski Game Log, Yahoo! Sports
San Jose Sharks 2010-11 Schedule, Yahoo! Sports