We are just past the mid way point of the NHL season and a lot has happened so far. Here are the top five teams who I think have the best chance to bring home the Stanley Cup.
Scoring has never been an issue for the Canucks as their offence, lead by Daniel and Henrik Sedin, has been one of the best in the league for the past few seasons. Vancouver scored 272 goals last season, which was good for second best in the NHL. This year they have 149 goals for which puts them on pace to equal last seasons total.
The past two seasons, the only team that has stood between Vancouver and a long playoff run was the Chicago Blackhawks. Salary cap constraints forced the Hawks to make some moves and dissemble their Stanley Cup winning squad in the off season. This has opened the door for the Canucks to make a run and their play this season makes them the frontrunner to bring home the cup.
Defense was once considered a weakness for the Canucks but several off-season acquisitions have given them one of the strongest blue lines in the league. They acquired defensemen Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard to go alongside emerging youngsters Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler.
As for goaltending, this has never been an issue for Vancouver ever since they acquired Roberto Luongo from the Florida Panthers. This year Luongo has been able to get a break from rookie backup goalie Corey Schneider. I think having Schneider has allowed the Canucks to rest Luongo more often then in years past. This should hopefully have him well rested to make a long playoff run.
The Flyers silently played their way to the Stanley Cup Finals last year only to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks.
This season they are back with relatively the same roster. Their core of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere and Chris Pronger are still there and they have been benefitting from the great play of sophomore Claude Giroux. They possess both the offensive and defensive ability to make a long playoff run but, in my opinion are still lacking a Stanley Cup winning goaltender. Last years playoff heroics of Michael Leighton likely won’t be repeated. This season they have given the bulk of the games to rookie tender Sergei Bobrovsky. Is this guy the real deal? Many teams have been able to make long playoff runs with young goaltenders in recent years (ex. Cam Ward, Jaroslav Halak). It seems as though you don’t need a goalie to win you a playoff series but rather just play well enough to keep you in it. This could happen with Bobrovsky but if the Flyers are looking to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup they will attempt to acquire a better, more proven goalie.
The Capitals are a great regular season team. They are just need to find a way to get it done in the playoffs if they want to be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Washington’s strong core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green has allowed them to dominate the southeast division for the last few years. Last year they were pretty much a one line team. Once the opposition found a way to shut down that top line, they shut down the Caps. This year Ovechkin is on pace to record the worst offence totals of his career and Semin has been often injured, yet the Caps are still finding ways to keep pace in the tight Southeast division.
I think adversity; such as battling through injuries and a big losing streak will benefit the Caps in the long run. Last season they dominating the league and had already clinched a playoff spot with more than a month left in the regular season. This had them go from playing meaningless hockey to playoff hockey. This year they are in a fight for the division lead with Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The increased competition will force the team to play better hockey and fight for a playoff spot all the way till the end of the season. They have gone the distance in their last two playoff series losing to Montreal in seven games last year and Philadelphia in seven the year before. If Washington is able to establish consistent scoring from their top players in the playoffs they will be playing hockey into the late spring. But if players like Ovechkin and Semin decide to repeat the way they played in last year’s playoffs the Caps will be making another first round exit.
You can never count out the Red Wings when talking about Stanley Cup contenders. Excellent drafting has allowed the team to become a powerhouse in the Western Conference. They haven’t missed the playoffs in over a decade and always seem to find a way to win.
Depth, experience and excellent coaching are reasons why Detroit should be considered a Cup contender. Datsyuk, Holmstrom, Stuart and both Howard and Osgood have gone down with injuries over the past few weeks and the team is still finding ways to win. Players like Todd Bertuzzi, Johan Franzen and Valteri Fillpula have stepped up and are scoring when the team needs it.
Just like Philadelphia scoring and defense aren’t a problem for the Red Wings; there weakness is between the pipes. Jimmy Howard has done a great job since taking over the starters role in Detroit but I don’t know if he will be able to lead them to the Cup just yet. Clearly GM Ken Holland agrees as he recently signed free agent goaltender Evgeni Nabokov but lost him to waivers. I think the Red Wings want to have a long playoff run and I expect them to try again at acquiring a more experienced goalie before the trade deadline.
My so called “darkhorse” pick to make a long playoff run. Dallas has improved over the last few seasons by adding some great young talent and depth at forward. They finally cut ties with goaltender Marty Turco in the offseason after the acquired young goalie Kari Lehtonen in a trade with Atlanta. Even though Lehtonen is young I believe he should get a shot a playing playoff hockey. Playing in Atlanta he never really got a chance to play meaningful hockey. Dallas will hopefully give him the chance he needs to really prove he can be a number one goalie in the NHL.
The offense lead by Brad Richards, Mike Riberio, Brendan Morrow, James Neal and Jamie Benn might be one of the best in the league. The recent addition of Jamie Langenbrunner makes it even better. Langenbrunner gives the Stars the depth and playoff experience they need.
Their defense may not be one of the strongest in the league but they have been able to get it done so far. I can see GM Joe Nieuwendyk trying to address this issue before the trade deadline. With Richards and Riberio set to become free agents in the offseason I believe the Stars time to win is now. If they add a defenseman and continue to click on offense the Stars will be tough to beat.
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I believe that the Texas Rangers will win the World Series.
Texas as a team is currently batting .281 with a .337 on-base percentage and a .478 slugging percentage. They lead all playoff teams with 107 hits, 17 home runs, 182 total bases and 59 runs scored.
The Rangers success has been due to an extremely explosive offence lead by all-star outfielders Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. The two have combined for nine home runs, sixteen RBI, seventeen runs scored and nine stolen bases in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Five of the nine Rangers starters currently boast batting averages over .300, which has helped Texas outscore opponents by a total of 59 to 32 in 11 playoff games. The Rangers only played in one one-run game all playoffs and have outscored their opponent by at least four runs in every win. The offense has been able to dominate some of the games best pitchers in Matt Garza, David Price, C.C Sabathia and Andy Pettitte.
Meanwhile, San Francisco’s offense hasn’t put up anything close to the amount of production the Rangers bats have. They are currently batting .231 with a .296 on-base percentage and a .330 slugging percentage. The Giants 77 hits, 6 home runs, 110 total base and 30 runs scored clearly show that they are the offense underdog.
San Francisco’s top offensive player has been right fielder Cody Ross who is batting .324 with four home runs, eight RBI and six runs scored in ten playoff games. Ross is the only player on the Giants roster who is hitting over .300 in the post season and he has batted in a quarter of the teams 32 runs.
The Rangers should have a challenge hitting off San Francisco’s pitching staff, which has been dominate all playoff long.
Throughout the first two rounds opposing teams have combine for 65 hits, 25 earned runs are hitting just .199 off them. They have struck out 102 batters, allowed just under three runs per game and boast a team ERA of 2.47. Tim Lincecum’s 1.93 ERA is second best to teammate Matt Cain who has yet to allow a run in 13 and 2/3 innings of post-season baseball. Closer Brian Wilson symbolizes how dominant the Giants bullpen has been as he also has yet to allow a run in nine innings of post-season work and has posted a 0.89 WHIP in the process.
Texas’ Cliff Lee’s seems to bring his game up a notch in the playoffs, as he is 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight post-season games. Other than Lee no other Ranger starter had pitched in the post season until this year. With four rookie starters and a rookie closer on the roster Texas’ pitching has shown great poise. They held opposing hitters to a combined 75 hits, 30 runs and .208 batting average. Combine the Rangers have struck out 107 batters allowed an average of three runs per game and currently have a 2.76 team ERA. Both teams have come a long way as they posted losing records in 2008 and finished last in their division in 2007.
The Giants and Rangers finished the 2010 season with almost identical records. San Francisco’s 92-70 record with a .568 winning percentage was a little better than Texas who went 90-72 with a .556 winning percentage.
San Francisco scored a total of 697 runs this season and only allowed 583, which was good for second in the MLB behind San Diego’s 581 runs against.
Texas scored a total of 787 runs, which was good for fifth best in the MLB and allowed 687 runs. Both teams finished with 162 homeruns apiece.
If history means anything San Francisco has the advantage. The Giants last trip to the post season was in 2003 when they lost to the Florida Marlins. They have been to the World Series three times losing to New York in 1962, Oakland in 1989 and Anaheim in 2002. In total San Francisco has appeared in the playoffs nine times and will be playing in their fourth World Series.
Texas had never won a playoff series until their five game win over Tampa Bay in the American League Division Series. In their entire 49 year history the Rangers only made three playoff appearances and had just a single win to show for it.
Texas played great in interleague play this season finishing with a 14-4 record, while the Giants posted a losing record of 7-8.
The two teams have met in the interleague play a total of 22 times with the Giants winning 15 times. Texas is 0-9 all time at AT&T Park getting swept on three occasions with the last happening in 2009. Over the past nine seasons the two teams have only met six times with the Giants winning all six games.
On Wednesday AT&T Park will play host to Game 1 of the 2010 World Series. This will be the first time since 2001 that the World Series will open in a National League ballpark.
This series will feature the Rangers high-powered offense against dominant Giants pitching. Even though San Francisco was able to stymie opposing hitters all season long it was only against National League teams. The American League seemed to feature teams with a lot more power and capability of scoring runs at will. I believe San Francisco’s pitching will make the series close but the Rangers offense will bust out and bring them their first ever World Series title.
Prediction: Texas in 6 games.