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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