Golden Knights, Lightning remain favorites to win the Stanley Cup
As the calendar nears mid-March, the NHL playoff picture begins to finalize. Each division has had its notable outliers this season, all looking to make a push at the Stanley Cup.
The Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference has been headlined by the top team in the power rankings throughout most of the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning became even more menacing following the NHL’s trade deadline, bringing in New York Rangers captain and top defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, as well as versatile forward, J.T. Miller.
Led by the scoring powers of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, and the elite prowess of big-puck-moving defenseman Victor Hedman, the Lightning will be among the toughest teams to beat in the postseason.
The Boston Bruins were another active team at the trade deadline, bringing in two serviceable Ranger players, forward Rick Nash and defenseman Nick Holden. The Bruins have exceeded all expectations this season, boasting a great mix of young and veteran talent.
Goalie Tuukka Rask has been great this season and will definitely be in the Vezina Trophy talk at the season's end.
The injury-prone Patrice Bergeron has been hurt frequently this season as well, but if they get him back healthy for the playoffs, the Bruins will be a very difficult team to beat.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have looked great for most of the season, but have fallen off recently following the injury to top scorer Auston Matthews.
The Maple Leafs have a very good forward core and have received consistent play from goalie Frederick Anderson. However, without the presence of their top center and reigning 40-goal-scorer Matthews, the Maple Leafs will not be a threat come playoffs.
Looking at the Atlantic Division, the reigning, defending and undisputed champions of the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins look to claim their third straight Stanley cup this June. If they can achieve this feat, a dynasty up to par with the great New York Islander dynasty of the early 1980s might be within reach. With arguably the two best centers in this league, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, no team can easily beat the Pens.
The addition of Derick Brassard at the deadline only helps their forward depth. The only gray area for the Pens has been their star, injury-prone goaltender Matt Murray. The 24-year-old has dealt with a medley of different injuries throughout his young career, from a broken hand, to lower body injuries, to concussions. They will need Murray back at 100 percent to be a top contender.
Alex Ovechkin and his team, the Washington Capitals, have a real fire in their belly this season after another early exit in last year’s playoffs to the Penguins. The Caps realize they are running on borrowed time.
An aging Ovechkin, Nicklas Bäckström, T.J. Oshie and Braden Holtby means that they are in an ultimate “win-now” phase. Ovechkin recently scored his 600th career goal, becoming the 20th player in hockey history to do that.
Ovechkin has etched his name on many trophies, from MVP, to point-scoring champion, to leading goal scorer, but his name is still yet to be seen on the Stanley Cup. Another early exit for the Caps this season could mean the end to an era and perhaps the move toward a rebuild in our nation’s capital.
Some other Eastern Conference Playoff hopefuls include the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes.
Concerning the Central Division of the Western Conference, the Nashville Predators have looked like a serious powerhouse again this season. The Predators were Western Conference champs a season ago, only to lose to the Penguins in the cup final.
Following a great early season trade, bringing in reliable two-way center Kyle Turris, the Predators made it clear they were gunning for the Cup. They have perhaps the best defensive core in the league, led by the pairings of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, as well as Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban. Meanwhile, goalie Pekka Rinne has not lost a step to his game even at 37 years old.
Another impressive team this season has been the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets possess a plethora of scoring forwards. The offensive load has been led by Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and the newly acquired Paul Stastny. The play of young goaltender Conor Hellebuyck will definitely be a question mark leading into the postseason.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars are more of a bubble team than anything at this point.
They are currently sitting in playoff contention, but besides the one-two punch of superstars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars forward core can be considered quite average.
Alex Radulov has been a great addition coming over in the offseason, but besides that, there is not much else to their roster. An older defensive unit has only one real bright spot in young puck mover John Klingberg. In all, it has been a seesaw season for Stars’ netminders Ben Bishop and Kari Lehtonen, with both goalies proving to be relatively inconsistent.
Almost no one could have expected that the Vegas Golden Knights would be strong cup contenders in mid-March, but this appears to be the case.
The Golden Knights have been atop the Pacific Division for the last few months. A team full of role players have all found a way to play together and win hockey games. They play an up-tempo game, having implemented the new style of NHL hockey.
Marc-André Fleury has had the best season of his career, even when considering he is a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Penguins. The Golden Knights are legitimate contenders.
The injury of the legendary Joe Thornton has given the San Jose Sharks a new identity. The Sharks have embraced that they probably will not have the veteran around in the late stages of the regular season or the post season, but have adapted accordingly.
The addition of gritty winger Evander Kane adds some much-needed scoring depth up front. Still, everything on this team runs through the play of their elite defenseman Brent Burns. Burns begins the the offense from his own end all of their success starts with him.
No playoff picture is complete without a mention of the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have long been a team that is always in the playoff picture.
They have consistent forwards, defensive groups and a good goalie situation with John Gibson and Ryan Miller. They are not cup favorites, but a spark could push them in the right direction.
Some other hopeful teams for the Western Conference playoffs include the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames.