This year's NHL playoffs will be an intense one as proven winners and young talent vie for the Stanley Cup.
If the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup win last season proved anything, it’s that any team can win it all. The eighth seed in the Western Conference last season, few thought the Kings stood a chance at anything but a date at the golf course. But behind amazing goaltending from Jonathan Quick and the dedication and grit of four well-rounded forward lines, the Kings dominated the Canucks, Blues, Coyotes and New Jersey Devils and earned their first sip from Lord Stanley’s crown.
With the shortened 48-game regular season in 2013, several surprise teams made the playoffs, while others, thanks to chemistry and the right acquisitions, have dominated their respective divisions. It’ll be no easy task to predict this year’s Stanley Cup champion, but here are a few teams that stick out as potential winners.
Chicago Blackhawks: Behind Patrick Kane (23 goals), Jonathan Toews (48 points) and clutch goaltending from Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, the Blackhawks coasted through the regular season with a 36-7-5 record. What makes the Hawks so good is that in addition three dangerous forwards (Kane, Toews and Marian Hossa), they have aggressive defensemen in Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy that aren’t scared to join the play. Crawford and Emery were top-notch all season as well, leading the league with a miniscule 1.96 team GAA, making the Hawks a two-headed monster that can score goals and shut down on defense.
The team’s first-round opponent, the Minnesota Wild, will not have an easy time with Chicago. The Blackhawks only weakness is that they lack a real physical presence, but when you score as often as they do, you don’t need the rough stuff.
New York Islanders: If the playoffs last year taught us anything, it’s that underdogs are dangerous. With one of the best first lines in hockey in John Tavares (28 goals), Matt Molson (44 points) and Brad Boyes (35 points), veteran defensemen in Mark Streit (27 points) and Lubomir Visnovsky (+12) and the NHL’s reigning and defending hits leader in Matt Martin (234), the Islanders are a team very similar to last year's Kings. One of the best clubs on the road as well, they have surprised even their toughest critics this season - many of whom expected them to finish in the Atlantic Division cellar again. Behind their depth and the veteran capability of netminder Evgeni Nabokov, the Islanders pose a significant threat.
With four lines that can skate and score, the Islanders key to success this postseason will be special teams. With the league’s 11th ranked powerplay and 20th ranked penalty kill, the Isles will have to play better when the chips are down. In five-on-five action, they’ve proven they can skate with anyone, but with an abundance of youth on the team, they need to stay focused and limit the oppositions chances with the man advantage. If they can stay out of the penalty box and convert on the powerplay, fans in Long Island will have something to cheer about for the first time, in a long time.
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings won the Stanley Cup last season thanks to team-wide depth and grit. In 2013, that same style guided them into the playoffs. On offense, seven players had over 20 points and five had ten or more goals. While Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown were looked at as the backbone of the offense going into the season, Jeff Carter streaked his way to an excellent 26-goal campaign.
Just like last year, all four lines can skate, score and stir it up. With 13 players on the team averaging a hit or more a game, you can bet any win against the Kings is going to come with a few bumps and bruises. The always-stellar Jonathan Quick, who finished April with a solid 2.25 GAA and 6-3-1 record, doesn’t make anything easier for the opposition. While it’s not easy task to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, the Kings have the potential to do it.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins dramatically increased their postseason chances by acquiring proven veterans in Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Jarome Ignila without giving up much. With any already stacked offense and a plethora of grit to go along with Marc-Andre Fleury in net, the Penguins may be able to win the Stanley Cup without the best offensive player in the league, Sidney Crosby, who's recovering from a broken jaw.
That's because of the skill and leadership ability of Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Matt Cooke. Driven and focused and behind several masterful acquisitions, the Penguins were built for one purpose in 2013: to win the Stanley Cup. Regardless of nagging injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Neal and even the potential absence of Crosby, the Penguins have no excuses.
St. Louis Blues: They don’t have the best offense, but in terms of goaltending, the Blues more than make up for it. Brian Elliott was amazing last season and has been on fire as of late, with an 11-2 record in April. The well-balanced scoring and physicality of the team also shouldn't be ignored.
While Chris Stewart led the team with a modest 18-goal, 36-point effort, the Blues had nine players with seven or more goals. That makes matchups for the opposition a prime concern. The additions of Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold on defense improved any already stellar defense that also consists of Barret Jackman, Kevin Shatternkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. An offense that can come from anywhere, a dependable defense and Elliott in net make, St. Louis a serious threat.