Best of the Best
The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have accounted for four out of the last five Stanley Cup championships. They are without a doubt the class of the National Hockey League. Don’t think for a second that the Kings currently being on the outside looking in at a playoff spot changes that. They don’t get referred to as the cockroaches of the NHL for nothing. Los Angeles has come up with just the lone point in their last 12 overtime games. Even if they had won just four of those 12 games, they would be in second place in the Pacific. The Kings have been incredibly unlucky this season, perhaps that bodes well for someone finally beating them in the playoffs. After all, along with skill, the Kings have had plenty of luck in their Stanley Cup championships. Every team that wins the Cup has a lot of luck on their side. Perhaps this is the year that somebody not named Chicago beats LA or somebody not named LA beats Chicago. Over the last few years, nobody has been able to beat these teams except each other. The last time the Kings lost a best-of-seven series against anyone other than the Blackhawks was the 2011 playoffs when they lost to the Sharks in six games while missing Anze Kopitar. The last time the Blackhawks lost a series to anyone other than the Kings was the 2012 playoffs when they lost to the Phoenix Coyotes while missing Marian Hossa for over half the series.
The success of these two squads begs an interesting question, which of the other 28 teams are most equipped to beat them? The following are three teams best constructed to complete the monumental task(s).
3. New York Rangers
Full disclosure, earlier this month I did not include the Rangers on my list of the top 5 contenders. However, after watching the Rangers sweep their recent California road trip, that was clearly a mistake. For a west coast writer that doesn’t get to watch many Eastern Conference games, I had figured the Rangers would take a step back after losing some key role players during the offseason. However, they have more than proven themselves capable of getting back to the final. With Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, the Rangers don’t need a whole lot in front of him to go a long way but they still have some marquee talent. Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Martin St. Louis are the big names and Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, Derick Brassard, and Mats Zuccarello are quality up front. Defensively Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Dan Girardi, and Dan Boyle is an impressive top-five on the blue-line. It takes depth, great goaltending, and some luck to beat the best of the best. The Rangers definitely have a better chance to beat Chicago or LA in a rematch than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
2. St. Louis Blues
Winners in seven of their last eight games, the St. Louis Blues are once again a top contender. While many Blues fans are sour on their own team because of past playoffs, they have a real chance this year. They have some dynamic forwards with Vladimir Tarasenko having a breakout year, and they still boast a terrific defense with Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, and Alex Pietrangelo. Their starting goaltender Brian Elliot is sporting a .930 save percentage and they have Ken Hitchock behind the bench. You could make the case the Blues have the best chance to beat the Blackhawks and/or the Kings because they play that similar heavy style. They also have more experience against both clubs, having faced both LA and Chicago in recent years during the postseason. St. Louis understands just how difficult it is to beat both these teams. If the Blues can add a depth piece or two at the trade deadline, they would without a doubt be the best candidate to knock off either of the juggernauts.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round last season might have been the best thing ever to happen to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Already a good team, the Lightning were humbled. Yes they missed Ben Bishop between the pipes in that series but being swept stung, and goaltending wasn’t the only problem. So what does GM Steve Yzerman do? Well even in a salary cap league, Yzerman found a way to reload with even more talent. At forward Brian Boyle was added for size and scoring depth up the middle but the big pieces brought in were on the blue-line with Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison. To go along with stud No. 1 Victor Hedman and quality NHL veteran Matt Carle, there isn’t a much better top four defense in the league. With young forwards like Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson blossoming into tremendous scorers, the Lightning are stacked up front. Even without the two youngsters who are first and third on the team in scoring, Tampa Bay still features arguably the second best player in the game Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula, and Ondrej Palat up front. That is as good of a top-six as any in the league and while he is well past his prime, having a guy like Brenden Morrow makes me like the Lightning even more. The former Stars captain is one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever seen. With younger depth forwards like 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin and Alex Killorn, the Lightning can roll four lines, which is what you have to do to beat LA or Chicago. Depth wise, I like their makeup just a little bit more than St. Louis or New York.
There you have it, the three best suited clubs to knock off Chicago or LA in a best-of-seven. Agree or disagree? Leave a comment below!