With about a month and a half to play in the 2014-15 NHL regular season, the Stanley Cup favourites are beginning to stand out.
Each team has only 20 to 24 games remaining to make up ground and surpass teams into the best playoff position they can achieve. For the most part, the eight playoff positions in each conference are almost sorted out. Only two teams outside the top eight of each conference still have a realistic shot at possibly making a stretch run and cracking the playoffs.
Heading into February, our Top 5 Stanely Cup Favourites included, in order from fifth to first, Detroit, Montreal, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Chicago. After a month of hard fought hockey, the standings haven’t changed drastically, but the favourites definitely have.
-Los Angeles Kings: Just when everyone thought the Kings might not make the playoffs this year, they go out and start an 8 games winning streak, which has placed them ideally in 7th place in the Western Conference. They’re the top possession team in the league as well. Just because they’re the Kings and they’re in the playoffs, they’re a favourite.
-Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are always at, or near, the top of the NHL standings, but that has yet to transfer over to the playoffs. Their goaltending is a mess with Andersen injured and Gibson not playing fantastically. There are only 13th in the league in goal differential.
-Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are giving way to a new leading scorer this year in sophomore, Tyler Johnson. Their depth is significantly upgraded this year and Ben Bishop has been good, when healthy. Their roster may have too little experience for the playoffs though.
-St. Louis Blues: The Blues are always one of the larger threats in the West, but have yet to make a deep playoff run. Their depth is unmatched by anyone in the league, but an inconsistent goaltending tandem makes them a team to be cautious when betting for.
5: Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings are all but a lock to make an appearance in the playoffs for an unbelievable 24th straight year. They are supported by a strong veteran presence led by Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, who have all been superb once again this year. Behind them is the up and coming roster, led by Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyqvist and Danny DeKeyser. The Wings already have three 20 goal scorers on their team. Goaltending has also been a consistent strength for Detroit, as Howard has been solid, as well as Petr Mrazek while Howard was out. And, of course, we all know that Detroit’s system is built for the playoffs, so this team could certainly take out a few powerhouses.
4: Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators are this year’s version of the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche. The question is, will they bow out early in the playoffs like the Avs? Or are they suited for a deep playoff run? Certainly, they are one of the strongest defensive teams in the league. Backed by Pekka Rinne, who is second in both GAA (2.01) and SV% (.930), the Preds can hold down the fort. They are also second is goals against in the league. Up front, Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro lead the team offensively with 52 and 51 points, respectively. Defence is their strongest suit, where Roman Josi and Shea Weber not only have 44 and 42 points, respectively, but are also shut down defensemen. The Preds are the top team in the NHL and definitely have a shot at making a deep run this year.
3: Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks are winners of two of the past five Stanley Cups and had high hopes of winning another this year. Those chances took a significant turn for the worse yesterday when news broke that Patrick Kane, the leading scorer in the NHL, will miss the next 12 weeks with a fractured clavicle. Still, the Blackhawks are one of the best teams in the NHL, especially in the playoffs. If Kane can return earlier than expected the Hawks are in it to win it. With four players in the top 30 SAT (Shot Attempt Differential) in the NHL, the Hawks are playing dominant hockey. Crawford has once again been steady all year long, with a .918 SV% and a 2.36 GAA. Like most years, they come with depth throughout, which has proven a big ticket to winning in the playoffs.
2: New York Rangers
The New York Rangers went on a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, but they won’t surprise anybody this year. The Rangers have built on their superb defensive game with the addition of top end offence this season. Namely, the emergence of Rick Nash. After being the topic of buyouts in the offseason, Nash is now second in league goal scoring with 37 and is a point per game player, one of only 12 in the NHL. Behind him are 7 other 10-goal scorers, that’s some very solid depth. Of course, in the blue paint, Henrik Lundqvist has been more than you can expect from your goaltender, posting a 2.25 GAA and a .922 SV%. New York will be expected to make a deep run once again this Spring.
1: Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens are led solely by their netminder, Carey Price. The Habs have the least amount of goals against in the league by a margin of 10 goals. Price is first in both major goaltending statistics with a 1.91 GAA and a 9.35 SV%. They currently lead the Eastern Conference, although they are likely hoping that they don’t find the 8th place Boston Bruins in the first round. On offence, they are led for the most part by Max Pacioretty and PK Subban. Pacioretty will have yet another 30 goal season, while Subban is on pace for 60 points as well. Galchenyuk and Gallagher are also contributing, as they should both crack 20 goals this year. But, in the end, it’s Carey Price who will carry the team on his shoulders. Their Stanley Cup chances lie on him, which is a good bet considering how tough he’s been to beat this year.
These five teams mentioned seemingly have the best shot at making a run for the Stanley Cup this Spring. One thing they all have in common is a tremendous defensive game. The top four teams also happen to be the top four teams in goals against. As we’ve seen in previous playoffs, defence seems to trump everything else when it comes down to it. There’s still over a month of hockey left and a ton can change, but heading into March, these are the 5 favourites to come out on top.