The NHL season is just about half over, and it is time to start looking at the contenders for Lord Stanley's Cup.
One of these teams on this list will most likely take home the Stanley Cup, barring any major injuries.
As usual, the Western Conference is loaded with strong teams. The defending champion Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks have dominated this season, while the Chicago Blackhawks are not too far behind.
The East is led by a resurgent power in the Boston Bruins, and by a young offensively minded team in the Washington Capitals.
The Detroit Red Wings are the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and they only got better during the off-season. The Red Wings are currently 26-7-5 and have the third most points in the NHL (57).
The Red Wings have on of the best offenses in the league. They can simply out score their opponents on any given night. They have one of the most feared offenses in the National Hockey League and have scored the second most goals in the league while playing in the much tougher Western Conference.
The Red Wings also feature some amazing goaltending. With future Hall of Famer Chris Osgood as their starter, the Red Wings should be successful for the rest of the season. However, you cannot forget the backup, Ty Conklin. Conklin has played very well this season, and has shutout Edmonton, Chicago, and San Jose.
The Red Wings also are blessed with plenty of experience. You cannot have much more experience than the Detroit Red Wings. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions and have some of the most war-torn veterans in the league. The team knows how to handle the pressure of the playoffs unlike some of their younger competitors.
The Red Wings are not perfect. The Wings have given up 111 goals this season, which could be a lot higher if it was not for their goaltending. However, they cannot always hope that Osgood or Conklin will be perfect every night which could be trouble against some of the more talented teams in the league.
The Red Wings also have to play in the much more talented Western Conference. If the Wings played in the Eastern Conference, they would almost certainly be a lock to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Being in the Western Conference means they might have to play through the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, Calgary Flames who are all talented teams.
The San Jose Sharks currently have the best record in the NHL at an impressive 29-4-5 with a total of 63 points.
San Jose's biggest strength lies in their offense. The Sharks are loaded with offensive talent, including Joe Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Patrick Marleau. They are also a very physical team with strong skaters such as Mike Grier
The Sharks also have great defense and goaltending.. Evgeni Nabokov is one of the best 'tenders in the league. Both Nabakov and the team have been successful because he has not had to face many shots this season. In his 30 starts (21 wins), he has only faced an average of 23 shots per game.
The Sharks have yet to lose a home game in regulation this season, boasting an impressive 19-0-2 mark. If the Sharks continue to stay at the top of the Western Conference, they will have home ice advantage for the playoffs which would be a huge advantage.
The only real weakness in the Sharks is their ability to win in the playoffs. In the past years the Sharks have entered the playoffs with a high seed only to under perform and pack their bags early. The Sharks need to continually play tough throughout this season and not coast at the end. If they decide to coast like usual, they will be hit hard by the first team they play in the playoffs and their hard work will be for nothing.
The Boston Bruins are currently the top team in the Eastern Conference with a record of 29-6-4, good enough for the second most points in the NHL with 62.
The Bruins are loaded with young talent such as Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic. Kessel is currently fourth in the league in goals with 24 while Lucic has proved to be one of the toughest players in the league.
The Bruins also boast an impressive lineup of veterans who are providing strong leadership to the youngsters. Captain Zdeno Chara is a force to be reckoned with on the ice, while Mark Savard continues to show why he is one of the better forwards in the league.
Boston also plays in one of the loudest arenas in the NHL. The fans have returned to the Garden hoping to see the team bring home a Cup. They have been selling out and the fans have been screaming as loud as they can for the majority of the games. Opposing teams do not want to come to Boston.
The Bruins also have had some fantastic goaltending this season from Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez. Both of them are tops in the league in Goals Against Average and Save Percentage. They can win with either one in the pipes and that is a scary thought.
The Bruins do not have too many weaknesses outside of playing in an easier conference. Their record is good, but they have the benefit of playing weaker teams.
If the playoffs started today, the Bruins would have to play the Buffalo Sabres in the first round, a team who has played them tough all year. If the Bruins get stuck playing a division opponent in the first round, they might be physically drained. The Bruins did that to the Canadiens last year, and it could happen to them this year.
The Washington Capitals are currently second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 26-11-3.
The Capitals have a great balance of young stars and seasoned veterans on their team. They have the third best group of youngsters outside of Pittsburgh and Chicago, including the defending Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin. The Caps also have a talented young forwards in Alexander Semin and Nick Backstorm. The Caps veterans include Sergei Federov, Viktor Kozlov, and Michael Nylander, who all bring a great balance to their younger counterparts.
The Caps also have one of the most explosive offenses in the league, boasting a total of 133 goals in just 40 games (3.33 per game). It seems that the Caps can outscore their opponents at will, especially with Ovechkin getting at least 6 shots per game.
The Capitals defense has been a question mark this season. They have given up 116 goals this season, the second most of the current playoff teams. Their goaltending has not been anything to write home about, with veteran 'tender Jose Theodore saving less than 90% of the shots he has seen. The Caps cannot expect score 5 goals a night against in a 7 game series if their goaltenders are struggling.
The Chicago Blackhawks are currently fourth in the Western Conference with a record of 21-8-7 and have 49 points.
Like the Bruins and Capitals, the Blackhawks have a great group of young players in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Toews and Kane continue to put up numbers after they both had fantastic rookie seasons. The Blackhawks have also had great play from youngster Kris Versteeg and veteran Martin Havlat.
A big pickup this offseason for Chicago was Brian Campbell. Campbell is an offensively minded defender who is a great addition to Chicago's powerplay unit. Campbell has recorded 14 powerplay points this season, third behind Kane and Patrick Sharp.
The Blackhawks have defended wonderfully this season, only allowing 96 goals and boasting a penalty kill percentage of 83.6%. Both Chicago goaltenders have also had good seasons so far. Nikolai Khabibulin currently has a save percentage of 92.4% and a goals against average of only 2.39. His backup, Cristobal Huet has also had a good season with a save percentage of 91% and a goals against average of 2.55. Behind these goaltenders, the Blackhawks could be dangerous in the post season.
The Blackhawks will have a tough road to the Finals, however. They have not been able to keep up with the Red Wings, their division rival. The Blackhawks will have to go through the Wings in order to make the Finals and win the Cup, and they have not shown the ability to do that so far this season.
The Hawks also have to start winning on the road. They have a road record of 9-6-3, which they will have to improve. The Hawks will have to play a majority of their playoff games on the road if they are going to advance to the Finals.
While the Red Wings, Sharks, Bruins, Capitals, and Blackhawks are the favorites to win the Cup at this point in the season, there are a few teams to watch out for.
New York Rangers - The Rangers have a solid group of veterans led by Chris Drury and have a solid goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist.
Buffalo Sabres - This young, fast team could be dangerous in the playoffs as long as they stay healthy and get good goaltending from Ryan Miller.
New Jersey Devils - The Devils have been a strong team without their star goaltender Martin Brodeur. When he returns, the team could be pretty dangerous.
Calgary Flames - They have a strong offense, but a questionable defense that could keep them from competing with the Red Wings or Sharks.
Anaheim Ducks - An aging, yet strong team, who have a great goaltender in Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
The Detroit Red Wings will win the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row after defeating the Boston Bruins in 6 games.
The Red Wings lineup is too strong for any team to handle in a seven game series, even the mighty San Jose Sharks. They will not have the easiest path to the Finals, but you can be sure that the Cup will be back in Detroit this year.