NHL Teams Who Can Move Up the Standings by Finishing the Season Strong
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The NHL season may still be young, but with a third of the lockout-shortened, 48-game campaign completed, it is going to be playoff time before you know it.
While some teams are separating themselves from the rest of the pack, some squads in the thick of it could get hot over the course of the rest of the season.
Whether they have a top-flight goaltender like the New York Rangers or a cast of veteran stars like the San Jose Sharks, these teams could surprise with huge finishes down the stretch.
Here are five teams who may not be conference leaders now but have the tools to finish the season hot.
All statistics via ESPN.
No. 1 New York Rangers
Look for defending Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist to close out the season strong.
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The Blue-shirts were a trendy Stanley Cup pick prior to the start of the season. In fact, six of 12 ESPN experts tabbed the Rangers to win it all in 2013.
So far, things haven’t quite gone as planned on Broadway. Instead of being one of the Eastern Conference titans, the Rangers currently sit at ninth in the conference standings and would just barely miss the playoffs if the postseason started today.
Can the Rangers turn it around? Absolutely, because New York has all the necessary ingredients to play out the rest of the season hot.
They have a Vezina winner in Henrik Lundqvist in net and a corps of elite forwards led by Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik up front. Coach John Tortorella has won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While there is a long road ahead, New York is a deep and dangerous team. Don’t count the Rangers out just yet.
No. 2 Boston Bruins
Captain Zdeno Chara leads a bruising Bruins defense.
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The Bruins sit at fifth in the Eastern Conference but don’t believe for a second that Boston can’t finish near the top of the standings.
Luckily for the Bruins, many of the key pieces from the 2011 championship team are still in place.
Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara leads a penalty-kill unit that ranks first in the league at 94.1 percent. While Boston doesn’t feature any elite forwards, the team rolls three lines deep.
While goalie Tim Thomas may have taken the year off, first-year starter Tuukka Rask has looked sharp, sporting a .919 save percentage and a 2.06 goals-against average in 10 contests. Rask has just one loss in regulation.
Just two seasons removed from their most recent Stanley Cup victory, don’t underestimate the Bruins.
No. 3 San Jose Sharks
Sharks goalie Antti Niemi has a 1.86 goals-against average on the season.
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The Sharks are perennial playoff contenders, but even ESPN’s Scott Burnside said before the season “the clock is definitely ticking ominously in San Jose.”
Now that the spotlight is off the Sharks, could this finally be the season San Jose pulls it all together? It certainly could be the case.
While the team just ended an ugly seven-game losing streak Tuesday, the Sharks started the season sharp, winning their first seven games.
Despite the losing streak, San Jose still ranks in the Top 10 in the league in goals-against per game, penalty killing and power play percentage. Perhaps more important, the team retained most of its key personnel from last season.
Led by Olympic gold medal winners Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi, the Sharks have the right blend of hunger and experience to finish the season hot.
No. 4 Nashville Predators
Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne has started hot this season.
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The Preds may rank second-to-last in the NHL in offense, but good luck scoring against them—Nashville has one of the stingiest defenses in the league.
Led by Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne, the Predators rank third in the league in goals-against per game. Rinne is off to a sizzling start with a .935 save percentage and a 1.67 goals-against average in 15 games.
The Nashville penalty-kill unit led by Shea Weber hasn’t looked too shabby either, ranking sixth in the league by stopping opposing teams’ power plays 85 percent of the time.
Look for the Predators’ stalwart defense to carry them through the rest of the season.
No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes
Captain Eric Staal headlines a stalwart Hurricanes offense.
The Canes technically sit at third in the Eastern Conference due to the fact they lead the weak Southeast Division.
But Carolina is tied with the ninth-place Rangers in terms of points and is neck-and-neck with Tampa Bay for the division title, so the playoffs are hardly a lock.
But the Hurricanes have one of the top offenses in the league, led by brothers Eric and Jordan Staal. The team is seventh in the NHL in goals per game. While Carolina’s penalty-kill unit is abysmal, ranking next-to-last in the league, the team can count on Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward in net.
Ward may be off to a slow start with a .901 save percentage and 3.19 goals-against average in 11 games. But the Carolina netminder backstopped the team to a Stanley Cup in 2006 and plays well under pressure.
If Ward can get hot, the Hurricanes should be able to finish the season strong.