NHL Teams That Will Most Likely Get Hot Come Playoff Time
The NHL has plenty of ways of rewarding the regular season's best teams: the Presidents' Trophy, home-ice advantage in the playoffs and matchups with the lowest available seeds all qualify as the benefits of being the best team in hockey.
Of course, each of these rewards means nothing compared to the Stanley Cup, and as the Los Angeles Kings showed us last season, that prize can be won by any team in the playoffs.
Thus, in the grand scheme of things, being good all year isn't as beneficial as playing your best hockey at the right time. The eighth-seeded Kings looked poised to miss the playoffs for most of the 2011-12 season, barely qualifying for the playoffs following a late charge.
Once the playoffs began, the team was virtually unbeatable.
As teams compete in the shortened 2013 season, the teams well-equipped to handle the pressure of the playoffs will thrive. These teams will likely need postseason experience, depth and goaltending to stay strong when the going gets tough.
Let's take a look at the five teams that will hit their strides in the postseason...as long as they make the postseason.
Honorable Mention: Chicago Blackhawks
How does one of the hottest teams in NHL history actually "get hot" come playoff time? I'm not sure that they can.
That's why the 'Hawks are on this list as an honorable mention. Nothing we have seen this year (literally, not a single thing) should make us believe that the Blackhawks won't be the most ready, willing and able club to qualify for the postseason.
But unlike teams that want to heat up for the postseason, Chicago's mission will be to not cool down. They have already established themselves as the first team in decades to be truly head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league, as no team has been able to defeat them without the use of a shootout.
So Chi-town makes this list as an honorable mention. No matter how hot any other team on this list gets, they won't be winning a Cup unless the Blackhawks cool down.
New Jersey Devils
Last season's run to the Stanley Cup Final told us everything that we need to know about the New Jersey Devils: Between Martin Brodeur and the Jersey system, the Devils are always a playoff threat.
Few teams remain as composed under real pressure the way the Devils do. Brodeur has three Stanley Cups to his name and has represented his conference in the Cup Final five times.
What's more, the system developed by Lou Lamoriello and other New Jersey brass stifled the division rival Rangers and Flyers last postseason. New Jersey plays an aggressive penalty kill and preaches defensive responsibility with such fervor that even Ilya Kovalchuk backchecks these days.
The Devils are struggling at the moment with Brodeur dealing with a back injury, but every time this team seems ready to have a fork stuck in it, its set to surprise again.
They might back into the playoffs quietly, but the Devils will make some noise when they get there.
Los Angeles Kings
If you need a case study in teams getting hot in the playoffs, look no further than the L.A. Kings.
Last season, the Kings squeezed into the final playoff spot, setting themselves up to face the defending Western Conference champs and twice-reigning Presidents' Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks.
What followed was the first of its kind.
The Kings knocked off the Canucks in five games, then swept the St. Louis Blues and took down the Phoenix Coyotes to become the first team in NHL history to eliminate three division winners en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
They added to their legacy by riding Jonathan Quick's red-hot goaltending to a six-game series win over the New Jersey Devils.
It seemed unlikely that L.A. would repeat this stealthy feat, largely because the team was a heavy favorite heading into the 2013 season. But a slow start has put the Kings in their comfort zone: the middle of the pack.
If they're playing as underdogs again in the spring, the Kings will be very, very dangerous.
The Pittsburgh Penguins currently lead the Atlantic Division, but after three straight early-round eliminations since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, this squad has a lot to prove in the postseason.
Two years ago, the Penguins suffered a seven-game series defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning, playing the series without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Last year, the Penguins had their superstars back and healthy, but the rival Philadelphia Flyers exploited Pittsburgh's major weakness—composure—en route to a 4-2 series win.
The Philadelphia series was a wake-up call for the Penguins, a reminder that, even when they have a full roster, they are not entitled to success in the playoffs. This year's squad will be more focused and determined than ever.
The Pens will have a successful regular-season campaign, but expect Pittsburgh to really dig deep come playoff time. Utilizing skill and physicality, the Penguins will be one of hockey's strongest teams when it counts the most.
San Jose Sharks
It seems like the San Jose Sharks have been waiting about two decades to get hot in the playoffs, and I learned a long time ago not to put anything valuable on San Jose when the postseason rolls around.
Still, having the proverbial monkey on the back is not a death sentence. While the Sharks will be battling their own demons, there is no denying how complete this team is.
Offensive depth is not an issue, as the team has energy in guys like Logan Couture and experience in the likes of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. San Jose's blue line is nothing to scoff at, featuring big Douglas Murray and Dan Boyle.
And in net is Antti Niemi, whose efforts were good enough to win a Cup in Chicago in 2010.
If San Jose slips into a convenient slot like the sixth seed, they could fly under the radar enough to take the Western Conference by storm. The team does not perform its best with a target on its collective back, but with the focus on teams like Chicago, Anaheim and Vancouver, San Jose might give itself the mental breathing room to get on a roll in a big way.
One of these days, the Sharks are going to surprise us. This squad is equipped to catch fire in the playoffs and finally rewrite the book of hockey in San Jose.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Call the Lightning the "wild card."
Tampa started the year scoring at a ridiculous pace, averaging better than four goals per game to start the season.
Since then, the team has come back down to earth. Way, way back down. The Lightning currently sit on the outside of the basement of the Eastern Conference, suffering from poor defense and disappointing goaltending.
The Lightning seem to be a less successful version of Bruce Boudreau's Washington Capitals, who would succeed via offensive firepower and hope that the liabilities on defense wouldn't show. Unfortunately, they always did.
But the streaky Bolts could get back into the playoff picture and enter as a low seed, playing a division winner. Should that happen, Tampa becomes one of those teams you simply do not want to play.
Despite the mantra that "defense wins championships," many high-powered offensive teams have had success in recent years, including the 2011 Boston Bruins and the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks.
Don't count the Lightning out in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They'll tire out defenses and force offenses to take chances, and when you have a scorer like Steven Stamkos playing against you, no lead is ever safe.