The NHL’s regular season is an extended sprint this year and is now at the midway point.
Based on this first half of the schedule, these five teams have emerged as the top teams to contend for the NHL’s top prize this spring. Honorable mentions go to the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Chicago Blackhawks are the obvious front-runners thus far. They have lost just one game in regulation this season. While a few questions remain in goal and on defense, there is nothing stopping them from picking up another puck-moving defenseman and a veteran goaltender.
With Toews, Hossa, Kane and Sharp leading them, they are the odds-on favourite to win the Stanley Cup at this point in the shortened season.
The Boston Bruins have an enviable mix of size, skill and pugnacity.
The loss of Tim Thomas has been minimized by the exceptional play of Tuukka Rask. Excellent play from Chara, Bergeron, Marchand and Krejci has helped the club post one of the league’s best winning percentages.
While some additional third-line scoring would make the Bruins' offense even more potent, I’m not sure that GM Peter Chiarelli should do much tinkering with this talent-laden roster.
The Pittsburgh Penguins boast one of the top offenses in the entire NHL. Led by Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz and Letang, there are very few teams capable of shutting this team down for an entire 60 minutes.
A depth defenseman might be needed for an extended playoff run, but they should be able to pick up someone nearer to the April trade deadline as teams begin to fade from playoff contention.
The Los Angeles Kings are now gaining traction and returning to the form that saw them win their first Stanley Cup last spring.
Goaltending and defensive play remains a key strength, although with offensive stars like Kopitar, Carter and Brown, the Kings can play a run-and-gun style of play with most teams.
Ultimately, their grinding style that helped them win it all last year, coupled with timely goals, will be their best path to defending their title. St. Louis and Boston are the only other teams able to ice similar rosters of big bodies with accompanying skill.
The Montreal Canadiens were no one’s idea of a Stanley Cup contender at the beginning of the season, but coach Michel Therrien has them playing an up-tempo game that is difficult to defend.
Goaltender Carey Price is a perennial contender for the Vezina trophy and will likely lead Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics next winter.
The team could use some more size up front to compete against longtime rivals like the Bruins in a seven-game series, but they have proven several nights this season that they can play with any team in the league.