If the Playoffs Started Today, Who Would Win the 2013 Stanley Cup and Why?
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There are important moves to be made.
The trade deadline is April 3, and teams that add the right player or two could propel themselves into a position to win the Stanley Cup.
So, the landscape of the league could change quite a bit in the next two weeks.
But as of right now, there are five teams that are stronger than the rest of the competition. The Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins all have winning percentages of .700 or better.
The Los Angeles Kings aren't in that group, but they have been playing solid hockey after an ordinary start. If you are going to beat them, it's going to take a substantial effort.
Based on the standings at the conclusion of games on March 19, it seems that the Chicago Blackhawks are the best team in the Western Conference and the Pittsburgh Penguins are the best team in the Eastern Conference.
The Blackhawks may have the tougher road to the Stanley Cup. Using the current standings for playoff matchups, the Blackhawks would play the San Jose Sharks in the opening round. That would seem to be a desirable matchup for Chicago, and the Blackhawks should win that series decisively.
However, it would get difficult after that, because they would be forced to take on the Kings in the second round and the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals.
The Blackhawks certainly have the credentials to survive, but they would be bloodied by both teams. The strength of the Chicago Blackhawks is the depth of the four lines that Joel Quenneville can send out on a nightly basis. While coaches tend to shorten the bench in the playoffs, a coach who can keep from overworking his stars during the postseason will be in a position to get production from them at key moments.
The Blackhawks have stars. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp (currently out with shoulder problems) are all players who can make the big strike offensively, while Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are capable of it on the defensive end.
Goaltenders Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have exceeded expectations this season. The goaltending was the Blackhawks' downfall in last year's playoff loss to Phoenix because Crawford let in two soft overtime goals, but the goaltending has been stellar this year.
However, the sting of last year's poor play will linger until the Blackhawks get through the first couple of playoff rounds.
In the Eastern Conference, the streaking Penguins are making their claim for dominance. They have won 10 games in a row and they have accomplished a big part of that streak without reigning Hart Trophy (MVP) winner Evgeni Malkin (upper body injury).
While Malkin has been out (but expected back as early as March 22), Sidney Crosby has been dominant. After two concussion-torn seasons, he has reasserted himself as the best player in the game. Crosby leads the league in scoring with 50 points.
Crosby, Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Pascal Dupuis make the Penguins the most explosive team in the league, and they will have that edge by a wide margin once Malkin returns.
The Penguins were ruined by their defense and goaltending in last year's first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. That has not been an issue during their 10-game winning streak. They have given up six goals in their last six games, as goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun have been on top of their games.
Look for a Chicago-Pittsburgh Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins have the more dominant offensive team while the Blackhawks have the greater depth and chemistry.
This matchup will come down to the goaltending and there are reasons to suspect both teams will fail. However, there's more reason to believe in Crawford and Emery (combined 1.98 goals against averaged and .923 save percentage) than there is Fleury and Vokoun (combined 2.60 GAA and .907 save percentage).
Fleury has a Stanley Cup to his credit, but he is not the goaltender he was in 2009. The Hawks will solve him and may run him the way the Flyers did a year ago.
Crawford will get pushed to the limit, but he will survive the Penguins' onslaught.
The Chicago Blackhawks will win the 2013 Stanley Cup.
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