The 2013 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are just one last push away for teams and fans alike. It feels like just yesterday we were wondering if there would be an Stanley Cup Champion at all. Now we get to debate on the chances of the Los Angeles Kings repeating, whether or not the all-in approach of the Pittsburgh Penguins will provide a result and so on.
As the Kings reminded everyone last season with their phenomenal run to the Cup, once the playoffs begin anything can happen. The regular season goes out the window, and statistical odds go out the window.
That doesn't mean that there aren't a few teams that appear more poised to make a serious run at the greatest trophy in sports than others.
The Boston Bruins have all the tools necessary to make a deep trip into the postseason. Most of the key players from the 2010-11 Cup Champions are in place, and those that have departed (how's life on Long Island, Tim Thomas?) have been successfully replaced.
Tuukka Rask is receiving a lot of Vezina Trophy consideration for his outstanding season for the Bruins, who are currently in a dog fight with their archnemesis Montreal Canadiens for the Northeast Division crown. He'll be a big factor for Boston moving forward, but he shouldn't be considered a question mark.
Speaking of the Northeast Division, it could be argued that the Bruins have played more playoff-caliber hockey than any other team outside of the division. Four teams from the Northeast could end up making the playoffs, which means they've been facing top-notch squads all season long.
Quality of competition throughout the season typically makes teams better in the long run. Boston is in good shape in that regard.
Toss the streak out the window. No one in the locker room cares about it at this juncture. The Chicago Blackhawks have had their eyes fixed on nothing but the Stanley Cup since the outset of the season.
Everything else—the records, the Central Division banner, the Hart Trophy talk for Jonathan Toews—is nothing but window dressing. If the 'Hawks aren't the collective prom kings at the end of the dance, no one will feel good about it.
Not the reinvigorated and focused Patrick Kane. Not the MVP-worthy Toews. Not the once questioned and now solidified duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. No one cares about the regular-season success in Chicago.
They've won four straight games and are ramping up in time for the playoffs. The offense is as good as any in the NHL, and the likes of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook still man the blue line for the 'Hawks.
They're ready for the postseason. The Blackhawks have the team-wide identity that was missing when they tried to defend their last Stanley Cup, and the rest of the league should be on notice.
Now who wouldn't love to see them take on the Detroit Red Wings in the first round? A fare-thee-well for the ages.
If the Chicago Blackhawks hadn't hogged all of the "who's hot, who's not" attention through the 2013 season, a lot more love would have gone to the Anaheim Ducks. Instead of riding high, they have quietly put together a season comparable to that of the darling 'Hawks.
Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are re-signed and the Ducks are cocked, locked and ready to roll once the playoffs begin.
They sport one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL—if the wheels fall of Jonas Hiller, Viktor Fasth will be there to get things rolling once again. Anaheim also ices of the most potent offensive attacks in the NHL, and never underestimate the impact a veteran like Teemu Selanne makes come playoff time.
All of these guys have meaningful playoff experience under their belts (save for Fasth, arguably the best signing of the offseason) and will not be fun to play against on an every-other-night basis. The Ducks are built to wear teams thin and wear teams down.
No one wants to play them in the first round.
The L.A. Kings are one of the most well-balanced teams in the NHL. Their lowly 2.44 goals-allowed-per-game average is eighth in the league, as is their 2.83 goals scored per game. They can beat you in a number of ways and have the same kind of teeth that allowed them to win the Stanley Cup last season.
Jeff Carter is capable of going on a goal-scoring streak and taking over a series by himself, and Anze Kopitar is putting together another outstanding under-the-radar season.
The emergence of Slava Voynov on the back end has perhaps made Drew Doughty L.A.'s second-best defender, which tells you all you need to know about the blue line. And if you get beyond all that, there's still Jonathan Quick that needs solving.
Good luck with all that.
No one should sleep on the St. Louis Blues and believe for one second that this isn't a team that could quite possibly win the Stanley Cup. It's the kind of squad that is built to win in the postseason, and that will come to the forefront come playoff time.
The Blues have several bruising forwards up front—both David Backes and Chris Stewart are capable power forwards—to go along with slick skaters such as David Perron.
But defense wins championships, and the Blues have it in spades. They had it before they went out and added Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline. Add those two to a core that already included Barret Jackman, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk and you have one of the best blue lines in hockey.
Goaltender Brian Elliot has recently seen a return to form, and while Jaroslav Halak remains on the sideline with a lower-body injury, Jake Allen has been phenomenal during various stints in St. Louis this season.
St. Louis is going to be a tough draw throughout the playoffs and has all the weapons needed to do some serious damage.
If the L.A. Kings are well balanced, then the Montreal Canadiens are supremely balanced.
The resurgent Habs are the fourth-best offensive team in the NHL, while playing the sixth-best defensive game in the league. If that isn't the recipe for success in the postseason, then one doesn't exist. Carey Price is perfectly capable of leading this team deep into the playoffs, and the defensive core—led by offensive powerhouse P.K. Subban—can pick up the slack when the need arises.
The Canadiens aren't going to grind anyone down with physicality, but they are quick enough to give larger teams headaches. They'll out-hustle for lose pucks and are a very solidified, hard-working group of players.
It may not be considered a favorite, but Montreal appears poised for a deep run into the postseason given its makeup.
They might be losing bodies at the wrong time, but if any team is capable of playing through injuries to players like Sidney Crosby and James Neal, it's the Pittsburgh Penguins.
No team went out and added the caliber of talent that the Pens did at the deadline—what's astonishing is that Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen were all acquired without giving up a roster player.
If you're the betting type, put your cash down on Sid being ready to go come playoff time. He might have lost some weight after going on a milkshake diet for a few weeks, but there's no way that a competitor like Crosby misses a playoff game over a busted jaw.
Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, a healthy James Neal and Pascal Dupuis make the Penguins the deepest team in the league by far.
They are good enough in their own zone to stay out of trouble while the offense goes to work, and on the chance that things break down a bit, Marc-Andre Fleury has shown that he's capable of making big stops when needed.
The road to the Stanley Cup will go through Pittsburgh this season.