NHL: 6 Dark Horses to Win Stanley Cup
The most exciting part of the NHL season is nearly here. The playoffs are mere days away, and teams are fighting tooth and nail to get into the top eight of each division.
Teams will face a grueling two month test where only one team will emerge as a champion. Some teams will take care of business, where other teams will be playing the role of Cinderella. Truly any team can win the sporting world's best trophy.
History has shown us that it's not necessarily the best team that wins the Stanley Cup but the hottest. The ones that hit their stride right before the playoffs and go on a warpath are the ones that are the most dangerous. And these six teams are those kind of teams, the dark horses to win the Stanley Cup.
No one wants to face the Washington Capitals in the playoffs. Absolutely no one.
After starting off the season 2-8-1, the Capitals looked destined for a top 5 pick and being huge sellers at the trade deadline. But the team found its scoring touch, and now has only lost three games since March 21.
Most of what the Capitals have done can be attributed to the emergence of classic Alex Ovechkin. Ovi had just 18 points through February. But when the calendar turned to March, Ovechkin found another level, scoring 19 points in March alone, and 17 through April. He has surged to the top of the Maurice Richard race and has the best argument for the Art Ross trophy.
Thanks to Ovechkin and his supporting cast, the Caps have the best power play in the league (28.1 percent) and the fifth-best goals for average (3). Despite major concerns at being 28th in penalty kill (77.8 percent), the Capitals can ride the powerful offense deep into the playoffs.
Hot teams have the ability to win championships. The Capitals are a dangerous team to face in the playoffs, and if Braden Holtby manages to catch fire too, the Capitals could have their first Stanley Cup.
St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues have quietly become one of the best teams in the NHL because of smart deadline moves and players getting back into form. With Ken Hitchcock at the helm, the Blues could be primed for a deep cup run.
The Blues have put together one of the best strings in hockey, winning 10 out of their last 13 games. The major reason for it: defense.
The Blues have suffered from bad defense throughout the year, but with the acquisitions of Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester, the team has found its stingy defense again. In nine of the last 10 wins, St. Louis allowed one goal or less, the only one over being a 4-3 shootout win against the Blackhawks.
Brian Elliott has also returned to form since being sent down to Peoria. Ever since filling in for Jaroslav Halak against Minnesota on April 1, Elliott has gone 9-2-0 with a .946 save percentage and a 0.82 goals against average.
While the Blues' offense hasn't been spectacular, the defense has been tremendous. With T.J. Oshie and Halak slated to be back come playoff time, the Blues are going to be a very dangerous team that could shock some people on the way to their first Stanley Cup.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders are the best team in the New York area right now. If you've been paying attention, it's not that hard to believe either.
The Islanders had a sub-par February and early March, but they have surged in their last 15 games, winning 11 of them, including three three-game winning streaks. In seven of those 11 wins, the Isles have scored four or more goals.
A lot of the offensive power is attributed to John Tavares. He leads the team in points (45) and goals (26) and is considered a dark horse for the Hart Memorial trophy. Matt Moulson has also been key, notching 27 assists.
Defense hasn't been spectacular for the Islanders, as they rank 22nd in goals against and 21st in penalty kill. But the Isles have veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabakov stopping the puck. If he can find his old form, or if the defense steps up, the Islanders could do some serious damage. But with just their high-powered offense now, the Islanders could still make a serious run at the cup.
With the stellar play of the Chicago Blackhawks above them in the standings and the late push and possible collapse of the Minnesota Wild, the Canucks haven't gotten much playoff talk. But make no mistake, they could end up back in the big dance.
The Canucks finally have someone putting pressure on them late in the season, and its working out in their favor. A six-game winning streak thrusted Vancouver atop the Northwest and they have gone 7-4-1 in the stretch since.
What makes the Canucks good is the goalie tandem of Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo. Luongo has been heavily criticized for his "choking" in the playoffs, and Schneider can overcome that. Both are all-star goaltenders, and if one gets cold, the other can easily step up and win.
The offense has been lacking for the Canucks, but it isn't without the talent to score. Both Sedin's have 40-plus points, and five others below them have 20-plus points. The Canucks can spread out its scoring and rely on goaltending and defense in close games.
The Canucks mix flash with grit, which will benefit them in the playoffs. With the all-star goalie tandem and a little scoring push, the Canucks may finally end their Stanley Cup drought.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers have been one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL. However, they still have a great chance to win the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers have arguably the best team on paper. With scorers such as Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan, along with big-name defensemen like Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto in front of Henrik Lundqvist, you should be the best team in the conference. But they're not, and that's what makes them dangerous.
The Rangers are sitting in eighth place in the East and are barely holding onto their spot. But the team has won eight of their last 12, scoring four or more in six of them. Despite losing to the Panthers and Flyers for their last two losses, the Rangers have been able to pad the stats against non-playoff teams, which is exactly who they will face in their remaining three games.
Lundqvist has done his job, maintaining a 2.08 goals against average and .927 save percentage. The Achilles' heel of the team this season has been the power play and disappearance of scoring. The Rangers are too good of a team not to make the playoffs and to not do well there. The team is starting to find its groove, and should be locked in come playoff time.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Absolutely no one thought the Blue Jackets would be where they are. But they have a shot at not only making the playoffs for the second time in franchise history, but also end the Detroit Red Wings' consecutive playoff appearances streak. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.
The Blue Jackets' play starts with the emergence of Sergei Bobrovsky. The former Flyers goalie is 19-11-6 this season with a 2.06 goals against average and .930 save percentage. Those are numbers of a Vezina candidate, and Sheriff Bobrovsky has done the work to become one.
The Blue Jackets, while still at the bottom of the league in scoring, made a huge improvement by acquiring Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline. Gaborik instantly bolstered the offense, and since the trade, has seven points in his 10 games with the team. He works well with leading scorer Vinny Prospal on the first line and makes it a dangerous combination.
The Blue Jackets definitely could improve on offense, but have what it takes to make a deep playoff run. Pair that with the continually epic play of Bobrovsky, and the Blue Jackets could have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. It may be a long shot, but stranger things have happened.