The NHL playoffs begin Tuesday, April 30, and there are several clear-cut favorites to capture the 2013 Stanley Cup.
Anything can happen in the postseason—look no further than last year, when the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Kings capped off an improbable run by beating the No. 6 seed New Jersey Devils in an epic Finals showdown.
The lockout-shortened season has lent itself to more parity and slimmer margins with respect to points than usual, but three clubs stand out as the best bets to take home pro hockey's must coveted hardware.
Below is a breakdown of the top Cup contenders and analysis with respect to their current situations entering the postseason.
Note: All odds are courtesy of VegasInsider.com.
Pittsburgh Penguins (3-1)
Veteran wingers Pascal Dupuis (20 G, 17 A) and Chris Kunitz (22 G, 28 A) have stepped up in a massive way as Crosby and fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin have missed significant time with a concussion and upper-body injury.
Which team is most vulnerable to an early upset?
Crosby has been cleared to practice, but it remains to be seen when he will return. The good news is, defenseman Paul Martin and LW James Neal were both in the lineup for the season finale against the Carolina Panthers Saturday, per Rob Rossi of the Tribune Review.
The Penguins have the top scoring offense in the NHL, notching 3.3 goals per game. It remains to be seen who they will face in Round 1, but it shouldn't be too much trouble due to the Pens' versatility and plethora of players that can be so lethal on the attack.
However, Pittsburgh must play disciplined hockey and not get into the sin bin too often. The big weakness of this team is the penalty kill, where they rank just 26th in penalty-killing percentage.
If that can be avoided and Crosby can return at some point, there shouldn't be much stopping the Penguins from conquering the East.
Chicago Blackhawks (7-2)
An historic start to the year in which the Chicago Blackhawks notched a point in the first 24 games boosted the club to a league-leading 77 points, the Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa have recently returned from injury, which will only help an already-potent offense keyed by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Check out the breakaway goal that clinched the league's best record, courtesy of Kane's brilliance:
Even though Chicago is far ahead in the Western Conference standings, it won't be an easy road to navigate en route to the finals.
Standout defenseman Duncan Keith has provided a lot of help to the offense while also stonewalling opponents with regularity, and the goalie tandem of Ray Emery and Corey Crawford has been terrific.
Unfortunately, Emery—who has a 17-1 record minding the net this season—left Wednesday's game with a lower body injury. Head coach Joel Quenneville has said the injury is a day-to-day ordeal, but that is cause enough for alarm.
The Blackhawks must take care of business as quickly as possible in earlier rounds, and it would be an invaluable luxury to have both of their amazing goaltenders—who each average 1.94 goals against—in the fold.
Boston Bruins (6-1)
The addition of star veteran Jaromir Jagr has given the Boston Bruins a necessary alternative weapon on offense, where they aren't quite as explosive as their more favored counterparts.
Jagr has brought a boost to the team's horrendous power play, which will be key heading into the postseason.
Before being traded at the deadline, Jagr helped the Dallas Stars' league-worst power play from last season improve to 18th overall, courtesy of nine points. He's having a similar effect with his new team. Boston seems like the only true club that can really give the Penguins a push in the Eastern Conference.
The fact that the 41-year-old Jagr is improving the Bruins' biggest weakness is a wonderful development—especially with the aforementioned penalty killing difficulties the Pens have had all year.
But that is far from the only story in Boston—the Bruins are incredibly resilient when the opponents have the man advantage, killing off penalties at a league-leading percentage of 88.5. Massive captain defender Zdeno Chara is a prominent factor as to the effectiveness of that unit.
If that can continue, and promising Finnish netminder Tuukka Rask—who has five shutouts this season—denies opponents at the rate he is, there is no telling how deep Claude Julien's bunch can go in the playoffs.