The 2013 NHL playoffs are underway, and everyone in the hockey world is now trying to figure out which teams in the league are serious Stanley Cup contenders.
While the first round is far from over for most series, there is already a clear upper echelon of teams that have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.
All of the following teams proved during the lockout-shortened regular season and the first few games of the postseason that they are the top contenders for a championship.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks are a team built for playoff hockey.
With one of the deepest defensive units in the league—Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook to name a few—the already streaky offense of the Minnesota Wild is having an even tougher time solving the riddle of goalie Corey Crawford.
Not only were the Blackhawks the best defensive team in the NHL during the regular season, but Chicago has also carried the stingy play into the playoffs and is making Minnesota earn every one of its shots.
As good as the team is on defense, the offense is just as potent. Led by the elite tandem of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, plus the myriad of other stars through the top three lines, the Blackhawks have proven that their offensive attack is as good as any in the NHL.
Chicago may have lost Game 3 of its first-round series, but that adversity will help push the team closer together and form a more cohesive unit.
That’s a dangerous proposition for the rest of the league.
Series Prediction: Chicago Wins 4-1
2. San Jose Sharks
In the ultimate jump to the top of the rankings, the San Jose Sharks have utterly dominated the Vancouver Canucks and have earned the spot as No. 2 overall. With an offense firing on all cylinders and a defense shutting everything down, the Sharks look unstoppable.
Just as he did for the Chicago Blackhawks when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, goaltender Antti Niemi is now leading San Jose to the postseason Promised Land with his elite play in net and his composure under pressure.
Add in the way the defense is playing in front of him, and the Sharks are the real deal.
The offensive unit has also stepped up big in the postseason—the biggest question coming into the first round was the inconsistency of the San Jose scoring lines—but 11 goals in three games against one of the best defensive teams in the league is a sign of big things for the Sharks.
Series Prediction: San Jose Wins 4-0
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins were a legitimate threat with Sidney Crosby out with a jaw injury, but now that the captain is back on the ice, there is no doubt that the Penguins are a top-three contender for the Stanley Cup.
Which team is the biggest threat to win it all?
While the focus will be on Crosby, the real strength of Pittsburgh is the fact that the franchise can run three different lines that could be potentially potent in the offensive end.
Add in the offensive prowess of the defenders, and the Penguins are the most dangerous scoring team in the playoffs.
If the Penguins can stay healthy and find consistent goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury—something that hasn’t come to fruition against the New York Islanders in the first round thus far—there is no doubt that the offensive depth will give the team the inside lane to a championship.
Series Prediction: Pittsburgh Wins 4-2
4. Boston Bruins
5. St. Louis Blues
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. Washington Capitals
8. Detroit Red Wings
9. New York Rangers
10. Toronto Maple Leafs
11. Ottawa Senators
12. New York Islanders
13. Los Angeles Kings
14. Montreal Canadiens
15. Minnesota Wild
16. Vancouver Canucks