NHL Sleeper Teams That Will Be Dangerous in the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2014

NHL Sleeper Teams That Will Be Dangerous in the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    One thing's for sure in the NHL: Regular-season success offers no playoff guarantees.

    Sure, you can lead the league from wire to wire and win the Stanley Cup, like the Chicago Blackhawks did in last year's lockout-shortened season. But you can also squeak into the playoffs as an eighth seed in your conference and hoist the mug. Just ask the 2012 Los Angeles Kings.

    Every playoff path could be a road to victory. There are always upsets along the way. 

    With one month to go until the end of the regular season, playoff berths and positioning are by no means secure—a lot can happen in 15 games or so.

    Here's a look at six teams that have exceeded expectations or bounced back from slumps this season. Any of them should cause trepidation for their playoff opponents once the postseason gets underway.

     

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through Mar. 13.

Colorado Avalanche

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    Where They Stand: 91 points: second in Central Division; third in Western Conference

    Road to the Playoffs: 16 games remaining

    • Western Conference Playoff Teams: 6
    • Western Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 4
    • Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: 5
    • Eastern Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 1

    Why They're Dangerous: It's strange to talk about a team sitting this high in the standings as a "sleeper," but Colorado's climb up the West is recent; no one expected the Avalanche's season to go this well.

    The Avs' victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday vaulted them into second place in the Central Division, and they're now just four points behind the conference-leading St. Louis Blues.

    There haven't been many dips in the Avalanche's performance this year, and the team's record against Western Conference opponents is a solid 25-11-4. Assuming Colorado finishes out its schedule on the same strong note, the team's on track to win its first playoff series since 2008.

     

Los Angeles Kings

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 82 points: third in Pacific Division; sixth in Western Conference

    Road to the Playoffs: 16 games remaining

    • Western Conference Playoff Teams: 4
    • Western Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 6
    • Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: 3
    • Eastern Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 3

    Why They're Dangerous: Ice-cold before the Olympic break, the Los Angeles Kings have now won eight straight games dating back to February 7. Stingy defense and rock-solid goaltending remains the strategic centerpiece: The team has allowed just 12 goals in those eight games.

    Los Angeles is more than 10 points behind the Western Conference leaders, but this team is no stranger to making noise from a lower seed. Their dangerous formula remains intact—shut the door and scrape up enough goals to win.

    The Kings will challenge whichever California rival finishes second in the Pacific, the Anaheim Ducks or San Jose Sharks.

     

Dallas Stars

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 74 points: fifth in Central Division; eighth in Western Conference

    Road to the Playoffs: 17 games remaining

    • Western Conference Playoff Teams: 3
    • Western Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 6
    • Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: 4  (postponed game vs. Columbus yet to be rescheduled)
    • Eastern Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 4

    Why They're Dangerous: The recent adversity endured by the Dallas Stars seems to be making a dangerous young team even stronger. Rich Peverley's out of immediate danger after his scary collapse on the Stars' bench earlier in the week. Meanwhile, trade-deadline acquisition Tim Thomas performed well in his first game of relief for concussed starter Kari Lehtonen, guiding the Stars to a 3-2 win over the conference-leading St. Louis Blues.

    If the present positions hold in the Western Conference standings, the Stars would be the wild-card team that meets the Blues in the first round. The season series now stands at 2-1 in favour of St. Louis, with two more meetings before the end of the regular season. Watch those games for an indication of Dallas' threat level going into the playoffs.

     

New York Rangers

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    Where They Stand: 74 points: second in Metropolitan Division; sixth in Eastern Conference

    Road to the Playoffs: 16 games remaining

    • Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: 3
    • Eastern Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 5
    • Western Conference Playoff Teams: 3
    • Western Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 5

    Why They're Dangerous: As the Eastern Conference standings look right now, the New York Rangers are the Metropolitan Division team that's poised to benefit most from the new playoff format, finishing sixth in the conference but grabbing home-ice advantage by virtue of being second in their division.

    After a horrific start while renovations to Madison Square Garden forced the team onto an extended road trip at the beginning of the year, the Rangers have righted the ship and played some steady hockey.

    The Blueshirts have a relatively easy schedule through the rest of the season, loaded up with non-playoff teams. They should have a good opportunity to rest up and come into the first round with all guns blazing.

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Where They Stand: 73 points: third in Metropolitan Division; seventh in Eastern Conference

    Road to the Playoffs: 17 games remaining

    • Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: 5
    • Eastern Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 6
    • Western Conference Playoff Teams: 5 (postponed game vs. Dallas yet to be rescheduled)
    • Western Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 1

    Why They're Dangerous: Viewed as a team that got worse at the trade deadline when it dealt Marian Gaborik to the Kings, the Blue Jackets are maintaining their spot in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, with a 4-1 win over Detroit on Tuesday being especially important.

    2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky has been sharp out of the Olympic break, going 5-2-0. With the new playoff format, the Jackets would face the New York Rangers in the first round if the current standings hold.

    There's still plenty of room for volatility, but thanks to the big trades between these two teams over the past couple of years, that would make for an exciting series between two squads that both want to do better in the playoffs.

    Is this the year Columbus finally wins its first-ever playoff game?

Philadelphia Flyers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Where They Stand: 73 points: fourth in Metropolitan Division; eighth in Eastern Conference

    Road to the Playoffs: 17 games remaining

    • Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: 9
    • Eastern Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 3
    • Western Conference Playoff Teams: 5
    • Western Conference Non-Playoff Teams: 0

    Why They're Dangerous: The Flyers face tough competition down the stretch, with nine of their remaining 17 games against important conference rivals. Three of those games are against the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins and will basically determine whether or not the Flyers push into the postseason.

    The Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals are hot on their heels. According to SportsClubStats.com, the Flyers and Devils are virtually even in their race to a playoff position, with both pegged at a chance of just over 58 percent.

    The Flyers have put up a solid 3-1-1 record in March, though Tuesday's 2-1 loss to New Jersey may come back to haunt them by season's end. If Philadelphia can hang on to make the playoffs, especially if they're the eighth seed that plays the Pens, anything could happen in the first round.