In less then two weeks, the grueling road to the Stanley Cup begins.
Teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues are sitting comfortably at the top of their divisions eagerly awaiting their first-round opponent. However, teams such as the Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs are on the fringe of missing the postseason.
Come playoff time, the only question being asked is who will be hoisting Lord Stanley’s hardware after the dust settles.
There are plenty of clubs that have a reasonable shot at winning it all. It’s easy though to glance over some of the quiet teams flying under the radar. We call these clubs “dark horses”.
Dark horses are fun to predict because they usually lack a certain area of the game that makes experts discount them. Let’s look at two teams that are sure to surprise this postseason.
The Minnesota Wild were believed to have made the transition from a mediocre hockey squad to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender when they acquired left winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter in the 2012 offseason.
The Wild didn’t pan out to be the all-star team everyone expected to be, though. They made the playoffs last season, but fell to the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.
This year, the Wild are looking to secure the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference and use last year’s loss as a stepping stone.
Head coach Mike Yeo has plenty of talent on both sides of the puck.
Captain Mikko Koivu centers a line with Parise that provides both veteran leadership and skill unmatched by many of the league’s top lines. The two have combined for 100 points so far this season and look to keep the ball rolling into the playoffs.
In addition to Koivu and Parise, the Wild field other talented names like Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson. Pominville was picked up by general manager Chuck Fletcher at last year’s trade deadline in hopes of adding both experience and help on special teams.
On March 5th, Fletcher dealt Torrey Mitchell and two second-round picks to the Buffalo Sabres for Moulson. The addition of the left winger was a sign that the Wild were looking to make a deep postseason run.
The depth of the Wild’s offense can make them a scary threat this April. Add their defense and they're downright terrifying.
The top defensive pairing of Suter and Jared Spurgeon provides the Wild with hard shots and great puck handling. In addition, the duo has offered up a combined 65 points and a combined plus/minus rating of 21.
In net, the Wild lack a No. 1 goaltender.
Remember though, a dark horse team wouldn’t be a dark horse if it were stacked in every position.
The club began the year with two solid netminders in Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Both goalies have been shut down for the year due to health reasons.
In wake of these issues, Fletcher decided to bring in 33-year-old Russian goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov at the trade deadline to backup rookie Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper, who has had a decent rookie season with a .915 save percentage, has recently been sidelined due to an undisclosed injury.
It seems the Wild’s goaltending plague is still haunting the squad. There is no clear answer to who will start in net come April 16. It looks as if Bryzgalov has finally found his way back to a starting job.
It is hard to predict how far the Wild will be able to make it this offseason due to how physically demanding each Western Conference round is going to be. As of April 3rd, the club is set to face the Anaheim Ducks, a team flying high (pun intended) this season thanks to Ryan Getzlaf and company.
Confidence is a key attribute for this group of men. The younger players must look to veterans like Parise and Koivu for leadership. If all the pieces fall into place, then every other team must be on high alert.
The Flyers have a much different backstory than the Wild do.
After a disappointing start to the season, team owner Ed Snider called for the removal of head coach Peter Laviolette after only three games. Replacing him would be former Flyers enforcer Craig Berube.
In a remarkable turn of events, Berube led the club to their current record of 39-27-9, which is good for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Most of the success has been attributed to Berube’s prowess of the game. He got rid of the old “run-and-gun” style and opted for a more defensive approach.
Help from the captain has made an impact as well.
Like the rest of the Flyers, the Claude Giroux had a rocky start this year. It took the 26-year-old center 16 games to net his first goal of the season.
Though he did what captains do best by putting the team on his back.
Giroux is now tied for third in the points column with 78 after his dreadful start to the season. He is also tied for third in assists with 53.
One Flyer by the name of Sean Couturier has begun to stimulate this offense at the just the right time.
“The Wolf of Broad Street” as he has been called, is getting recognition for shutting down big-name offensive players like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. Along with Matt Read and Steve Downie, the Flyers' checking line has really contributed to the club’s overall play.
For a deep playoff run, this line will play a crucial role in dominating the star individuals of the Eastern Conference’s top clubs.
In net, the Flyers have Steve Mason, a big, young goalie who will likely get the nod in net come playoff time.
Mason almost walked away from hockey after last year’s lockout-shortened season due to some psychological issues.
“My mind was so beat up that I truly did not enjoy playing hockey anymore,” Mason stated in an interview with NHL.com’s Adam Kimelmen. “I was just so beat up mentally that hockey was becoming more of a chore than a passion and something that was fun.”
It was with the Columbus Blue Jackets that Mason felt like he was in “some dark places.”
The trade that took place at last year’s deadline that sent him to Philadelphia seemed to have helped him grow into the man he is today.
The new and improved Mason has 31 wins under his belt this season and is looking to stay poised for this season’s playoff run. He is a great positional goaltender and has the chance to be finally become the Flyers' permanent answer in net.
Remember that a few of these players have plenty of postseason experience. Scott Hartnell, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, Ray Emery and Giroux were all on the team when they made the journey to the Stanley Cup Final back in 2010.
The Flyers’ history can be summed up as gritty, bruising and defensive. These three components are all necessary for playoff hockey. They have been here before and they can do it again.
It’s not a lock yet, but as of April 3, they are set to play the Rangers in what is sure to be a heated battle. If they stay as hot as they have been, then there is no question that they can compete with the powerhouse Penguins and Bruins.
All stats courtesy on NHL.com unless otherwise noted.