Even though a couple of days remain in the NHL regular season, all 16 playoff berths have already been secured. The only question left to answer is how the matchups will shake out for the first round under the new postseason format.
The top team in each division will take on one of the wild-card winners, with the best team in each conference taking on the lower wild-card entrant. The other series will consist of the second and third playoff teams from each division facing off with each other.
So while the lack of battles for playoff spots takes away some of the intrigue from the final days of the regular season, it doesn't completely eliminate it. Let's check out how the playoff standings are shaping up right now, followed by a breakdown of the top contenders.
Current Playoff Standings
|Tampa Bay Lightning||81||99||38|
|New York Rangers||81||95||41|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||81||91||37|
|Detroit Red Wings||81||91||33|
|St. Louis Blues||81||111||43|
|San Jose Sharks||81||109||40|
|Los Angeles Kings||81||99||38|
Top Stanley Cup Contenders
1. Boston Bruins
No team was more consistent over the course of the regular season than Boston. The Bruins have the most points, are tied for the most regulation victories, own the best home record and rank second in road record. They also have the greatest goal differential.
When you combine those factors, it's clear they should enter the postseason as a favorite. Although they are the most well-rounded team in the league, Joe McDonald of ESPN Boston passed along comments from coach Claude Julien, who said the improved power play was a crucial factor in the Bruins' success:
It has to be up there as one of the tops. If you look at where we were, and the personnel has certainly changed. Even the players that were there last year and again this year, a lot of them have changed positions.
The most encouraging sign for Boston is how it's shown it can win any type of game. It prefers to play a defensive style, but if it goes up against an offensively gifted team like the Pittsburgh Penguins or Tampa Bay Lightning, the team can play that up-tempo style too.
The overall lack of weaknesses makes the Bruins the team to beat.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins are always dangerous heading into the playoffs due to their immense amount of top-end talent. Sidney Crosby leads the way, of course, but when you add in Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal, among others, Pittsburgh has two lines that can completely take over the game.
Speaking of Malkin, his status is obviously going to play a key role in the team's chances. He's scored 72 points in 60 games, but he's been out with a foot injury. The good news, as noted by Bill Phillips of WPXI, is that he's resumed skating ahead of the playoffs:
Assuming Malkin returns in time for the start of the playoffs, or shortly thereafter, the Penguins will have more than enough firepower to make a Cup run. The biggest question will be whether Marc-Andre Fleury, who's struggled in recent postseasons, can rise to the occasion in goal.
Pittsburgh has dealt with injury issues all season long. If it can get healthy at the right time, however, it becomes a very tough out.
3. Anaheim Ducks
A strong argument could be made for at least five teams as the best in the Western Conference. The reason Anaheim gets the nod as the top contender is due to the easier path it's likely to face as compared to the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks or San Jose Sharks.
As the current top seed, Anaheim is slated to open with the Dallas Stars in the first round, which is the most favorable matchup. The Ducks are also in the marginally lesser of the two divisions, with the Sharks or Los Angeles Kings looming rather than the Avs, Blues or Hawks.
Ultimately, the Western Conference playoffs should be nothing short of amazing given the high number of potential title teams in action. The Ducks are built to survive the journey thanks to their league-leading offense, which is spearheaded by the dynamic tandem of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
They get the edge over those other contenders thanks to what should be a slightly easier path.