One of the most exciting parts of the Stanley Cup playoffs is the unpredictability. Sure, there are always a few juggernaut clubs everyone expects to make deep runs, but there always seem to be a few “quiet” contenders.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in the eighth position. Two years before that, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Montreal Canadiens, who were ranked seventh and eight, respectively, made it to the 2010 Eastern Conference Final.
This year, the Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota Wild all have the chance to be a dark horse.
With the playoffs set to begin this Wednesday, let’s take a look at the four wild-card teams looking to become this year’s Cinderella story.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets have returned to the Stanley Cup playoffs for only the second time in franchise history and for the first time as a member of the Eastern Conference. Their first year in the playoffs saw them get decimated by the Red Wings in four games back in 2009.
The Blue Jackets are set to play the Pittsburgh Penguins, who swept them in their five-game regular-season series.
This squad has a lot of question marks around it heading into Wednesday night’s matchup, including who will replace offseason acquisition Nathan Horton. Horton will be out for six weeks after having surgery to fix an abdominal injury. The 28-year-old winger has five goals and 14 assists in 36 games.
In net, the Jackets have a solid netminder in Sergei Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. The young Russian is very talented in terms of athleticism but has little playoff experience. With the Philadelphia Flyers, the 25-year-old played in only seven postseason games over the course of two years.
“Bob” has a very solid save percentage of .923 and a goals-against average of 2.38. The Jackets don’t have extremely talented skaters, so expect much of the workload to fall on him in the next couple of weeks.
On defense, the Jackets have two skilled veteran defensemen who will help take some of the load off Bobrovsky. Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski are great two-way players who have tremendous offensive prowess.
The Blue Jackets have a bright future, but getting around Sidney Crosby and the Penguins is not a very likely outcome.
The Dallas Stars entered the Stanley Cup playoffs by the skin of their teeth. The Western Conference is unbelievably stacked, so they will need each player to be at the top of his game, and that includes goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
Like Bobrovsky in Columbus, Lehtonen has played well the entire year but has barely any playoff experience. The 30-year-old Finn, who has a save percentage of .919 and 33 wins, will be facing the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks. This will be the biggest test in his nine-year NHL career.
This series will also mark captain Jamie Benn’s first postseason matchup. As he grows into his leadership role, many eyes will be on him. This season with the Stars, he has 34 goals and 45 assists for 79 points. Benn is a very versatile hockey player and plays with some solid teammates.
The top line consists of two young forwards with great talent. Tyler Seguin already has a Stanley Cup and plenty of playoff experience in his young career. Alongside him, 19-year-old rookie Valeri Nichushkin will have the chance to show coaches and fans what he can bring to the table against the Ducks. This season, he has 14 goals and 20 assists for 34 points.
The Stars have the potential to mimic what the Kings did back in 2012. They have a solid lineup and a great netminder. The Ducks will be the toughest opponent the Stars will have to play, so if they are able to get passed them, expect them to get confident.
Of the four wild-card clubs, the Minnesota Wild field the most impressive talent. They have dynamic leaders like Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu along with solid defensemen like Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon.
The only thing that can hinder them from making a deep playoff push is who is playing in net. The Wild have had to deal with a slew of injuries and health issues that has left them with rookie Darcy Kuemper and veteran Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov, who was acquired at the March 5 trade deadline, has played solid, but they would love to have back Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom.
Despite this, the Wild are hoping they can build off their playoff experience from last year where they were knocked out in five games against the Chicago Blackhawks. This year, they are set to play the Central Division champions, the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs are a young, fast squad with a great goalie in Semyon Varlamov. They are led by former goaltending legend Patrick Roy, who is a top candidate for the Jack Adams Award.
They are a hot and dangerous team that will be a tough test for the Wild.
Expect a long, grueling opening series for the Wild as they look to cool down their divisional foe.
Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings clinched their 23rd straight Stanley Cup playoff appearance despite being decimated with injuries. Head coach Mike Babcock has done a great job keeping the team together. They are now only a few games away from their first-round date with the Boston Bruins.
Pavel Datsyuk is the first in a long line of injured Wings to return to action recently. Captain Henrik Zetterberg has started skating again, which is great news for the team and its fans.
During the portion of the season that saw many players suffer from the injury bug, it was players like Gustav Nyquist who stepped up and took over the leadership roles. Nyquist, who is in his second year with the team, has 28 goals and 20 assists this season. His natural offensive skills make him a player to watch this postseason.
In net, the Wings will rely on Jimmy Howard. Howard led the team last year to the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs before letting in a heartbreaking goal against the Blackhawks in overtime of Game 7. So far this season, the Syracuse, N.Y., native has an average save percentage of .910 but has the playoff experience to back up his team.
It will be a tough battle, but the matchup between the Red Wings and Bruins makes for a physical, entertaining showdown. It is fitting the Wings open up their new era in the Eastern Conference against an Original Six opponent like the Bruins.
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