NHL Playoffs: Top 5 Teams Poised for a Stanley Cup Run
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As the NHL approaches the final stretch of the regular season, teams are gearing up and preparing themselves for a physical, draining gauntlet better known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At this point in the season it is becoming clear who has the best chances at making a run to the Cup.
The NHL Trade Deadline has come and gone and teams are now turning their full attention to the playoffs.
The following five teams pose the best chance at capturing glory and becoming immortalized on the Holy Grail of hockey, the Stanley Cup.
To be successful in the playoffs, it is generally believed that being strong down the middle is the key way to go. While there is no one strategy that cements your chances, it becomes clear throughout the season which teams are built for the playoffs.
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Currently sitting in first place, the Philadelphia Flyers are favored by many to come out of the Eastern Conference. After reaching the Stanley Cup Finals last season and falling short, the Flyers are gearing for another run and hoping for a better result.
Boasting one of the most impressively deep rosters assembled in the NHL, the Flyers are a powerhouse feared by other teams and make for tough opponents.
With nine forwards eclipsing 10 or more goals so far, their offense is a force to be reckoned with. Given their depth, they are able to field three lines all more than capable of tickling the twine at any time.
Led by Mike Richards, they are able to compete strongly at both ends of the ice and can beat you physically. With the recent addition of Kris Versteeg, a former member of the Chicago Blackhawks team that triumphed over the Flyers in the Cup Finals last year, they are confident this is the year.
On defense they are no slouch either. With Chris Pronger at the helm, the defense is stingy and hard-hitting while maintaining offensive capabilities. The top six defensemen total 115 points on the season while ranking in the top ten in shots and goals against.
The only Achilles' heel that poses a potential problem is their goaltending. Arguably the most important position in the playoffs, their goaltending situation is average at best. With Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky sharing the workload at 24 and 35 games respectively, they have no clear starter.
While both Philadelphia goaltenders have had decent seasons, Boucher has never been a solid starter and Bobrovsky is not playoff-tested. Look for teams to target their goalies early and often in the playoffs. One saving grace is that with their offense and defense in front of them, neither goalie may have to steal a game.
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The Vancouver Canucks have fielded an impressive roster for the past few seasons, but have never managed to find the spark to lift them to the Cup Finals.
Vancouver fans are getting restless after the constant failure to meet expectations. The Canucks have heard their call and look to be ready to lift the Cup.
Led by the Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the Canucks are just about as deep as the Philadelphia Flyers and are favorites to come out of the Western Conference. Sitting atop the conference with a cushion of nine points, they will have targets on their back heading into the playoffs.
While offense shouldn't be a problem for them considering they lead the league in goals, defense is another story. With injuries to top defensemen Alex Edler (back), Lee Sweatt (foot) and most recently Andrew Alberts (broken wrist), their defense has taken a hit.
Only recently has the team seen Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard return to the lineup after missing both for a few games with a concussion and sprained knee, respectively.
The Canucks had little cap space to work with coming into the deadline and only looked to bolster their toughness by adding a gritty player to the fourth line. The Canucks accomplished that by acquiring Maxim Lapierre from the Anaheim Ducks. When you remember who backstops the defense in net, it's hard to worry too much about injuries to the defense.
Roberto Luongo is one of the top netminders in the NHL, currently second in wins and fourth in save percentage. What Luongo will have to do if the Canucks plan on hoisting the Cup in June is something he has always had trouble with: performing at that high level in the big game.
Detroit Red Wings
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One constant in all of hockey season after season is the Red Wings being in the playoffs.
To go back to a time when the Red Wings missed the playoffs, we'd be heading back to a time when a gallon of gas was $1.16. Twenty-one years have past since then and the Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup four times.
Currently behind only the Canucks in the West, their spot in the playoffs is all but confirmed. With a veteran-filled roster that knows how to win in the playoffs, no team should take them lightly.
The Red Wings are looking to get the bitter taste out of their mouths that was left after a 4-1 series defeat at the hands of the San Jose Sharks last season.
Always a strong defense, captained by six-time Norris Trophy winning Nicklas Lidstrom, they are suited for playoff hockey. With the recent return of Pavel Datsyuk from injured reserve, the Red Wings have once again found their scoring touch.
Coached to perfection by highly respected and tough-minded Mike Babcock, the Wings are playing well at the right time.
If their powerful offense can build an early lead and the defense can keep the other team from matching they stand a good chance to head far into the playoffs. The Red Wings are 18-0-2 when leading after two periods this season, an impressive number which could become more pronounced in the playoffs.
The only questionable piece on the team, like the Flyers, is their goaltending. Only in his second full season, Red Wings franchise goalie Jimmy Howard has slipped after finishing last season with a .924 save percentage and 2.26 goals-against average.
If Howard can return to his level of play from his first full season, he may be able to take the Wings back to the Stanley Cup for the third time in four years.
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The Boston Bruins are a hardworking team who are looking to clinch the Northeast Division title.
The Bruins were quiet on deadline day, having made most of their moves well before the February 28th deadline. The Bruins brought in highly sought after defenseman Tomas Kaberle to bolster their power play.
Ranked 15th in the league at 17.4%, the Bruins power play leaves a lot to be desired. The addition of Kaberle should help improve that heading into the playoffs.
Having shipped defenseman Mark Stuart and forward Blake Wheeler to Atlanta in exchange for center Rich Peverley and defenseman Boris Valabik, the Bruins have added some scoring prowess and grit. While the move was made primarily to clear cap room for Kaberle, the Bruins did get a better player in return.
Peverley is an improvement over Wheeler and can play the center position or fit in at wing. He isn't afraid to shoot the puck, placing him second in shots on goal for the Bruins.
The Bruins defense is led by the 6'9'' Slovak Zdeno Chara. The addition of Kaberle solidifies their defense heading into the playoffs. What is lacking on the backside for the Bruins squad is more than made up for in their goaltending.
With one of the best goaltending tandems in the league in Tuuka Rask and Tim Thomas, the Bruins will make for a tough playoff opponent. Thomas leads the league in save percentage and goals against average, with Rask posting decent numbers himself.
If their goaltending can stay strong and the new additions to the team play well, the Bruins will be strong contenders to lift the Stanley Cup this season.
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Not the most popular pick to win it all anymore, the Pittsburgh Penguins could be the team to surprise a few people this postseason.
Plagued with injures all season, the Penguins Stanley Cup hopes fall on the return of their star player, Sidney Crosby. Taking the assumption that he will return into account, the Penguins odds at winning it all may be better than you think.
The Penguins hold the best penalty kill in the league and have one of the best defenses in the league. After the off-season acquisitions of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, the Penguins have a formidable blue line.
All-Star Kris Letang and fan favorite Brooks Orpik round out what may be the most skilled top-four defensive set in the league. With Alex Goligoski and Deryk Engelland as their fifth and sixth, they are a well balanced unit.
Surprisingly, the offense is not the shining aspect of the Penguins anymore. A long list of injuries is partly to blame for that. After losing star center Evgeni Malkin for the season and with Crosby still out, the Penguins have had trouble putting the puck in the net.
The Penguins took advantage of the cap room they possessed after losing so many players to injuries this season. Bringing in LW James Neal, D Matt Niskanen and RW Alexei Kovalev was a smart decision by Shero, especially considering they only traded away D Alex Goligoski and a seventh-round draft pick.
If the Penguins' new additions can provide the scoring they are capable of, the Penguins should be a formidable opponent come playoff time with or without Sidney Crosby. If Crosby is able to return at some point, he could help launch the team to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third time in four years.
It would be wise for all teams to take notice and not underestimate this battle-tested team that knows how to win a seven-game series.