NHL Playoff Predictions: Who Will Hoist Lord Stanley's Cup?

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIMay 8, 2011

The Sharks fight to the brink of the NHL Final Four has prepared them to go further
The Sharks fight to the brink of the NHL Final Four has prepared them to go furtherEzra Shaw/Getty Images

The NHL Eastern Conference finalists are set, but the Western Conference second round plays on.

What the second round has shown us thus far is the fraud that is the top teams in the regular season. Only one team in the top four in the league remains, and it has struggled to beat two teams that fell at least 18 points short of it in consecutive rounds.

It is even more stark in the Eastern Conference. The fourth-best team through early April, the Pittsburgh Penguins, did not even make it out of the first round. 

The Philadelphia Flyers carried the conference's best record for most of the regular season, but were exposed in losing three of their four second-round games by more than two goals. 

The Washington Capitals were hot enough in the second half to pass them, but were swept by the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning. In fact, they were blown out when facing elimination and blew late leads in two other games.

Why would the top teams struggle so much? They did not face enough adversity in the regular season.

Especially since the salary cap was instituted, the NHL playoffs are all about adversity. Teams that fought to win their division or fought for playoff positioning are ready for the intensity, while the top teams by and large coasted into the playoffs.

This is why the 2011 Stanley Cup favorite is the San Jose Sharks.

This team was in last place in the Pacific Division for most of the season. The Sharks had a six-game losing streak before the All-Star break. They played in one of the best divisions in NHL history, with all five teams finishing with at least 95 points.

In the playoffs, they have faced the fantastic goaltending of Jonathan Quick and the elite defence in front of him. Now they are up against the Western Conference finalist in two of the last three years, with most of its roster having its names etched on the Holy Grail of hockey.

Yet they are up 3-1 in their series by winning the close games. Despite Friday's loss in Detroit, they have five overtime wins without a loss and four road wins in five tries.

The Sharks may not have the talent they have had in previous years, but they have stared down adversity all season. That is why they will be the last team standing in June.