NHL Predictions: 7 Dark Horse Stanley Cup Hopefuls

Matthew FairburnCorrespondent ISeptember 30, 2011

NHL Predictions: 7 Dark Horse Stanley Cup Hopefuls

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    The same teams are always getting the headlines in the NHL, and for the most part, the same teams are always in contention for the Stanley Cup at the end of the season.

    Each year, however, a few teams emerge as serious threats for the title despite being off the radar to start the year.

    It's tough for a team to go completely unnoticed. But there are a few clubs that are going to surprise people come playoff time. Here are the top seven.

The Washington Capitals

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    The Washington Capitals once again finished atop the Eastern Conference, so in the traditional sense, they are not a dark horse candidate. But while they may not entirely sneak up on anyone, the Caps are a bit underrated at the moment.

    All of the talk in Washington is about the pressure on the team to perform, which is warranted after years of failure. Yet few realize just how ready this team is to contend in the postseason. Tomas Vokoun provides the team with the best goaltender they have had in recent years. They also added a few depth players on offense who play an excellent two way game.

    Something feels a bit different this season, so don't blindly expect them to choke.

Philadelphia Flyers

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    Paul Holmgren and the Philadelphia Flyers had quite the tumultuous offseason. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who were once thought to be the featured players of the organization, were both traded, and the team finally brought in a true franchise goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov.

    Now, the preseason expectations are not quite as high. The common belief is that the Flyers made themselves better in the longterm but worse in the short term. However, all that has changed on Broad Street is that the Flyers are a more balanced team than they were a season ago. The offense undoubtedly took a hit, but the defense remains sturdy and the goaltending is now a strength.

    If Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk continue to progress, the offense will be just fine. The additions of Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek will help ease any ill effects felt from the departures of Richards and Carter. The Flyers have plenty of depth on offense, and the unit is still well above average.

    Paul Holmgren will look like a genius if his revamped roster makes a run at the Stanley Cup.

San Jose Sharks

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    The West Coast version of the Washington Capitals is the San Jose Sharks. San Jose is constantly dominating the regular season but coming up short in postseason play. Thus, the Sharks are always a dark horse candidate to take home the Cup.

    The team got rid of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, getting defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat in return. It remains to be seen how much the defense will improve with the addition of Burns, but there is certainly reason for optimism in San Jose.

    A year after the Pacific Division was one of the most closely contested in the NHL, it appears to be substantially weakened with the departures of Brad Richards and Ilya Bryzgalov. It will be a three horse race between the Sharks, Kings and Ducks. All three figure to be built to play in the postseason.

Anaheim Ducks

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    The Anaheim Ducks are vastly underrated heading into the 2011-2012 season. Last season, the Ducks finished fourth in the Western Conference and battled the Nashville Predators tough in the first round of the playoffs, despite the fact that Jonas Hiller was sidelined with a concussion.

    Hiller, who was an All-Star selection last season, is back in the lineup and appears to be fully healthy. If he stays healthy, the sky is the limit this season. They have one of the best scoring lines in the NHL, and Cam Fowler is only going to continue to develop on the blue line. The biggest question mark surrounding this team is depth on the blue line. However, teams have overcome more than that to win championships.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Chicago Blackhawks struggled after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup. Some of their top contributors were not re-signed by team, and others that did return were unable to stay healthy for the entire season.

    2011-2012 is a fresh start for the Blackhawks, and with all hands on deck, the team should be much improved. Corey Crawford is the key to it all. His play towards the end of the season and into the postseason was impressive. If Crawford takes another step forward, this team has a shot at the Central Division crown and even the Stanley Cup.

Buffalo Sabres

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    The Buffalo Sabres definitely overspent at times this offseason, but the result is a very deep and talented roster. The defense is much improved with the additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, while the offensive added some punch with Ville Leino.

    The Sabres were a contending team without all of those additions due to star goaltender Ryan Miller, who figures to be just as sturdy between the pipes this season. I would not be shocked if Buffalo won the Northeast Division.

Los Angeles Kings

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    The Los Angeles Kings have been on the brink of greatness for the past couple of seasons. They have lacked the depth and toughness to make a true impact in the postseason. And with Anze Kopitar injured last year, the Kings were doomed from the star.

    Things have changed in Hollywood. The Kings added stud center Mike Richards and his former wingman Simon Gagne. The two former Flyers add depth and experience to a forward group that desperately needs both. On defense, the Kings will hope that Drew Doughty ends his lengthy holdout. They need him.

    The most important component to a potential Cup run from the Kings, however, is goaltender Jonathan Quick, who has shown remarkable improvement over the last few seasons. Quick once again looks sharp this preseason. Call me crazy, but quick could earn a Vezina nomination this year if Doughty is in the lineup.

    The Kings have a realistic shot at the Pacific Division title, and once in the playoffs, anything is possible.