The NHL's Top 10 Stanley Cup Contenders in 2011-12
Nearing the halfway point of the NHL season, it is getting to be about the time when the contenders separate from the pretenders.
There are both familiar and new teams on the prowl this season.
Here is a list of the top 10 teams that will be vying for the opportunity to lift Lord Stanley's Cup this spring.
Winnipeg fans are happy having a team back at home. I think they are going to be in for a pleasant surprise this postseason.
The Winnipeg Jets are heating up, with a 6-3-1 record in their last 10 games. Although we aren't anywhere near the home stretch yet, this may be a sign of things to come for the young Jets.
Dustin Byfuglien has ignited after getting off to a slow start. Powerplay quarterback Tobias Enstrom is back from injury. Twenty-year-old sophomore Evander Kane is having a stellar year, with 15 goals and 26 points through 34 games.
The Jets' biggest question, and the reason why they are the lowest team on this list, is goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec is quietly having a good, not great, year, with a .909 save percentage and a 2.91 GAA. Come playoff time, though, Pavelec may be more vulnerable.
With a much better fan base and a new team identity, the Jets just may be poised to make a splash in their inaugural season.
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings currently sit as the 12th place team in the Western Conference. So how are they possibly a Stanley Cup Contender?
Anze Kopitar hasn't scored in 15 games. That will not continue. Kopitar is one of the best players in the game today. He does have assists in three straight games, but he needs to start finding the back of the net.
That will happen. Sooner rather than later.
Drew Doughty also got off to a horrid start, coming off of contract issues this offseason, but with five points in his last three games, Doughty appears to be returning to his normal self.
Be on the lookout for the Kings climbing up the Western Conference standings.
St. Louis Blues
With new head coach Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, the Blues seem to be coming together nicely. With a record of 21-10-4, the Blues have all the pieces to make a run in the postseason.
The goal-tending tandem of Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak isn't going to terrify anyone, but it has been effective thus far. Elliot currently leads the league in GAA.
David Backes has been his usual self. The big forward has 22 points through 34 games.
The Blues have also gotten solid contributions from Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo and the newly returned David Perron. Perron was sidelined for over a year with a concussion, but has 10 points in the 10 games since his return.
Detroit Red Wings
A familiar squad will once again be in the thick of things come playoff time.
The aging Red Wings' window for another championship may be slowly fading, but they should not be overlooked this season.
Jimmy Howard is one of the best, and most underrated, goalies in the game.
Pavel Datsyuk is still one of the top five players in the game.
Experience probably isn't as valuable as some make it out to be, but there is no doubt that the Wings have been there and done that.
They will be a tough team to beat this spring.
Led by the NHL points leader, Claude Giroux, the Philadelphia Flyers are looking to make a Stanley Cup run this postseason.
And it would be wise not to look past them.
The Flyers have bolstered their roster with young players like Wayne Simmonds, and a hall-of-famer in Jaromir Jagr.
With the announcement of Chris Pronger being out for the rest of the year, it will be an uphill battle for the Flyers.
But they certainly have enough fire power to go the distance.
Luongo is back. After an abysmal start to the season, Luongo has won seven of his last nine games. He has a microscopic 1.74 GAA in December.
The Canucks lost Christian Ehrhoff this offseason, but Alexander Edler has stepped up in a big way. Edler has six goals and 24 points in 35 games.
And you already know about the Sedins, Kesler and Burrows.
The Canucks are looking to get over the final hump this year after coming so close in last year's finals.
A terrifying team with Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are still a dominant team without him.
Evgeni Malkin might be the hottest player in the NHL, with 11 points in his last four games. At any point in time, Malkin has the power to take control of a game.
James Neal is tied for second in the scoring race with 20 goals, 10 of those coming on the power play.
Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are performing above expectations, and Fleury is his usual self.
Things are looking bright in the Steel City, and that light may be blinding if the Pens can get Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang back sooner rather than later.
The Blackhawks are quite simply...stacked.
Jonathan Toews is having a brilliant season. That alone would be enough to get a team into the "contender" conversation.
Add in Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith?
You've got a powerhouse.
The Blackhawks currently sit at the top of the Western Conference standings, and aren't looking back. After some goaltending controversy, Ray Emery and Corey Crawford have moved into a platoon.
Crawford had a solid game against Montreal, making 20 saves to earn the win. If Crawford can get back to 2010-11 form, look for the Hawks to make a serious run at the Cup in 2012.
37-year-old Tim Thomas continues to defy the laws of time. Tim Thomas is having yet another brilliant year, with a .943 save percentage, and a GAA under two.
Young Tyler Seguin has been incredible with 31 points in 32 games.
Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara are also having outstanding campaigns.
After a slow start, the Bruins are on fire, and looking to repeat for the Stanley Cup. I wouldn't put it past them.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers are the best team in the NHL.
Henrik Lundqvist has been sensational. With a GAA just above 2, and a save percentage of .934, he has been extremely difficult to beat. Lundqvist pitched a 28-save shutout against the Islanders on Monday night.
Marian Gaborik has been the best scorer in the NHL this year. Scoring another goal on Monday night to push his league-leading total to 22, Gaborik has escaped his injury issues (at least for now), and is putting up an MVP-caliber season.
Young defenseman Michael Del Zotto is really coming around offensively, and Dan Girardi's all-around solid play has been the backbone of the Rangers defense.
Add in Ryan Callahan's leadership, and the play of young guns such as Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov, and you have my Stanley Cup favorite.