5 NHL Cinderella/Dark-Horse Teams That Can Win the Stanley CupMarch 15, 2023
Let's be real.
There's been so much post-trade-deadline talk about the gauntlet that is the Eastern Conference that it almost feels like any Western Conference team could be considered a dark-horse or Cinderella team in the 2023 Stanley Cup playoff race.
When you actually dig into that thought a bit, you start to wonder if the East is such a gauntlet that the conference champion will be exhausted when the Final rolls around. Further, obviously, only one team in the conference will prevail, and much of the Stanley Cup playoff's appeal is in the unpredictability.
But what even differentiates a "dark horse" from a standard Cup contender? Part of it is non-quantifiable vibes, while the other part is additional context such as the team's in-conference path, recent playoff history, star-player performance and ebbs and flows of the season.
But at its core, a dark horse should be a team you'd be at least a little surprised to see lift the Cup. For the purpose of this exercise, let's divide the NHL into tiers with a few examples.
1. Cup Contenders
The Bruins are the obvious leader of this category, and we'll cap off the group at about three or four teams with a combination of high expectations, some undeniable "it" factor and a consistent track record.
2. Wouldn't Be Surprised, But…
This is a special category for three to four teams that aren't quite at the shoo-in level but still have higher expectations than a dark horse. For example, the Hurricanes were at the "Cup Contender" level before Andrei Svechnikov's season-ending surgery was announced Tuesday. They're going to need to dig in without their most dynamic forward, but their depth and consistency still put them above a true dark horse.
3. Dark Horses
To me, a true dark horse is teetering the line of a hot take. All curses aside, it would not be a hot take to think this iteration of the Toronto Maple Leafs could win the Cup. All of this season's inconsistencies aside, I'd also consider it a mild take to say the Colorado Avalanche could win the Cup.
Do you catch my drift?
4. Just Happy to Be Here
As much as teams with long playoff droughts like to say they aren't satisfied just punching their ticket, and to a degree that's true, there's little pressure for a few teams to take it any further. Sometimes this overlaps with a dark horse and creates a lot of fun.
With that all in mind—and with the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments just around the corner—we're looking at five Cinderella teams that can win the Stanley Cup this season.
There's just something about the No. 3 team in the West in its second year of existence. Is it the thrill of a new team coming in and shaking things up? The jump in quality of play and a high-octane offense averaging 3.5 goals per game, good for fourth-highest in the league? Is it Matty Beniers' runaway Calder Trophy campaign, as the rookie has 19 goals and 48 points in 65 games?
For me, it's all of that, but even more so, it's the team's play against out-of-conference heavyweights. The Kraken are one of the few teams to beat the record-breaking Bruins this season, handing them one of their worst losses (3-0!) on Jan. 12 and taking them to the brink in a game Boston eventually won 6-5 on Feb. 23.
The Kraken can hang.
As for goaltending, the Martin Jones/Philipp Grubauer tandem hasn't been absolutely fantastic, but it's been good enough—and that'll do when the goals are coming. Will it be enough to lift Seattle to a dark-horse Stanley Cup championship? I like their odds more than anyone else's if it comes down to the Bruins.
New York Islanders
The Islanders might be the biggest stretch of all five teams listed here, and they're currently fighting for a wild-card spot in the East. Their 0-5 shootout record has not done them any favors, nor has the loss of star Mathew Barzal.
But the defensive soundness of their game allowed them to stay afloat when Barzal went down on Feb. 18, and there are no shootouts in the playoffs. Barzal is listed as week-to-week, so if the Islanders do squeak in, he could make his return and provide an offensive boost for the team.
Often in the NHL playoffs, there's a goaltender that steals a series or two for a team that wasn't exactly glowing on the deserve-to-win-o-meter.
Couldn't you imagine that being Ilya Sorokin? The goalie's got five shutouts, a .925 save percentage and a 2.35 GAA in 49 games. According to MoneyPuck.com, his underlying numbers are even better, ranking second behind only Boston's Linus Ullmark with a 32.8 goals save above expected rate.
If—and that's a big if—the Islanders are able to hold down their No. 2 wild-card spot and finish their last 14 regular season games strong, you should keep your eye out for Sorokin.
We're especially hard on the Oilers because many of us want an NHL in which the best player in the world gets to perform on the big stage. It's a shame they've messed up building around Connor McDavid, but, hey, between him and Leon Draisaitl, anything is possible.
Then you've got Evander Kane back and warmed up headed into the playoffs, and the Mattias Ekholm acquisition was one of the best of the trade deadline, point blank.
If Ekholm gets comfortable—and it looks like he has fit in perfectly—he could bolster the defense up just enough to where it's playoff-acceptable. The Oilers currently own the first wild-card spot in the West, and if they can hang on and create a somewhat easier (compared to the East...) path for themselves, we might finally get a McDavid Cup appearance.
Where the Islanders are the weakest of the dark-horse bunch, the Stars are probably the strongest (so don't come at me for considering them a dark horse). They started the season atop the Central but struggled to find consistency as they went from scoring almost four goals per game in the first two months of the season to offense seriously cooling off.
Jason Robertson and Co. were very much the best line in hockey, but some scoring slumps emerged, and we were all left wondering what to make of this team.
The Stars have seemed to emerge from the inconsistencies, with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 and back atop the Central in the rankings. This is a group with some experience that has been turning it on every time you think it's really about to go south this season.
Good bounces and production shielded Dallas from some defensive blunders early on, and the scoring slumps forced their defense to improve. In any event, they're trending up and could make a serious run.
Remember how huge a criterion for a dark-horse Cup contender was "The Vibes"? The Buffalo Sabres might be on the outside looking in fighting to even clinch an Eastern Conference wild-card spot, but there's no denying they are oozing in "The Vibes."
Who wouldn't want to see emerging superstar Tage Thompson, who currently ranks No. 5 league-wide with 42 goals and 87 points, tearing it up in the playoffs?
Who doesn't want this young, exciting, high-octane version of the Sabres to be the one to lift them out of their league-worst, decade-plus-long playoff drought?
Who among us doesn't want Jeff Skinner's smiling face to make the playoffs for the first time in his 13-year NHL career?
On paper, there are more complete teams better suited for the playoff battles ahead. But these Buffalo Sabres sneaking into the playoffs and upsetting the field would be a dark-horse story for the ages.