Early Favorites and Dark Horses to Win Each NHL Division

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistNovember 16, 2013

Early Favorites and Dark Horses to Win Each NHL Division

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    The Chicago Blackhawks have avoided the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover and are in a position to determine their own fate in the 2013-14 regular season.

    That may not seem like a big deal, but the last time they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they struggled badly in the regular season and needed help on the final day just to earn a playoff spot.

    This year, the Blackhawks are favorites to win the Central Division of the Western Conference.

    In this piece we look at a favorite and a dark horse in each of the four divisions, and explain how they could find a way to end the season at the top of their respective divisions.

Atlantic Division Favorite: Boston Bruins

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    What makes them a favorite: The Boston Bruins have been one of the most consistent teams in the NHL since the 2008-09 season, and there's little to indicate that has changed this year.

    The Bruins play a defensive-minded, disciplined game under head coach Claude Julien. That's the basis for everything they do. They have plenty of talented offensive players, but it's not acceptable for any of them to freelance and ignore defensive responsibilities.

    Tuukka Rask is one of the best goalies in the league, and he can clean up any of the mistakes his teammates make. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg anchor the defense, but the Bruins have great depth in this area with Johnny Boychuk and Torey Krug.

    Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci form one of the best one-two punches at center in the NHL, while forwards like Jarome Iginla, Milan Lucic and Loui Eriksson are all capable of scoring important goals.

    What could derail them: Obviously, injuries to players like Rask, Chara or Bergeron could be brutal. Aside from that, the Bruins will go through stretches where their power play fails them, and that could present problems. 

    They are much stronger defensively than they are on the offensive end, and they can go through periods where they have a hard time manufacturing goal-scoring opportunities.

Atlantic Division Dark Horse: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    What makes them a dark horse: A look at the standings at this point in the year and the Tampa Bay Lightning are still in first place in the Atlantic Division.

    That should eliminate this team from dark-horse status. However, the Lightning lost superstar center Steven Stamkos to a broken leg Nov. 11, and he could miss the majority of the season. Without Stamkos, perhaps the most dangerous goal scorer in the league, the Lightning may struggle to score.

    While they could sink badly, they have played well all season under rookie head coach Jon Cooper, and they get wonderful inspiration and leadership from veteran Martin St. Louis.

    The Lightning have gotten solid goaltending from Ben Bishop, who leads the NHL in wins through Nov. 15. In order to thrive and ultimately take this division, the Lightning must continue to play aggressively and not fall in the trap of feeling sorry for themselves as a result of the Stamkos injury.

    No one player—not even St. Louis—can make up for Stamkos' absence, and if players like Teddy Purcell, Victor Hedman, Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn continue to produce, they could surprise the rest of the Atlantic Division and end the season in first place.

    What could derail them: Stamkos was on pace to score 50 or more goals for the Lightning, and they are going to try to make up for that loss.

    That's easier said than done. The Lightning may be able to get by on adrenaline for a few weeks, but sooner or later they will feel his loss. If they can't find a way to make up for his missing goals, they will sink in the division.

    They also need Bishop to maintain his high level of play. He has a 1.96 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage, and any noticeable slippage will hurt the Lightning.

Metropolitan Division Favorite: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    What makes them a favorite: The Pittsburgh Penguins have the most talented roster in the NHL, and that alone is going to make them contenders every year.

    Any team that can throw Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the ice every night is going to have a legitimate chance to dominate during the regular season and become a major force in the playoffs.

    As good as those two are, the supporting cast in Pittsburgh has been strong for several years. Goal scorers Chris Kunitz and James Neal would be the best players on several teams. Both are potential 30-goal scorers when they are healthy. (Neal has played just four games after missing the first part of the season with an upper-body injury; he scored his first goal Nov. 15).

    Kris Letang has speed, skill and a devastating shot from the blue line.

    What could derail them: The Penguins signed defenseman Rob Scuderi away from the Los Angeles Kings to have a more physical presence this year, and he was giving the Penguins just that before he suffered a broken ankle and had to undergo surgery.

    The Penguins have been troubled by poor goaltending in each of their last two playoff seasons, a problem that could rear up during the regular season as well.

    Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been more than adequate to this point in the year, but he must maintain his consistency.

Metropolitan Division Dark Horse: New York Rangers

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    What makes them a dark horse: The New York Rangers needed an alarm clock in the first month of the season.

    The schedule maker did them no favor when they were forced to play their first nine games on the road. New coach Alain Vigneault has been trying to teach his team a new, more offensive-minded way to play the game, and it's clear his players were still trying to get used to his style as the season got underway.

    The Rangers may have been a bit shell-shocked after playing under former head coach John Tortorella. The combination of the coaching change and the early-season road marathon left the Rangers with a 3-6-0 record that included humiliating 9-2 and 6-0 defeats.

    But nine games does not a season make. The Rangers have not yet hit their stride, but they are clawing their way back in the race.

    They still have Henrik Lundqvist in the net and players like Brad Richards, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh are starting to produce. The Rangers have worked their way up to the .500 mark at 9-9-0, and if they can build a winning record they should become a factor in the weak Metropolitan Division.

    What could derail them: The Rangers are playing better, but they are still a long way from challenging the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division. They have not yet fully adjusted to Vigneault's system, and there is no guarantee that they will.

    Also, there appears to be a hint of tension between Vigneault and Lundqvist, and that can't be good for the long-term success of this team.

Central Division Favorite: Chicago Blackhawks

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    What makes them a favorite: The Chicago Blackhawks have won two of the last four Stanley Cups and know that big things are expected from them once again.

    Head coach Joel Quenneville excels at keeping this team focused on short-term success while making sure that his players understand the big picture and the team's long-term goals.

    The Blackhawks' core players are exceptional. Jonathan Toews is one of the best all-around players in the game and gives the team consistent leadership. Patrick Kane is a gifted offensive talent. Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have all been through the wars and are proven clutch performers.

    So is goaltender Corey Crawford. While he will make mistakes from time to time and his play is not flawless, he has the ability to shake off bad goals and bad games better than nearly any other goaltender. That means the Blackhawks don't have to worry about their goaltender having any long slumps that drag the team down.

    What could derail them: The Blackhawks have concerns with their second-line center, and that's why they traded for Kris Versteeg Nov. 14. Versteeg helped the Blackhawks win the 2010 Stanley Cup, and he must show he can fit in again or their consistent offense could struggle.

    Backup goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has not been impressive in his infrequent appearances. If his play does not pick up and Crawford has to play 60 games or more during the regular season, the No. 1 goalie could lose his stamina in the postseason.

Central Division Dark Horse: Dallas Stars

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    What makes them a dark horse: The Dallas Stars have not made the playoffs since the 2007-08 season, and their fans long ago lost their patience.

    That's why the Stars made major changes in the offseason and hired Jim Nill as their general manager and Lindy Ruff as their head coach. They traded for former No. 2 draft pick Tyler Seguin in an effort to give their team a more explosive offense.

    Through the first quarter of the season, trading Loui Eriksson to the Boston Bruins for Seguin has helped give the Stars new life. They have recorded a 6-2-2 record in their last 10 games and appear to be gaining confidence with each game.

    The Stars are playing fast-paced hockey and Ruff is making sure they finish their checks and play hard on the defensive end.

    Kari Lehtonen has a 2.08 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage, and he is keeping the Stars in games on a consistent basis.

    What could derail them: The one-two punch of Seguin and Jamie Benn has been sensational through the first quarter of the season. Who is going to pick up the slack if and when they cool off?

    While Lehtonen has played well, the Stars' defense appears ordinary at best. Lehtonen will start to struggle if the defense lets him down.

Pacific Division Favorite: Anaheim Ducks

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    What makes them a favorite: The Anaheim Ducks have played sensational hockey so far, and they are going to have to keep it up to hold off the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.

    Any of those teams could have been the favorite, but the Ducks have a tremendous one-two offensive punch with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. 

    Head coach Bruce Boudreau has the Ducks playing extremely well because they have an excellent combination of size and speed. The Ducks have a perfect 8-0-0 record at home, with an air of invincibility whenever they take the ice at the Honda Center.

    The Ducks seem to be extra motivated this year by their first-round defeat in last year's postseason. All parts of their game are being played at a high level, and that should allow them to remain near the top of their standings for the rest of the season.

    What could derail them: The Ducks are in first place in the Pacific Division, but they have not gotten superb goaltending to this point in the season. Jonas Hiller has a 2.69 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage. 

    That's not good enough from the team's No. 1 goaltender. If Hiller does not start to pick up his game, the Ducks' impressive start could fade away.

Pacific Division Dark Horse: Phoenix Coyotes

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    What makes them a dark horse: The Pacific Division is loaded and it would be shocking if the Ducks, Kings, Canucks or Sharks don't come away with the title.

    However, the Phoenix Coyotes could make a run as a dark horse. The Coyotes have a shot because they have a talented goaltender in Mike Smith, great leadership in Shane Doan and an active and deep defensive crew led by Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

    The Coyotes' ownership situation steadied in the offseason, which appears to have given the team an infusion of confidence. 

    The Coyotes have played superior hockey in the first part of the season, and the team may continue to win for the foreseeable future.

    What could derail them: The high level of competition in their division could prove to be the Coyotes' undoing.

    They place a big burden on Smith, and if his performance isn't at an All-Star level it's going to be difficult for the Coyotes to maintain their momentum.


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