Who are the Stanley Cup Contenders?
When the NHL hits the 30 games remaining mark, the time comes to separate the Stanley Cup contenders from the Pretenders (Knights, Bruins, Stars, Capitals, Kings, Oilers, and Ducks) the Lottery (Everyone else but), the Dumpster fires (Sabers, Canadians, Coyotes, and Flyers). This is the point of the season where the playoff picture starts coming into focus.
(Author Note: I could not list the Kraken as a Dumpster Fire as they went a different direction during the Expansion Draft. They are teaching their fans how to lose first. This could be an article for another day?)
In most seasons, there are about three or four teams that are labeled Stanley Cup contenders. This season league parity and a flat salary cap have opened the field. We all like to say the cream rises to the top. I can see ten teams this season that have a legitimate shot and drinking from Lord Stanley’s Chalice.
This was not an easy list to put together. I used points percentage, potential matchups, and the Eye-Test to compile my rankings. Bear in mind, we will eliminate a minimum of three teams and a maximum of 7 teams from this list in the first round of the tournament.
That is how stacked this year’s playoffs will be.
Let’s get to the Ranking in Reverse order.
10. Pittsburgh Penguins (33-14-8 74 pts), 2nd Metropolitan)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are like Freddie Kruger or Jason Voorhees. Every time I think they are dead, they just come right back. Sidney Crosby is a creature out of Pet Cemetary and the Six-Million dollar man. He just keeps haunting us, maybe a little worse for wear but rebuilt.
My biggest issue with them is the team ranked 9th, and the division they are in. The top of the Metro is tough. But because of a weaker division, they are benefiting from an unbalanced schedule.
9. New York Rangers (33-15-5 71 pts, 3rd Metropolitan)
Almost everything I said in the above ranking could be said here. The Rangers and the Pens have banner aspirations, but they have the steepest and rockiest path ahead of them. The Rangers have two games in hand on Pittsburgh. That is why they have this spot.
Either the Rangers or the Pens will end up facing Carolina in the second round. My guess is they will beat each other up and the other one will not have enough left in the tank to get to the Eastern Conference Finals.
8. Minnesota Wild (31-17-5 65 pts, 3rd central)
The Wilds road to a cup is just as hard as the ninth and tenth ranked teams, if not harder. The Central Division is arguably the best and toughest in the league. Both St. Louis and Colorado stand in their way, along with them having a dry spell lately.
Kirill Kaprizov and Kaapo Kahkonen are good enough to lead the Wild out of the First round and they can give the Avalance all they can handle, but their opponent in the first round might just have their number.
7. Calgary Flames (32-14-6 70 pts, 1st Pacific)
The Flames are on fire, Pun intended. They are the hottest team in the league and have turned themselves into contenders for the Stanley Cup. Since a January 27th loss to the Blues, the Flames are 12-1-0. Head Coach Darryl Sutter has this team going in the right direction and firing on all 12-cylinders. Their only loss came at the hands of division rival Vancouver Canucks 7-1.
So why are they seventh? they will have to play a team from the Central in the first round.
6. Florida Panthers (35-13-5, 75 pts, 2nd Atlantic)
The Panthers have been one of the best teams for most of the season. Even the loss of their head coach at the beginning of the season did not slow them down. They led the Atlantic Division until just recently as Tampa Bay have caught them.
What could have been a match-up with either Boston or Washington, neither of which was a cake wake, they could now meet the Toronto Maple Leafs.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (35-14-4 74 pts, 3rd Atlantic)
I know many people will think the Leafs’ should be higher. You can put a postage stamp over the top three teams in the division. In fact, any of them could win the number two seed. What keeps the Maple Leafs here is their history.
Toronto is cursed. They have not lifted the Stanley Cup since expansion. Many a cursed or for longing team has gotten their championship in the last decade. The Blackhawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Astros, and the Los Angeles Rams to name a few. This bodes well for the Maple Leafs.
Much like the Blues, the Leafs, have suffered a lot of misery in the playoffs. It is going to take a magical run for them to prevail. I don’t see it this year.
4. St. Louis Blues (32-14-6, 74 pts, 2nd Central.)
The first thing that might be crossing your mind is “HOMER.” While it is true, they are the team I root for, my original rankings had them seventh. Two things have changed my mind. First is their most likely opponent, the Minnesota Wild. in the last three seasons the Blues are 10-1-1 against them and won their only match up so far, a convincing win at the Winter Classic.
Second, comes down to special teams. Just like a goalie can steal you a win, special teams can win you a series. The Blues sit second in PP% at 27.0% and fourth in PK% at 85.0%. They are tied for second with the Hurricanes for Overhaul Special Teams. (OST) (NET PP% + NET PK%, The NET takes into account shorthanded goals for and against.)
The Blues are also a +25 5v5. The only question mark they have is the same one they have had in almost every playoff year but maybe one or two, GOALTENDING!!!
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (35-11-6 76 pts, 1st Atlantic)
Three-peat. that is what they are chasing. The Bolts are a modern dynasty. and just like last season, they have the LTIR loophole to help them out. I am not going to get into the LTIR thing, but it is relevant.
The two-time defending Champs are poised for rare air. Their biggest obstacle is the team ranked second.
2. Carolina Hurricanes (37-11-5 79 pts, 1st Metropolitan)
The Hurricanes are ready. It is their time. They have done what the 2018-19 Blues did by taking on the persona of their coach. Rod Brind’Amour, a ninth overall pick of St. Louis in 1988 was a tough, no-nonsense, man of a few words kind of guy.
He is the same way as a coach. The Canes and the storm surge could well be in the Finals. Their road should be just a bit easier than the Lightning and the other Eastern team.
They are the best team at keeping the puck out of the net at 2.38 goals per game. They come in sixth in goals per game with a 3.47. That is better than 1 G/PG difference and they are tied for second in OST. This is the Eastern Conference favorite in my eyes.
1. Colorado Avalanche (40-1-4 84 pts, 1st in NHL)
I have to say to put the Avalance here burns me up. It is not their play so much, (but it could be), it is Stan Kroenke, the owner. Kroenke destroyed football in the city I love, and for him to have a solid chance to raise two of the four major trophies in American sports in the same year, makes me want to puke.
They are true contenders for the Stanley Cup and the favorite in every sports book.
The Avalance are a powerhouse. They are just the third team in the expansion era to get 40 wins in 53 games. The Avs are on a pace for 126 points. The only thing that could stop them is the same thing that has let them down in previous years, Goaltending.
Darcy Kuemper, who they acquired from Arizona last season, has been above average, Colorado is second in goals per game at 3.98, but 12th in goals allowed, 2.81. While those numbers are great in the regular season, they can bite you in the Playoffs where defense is a premium.
Let the shuffling begin!!!
Remember, this is just a look at what it could be. I will revisit these rankings at the end of March and again just before the Stanley Cup Playoffs start. The first round this season is going to be brutal for some teams and fans, but that is what makes the tournament so much fun.
Till next time hockey fans,
Guy “Hawaii Hockey Fan” Bensing
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