With four-fifths of the regular season schedule in the rearview mirror (Hey! I think I see the Thrashers back there, too!) it’s time to take a serious look at the top Stanley Cup contenders.
San Jose, Detroit and Calgary are the class of the West, while Boston, New Jersey and Washington are the lead pack in a wide-open East. Right here, right now, the smart money is on a Boston-San Jose final.
1. SAN JOSE SHARKS
They’ve been one of the best teams in the NHL for several years and they’re all too familiar with the pain of losing in the post-season. The blueline has been studded with experience and there’s more grit than ever before among the forwards (and still a lot of talent, too). And this is it for old guys like Claude Lemieux, Rob Blake and Jeremy Roenick. This team is motivated, skilled, experienced and deep. Is it now or never? No. But it’ll sure feel like it if the Sharks fall short once again.
2. DETROIT RED WINGS
Despite a recent propensity for getting pummeled – the Wings lost 8-0 to Nashville in late February and 8-2 to Columbus in early March – and serious goaltending issues, they’re still the defending champions. The Wings are basically the same team that captured the Stanley Cup last season – plus Marian Hossa (and that’s a pretty big plus). Detroit hit some mid-season bumps last year, especially when the defense corps was racked by injury and came through it in one piece. This is a veteran championship team, one that knows how to win and won’t beat itself. The Wings might be wobbling right now, but they’ll be ready for the playoffs.
3. BOSTON BRUINS
Speaking of wobbling, the Bruins are human after all. After dominating the Eastern Conference from the start of the season through to the All-Star Game in late January, Boston struggled through February and early March. But they’ve earned their place atop the East and with Zdeno Chara on the blueline and a wealth of young forwards up front, the B’s have as good a shot at getting to the final as any team in the league.
4. CALGARY FLAMES
Give Calgary credit for getting Olli Jokinen at the deadline and jump-starting a team that was already a contender. There may be some questions about the Flames’ scoring depth up front and defensive-zone coverage, but they have the top-end talent to play with anyone. And you know Mike Keenan is going to squeeze every last drop of effort out of these guys; if the Flames don’t reach at least the conference final, there’ll be crying in Calgary.
5. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Usually, there’d be trepidation in putting a team this high after it lost to the lowly Islanders 7-3 on the weekend. But the Devils survived virtually all season without Martin Brodeur; they can survive a stinker of a game against the league’s last-place team. Really, there should be more trepidation over the fact the Devils have a no-name blueline and a bunch of forwards from their 1994-95 team. But, surprisingly, there isn’t. Because all this team does is win.
6. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
The Caps snuck into the playoffs last season; this year, they’re trying to get in as a legitimate top seed. Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green have blossomed under coach Bruce Boudreau’s free-flowing system. Like several supposed contenders, though, Washington is struggling right now. The Capitals might still be a bit green to make a Cup run, but they should win a round or two.
7. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
How times have changed. The Hawks haven’t been in the playoffs since 2002 and haven’t been a legitimate contender since the early 1990s. But now they’re among the second tier of playoff hopefuls in the West; behind the Sharks, Wings and Flames, but not by much. If Nikolai Khabibulin gets hot – and he hasn’t played this well since leading Tampa Bay to the Cup in 2004 – the Hawks have all the potential to go deep.
8. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
An exciting group of forwards in front of an up-and-down defense and inconsistent goaltending. That might be a recipe for regular season success, but it’s rarely a winning formula in the playoffs. Eventually, you see, you run into a hot goalie – and if you don’t have one yourself, well…see you in October. That’s what happened when Martin Biron and the Flyers dispatched Montreal in the second round last year – and again when Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins waved farewell to Biron and the Flyers in Round 3. If Biron – or Antero Niittymaki – gets on a roll and the blueline holds up, the Flyers have a good shot at capturing the East. Failing that, they’d be satisfied with knocking off state-rival Pittsburgh.
9. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
The Canucks, at best, are among the middle tier of Stanley Cup hopefuls, but they can win any game, any series, with Roberto Luongo in net. There appears to be enough scoring and the defense corps has talent and toughness if not an over-abundance of depth. A nice pick as an upset team.
10. MONTREAL CANADIENS
A centennial season that started with so much promise and hope has steadily deteriorated as the campaign unfolded. Just ask Guy Carbonneau. If he was naming names, he’d surely mention Alex Kovalev and Carey Price in the first breath and Tomas Plekanec in the second. Injuries have been a constant theme, too, but GM-turned-coach Bob Gainey will be more vested in getting all 20 Habs on the same page so they can at least make a respectable run in their 100th NHL season.
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