I dare you to predict the Stanley Cup winner right now.
For fans, this will be one of the most exciting playdowns in years, simply because every team has a shot and every team has a flaw.
Last season, Pittsburgh and Detroit looked predestined to meet again in the final, while St. Louis and Columbus followers were just happy to see their team in the post-season.
But this year’s No. 6 seed in the West may be Detroit, while Boston will be no easy mark in the East, even if they have no chance at home-ice advantage.
Intangibles will always help champions reach the top, but what can be gleaned from ‘tangibles’ this year?
Using objective criteria suited towards playoff success, I found Vancouver, Chicago and San Jose to have the best resumes, though this does not factor in recent play/momentum, nor injury precautions (for example, the state of Vancouver’s defense corps right now).
The criterion? Is the team a top 10 in power play, penalty-killing and team faceoff percentage, plus success in one-goal games (the playoffs are always tighter) and overtime (no shootouts to hide behind)? I’m looking for a starting goalie with a save percentage of .920 or better. And to even out the defensively heavy ledger, goals-for. Since the lockout, every Stanley Cup winner has been top 10 in goals-for.
The most surprising team from a pedigree perspective is Phoenix, which charted on four of my seven categories (the three leaders hit five). Goaltender extraordinaire Ilya Bryzgalov helped the Coyotes’ cause on many of those. ‘Cool Bryz’ is 5-1 in overtime decisions so far this year and his save percentage sits right on .920.
But the most outstanding aspect of the Desert Dogs this year? They lead the NHL with a .700 win percentage in one-goal games, by far the best mark in the league. The fly in the ointment for the Coyotes is the fact their offense is practically non-existent. They’re not top 10, they’re not even top 20; in fact, the Dogs are tied for 24th overall at 2.56 goals per game.
One of the teams tied with Phoenix is Montreal, who has a similar resume in terms of strong goaltending from Jaroslav Halak. The Habs are dynamite on the power play this season and pretty good on the penalty kill (11th overall), but lack in other categories.
While the Northeast Division hasn’t produced a Stanley Cup champion since, well, there’s never been a Stanley Cup champion from the Northeast, but hear me out…
Ottawa, Boston and Buffalo all have strong suits and hit on four of the seven categories. Buffalo has the best goalie in the world right now in Ryan Miller, while the Sens counter with Brian Elliott, a youngster whose ability to get hot would behoove the Senators during the post-season. Elliott has win streaks of nine and six games this season, so Ottawa’s best chances may be in riding that lightning at the right time.
Boston’s Tuukka Rask would be a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate now if he had starter’s numbers (only 43 games played so far), but his league-leading 1.99 goals-against average and .930 save percentage suggest the Vezina also would have been a possibility with a greater workload.
But can Rask or Elliott pull a Cam Ward and lead a team to the Cup as a rookie? For that matter, can Chicago’s Antti Niemi pull the same trick? The Blackhawks are solid in all other aspects of the game, but that’s where the intangibles come into play, right?
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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