In alphabetical order, the Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets have been the best teams in the NHL this season. And we say that will all due respect to the incredible expansion Vegas Golden Knights, as well as the San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals, not to mention the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Any one of the above teams could go on to win the Cup this season, as could any of the 16 clubs that make the playoffs when the regular season ends next weekend.
But, as mentioned, the Bruins, Predators, Lightning and Jets have been the class of the league – at least that's the opinion in this corner – and as such, they merit closer scrutiny as the post-season approaches. Since they're divisional rivals – Boston and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic, Nashville and Winnipeg in the Central – the best they can do is face off in respective Round 2 showdowns. But make no mistake, those second-round series should be viewed as the league's semifinals, with the winning sides ready to roll through Round 3 on their way to the Cup series.
With that in mind, here's a look at 10 key categories, and how the predestined Bruins, Preds, Bolts and Jets stack up.
(Note: Stats as of games played on March 30, 2018.)
Goals Per Game
Tampa Bay Lightning: 3.49 (1st)
Boston Bruins: 3.29 (t-3rd)
Winnipeg Jets: 3.29 (t-3rd)
Nashville Predators: 3.17 (7th)
No big surprises here. They're the best teams in the NHL and they score like it. The Lightning lead the league in offense, the Bruins and Jets reside in the top five and the Predators sit comfortably in the top 10.
Nashville Predators: 2.41 (1st)
Boston Bruins: 2.51 (3rd)
Winnipeg Jets: 2.62 (6th)
Tampa Bay Lightning: 2.81 (13th)
Pekka Rinne's case for the Vezina Trophy looks pretty compelling from this vantage point, given that he backstops the team with the league's lowest GAA compared to Andrei Vasilevskiy's leakier Lightning.
Tampa Bay Lightning: 24.7% (2nd)
Winnipeg Jets: 23.3% (4th)
Boston Bruins: 22.9% (5th)
Nashville Predators: 20.0% (t-17th)
A high-end power play can take you a long way in the playoffs, and the Lightning, Jets and Bruins check off this box with top-five PP units. The Preds, meanwhile, are barely middle of the pack, but it's worth noting that their 20-percent rate is still quite productive, and Nashville ranks among the NHL's top three in man-advantage chances. As a result, the Predators are tied for sixth in the league with 52 power play goals.
Nashville Predators: 82.7% (t-6th)
Boston Bruins: 82.6% (8th)
Winnipeg Jets: 82.1% (t-9th)
Tampa Bay Lightning: 75.9% (26th)
It's a bit of a surprise that none of these so-called top teams have elite penalty killing, but at least the Predators, Bruins and Jets can get the job done. The Lightning, meanwhile, have struggled mightily on the PK, giving up the second-most goals (62) this season. That'll need to change for Tampa Bay to have any success in the post-season.
Boston Bruins: 1,808 (8th)
Winnipeg Jets: 1,730 (13th)
Tampa Bay Lightning: 1,613 (19th)
Nashville Predators: 1,565 (23rd)
You don't want to rank too high in hits because it likely means that your opponents always have the puck, and you're chasing the game instead of directing it. So, through that lens, our Cup contenders are right around where you want them – not real high, which is good, but high enough so that you know they can play it physical when the going gets tough in the playoffs.
Winnipeg Jets: 1,169 (10th)
Nashville Predators: 1,137 (16th)
Tampa Bay Lightning: 1,063 (26th)
Boston Bruins: 1,012 (30th)
Like hits, you don't want to be one of the league leaders in blocked shots because it means the other teams are always firing away and you're getting walloped by 100-mile-an-hour vulcanized rubber. On the flip side, hey, it's the playoffs, you've got to be willing to take one for the team. The Jets are the most altruistic in that regard, while the Bruins, surprisingly, are the most likely to pull the old flamingo.
Faceoff Winning Percentage
Nashville Predators: 53.0% (3rd)
Winnipeg Jets: 52.4% (5th)
Boston Bruins: 50.6% (t-11th)
Tampa Bay Lightning: 48.0% (27th)
Nashville and Winnipeg are plenty capable in the dot, and Boston has Patrice Bergeron, so they're fine, too. Tampa Bay, though, is one of the NHL's weakest teams in the faceoff circle. It's not a fatal flaw, but it's another strike against the Lightning. (That's the worst pun in the blog. Promise.)
Winning Percentage When Trailing After Second Period
Tampa Bay Lightning: .296 (1st)
Boston Bruins: .240 (3rd)
Nashville Predators: .217 (5th)
Winnipeg Jets: .136 (t-18th)
A team's ability to rally from a late deficit and emerge with a win is a requisite trait for Cup contenders. As you can see by the winning percentages above, nobody in the league has truly mastered the art of the comeback, but the Lightning are No. 1 and they're joined in the top five by the Bruins and Predators. The Jets, meanwhile, haven't been as successful in digging themselves out of a hole, winning only three of 22 games in which they trailed entering the third period.
Winning Percentage When Scoring First
Tampa Bay Lightning: .829 (1st)
Nashville Predators: .792 (7th)
Boston Bruins: .784 (8th)
Winnipeg Jets: .767 (10th)
Good teams score first and hold on to the lead en route to victory. Everybody passes this test, especially the Lightning who have proven lethal when they open the scoring.
Winning Percentage When Opponent Scores First
Boston Bruins: .487 (1st)
Tampa Bay Lightning: .472 (2nd)
Nashville Predators: .414 (6th)
Winnipeg Jets: .412 (t-7th)
Good teams come back when their opponent scores first, and retake the lead en route to victory. It's not as easy to do, of course, but everybody passes this test, too, with the nearly .500 Bruins and Lightning the most impressive.