When it comes to competition in the NHL, there is no greater equalizer than the month of October. Each fall, all 30 teams have a clean slate, a revamped roster and a new opportunity to prove their worth and begin their quest for the Stanley Cup.
Some teams come out flying, some start off sluggish and others are just consistently inconsistent. Come Christmas time, there are usually a couple of teams already looking forward to next October, but most of them still have their sights set on the post-season. It isn’t until around the trade deadline in March that there’s some separation in the standings and the contenders begin to distance themselves from the pretenders.
With only about a month remaining in the 2013/14 season, there are still more than 20 teams with a legitimate shot at making the playoffs – and close to a dozen who have the potential to make some noise once they get there. Of those dozen, there are a handful that truly have what it takes to go the distance.
Here are the top 5 teams with a legitimate shot at winning the 2014 Stanley Cup. The teams were ranked according to the odds of them winning the Stanley Cup by VegasInsider.com.
5. Boston Bruins, 7/1 Odds
A season ago, the Boston Bruins were minutes away from forcing a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals when they allowed two quick goals to the Chicago Blackhawks and watched their chance to repeat as league champions disappear. If there’s a silver lining to last year’s loss, however, it’s that some of the team’s youngsters acquired the valuable experience that can only be obtained by a long and painful playoff run.
With less than 20 games remaining in the season, the Bruins currently sit in second place in the Eastern Conference (42-17-5 with 89 points in 64 games), are fourth in the NHL in goals-for (3.16 per game) and second in goals against (2.19 per game). They also have the fourth best power play (21.1 per cent), the 12th best penalty kill (82.9 per cent) and the fourth best face-off percentage (52.2 per cent).
Add that to the fact that the Bruins roster is largely similar – if not a bit deeper – than last year, and Boston once again has a good chance of emerging as the Beast of the East. In addition to familiar faces like David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Tuukaa Rask, the Bruins lineup now includes the likes of Jarome Iginla, Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith and Andrej Meszaros.
4. Anaheim Ducks, 13/2 Odds
Currently second overall in the NHL with 93 points through 65 games, the Ducks appear poised to rebound from their disappointing first-round playoff exit a season ago (a seven-game series loss against the Detroit Red Wings). Coming off Olympic gold medal performances with Team Canada, offensive leaders Corey Perry (35 goals and 31 assists in 65 games) and Ryan Getzlaf (29 goals and 42 assists in 61 games) are both enjoying their most productive seasons in years and are in the top five in league scoring. Starting goaltender Jonas Hiller is also having a spectacular season, with a 26-9-6 record, a 2.28 GAA, a .917 save percentage and five shutouts.
While Anaheim’s supporting cast may not be as deep as some teams – particularly in the Western Conference – they do have some difference-makers beyond their top line. Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano and Matthieu Perrault all have at least 30 points this season, and Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne bring 185 games of playoff experience between them. The Ducks also have one of the most balanced defence corps in the NHL, led by the offensive-minded Cam Fowler and the ever-steady Francois Beauchemin; with trade deadline pickup Stephane Robidas close to returning from a broken leg, their blue line will be even better.
If the Ducks hope to go the distance this post-season, however, their special teams will need to improve; their power play is currently clicking at a rate of only 17 per cent (18th in the NHL) and their penalty killing efficiency is 82.7 per cent (13th in the NHL).
3. Pittsburgh Penguins, 6/1 Odds
Unlike the Ducks, special teams have been one of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ greatest strengths this season. Ranked No. 1 in the NHL on both the power play (25.6 per cent) and penalty kill (86.9 per cent), the Pens are currently sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference with 90 points through 64 games. Even more impressive than the team’s 43-17-4 record, however, is their ability to overcome serious injuries to Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Pascal Dupuis and James Neal.
While centers Sidney Crosby (30 goals and 57 assists in 64 games) and Evgeni Malkin (19 goals and 46 assists in 53 games) are typically having outstanding seasons, players like Chris Kunitz and Jussi Jokinen have also played a huge role in Pittsburgh’s success. The emergence of defensemen Matt Niskanen and rookie Olli Maataa has also helped, and the deadline acquisitions of forwards Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc will only make the team stronger.
If there is one question for the Penguins heading into this year’s playoffs it is whether 29-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury will be able to rebound from last season’s embarrassing effort, when he struggled in the first round against the New York Islanders and was ultimately replaced by Tomas Vokoun as the team’s starter. With a record of 33-14-3, a 2.31 GAA, a .916 save percentage and four shutouts this season, Fleury appears to have rediscovered his game, but – as he knows all too well – the playoffs are a whole different animal.
2. Chicago Blackhawks, 11/2 Odds
As the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks entered the 2013/14 season as the team to beat. With a record of 38-13-14 and 90 points through 65 games, they still may be.
While the Hawks haven’t been quite as dominant as they were in last year’s lockout-shortened season (36-7-5), they have looked unstoppable at times, seemingly scoring at will (first in the NHL with 3.35 goals per game). Patrick Kane (28 goals and 38 assists in 64 games) and captain Jonathan Toews (25 goals and 37 assists in 65 games) have once again led the charge, but forwards Patrick Sharp (63 points in 65 games) and Marian Hossa (50 points in 57 games), and defenseman Duncan Keith (50 points in 64 games) have also had outstanding offensive seasons. Add to that core group the skill of players like Brandon Saad and Kris Versteeg, the grit of guys like Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell and the leadership of Brent Seabrook and Michal Handzus, and Chicago may just have the deepest roster in the NHL.
If there is one concern in Chicago it is the team’s inability – at times – to keep the puck out of its own net. While the Blackhawks have grown accustomed to winning games by outscoring their opponents, playoff games are typically much tighter and defenses much stingier. Ranked 11th in the NHL in goals against (2.52 per game) and 19th on the penalty kill (81.1 per cent), Chicago will have to pay more attention to detail in their own end if they hope to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
1. St. Louis Blues, 9/2 Odds
If Chicago is the team to beat entering this year’s playoffs, recent history shows that the St. Louis Blues may just be the team to do it; in three meetings with the Blackhawks so far this season, the Blues have won all three. They have also managed to beat a lot of other teams, going an NHL-best 44-14-6 with 94 points in 64 games.
While St. Louis may lack the superstars that make up the rosters of Chicago, Anaheim and Pittsburgh, the team has four solid forward lines, a full stable of reliable defensemen and arguably the best goaltending tandem in the NHL. And with the emergence of players like Alex Steen (29 goals and 21 assists in 53 games), T.J. Oshie (16G and 34A in 64 GP), Jaden Schwartz (19G and 29A in 62 GP) and David Backes (21G and 24G in 59GP), it’s not like the Blues are wanting for offense.
Add to that the conscientious coaching of Ken Hitchcock and the grinding, puck-possession style the team’s big, physical forwards like to play, and it’s difficult to imagine the Blues losing four of seven games to any one team. If there’s a team St. Louis will have to beware of, however, it is the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who knocked the Blues out of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons (first round in 2013 and second round in 2012) and have already beaten them twice this year. But with newcomers Ryan Miller and Steve Ott in the lineup come playoff time, you can bet the Blues are counting on going further in 2014. And based on what we’ve seen so far this season, it will be nearly impossible for the Kings – or anyone else – to stop them.