Four nights from now, the last second of the last game of the 2011-12 NHL regular season will tick away. That night will complete the last meaningful game for months for over 300 NHL players.
But for many of those who play on, merely making it is not good enough. Only eight teams play into the month of May, and only four remain after Mother’s Day. These are the teams that matter. They made it at least half way there.
Are the identity of these teams sometimes hidden from view with five nights of games still to play? Absolutely.
Over the last eight seasons, one of the teams in the Stanley Cup Finals alone has made it there despite starting lower than the fifth seed. But they never have won. Teams go on Cinderella runs all the time, but the clock eventually strikes midnight.
Thus, if I had to put my faith in any five teams, I would believe one of these five will win Lord Stanley’s Cup in June:
- Pittsburgh: Though the Penguins will go in as a fourth seed, they have experience winning from there. This team is better than their season average because of the return of Sidney Crosby as well as other injured players.
- Predators: Nashville is another non-division winner that is best in its conference. The Predators have arguably the best blue line pair in the world, one of the three best goalies two years running, and incredible forward depth. Their lack of a strong first line is more than made up for in team discipline and hunger…someone major is likely to be lost this summer.
- New York: The Rangers are for real. Their better than anticipated blue line play has finally bridged the gap between their top-tier forwards and goaltender.
- Boston: The Bruins are essentially the same team as last year’s champion. Their goaltending is not the same, but Tim Thomas might have one more run in him and he does not even have to play as well as he did last year.
- Los Angeles: The Kings became everything they wanted to be out of the Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter trade. Since then, they are averaging 3.15 goals and still giving up only 1.84 per game while amassing a 13-5-1 record..they are the conference contenders they were supposed to be before the season started.
So the obvious question is, “Where are the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers, all scheduled to finish top-5 in their conference and top 10 in the league?” Each merits its own explanation, and here they are in the order of likelihood they squeeze their way in:
- Vancouver Canucks: This team has the talent, but there are two reasons to believe that the longer the playoffs go, the less likely they will be at their best. They travel more than any team in the league, and could face brutal itineraries in the playoffs. Also, count me among those who doubts they have the character it takes to win the hardest trophy in all of sports—the link details many reasons why. Add this to their drop-off in goaltending this season and they are not a good back to repeat as conference champions.
- St. Louis Blues: Since Ken Hitchcock was hired, no NHL team has been better. They play suffocating defence with two good goaltenders, possess experience and depth up front and have the best home record in hockey. Trouble is, once they played on the road down the stretch, they lost enough to be facing four road games by the conference finals. That is potential trouble, but the reality is that teams that have not been to the playoffs in the last two seasons rarely win their conference, much less the Cup.
- Philadelphia Flyers: Ilya Bryzgalov is not the answer. Had the Flyers asked me, they could have avoided hitching their wagon to a horse that can carry the load in the regular season but not his team in the playoffs. The last time Ilya beat the San Jose Sharks was 2009 because he could not shut down the top team in front of them. Had he gotten them half of those games, they win the Pacific Division both years. His playoff record with Phoenix is not great, either—he does not win the big games. True, he will have more support in Philadelphia than he did in Phoenix, but they do not have the skating talent they have in years past and will face other teams whose goalies can rise up for their teams better.