Last week, while catching up on the various hockey blogs and columns that I read, I came upon this gem from Ross McKeon of Yahoo! Sports.
"Chicago and San Jose are the class of not only the West but of the league. Everyone else in the West is a Stanley Cup pretender, but six of those pretenders will get into the postseason tourney. Buffalo and New Jersey have splashy records in the East, but no way do they hold up through even three rounds of the playoffs. Washington is not built for winning a Cup, at least not prior to the deadline. Pittsburgh is, and the Penguins are the East’s only hope before the roster reshuffling otherwise known as the trade deadline." (The link can be found here.)
After my initial reaction of sarcastically, wondering why we should even bother with the rest of the season and playoffs instead of just putting the Blackhawks and Sharks on the ice for a best of 7, I got to thinking about who actually could be viable contenders for The Cup this year.
I've identified 5 teams in each conference that I believe have most of the pieces in place to be a legitimate possibility to win the Cup. None of the 10 teams are perfect however, and each has some key questions that could easily undermine their hopes.
This is in no way an in-depth analysis, just some quick observations on the season to date.
Starting in the West:
Cons: Have been inconsistent this year and may not make the playoffs; Have underachieved in post-season play with the exception of their run to the finals in 2004; Brent Sutter hasn't shown much coaching ability in the playoffs.
Pros: Balance -- relentless offensively, and good defensively; Get offensive production up and down the lineup; lessons learned from the loss to Detroit last year; additional leadership added by acquisition of John Madden.
Cons: Can Cristobal Huet get it done?
Pros: Experience; core of the two-time defending Western Conference championship team is intact; No fear; be honest -- if they get in as the 7th or 8th seed, would you really want to draw them in the first round?
Cons: Have been inconsistent this year and may not make the playoffs; injruies; goaltending is a major question mark.
Cons: Pressure and history -- San Jose has a long history of underachieving in the playoffs -- a 1-8, or 2-7 matchup against Detroit looms as a distinct possibility.
Pros: Offense is balanced, if not overpowering -- good secondary scoring; unheralded but talented defense; superstars Henrik Sedin and Roberto Luongo who are hungry and have something to prove on the big stage.
Cons: As good as they are, are they really good enough to overcome deeper, more explosive teams like Chicago and San Jose, or a more successful postseason team like Detroit?
And in the East:
Pros: As hardworking a team as there is in the NHL, very tough to play against; Ryan Miller; very good defensively in front of Miller.
Cons: Can they put up enough offense to make it through the playoffs?
Pros: Jacques Lemaire's experience behind the bench; good veteran leadership; Marty; ZZ Pops; this team is hungry to make amends for the disastrous ending against Carolina last year.
Cons: Specter of recent playoff failures; Marty hasn't looked like his usual self the last couple of playoffs; depth at center; can they generate enough secondary and powerplay scoring to support ZZ Pops?
Pros: Deep forward corps; top scorers have struggled, but they've got good balance; the leadership, experience, and nastiness of Chris Pronger on the blueline.
Cons: Can this team's best players step up and carry them in the playoffs? Can Ray Emery keep his head screwed on straight, and not self-destruct? Is Ray Emery the goalie who can finally answer the Flyers' age-old goalie dilemma? Can this team get past Pittsburgh if they meet again?
Cons: Can a younger group of defensemen hold up through the playoffs? Will they be able to muster the same level of emotion and intensity?
Pros: Ovechkin's skill and desire; relentless on the attack -- good secondary scoring behind Ovechkin and Backstrom;
Cons: Can they play championship caliber defense? Who's in goal, and will he be good enough to backstop a Cup run?
Prediction: The last four teams standing will be New Jersey and Washington in the East; and Detroit and Chicago in the West. Chicago will get by Detroit this year, while the Devils will (very unfortunately) lose a 7-game heartbreaker against the Caps. Chicago over Washington in 7 to win The Cup.