One Timers

Will the Real Stanley Cup Contenders Please Step Forward?

Identifying the true Stanley Cup contenders is a simpler task after the All-Star break. Just ask Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who is getting a look at two of the select few in his first two games backs from the break.

A combination of the Los Angeles Kings’ firepower and mistakes of their own making overwhelmed the Coyotes in a 6-2 loss on Tuesday at Gila River Arena. Now Arizona will host the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday.

“There was just an urgency and a pace to L.A.’s game that they said we’re coming out of the break and starting to get ramped up for the stretch drive,” Tippett said. “That’s a veteran team where you can tell they remembered what happened the week before when we beat them and they remember what it takes at this time of year.

“It was a good lesson for us to learn that it’s time to ramp it up. You’re not going to catch anybody off their game this time of year — especially these two teams.”

Two months into the NHL season, you would have had a hard time whittling the list of Cup contenders to eight teams. The New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens were off to torrid starts, five teams in the Central Division were challenging the Blackhawks’ supremacy and the Capitals and Kings boasted rosters built for the postseason.

While the Rangers and Canadiens have fallen off their early pace and the West has separated into two distinct divisions, a pair of familiar contenders has surged to the fore while a sentimental pick has proven to be the NHL’s most consistent club through the first four months of the season.

As the league begins its post-All-Star sprint to the finish line, we break down the favorites, contenders and dark horses in the race for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

FAVORITES

Washington Capitals

What we like:

Goaltender Braden Holtby: Holtby has played at a Vezina Trophy level all season, and that has long been a missing ingredient in the Capitals’ past playoff failures. Entering Monday’s games, Holtby was first in the NHL in wins (30), fifth in goals against average (2.07) and tied for seventh in save percentage (0.929).

Terrific special teams: Washington’s power play continues to lead the league at 25.3 percent. More importantly, its penalty-killing unit is seventh at 83.8 percent. It can be dangerous to become overly reliant on special teams in the postseason, but the penalty kill is normally a good barometer of playoff success.

What concerns us:

High PDO, mediocre Corsi For: Per war-on-ice.com, the Capitals have the second highest PDO in the NHL at 102.3 and a mediocre Corsi For percentage of 50.6, which ranks 14th in the NHL. Part of that PDO can be explained by Holtby’s sparkling save percentage, but the Caps’ 10.67 shooting percentage tops the league. Is Washington a regression waiting to happen or have the Caps displayed enough consistency in all phases of their game to erase those concerns?

History: The Caps have only advanced as far as the conference final twice. They were swept by Boston in the 1990 conference final and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 where they were swept by Detroit. It’s an astounding fact when you consider how many good teams the Caps have iced with eight division titles and eight seasons of 100-plus points. Is there more at work than bad luck?

Chicago Blackhawks

What we like: 

Goaltender Corey Crawford: It might be time to make Crawford the clubhouse leader for the Vezina Trophy. He plays behind a blue line that really only runs three deep, yet he is first in shutouts (7), second in wins (29), fourth in save percentage (0.931) and seventh in goals against average (2.11). If you think you can beat the Blackhawks by having your goaltender out-duel theirs you’d better think again.

Playoff savvy: The Blackhawks know what to do when the games turn meaningful in April and May. If not for a fluky bounce against the Kings in Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference Final, the Hawks could be chasing a three-peat and a fifth Cup in their last seven seasons. It’s hard to match that level of experience and poise.

What concerns us:

The blue line: The loss of cap casualty Johnny Oduya in free agency is still haunting the Hawks. Their top three defensemen — Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson — are all averaging better than 22 minutes per game and they’re still rock-solid, but can they log heavy minutes for a second straight postseason? Can Chicago really rely on aging veterans Michal Rozsival and Rob Scuderi and youngsters Trevor van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustaffson, or does GM Stan Bowman have another deadline move up his sleeve?

Missing a top-six wing: The Hawks clearly miss cap casualty Brandon Saad. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville has tried a variety of players alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa with mixed results. Andrew Shaw has had some success there but still fits better on the club’s third line. The simple fact is that line isn’t producing as much as it will need to in the postseason. Perhaps Marko Dano will be ready to return to the NHL for the postseason. Perhaps they’ll give Bryan Bickell yet another chance to justify his bloated contract or maybe this is where Chicago will add a piece for the stretch run.

Los Angeles Kings

What we like:

Possession, possession, possession: The Kings’ Corsi For percentage of 56.2 is far and away the best in the NHL. This has long been a hallmark of L.A.’s success (as it should be for most teams). Shots don’t equate directly to possession, but they still correlate and when you watch L.A., it is clear the Kings are on their possession game.

Defending: The Kings’ 2.26 goals against average is tops in the Western Conference and their penalty-killing unit has been solid enough at 82.8 percent (10th in the NHL) to make scoring against L.A. a tough task. The Kings also take a league-high 54.6 percent of their faceoffs in the offensive zone — a sure sign that they are defending less due to their withering forecheck and the aforementioned possession game.

What concerns us:

Like Chicago, that blue line: The Kings still haven’t replaced Slava Voynov. It’s a testament to their forwards that they are still defending so well. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun raised the possibility of GM Dean Lombardi swinging a deal for Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien. If that somehow happens, it’s hard to crown anyone but the Kings because they have almost all the other necessary ingredients.

Speed: When L.A. has looked susceptible this season, it has been because of their relative lack of foot speed. The Kings are not slow, but they don’t play at the pace of some of the Central Division or Eastern Conference teams. That may not matter until the deeper rounds of the playoffs, but if they run into Chicago in the Western Conference Finals, that will be an angle to watch.

 

(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

CONTENDERS

Tampa Bay Lightning

What we like:

Ben Bishop: We know we keep citing goaltenders, but Bishop is still one of the more underrated goalies in the league. He is second in the NHL in goals against average (2.02) and 10th in save percentage (0.926). The Lightning draw a lot of attention because of their offensive talent, but goaltending is the rock on which that offense is built.

So fast: If the Lightning had boasted a little more playoff savvy, they might have taken Chicago a little deeper in last year’s Finals. Tampa actually outscored Chicago in the series and held a 2-1 series lead before the offense dried up and Chicago’s experience took over. This team is so much fun to watch when it is pushing the pace.

What concerns us:

Scoring balance: This was never a concern in past years and the Lightning’s recent signs of life may dispel this notion by the time the playoffs arrive, but Tampa has just three players who have reached 10 goals this season and is 14th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.61.

The Stamkos distraction: Steven Stamkos’ future has been hanging over the Lightnings’ heads the entire season. We may be overstating the impact, but it can’t be easy when rampant speculation has your captain moving on when the season ends. We doubt Jonathan Drouin’s equally tenuous situation has had as much of an effect, but Tampa sure has had their distractions as they try to repeat as Eastern Conference champs.

New York Rangers

What we like:

Henrik Lundqvist: This hasn’t been Lundqvist’s best season but he’s no slouch either, with a 0.921 save percentage. We can’t think of a guy more capable of wiping the regular-season slate clean and turning it up a notch in the postseason than Lundqvist. As long as he’s between the pipes, the Rangers have a shot.

Experience: New York has advanced to the conference final three of the past four years and made it to the Cup Finals in 2014. The Rangers know their way around the postseason.

What concerns us:

Possession: What happened to the Rangers? The cast is basically the same and yet their Corsi For is 21st in the league at 47.9 percent despite starting 51.3 percent of their faceoffs in the offensive zone. The Rangers also have an exceedingly high PDO of 102.5 — tops in the league. We wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rangers go out in the first round — or make a deep run.

A closed window: Did the Rangers miss their opportunity? All those deep playoff runs without a Cup may have taken their toll on the bodies and morale of this roster. If New York bows out early this season, might we see major changes?

Dallas Stars

What we like:

That top line: What’s not to like about Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp? They’ve combined for 71 goals and 153 points. The only line in the NHL that can rival this one is Chicago’s trio of Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov.

L.A.-like possession: The Stars’ Corsi For percentage of 52.9 is fifth in the NHL and they start 52.6 percent of their faceoffs in the offensive zone (3rd). Their plus-14 goal differential in 5-on-5 is the fourth best in the league and their overall goal differential of plus-31 is the best in the Western Conference..

What concerns us:

Scoring balance: What happens when the Seguin-Benn-Sharp line runs into an effective shutdown line in the postseason? Do the Stars have enough scoring depth to withstand any kind of slump by their top trio?

Defending: Dallas isn’t a terrible defending team, but they’re also not a good one. The team’s 2.63 goals against average is tied for 16th in the NHL and their 0.909 save percentage ranks 20th. Take a look at the last six Cup winners. All of them finished in the league’s top five in goals against average.

St. Louis Blues

What we like:

That hard, heavy game: St. Louis is a royal pain to play. Even if you survive, you pay for it against their big, heavy players. The effort is rarely lacking for the Blues.

Vladimir Tarasenko: Like Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Chicago’s Patrick Kane, we could watch Tarasenko play all night. Electric players make the game go round, and none is more electric than the Blues’ 24-year-old Russian forward, who is 12th in the NHL in points (46) and tied for fifth in goals with 25.

What concerns us:

Scoring: Put simply, we still don’t believe the Blues have enough of it to survive the postseason. Their 2.77 goals per game rank 19th in the league and a look up and down their lineup makes you wonder what happens if Tarasenko and Alex Steen aren’t scoring a lot.

Playoff failure: St. Louis has won one playoff series in the past 12 seasons. It’s an issue until it’s no longer an issue, but that long of a stretch has to weigh on a team’s psyche.

 (Photo by Philippe Bouchard/Icon Sportswire)

DARK HORSES

New York Islanders

What we like:

The blue line: Any defensive corps that features a top four of Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan looks pretty good to us. There’s still some youth and some growth needed on that back end, but we like the Isles’ grit, puck-moving ability and defensive coverage.

Best fourth line in hockey? Nobody wants to scrap with Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck can get under people’s skin with the best of him, and Casey Cizikas completes the Islanders’ enviable depth up the middle. This is no ordinary energy line. All three guys can play and contribute (they have 19 combined goals and 37 points).

What concerns us:

Goaltending: Can Jaroslav Halak ever recapture the magic that led Montreal on a deep playoff run years ago? Is Thomas Greiss really ready to step in if he can’t?

1993: That’s the last time the Islanders won a playoff series, a run of 23 years and eight straight playoff series losses. We think the Islanders have a lot of the necessary elements for playoff success. We’re just not sure the Islanders know this yet. New York GM Garth Snow’s smartest move at the deadline might be to look for some veteran playoff experience.

Anaheim Ducks

What we like:

Ryan squared: We know Ryan Getzlaf can’t score to save his life this season, and we know Ryan Kesler’s production has also slipped, much like the rest of this roster, but the Ducks are showing signs of life and this big duo up the middle still makes for a formidable matchup in the postseason.

Defending better: Anaheim’s 2.31 goals against per game rank sixth in the NHL. Coupled with the Ducks’ scoring woes, that tells us Anaheim’s forwards are really helping out goalie John Gibson and a less-than stellar blue line.

What concerns us:

That anemic offense: It’s more like we don’t get it. With this lineup, there’s no excuse for the Ducks to have a league-worst 2.13 goals per game.

The aforementioned blue line: The Ducks lost Francois Beauchemin in the offseason and replaced him with Kevin Bieksa. Virtually nobody realized just how far gone Bieksa’s game was when he arrived. Outside of Sami Vatanen, the Ducks are decidedly unimpressive on the back end.

Florida Panthers

What we like:

The Panthers pluck: Nobody, repeat – nobody, expected Florida to be leading the Atlantic Division by seven points. The Panthers have nine players with nine or more goals. That’s balance and that will help you win in the postseason.

Jaromir Jagr: Jagr has 15 goals and 34 points at age 43. We seriously hope he becomes the second NHL player ever to play at age 50. He is already the 10th oldest player ever to play.

What concerns us:

The underlying numbers: Florida’s possession stats are among the worst in the league. Their Corsi For percentage of 48 ranks 25th and their offensive zone starts percentage of 47.6 ranks 27th. A league-high 0.927 save percentage is keeping the Panthers afloat. Can 36-year-old Roberto Luongo keep it up?

Playoff inexperience: Jagr, Luongo and Brian Campbell have it. The rest of the Panthers’ key players? Not so much. Jonathan Huberbeau, Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Brandon Pirri and Nick Bjugstad have never played in an NHL playoff game.

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