After about three weeks of representing their countries in Sochi, the best hockey players in the world are finally returning to their professional clubs. While the Olympics provide an exciting change of pace to the sometimes monotonous 82-game NHL season, both fans and players are undoubtedly ready to get back into the swing of things with just 24 or 25 games remaining for each team. For some clubs, the 2013-2014 regular season looks as though it’s already in the books, with teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks all but assured a spot in the playoffs and others like the lowly Buffalo Sabres stuck firmly at the bottom of the standings, looking towards the summer to rebuild and reorganize. The majority of the league, however, is somewhere in the middle, right in the thick of the playoff race as we head down the final stretch.
If there were one team to challenge the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the East it is most certainly the Boston Bruins – the team that swept the Penguins in four games in the conference finals last season to abruptly halt what looked to be yet another Stanley Cup run for Sidney Crosby’s bunch. This year, the Bruins have made a few changes after falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup final last summer, but they have a very similar look overall and will once again likely ride the play of goaltender Tuukka Rask deep into the playoffs. With Pittsburgh blowing competition out of the water the way it is, we may very well see a rematch of last year’s conference final between them and Boston, though there are a number of other Eastern teams capable of throwing their names into the Stanley Cup conversation as well.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs are just a few teams talented enough to get in the way of another Pens-B’s matchup. The Lightning in particular are an extremely exciting and intriguing team, as they have racked up 71 points through 58 games – good for third best in the conference – largely without the services of one of the game’s best players, Steven Stamkos, who went down with a broken leg in early November. Once Stamkos returns in early March, barring any setbacks, the already powerful Lightning offense will get an enormous boost and will be one of the most dangerous squads come playoff time. Pleasant surprises Montreal and Toronto could also be dangerous if they manage to hang on and make the postseason. At 32-21-6, the Canadiens have relied heavily on offense provided by forward Max Pacioretty and defenseman P.K. Subban, but there are no signs that either player will slow down his production this spring. In Toronto, however, things look a little shakier. Though they have one of the NHL’s best lines in Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, they also allow a league-high 36.2 shots per game, and are mostly in the position that they are due to goaltender Jonathan Bernier’s 1,339 saves. While the other contenders will certainly have something to say before the season is over, Pittsburgh just looks too strong and well-rounded to stop, and I see them representing the East in the Cup Final for the first time since 2009.
Out West there are a number of teams who will be battling it out to the bitter end to win the conference, as five teams – the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks – all have more points than the Eastern Conference’s second place Bruins. Though the Ducks’ record is the best in the league and the Blackhawks and Sharks are far more accustomed to the pressures of being a top team, to me the right pick in the West at this point has to be the Blues. It makes sense, as the team frankly has zero holes on its roster. They boast a grand total of nine players who played in Sochi in the Olympics, five players with at least 41 points, three defenseman with at least 30 points, two different goaltenders with 15-plus wins and a sub 2.30 GAA, the conference’s best penalty kill and an overall team goal differential of +61, which is tops in the league. Their 84 points are just three less than the Duck’s NHL-leading 87 points, and they have played three fewer games and face a less-than-daunting schedule the rest of the way. Still, it would be na??ve to write off the 35-11-14 Blackhawks, the Ducks and the Sharks, as all three are more than talented enough to make St. Louis’s life difficult. In the end though, the Blues will be the team to beat in the West, and I predict that they will work their way smoothly and methodically through the post-season to a date with the Penguins in the Cup final.
Contact Ben Glassman at [email protected]