Sixteen wins. This is what it takes to win the hardest trophy in sports. Although regular season success is often used by analysts to predict post-season play, only one President’s Trophy winner has taken home the Stanley Cup this decade, the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks. Sometimes, the wear and tear of an 82-game regular season proves to be too much. The team which raises the cup in June must have enough mental and physical resolve, and undoubtedly some luck, to power itself through two months of grueling hockey. Below are the five teams that have the personnel and coaching to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Some would call this the safe, perhaps easy pick. However, Tampa Bay won the President’s Trophy, equaling the 1995-96 Red Wings’ record of 62 wins for a reason. The forward trio of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point each scored at least 40 goals, and combined for 318 points, with Kucherov leading the way at 128. Even when they had off nights defensively, which was not often, opponents simply struggled to match the Lightning’s offensive prowess. Add to the mix a leading Vezina Trophy candidate in Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Tampa Bay has all the tools to contend for the Cup, barring any injuries to star players.
2. Boston Bruins
Because of the NHL’s current division-based playoff format, one of the league’s top two regular season teams will not advance past the second round. However, if there is a team in the East that can challenge Tampa Bay, it is the Bruins. With a mix of veterans and youth, the Bruins play solid hockey on both sides of the puck. The line of Brad Marchand, young superstar David Pastrnak, and perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron has been exceptionally productive. Offensively gifted defenseman Torey Krug had a career season with 53 points, with players such as Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Zdeno Chara rounding out a blue line that tied for third in the league in goals against average. Jaroslav Halak and Tukka Rask are one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL, with a .922 and .912 save percentage respectively. A Bruins-Lightning second round matchup appears imminent, with the winner in a strong position to win the Stanley Cup.
3. Washington Capitals
The defending champions appear to be peaking at the right time. After a stretch earlier this winter which saw their postseason prospects in jeopardy, the Capitals stormed back to take the Metropolitan Division. Captain Alexander Ovechkin has cemented himself as the greatest goal scorer of his generation, notching his eighth 50-goal season of his career. Forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie have all made impressive offensive contributions, and former Vezina-winning goaltender Braden Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season. Most of the team has Stanley Cup experience from last season. However, defense is a concern for the Capitals. They finished second to last in total goals allowed among playoff qualifying teams, which does not bode well in a matchup against high scoring teams such as Tampa Bay.
4. Calgary Flames
One of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season, Calgary soared to the top of the western conference this season. Led by the dynamic play of LW Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames scored 289 goals, tied for the most in the conference. They also posted an impressive +62 goal differential, second in the NHL only to Tampa Bay. Calgary has the offensive and defensive abilities to keep up with the best of the league. The team’s greatest weakness is its goaltending; starter David Rittich ranks 30th in save percentage at just .911. However the Flames seem to counter this by allowing fewer shots on goal than average.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
What may be considered a dark horse pick considering the Penguins narrowly qualified for the post season, their talent and experience should not be overlooked. Captain Sidney Crosby has superior leadership ability, and the experience of winning three cups. Along with fellow veteran Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh has a solid defensive core, which helped the team to a +32 goal differential. Matt Murray has the experience of backstopping the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups, at times flashing brilliance. Although they must run the gauntlet of several strong teams in the East, the Penguins have the players to compete with any team in a seven game series. ■
Joe Banish is a die-hard Red Wings fan who lives in the pro hockey vacuum of the Pacific Northwest. He also likes beating goalies high glove side, playing basketball, and cheering on his alma mater, Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @BanishJoe.