16 Teams, 4 Rounds, 1 Cup: The road to the Stanley Cup

With the NHL Playoffs underway, 16 teams will vie for the Stanley Cup in a grueling two-month tournament, which is considered by many to be the most exciting in sports.  Unlike the NBA, the NHL playoffs are extremely unpredictable due to the greater level of parity between teams and the greater focus on complete team efforts rather than that of individual players. Each year, the teams that survive the Stanley Cup Playoffs provide the greatest all-around performance in every facet of the game, while limiting physical and mental mistakes. This season has seen an imbalance between the East and West conferences in terms of Cup contending teams.

Out West, six teams realistically have a chance at hoisting the cup come June. Leading the pack is the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks have put together another solid season, yet their dominance in the conference has been significantly diminished.

The other top teams out West have closed the gap between themselves and Chicago, and it appears as if Chicago’s less than stellar goaltending will finally catch up with them. Don’t expect a repeat performance from the Hawks.

The west is also home to two young, up and coming teams, the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche. What both teams lack in experience they make up for with immense talent and exceptional coaching. The Blues are led by Americans David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk, among others. Expect a deep playoff run by the Blues, who are hot entering the playoffs and have the depth to beat anyone.

One man to watch out for on Colorado is 18 year old Nathan Mackinnon. Mackinnon is an exceptional skater with immense vision; he will be a household name sooner rather than later.

Next we have a match up of perennial cup contenders in the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. Both teams are blessed with elite goaltenders, a necessity for teams hoping to make a deep playoff run. Expect an upset win by San Jose and don’t be surprised if they end up making it out of the west.

The Sharks are led by aging veterans and future hall of famers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who understand this may be their last chance at capturing a Cup that has eluded them for their entire careers.

Lastly we have the Anaheim Ducks, an offensive juggernaut led by MVP candidate Ryan Getzlaf. The Ducks finished with the Wests’ best record but have dealt with goaltending trouble all season. Coach Bruce Boudreau has decided to start rookie Frederick Andersen, who has less than 30 games of NHL experience in place of starter Jonas Hiller. Expect this to cause the Ducks trouble down the stretch.

On the other hand, the Eastern Conference has a more limited group of possible contenders, led by the heavily favored Boston Bruins. The Bruins lack a clear superstar forward but have a very strong group up front and are always a threat to score. Manning the blue line is veteran defenseman Zdeno Chara. The NHL’s tallest and most feared player plays significant minutes for the Bruins and is always an imposing figure to opponents. In net, the Bruins have the year’s best goalie Tuukka Rask, who will be itching to avenge last season’s Cup loss to Chicago.

Next up, we have the Pittsburgh Penguins, a perennial playoff team led by superstar forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The pair led the Penguins to a Cup back in 2009 and will be hungry for revenge after being embarrassed by Boston in last year’s playoffs. The bounce-back season by goalie Marc André-Fleury gives the Penguins hope moving forward but questions remain about whether the team is well-rounded enough to take down Boston.

Lastly, we have the New York Rangers, who struggled earlier this season, but have since adjusted to first year coach Alain Vigneault’s new style and been one of the best teams since the turn of the new year. Led by young, shutdown defenseman Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers have had one of the best defenses all season, and their offense is following suit since the acquisition of playmaking forward Martin St. Louis. Superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist possesses the ability to take over any game at any moment, making the Rangers a very dangerous team moving forward.

Out West, I expect St. Louis to move onto the final. The Blues have four solid lines and a talented core of young defenseman. With the acquisition of Ryan Miller at the deadline, the Blues have put the pieces together to make it all the way. In the east, I expect Boston to prevail so long as they play the way they have all season long. The Bruins have great experience and leadership, and always seem to limit their mistakes when it counts. Come the finals, expect the most complete team to win it all.  All bets looks like Boston could take the cup over St. Louis.