x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A battle of equals for NHL's Stanley Cup

There are a plethora of contenders for the NHL's top prize this season

The age of parity is alive and well in the NHL.

With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, seven teams can make a claim as the league's leading Stanley Cup contenders.

The Vancouver Canucks, the first team to 50 victories and the probable Presidents' Trophy winners as the best team in the regular season, would be right to consider themselves a half-stride ahead of the pack. But the season-ending injury suffered by Manny Malhotra, their checking-line centre, as well as the concussion to Dan Hamhuis, their top defenceman, will challenge the team's depth.

And, of course, there is the question of Roberto Luongo's ability to win in the heat of the play-offs. Until the goalie and the Canucks prove themselves in the post-season, doubt will remain.

In the East, the same question haunts the Philadelphia Flyers that spooked them in last season's cup final — and the 20 years before that. Their goaltending is the great unknown. They have entrusted the crease to Sergei Bobrovsky, a rookie who was brilliant early but has worn down over the course of a six-month season.

Bobrovsky has shown a propensity to be streaky; if he gets on a roll, all is well, but if things slide, it is another Flyers obituary.

And really, that is how it reads for the rest, too. They are very good teams, with evident deficiencies.

The Washington Capitals can score, but their indifference to defence is growing legendary. Plus, Alex Ovechkin is nursing a nagging injury, and they've got a three-headed goaltending monster — between semi-proven Semyon Varlamov and youngsters Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, you never know who is going to start from one day.

The Detroit Red Wings have been the league's gold standard for 20 years, but they are a veteran team and have battled injuries all season. Never count out the Wings, but it is also hard to rely on a team on the limp.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, despite the season-ending loss of Evgeni Malkin and the continued absence of Sidney Crosby, have been able to remain among the East's elite. But can any team be expected to win after losing arguably the two best players in the world?

Perhaps, then, it will come down to the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks.

The Bruins have offensive punch, great goaltending and heaps of motivation after blowing a 3-0 series lead in last year's East final. The Sharks, meanwhile, have bided their time as a contenders who could not win in the play-offs, finally shaking that reputation last spring and then swimming under the radar this season.

It would make for a great final, and solve that age-old Bruins v Sharks argument, besides.

 

sports@thenational.ae