x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Contenders to the NHL throne

As many as 10 teams have a legitimate chance of winning this year's Stanley Cup, writes Sam McCaig.

Sidney Crosby's return marks the Pittsburgh Penguins as one of the favourites in the play-offs. Justin K Aller / Getty Images
Sidney Crosby's return marks the Pittsburgh Penguins as one of the favourites in the play-offs. Justin K Aller / Getty Images

After six months and 1,230 games, the NHL's regular season is over and the real season finally begins. Sixteen teams survived the October to April marathon and have earned a berth in the play-offs and a shot at the Stanley Cup.

That much we know for certain. After that, everything is up in the air. Trying to identify a favourite - or even five favourites - is nearly impossible. There are at least 10 legitimate contenders, including most of the clubs in the West and the top half of the East.

In fact, only three play-off teams - the Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators and Phoenix Coyotes - would truly surprise as NHL champions. Everyone else has to be considered contenders.

In the West, the Vancouver Canucks and the St Louis Blues battled for first place throughout the second half of the regular season.

The difference between the two is that the Canucks have been a top-flight team for several years (they made it to Game 7 of the cup final last season) while the Blues have qualified for the play-offs just once since the 2004/05 lockout.

The Canucks are a star-studded, veteran powerhouse; the Blues are up-and-comers who play stingy defence. Vancouver do it with skill and finesse; St Louis are physical and relentless.

Who are better? Take the Canucks if you believe they are motivated to make up for last year's disappointing ending; take the Blues if you believe in their top-to-bottom depth, defensive diligence and Ken Hitchcock's coaching. The Pittsburgh Penguins did not win the East - the New York Rangers did - but the return of Sidney Crosby has elevated the Pens to elite status. Pittsburgh are loaded at every position and can win on skill alone. The Boston Bruins, the champions, the Rangers, and the Philadelphia Flyers - Pittsburgh's first-round opponents - join the Penguins as East heavyweights.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings will make sure that neither the Canucks nor the Blues have an easy way in the West.

The Wings have been the NHL's flagship franchise for nearly 20 years and they return with a strong line-up. The Preds rely on rock-solid team defence led by the pairing of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber as well as Pekka Rinne's sparkling goaltending.

The Sharks, Blackhawks and Kings might be a half step behind the best of the West, but all three are plenty capable of claiming conference supremacy.

The second tier in the East includes the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals. Certainly, they boast the skill and depth to win the conference. But they have holes, too, such as New Jersey's sometimes spotty goaltending - Martin Brodeur turns 40 in May, after all - and Washington's inability to be the sum of their parts.

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