Glorious, glorious NHL season, oh how I have missed you. What once was empty now seems full — life has meaning again. It’s early and there are injuries and trades to come, but let’s get right into it and talk about Stanley Cup favorites, because predicting is more interesting than waiting and seeing.
The Boston Bruins won the Cup last year. They’re deep everywhere and have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, goalie Tim Thomas, holding down the fort in the net. Don’t expect a repeat; that hasn’t happened since the dynasty-era Red Wings won their second straight Cup in 1998. In fact, the Bruins aren’t even the favorites out east.
That honor goes to the Buffalo Sabres, who after a major overhaul are looking like contenders for the first time in years. Thanks to a rich, passionate new owner, the Sabres are spending big money for the first time in … ever? There’s quality all over this lineup.
That’s assuming that concussed Sidney Crosby and wonky-knee Evgeni Malkin aren’t healthy for the entire season. If they are able to come back and play at their all-star caliber level, the Pittsburgh Penguins have to be the Stanley Cup favorite. Those circumstances are unlikely, though.
Realistically, there are three other teams from the East who have a shot.
First are the Washington Capitals, who are regular season studs but blue cheese in the playoffs. You can’t count out any team with Alexander Ovechkin, but then again Ovechkin wasn’t playing like Ovechkin last season.
The Philadelphia Flyers made some strange decisions this offseason including dealing away two top players and bringing in one formerly-mulleted Penguins superstar in Jaromir Jagr. Still, the talent’s there, and they’ve got a legitimate goalie for the first time since 1999. The Flyers could certainly make some noise.
Lastly, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who improbably reached the Eastern Conference Finals last year, have a chance to play deep into the postseason again. They’re well-coached and highly-skilled, but are inconsistent and break down like a drug-addled diva at the worst times.
The Stanley Cup Finalist from the Western Conference last year was the Vancouver Canucks. They’re the Schwarzenegger of the league. If anything, they’re not emotional enough, except for franchise goaltender Roberto Luongo, who loses his shit way too often.
Speaking of well-oiled machines, the Detroit Red Wings are still rolling when everyone said they couldn’t keep it up. They haven’t missed the playoffs since 1990 and that’s not going to happen soon. Detroit is a perennial contender in the worst way.
Then there are the San Jose Sharks, who sometimes plays to the level of the Wings and Canucks but lack that same consistency, particularly in the playoffs. They’re shaking the choker rep after making the Conference Finals twice in a row. It’s time for the Sharks to step it up when it actually matters. Make the Cup Finals or bust.
Pushing to join the elite tier are the Los Angeles Kings, who have made the playoffs the last two seasons and have a quality core in place. They’re going to be good for a long time, but will they be great? If they don’t make it past the first round this year, heads could roll.
The 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks had a rough go of it last year, being decimated by injuries and bowing out to the ‘Nucks in the first round. That was an aberration. They’re a damn good hockey team that knows how to win when it counts.
The dark horse out West is the Nashville Predators, who have quietly made the playoffs five of the last six seasons. They’re not sexy by any means but they’re well-coached and defensively-sound. Boring to watch, but it works.
So there are the favorites. My Stanley Cup prediction: Sabres in six games over the Blackhawks.