The NHL offers an incredible amount of parity — perhaps more than any other pro sports league in North America. Unlike the NBA where only a few teams have a realistic shot at winning the championship, past NHL playoffs have proven that simply getting into the dance gives a team a great shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup. It’s not rare to see a hot goalie put a team on his back on the way to upsetting a higher seed, or witness a top team from the regular season show up flat and get dominated by a tougher team.
So, how do we know which teams are serious contenders and which are stepping stones? Well, I’ll tell you. Based on some key factors here’s my picks for a few serious teams to consider for futures and series wagers, along with the delirious teams that won’t come anywhere close to getting their name on the Cup.
Capitals – Sure, Washington struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last five games, but they were afforded the luxury of doing so because they were so dominant leading up to that point. In addition to being the NHL's best team, The Caps went 15-6 against Eastern Conference teams with winning records this season. Much has been made of the lack of playoff success in Washington, making them a sexy team to pick against, but with Braden Holtby solidifying himself as the league’s best goaltender, this isn’t a team to fade. Another note regarding the Caps – Over the last 20 years, the team with the best regular season record went on to win the Stanley Cup five times, last occurring with the 2013 Blackhawks.
Stars – Dallas enter the playoffs red-hot, winning nine of their last 11 games, allowing two goals or less in eight of those games, while scoring four or more goals six times. Dallas had their way with the best the NHL had to offer this season, posting a 28-17 record against other playoff teams. Expect Dallas’ dynamic duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to light it up against the Wild in their first round matchup as they combined for 16 points in five games against them this season.
Penguins – Pittsburgh enters the playoffs as the hottest team in hockey — winning 14 of their last 16 games. They also have two recent wins over their first round opponent, the New York Rangers, defeating them 3-2 on March 27 and 5-3 on March 13. Even better, both wins came in New York. What makes Pittsburgh a real threat is their proven ability to beat good teams, as they went 17-9 vs other Eastern Conference playoff teams this season, which includes two recent wins over the top-seeded Washington Capitals.
Blues – St. Louis is a perennial playoff disappointment, but this could be the year that they turn the tables on their past. Unlike their first round opponent, St. Louis proved that they can hang with the best the West has to offer as they went 19-10 vs other Western Conference playoff teams this season. St. Louis enters the playoffs winning eight of 10 games, allowing one goal or less an amazing seven times during that stretch.
Ducks – After an awful start to the season, the Ducks went on to finish as one of the top teams in the NHL. The Pacific division champs have seen improvements in each of the past three years in the playoffs — getting bounced in the first round in 2013, second round in 2014 and the Conference Finals last season. If this trend continues, then Anaheim will be Cup bound this year. Another thing working in the Ducks’ favor is a potential cakewalk in their Round 1 series vs the struggling Predators. They’ve won seven of their last 10 over the Preds. (The O/U is 9-0-1 in those games).
Panthers – There’s nothing like playoff hockey in South Beach. Well, that’s actually hard to say considering the Panthers have only made the playoff once in the last 15 years. The cellar-dwelling teams of the past will have no bearing on this year’s edition of the club though, as Florida comes into the playoffs hot, winning 11 of their last 16 games. Roberto Luongo is playing some of his best hockey of the season, allowing two or less goals in five of his last eight starts. It also helps the Panthers being at the easiest end of the bracket in the East, as they'll take on the Sportsbook of Tampa and Detroit after they beat the Islanders.
Blackhawks – You’re probably surprised to see the Hawks in this category, but based on how they played vs the other top teams in the West, you shouldn’t be. Chicago went 11-18 against other Western Conference playoff teams this season, and lost their last two games against their first round opponent, the St. Louis Blues. Seeing a defending Cup champ get ousted in the first round the following year isn’t a rare occurrence in the NHL. In fact, it’s happened nine times in the last 29 years, including the 2011 Hawks who were eliminated in the first round by Vancouver.
Kings – Jonathan Quick was owned by the Sharks this season, going 0-3, allowing 13 goals. Here’s who the Kings lost to down the stretch in the regular season — Dallas, San Jose, Minnesota, Nashville. They’ve also lost twice to St. Louis in 2016, and have lost three of their last four against Anaheim. Overall, they went 12-13 this season vs other playoff teams within their conference. These are facts that can’t be ignored.
Rangers – The Rangers weren’t good versus good teams this season, especially within the Eastern Conference where they posted a 9-14 record against teams with winning records. If this team stands a chance, it’ll be by riding Henrik Lundqvist, but the King hasn’t been especially sharp lately with his GAA in March and April being higher than at any other point this season. In his last 16 contests he’s allowed three or more goals 10 times, which includes two losses to the Penguins who found the back of the net seven times in those games.
Sharks – This team has never been able to get it done in the playoffs, and they never will! Ok, maybe that’s a little harsh, but year after the year it seems like they always choke themselves out of the playoffs. The only thing they have to show for 15 playoff appearances since 1998 is three trips, and eventually exits, from the Western Conference Finals. This is simply a history that I can’t get over.
Wild – Minnesota had a losing record this season against teams with winning records and went 17-27 against other playoff teams. The Wild will be an underdog in every game versus their first round opponent, the Dallas Stars, which is a spot they’ve struggled in. They've gone 9-21 in their last 30 games as underdogs, and more recently, 3-7 in their last 10 as dogs.
Lightning – Tampa is another team that doesn’t play well against good teams, as they went 14-21 vs teams with winning records this season. The Lightning will also be without their top player and leading goal scorer, Steven Stamkos, who will be out for one to three months with a blood clot in his right arm.
Red Wings – They could advance to the second round due to a matchup with the shorthanded Lightning in the Sportsbook round, but the Wings limped into the playoffs losing 10 of their final 19 games, allowing four or more goals eight times in that stretch.
Islanders – New York has lost four of their last five games to the Panthers, being outscored 18-11 in those games. Team Captain John Tavares was shut down by the Panthers in three games this season, recording just one assist and three shots on net in 65:23 minutes of ice time.
Predators – Nashville has lost seven of their last 10 to their first round opponent, Anaheim Ducks. They’re also not good against good teams with a 16-28 record this season against other playoff teams. Music City limped into the playoffs with just two wins in their last seven games and will be hitting the links in a week or two.
Flyers – Yes, I’m ignoring the fact that Philly has won two of three over the Caps so far in 2016. What can't be ignored, however, is that the team with the best regular season record (who happens to be Philly's Sportsbook round opponent) has gone at least as far as the Conference Finals 63% of the time over the last 19 years, and the Caps have advanced past the first round in three of their last four playoff appearances.