It's time for Portland to rebuild
Hello darkness my old friend...
Simply put, this has been one of the most mesmerizing and inspirational NHL seasons that fans have witnessed in several years. Given the fact that the inaugural season for the expansion franchise Vegas Golden Knights has resulted in the team clinching it's very first playoff berth by handily winning their division has been captivating in and of itself. When you combine that euphoric story with the notion that there will be five teams in the playoffs this year that were not in it last season, it becomes clear that the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs will be incredibly entertaining to watch from start to finish.
However, there are a few teams that are worth focusing on given both their pedigrees and/or their lack of attention going into the postseason. Although the likes of Pittsburgh, Boston and Tampa Bay have been fairly dominant throughout the season, there are actually some teams that could play spoiler to these perennial Stanley Cup contenders.
If the Vegas Golden Knights were not such a miraculous story that has achieved unprecedented success, the Winnipeg Jets would be the captivating team that has made tremendous strides to become legitimately competitive within a short time span. Scoring just 87 points and missing the playoffs last season, the Jets have since become a dominant force in the Western Conference as they have accumulated 112 points this season, which is second best in the conference.
What has allowed the Jets to be highly competitive this season is their well-balanced nature on both defense (2.7 GA, 5th in NHL) and offense (3.3 GPG, 2nd in NHL). Thanks to the Jets front line contributors of Blake Wheeler, Patrick Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele, this is a team that has been able to keep the puck in their opponents zone more often than not. Combined with the fact that goalie Connor Hellebuyck is having a season to remember in the net (2.38 GAA this season, 2.89 GAA last season), the Jets are getting prolific production from all of their prominent playmakers, which should allow them to go deep in the playoffs this year.
Although the incredible success of the up start Golden Knights has been well documented, it cannot be overstated how impressive this team has been given how difficult it is to be competitive much less win your division in your first year as a franchise. Simply put, it has been the Golden Knights persistence in attacking their opposition with a barrage of shots that usually find their way into the back of the net that has allowed them to be one of the best teams in hockey this season.
What has allowed the Golden Knights to have sustained success this season is the fact that any one player is capable of stepping up and winning a game on a given night. With nine of their players scoring 10 goals or more this season, the Golden Knights are not beholden to one superstar and can play much more freely and efficiently as a result. While the Golden Knights improbable success story has been a joy to experience, it would be made even more legendary if this team can ultimately make it to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Besides the Washington Capitals, the Maple Leafs have arguably the longest suffering fan base in the NHL. Considering this beloved franchise has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, it would be fitting if one of the first teams to join the NHL could finally appease their loyal fans with an inspirational run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While the Maple Leafs have struggled to hold off tenacious offenses this season (2.8 GA, 12 in the NHL), they have been consistently successful at outscoring their opponents, especially during Power Play situations (24.5 PP scoring %, 2nd in NHL). Despite not having a player that has scored more than 70 points this season, this is more of a result of this being an especially unselfish and patient scoring unit rather than an inconsistent one (nine players with 20 assists or more). If the Maple Leafs can control the time of possession and play to their strengths when it comes to working the puck around in the offensive zone, they could very well be one of the surprise teams to go far in the playoffs.
Every year, the question is the same: can the Capitals finally live up to their potential and win a Stanley Cup? Considering the Capitals have won their division three years in a row and yet have been unable to get past the second round of the playoffs, this is a team that is desperate to overcome their underachieving ways in the playoffs.
While the Capitals have not been as dominant on offense or defense as they have been in years past, they have been far better at allowing their lesser known players to flourish in high pressure situations. Most notably, it has been the versatility of defensemen John Carlson (15 goals, 52 assists) and Dimitry Orlov (10 goals, 21 assists) that has allowed the Capitals to be more dynamic as a scoring unit than they were during their past seasons of sheer dominance. Of course, all eyes will be on veteran Alexander Ovechkin to step up in the playoffs, an area where he has surprisingly struggled throughout his career with the Capitals.
Say what you will about the Kings noticeable issues offensively, but this is a team that is not to be taken lightly in the playoffs as their physicality when it comes to playing defense has left nearly every team they have played licking their wounds after a given contest.
First in the NHL in goals allowed and penalty kill percentage, the Kings have been able to consistently stifle their opponents by smashing them ruthlessly against the boards. Although the Kings do not have a prolific scorer outside of Anze Kopitar, nine of their players have at least two power play goals, which will be vital when the Kings have a man advantage and are in desperate need of a goal to give themselves a close win. While the Kings have never won pretty or consistently this year, they have the stamina and fearlessness to severely test any trigger happy opponents that are foolish enough to overlook them.