Almost every year in the NHL we see non-elite playoff teams making surprising runs when the second season begins. Three years ago it was the fourth-seeded Ottawa Senators, two years ago it was both the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers and the fifth-seeded Dallas Stars, and last year it was the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes who somehow managed to defeat the Boston Bruins in a classic seven game, second round series. With a little over one week left to play in the NHL regular season, it's again time for everyone to witness a surprising playoff run by a dark horse team that few believed in for the first eighty-two games. Which of the teams currently situated in the bottom half of their conference's playoff picture are the most likely to make a run for the Stanley Cup?
Tom Awad: Detroit Red Wings- In all fairness, it seems like cheating to pick the Red Wings as a “dark horse” playoff contender. The Red Wings had the best “trade deadline” of any team despite not making any deals, with Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and Andreas Lilja returning from injury. Pavel Datsyuk, who is having a poor season based on counting stats, remains one of the top 5 centers in the NHL. The ageless Nicklas Lidstrom leads the entire NHL with a DeltaSOT of 12.5; Brian Rafalski is 2nd with 11.6 (for those not yet comfortable with Delta, just lookup their Corsi and their QualComp, you’ll see what I mean). Jimmy Howard has played his way to the top of the Calder trophy race. Most importantly, the Red Wings are scoring again. There was no way they were going to maintain a 7.9% shooting percentage all season with the lineup they had, and their luck has started to turn. The Wings have outshot their opponents by 254 shots this season, third behind only Chicago and Pittsburgh. Since the Olympic break, the Red Wings are 12-2-1 and look unstoppable.
The Wings will finish between 5th and 7th, so San Jose should play for dear life to hold on to that #1 seed so they don’t meet another wolf in #8 seed’s clothing. Detroit will play Chicago, Vancouver or Phoenix in an excellent series, and Detroit may be the favorite regardless of their opponents.
Timo Seppa: Montreal Canadiens- The Montreal Canadiens are better than you think. Sure, they had their share of early season luck, picking up critical extra points in the shootout, but on the flip side of the coin, their record isn’t what it could have been, both due to key injuries and while they searched for the identity of their true number one goaltender. Keep that in mind for judging just how dangerous an opponent Montreal will be in the postseason, when hopefully, they will be running on all cylinders.
Last season’s points and GVT leader, defenseman Andrei Markov (8.7 GVT in 39 games this season), was lost to a freak injury on opening night when he was cut by goalie Carey’s Price’s skate, only returning to action on December 19. How did Les Habitants respond to Markov’s return? Only by winning six of their next seven games. Montreal also lost star forward Michael Cammalleri from February 2-March 22 with a knee injury (9.3 GVT in 59 games). Among their most top contributors, only surprising Tomas Plekanec (13.5 GVT in 76 games) has stayed in the lineup throughout the season. This season’s GVT leader, Goaltender Jaroslav Halak, only emerged as the team’s number one goaltender well into the season. Though essentially splitting Montreal’s starts to date, Halak has clearly been the better netminder, posting 17.4 GVT and a .923 save percentage to Price’s 5.2 GVT and .912 save percentage.
What’s all that mean? Looking at the admittedly small sample of games where Montreal was actually able to put Halak, Markov and Cammalleri in the lineup, they’re 9-4-2 with 45 GF and 33 GA. If you extrapolated those rates over 82 games, you’d get 246 GF (6th in NHL), 180 GA (1st in NHL), 66 GD (2nd in NHL, to Washington) and 109 points (4th in NHL). Even taking all games into account, the Canadiens are the second hottest team in the East––to Washington, of course––since late December (.603). No matter how you slice it, the Habs will be a dangerous opponent in the postseason, with a real chance to be hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end of it all.
Robert Vollman: Detroit Red Wings- Among the eight lowest seeded teams, the Detroit Red Wings appear to the be the only legitimate Stanley Cup threat. Jimmy Howard is fantastic in nets with a 4th-best .926 save percentage, and their team is absolutely stacked with players with extensive postseason experience. The fact that they pulled 2-3 points out of the toilet with final-second heroics two games in a row during their recent Western Canadian swing reminds us of their track record of making plays in key situations.
What concerns me most about their postseason possibilities is their advanced average age, which leads the NHL at 30.3. The physical demands of the playoffs are a tough time to rely so heavily on older players, and it could exacerbate their injury troubles. Barring spectacular misfortune, I'd say that a third consecutive Stanley Cup appearance by the Red Wings is certainly a credible possibility.
Andrew Rothstein: Los Angeles Kings- I can see it now...Dean Lombardi on Petros and Money for the entire show, Anze Kopitar on The Jim Rome Show, Kevin Connolly, Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire and Adam Sandler in the first row of the Staples Center watching Los Angeles taking on Washington in the Stanley Cup Finals, Jonathan Quick becoming more popular than Kobe for one month...okay not likely to happen, but hey, there's a chance.
As Tom Awad has mentioned today, the Kings are absolutely for real. Los Angeles is ranked tenth in fewest goals allowed per game (2.59), with a + 77 shot differential, an NHL-4th best 15.1 Defensive GVT, three of the top twenty-five best overall defenseman in GVT (Doughty, Scuderi, O'Donnell) and a superstar in the making in Anze Kopitar. When Los Angeles goes on the power play, they do an excellent job of scoring, putting the puck in the net a sixth-best in the NHL 20.6% of the time. If Jonathan Quick can put his mediocre season behind him and go on a hot streak in the playoffs, the Kings will be nearly impossible to score on. A lot of the attention has been on who Detroit's opponent could be, since no team wants to face the Red Wings right now. But don't lose sight of the Kings as they have the potential to be just as dangerous of a team. However, the Kings have something that the Red Wings don't have: Youth. With the potential for up to 28 games in the postseason, it's important to have players who could endure playing in contests in April, May and June. Youth, with a mixture of veterans, will lead the L.A. Kings to the promise land as the this year's Dark Horse team.
This column was authored by the staff of Puck Prospectus.