In this edition of Prospectus Roundtable, we asked the authors of Hockey Prospectus which 5th-8th playoff seed has the best chance of lifting the Stanley Cup. As you might expect, the defending champion Blackhawks "won" in a landslide, but a couple of other teams also got some love.
Just remember that I had the Canadiens last year
Robert Vollman: Buffalo Sabres
In the past 30 years, only nine dark horses have galloped their way into the Stanley Cup finals. These teams share most of the following attributes: good defensive teams with a mix of young talent and veterans, often anchored by someone who can drag their team through three rounds almost by themselveseither a generational talent like Wayne Gretzky or Pavel Bure, or more commonly a star goalie that gets white hot.
The Buffalo Sabres have all the right ingredients for an upset. In Ryan Miller, the Buffalo Sabres certainly have a goalie capable of getting hot and stealing wins, and they're also blessed with gritty veteran defensive-minded forwards like Mike Grier, Jochen Hecht and Rob Niedermayer, young talent like Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis, and a depth of scorers in their prime, including Tomas Vanek, Brad Boyes, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Tim Connolly and possibly even Derek Roy in Round 2. Furthermore, the Sabres have generally ranked far higher in 5-on-5 shots and goals than their record would otherwise indicate.
If they fight off the Canes for the last spot, my dark horse pick this year is the Buffalo Sabres, but remember: Cinderella teams are making the ball more often than they used to, but they have yet to put on the glass slipper.
Ryan Popilchak: Tampa Bay Lightning
In my search for this year's playoff dark horse, I set out with one qualifying criteria: the team needed to be a possession hog. Possession correlates with victory better than any other metric we have. Three teams ranked 5th to 8th in their conference have Fenwick* rates over 52% with the score close at even strength. The Chicago Blackhawks (54.1%), Montreal Canadiens (52.4%) and Tampa Bay Lightning (54.6%) all fit the bill. So which one has the best chance to make a deep run into the playoffs?
I can't pick the Blackhawks. Not only are they destined for a first-round matchup with either the Canucks or the Red Wings, but I just can't pick a dark horse who won the Cup last year. It feels like cheating. I also can't pick Montreal, given that they're likely to face Boston in the first round. To me, Boston is the team with the fewest weaknesses in the East. That leaves us with the Lightning. Not only do they dominate possession at even-strength, but they have one of the best penalty differentials in the league, spending 35 seconds per game more on the PP than on the PK. With high-end offensive players like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis leading the charge, this team could easily make a deep run in the East.
*According to Objective NHL as of Feb 27th.
Jonathan Willis: Chicago Blackhawks
Does Chicago count as a dark horse?
The Chicago Blackhawks are anything but a typical eighth seed. That's not only because they won the Stanley Cup last season, but because their position in the Western Conference standings is decidedly at odds with their goal differential. Aside from the Canucks (plus-73) and the Sharks (plus-38), no team in the West can boast a better goal differential than the 'Hawks plus-32. In fact, the Blackhawks are only sitting where they are in the West because of an atrocious record in one-goal gamestheir 15-12-8 record ranks 25th in the league and is the worst of any playoff team in either conference (keep in mind that one-goal games include every overtime loss, so that record is a lot worse than it looks).
Standing against the Blackhawks is a difficult road to the Finals. Given the last few postseasons, Chicago has to like the way they match up against Vancouver, but even so, the Canucks are a very, very good team. San Jose and Detroit are also formidable obstacles. Yet of all the lower seeds in the league, it is Chicago that bears the closest resemblance to the Cup contenders, and thus it is Chicago that has the best chance of outlasting them.
Corey Pronman: Chicago Blackhawks
If I had to choose a dark horse based on the team as a whole and not taking their opponent into the equation, I would go with Chicago. They have been one of the best teams at even-strength with the game close and are tied for second in league even-strength shot differential. They will have a tough road no matter who they draw between Vancouver, San Jose and Detroit, but they will be anything but a pushover eighth seed for whoever matches up with them. Their record was dragged down early this season by the horrific play of Marty Turco, but with Corey Crawford in net, they've played like a top team.
Philip Myrland: Chicago Blackhawks
It's not often that the defending Stanley Cup champions can be described as a dark horse team heading into the playoffs, yet the Chicago Blackhawks have struggled all year just to make it back to the postseason. Their matchups will be brutal in the ultra-tough Western Conference, but the league's second best shot differential shows that the 'Hawks can still play a dominant puck possession game, and Chicago has gone a sparkling 31-17-5 with Corey Crawford in net. The stars may not align for Chicago again as they did last year, but expect Toews, Kane and company to be a tough out as they seek to defend their title.
Iain Fyffe: Chicago Blackhawks
My dark horse pick, if you can call them that, would be the Chicago Blackhawks. Currently sitting in eighth spot in the West, Chicago has the third-best goal differential in the conference behind Vancouver and San Jose. This is a good indication that they're a better team than their record would indicate. Despite all their player losses over the offseason, they're fourth in the league in goal-scoring. The Blackhawks are still a heck of a team.
Their main obstacle would be the fact that as the eighth seed, they would face the Canucks in the first round, owners of the league's best goal differential and overall record. A pundit might tell you that this series would be no contest, since we all know that Roberto Luongo chokes in the postseason and the Hawks know how to win it all, which is of course garbage. The fact is, Chicago would have something like a 30% chance to win the series, and if they do get lucky and beat Vancouver, then they have as good a chance as any team to take home the Cup.
Timo Seppa: New York Rangers
A couple of weeks ago, the New Jersey Devils and Calgary Flames looked like fine Cinderellas for the postseason ball, but the hot streaks that would have made them scary in the playoffs sputtered just enough to knock them out. So that leaves the New York Rangers, who have had the look of a Cinderella despite never playing much over ".500" (in other words, .560) for any stretch of the season due to elite goaltending, excellent young defense just starting to get its due and the consistently superior effort they bring to games. But make no mistake about it, the loss of talented sparkplug Ryan Callahan really hurts their chances.
Still, many of the top teams must be having nightmares about meeting Tortorella's Rangers. The only Eastern Conference playoff team to outscore them (8 GF to 13 GA from the Rangers' perspective) in their season series by more than a goal is Tampa Bay, an unlikely first- or second- round opponent for the Blue Shirts. Then, aside from playing Philadelphia (16-17) and Montreal (9-10) essentially even-up, New York had the advantage in outscoring their other potential postseason opponents: Washington (18-6), Pittsburgh (21-15), Boston (11-8), Buffalo (11-9). In particular, the Rangers success against the Capsprobably their most likely first-round opponentbodes very well. And Washington has their own substantial injury issues, particularly on the blue line, with offensive defensemen Mike Green and Dennis Wideman likely sidelined.