February 6, 2013
The 2013 NHL season may be just a few weeks old, but in this abbreviated season every game, period and point are critical.
Considering the season is nearly a quarter complete, the crystal ball is now beginning to clarify which teams are true Stanley Cup contenders. Some teams are in a familiar situation while others face a must-win season.
Here are the early season favorites to lift Lord Stanley at season’s end:
The Darkhorse Candidates: These teams are considered sleepers, who if they catch fire at the right moment could ride the lightning all the way to a championship. One of these such teams is the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, who had everything come together at the right time to steal the deal from the No. 8 seed last season. They were one of the favorites coming into the season, but they have been plagued by injuries early on. Not to be counted out quite yet, look for Kings to right the ship.
The Edmonton Oilers are another darkhorse contender. Given, they’ve been near the bottom of the standing for three consecutive years, but have hit the jackpot in recent draft history. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov have all been the No. 1 overall selection over the past three NHL season and now all play for the Oilers. The team currently holds a playoff spot and will take their lumps as they learn the ropes of the NHL, but they’re building a winner in Edmonton. There’s always a year when the perennial downtrodden turn the page and blossom into an unstoppable force—this is that year for the Oilers.
A team in the Eastern Conference that could go the distance is the Montreal Canadiens. The league’s most storied franchise are contenders once again. Behind all-world goaltender Carey Price, they have a real chance this season. There’s a perfect storm of youth and experience in Montreal right now, watch out for the Habs.
The Usual Suspects: To no surprise, these teams have thrown their hat into the ring—the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins look like they’ll all make deep runs in the playoffs. Each team is well balanced and built for the long haul.
This Year’s Worst to First Contender: The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs last season, but they won’t this time around. With stars like Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, they have the skill needed to lead a franchise on the brink of greatness. They currently lead the league with a plus-18 goal differential and are scoring nearly five goals a game. Rookie Cory Conacher currently leads all first timers with 12 points and could end of the biggest surprise of the season. He already has five games with multiple points.
Who doesn’t like a team who consistently lights the lamp?
The Lightning are simply electric this season.
The Team Facing the Most Pressure: Let’s cut to the chase—the San Jose Sharks are in a must-win situation this season. They may be somewhat forgotten about but they are stacked from top to bottom.
Together with Joe Pavelski, the fearsome foursome already has 10-plus points each. Marleau is in the early running for MVP and the team’s defense is surrendering less than two goals a game.
The Sharks have been talked about early as contenders for many seasons now and without a Cup to show for it this season, the organization could decide to restructure. More than any team, they are in a do-or-die situation, but so far, they look up to the task.