As it stands in the NHL today, the Cup favorites this year are coming predominantly from the Western Conference. Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis and San Jose are all seen as likely contenders for hockey’s ultimate prize out of the West, while only Boston and Pittsburgh seem to hold that claim in the East. And while those six teams have gotten the majority of the coverage, and for all the right reasons, the Stanley Cup does not always go to the favorites. Look no further than 2012, when the 8th seed Los Angeles Kings toppled the unheralded New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals. Neither team was considered Cup favorites at the beginning of the year or even the beginning of the playoffs. This year, the title of “darkhorse” can confidently be given to two teams in the NHL, one in the East and one in the West, with both of them showing their ability to win games playing very different styles.
The first team, the Colorado Avalanche, would be hard to qualify as a darkhorse. After all, they are 4th in the Western Conference at the moment and have the third most wins in regulation or overtime (ROW) in the entire league. However, coverage about the team seems to be geared toward how great the young team is performing and how “in a couple years”, they will be primed to compete for the Cup. No player wants to play for a Cup years down the road while this year is still up for grabs. Led by the youngest captain in the league (Gabriel Landeskog), the Avalanche do have that youthful energy that may be throwing analysts and hockey fans alike off guard. With the likes of Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and rookie phenom Nathan MacKinnon, all of whom are under 24 years old, the Avalanche have a skilled forward group that can compete with the best of the best in the NHL. The team is just talented enough to go deep into the playoffs and just young enough to not realize they are supposed to be intimidated by the other Cup contenders in the West. This should serve them well.
To win the Cup, however, the Avalanche will have to rely on the same player that has earned them the majority of their wins thus far. Russian goaltender Semyon Varlamov is playing lights out at the moment, coming off a 39-save performance in a 3-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators, and when it comes to the playoffs, there is nothing scarier than a goaltender that can steal games. The Avalanche defense is not the strongest on paper, but if Varlamov continues to play the way he has been, he can drag the young team to the Finals, kicking and screaming if necessary. It would not be the first time this has happened, as back in 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes rode rookie goaltender Cam Ward to a Cup victory, employing a defense that was arguably worse than the one the Avalanche currently have. However, a key difference between the two teams and one that may be the Avalanche’s downfall is the number of veterans on the team. Carolina had plenty, many of whom had gone on deep playoff runs before, which allowed them to bring a calming presence to the ice when things looked bleak. The Avalanche are a young team and could very well start to panic if they find themselves down in a series.
In the Eastern Conference, one team to watch is the Columbus Blue Jackets. Rather than rely on speed and skill as the Avalanche do, Columbus has perfected the grind-it-out, hard nosed style of hockey. Their roster, on paper, is entirely uninspiring. With no real superstar in their forward group or defense, one might wonder how the team has done as well as they have. The answer comes in two parts. First, the chemistry the team shows on the ice is almost unmatched in the entire NHL. Columbus coach Todd Richards has a system in place that is working wonders for the Blue Jackets’ roster. They are among the league leaders in hits and every player on the team plays every shift with his heart on his jersey sleeve. They may not be the most skilled team, but the effort they put forth on the ice often makes up for it. Good coaching hides a lot of flaws when it comes to competing for a Cup.
Second, as with the Avalanche, the play of their goaltender is helping them win games they should probably be losing. Last year’s Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky recovered from a shaky start to the season to put his team in an unexpected spot to make the playoffs. He was recently named the NHL’s First Star of the Week after the Blue Jackets earned five out of possible six points in this past week, with Bobrovsky turning away 95 out of 100 shots against. The five points gave Columbus the same amount as the New York Rangers, but with two less games played. That means the Blue Jackets currently hold third place in the Metropolitan division, giving them a shot to make the playoffs for the first time since the 08-09 season.
The two teams could not play more different styles. The Avalanche have the shifty, skilled forwards that seemingly score at will, boosted by a powerplay that ranks 3rd in the league. They produce and give up a lot of chances, holding to the ideology that it does not matter how many you give up as long as you score one more than that. An ideology that hockey fans would expect to see more in the Eastern Conference than the West. The Blue Jackets take the opposite approach, adapting physical play and a strong defense to wear down opponents to achieve victory, a Western Conference landmark for years. Both styles appear to be working for the respective teams, and they may just be different enough from the norm to allow this year to be a year where a darkhorse will win hockey’s ultimate prize.
This article is one in a daily series, providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner
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