USA TODAY Sports Weekly
CHAMP BLACKHAWKS STILL TEAM TO BEAT
With NHL All-Star weekend over, 29 days remained until the trade deadline and 73 days to the start of the playoffs. Here’s a ranking of the Stanley Cup favorites:
1. Chicago Blackhawks: Even after making major offseason changes, the Blackhawks look as though they are capable of winning their fourth title in seven seasons. General manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville have done a masterful job of keeping the championship hunger alive. Patrick Kane is the NHL’s best player this season, and Artemi Panarin has spiced up the offense. The defense is just as effective, and the goaltending might be better.
2. Washington Capitals: The Caps boast the best offense (3.32 goals per game), the secondbest defense (2.19 goals against per game) and the best goalie in Braden Holtby. They also have coach Barry Trotz, who is changing the culture of this organization. The Capitals finally have learned how to play the style of The Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane (88) is the NHL’s leading scorer, and teammate Artemi Panarin (72) is tops among rookies. hockey necessary to win in the proven, unflappable goalie. playoffs. This Washington team is 4. Florida Panthers: It’s comfortable playing 2-1 games. clear GM Dale Tallon has transGoing into the playoffs, the Caps formed the Panthers into a conwill be confident, not worried. tender. They own the NHL’s best
3. Los Angeles Kings: The goals-against average (2.18). EvKings have won as many champieryone wants to believe in this onships as the Blackhawks over team, because we all love stories the last four seasons and have of an underdog rising up. But demonstrated a higher level of here’s why we struggle to believe consistency this regular season they can win it all: They have than they did when they won made the playoffs once in 14 seatheir titles. After losing their first sons. Is it possible to leave that three games this season, the mind-set and win a Stanley Cup? Kings haven’t lost more than two The industry standard is to bein a row. Under coach Darryl lieve you must lose in the playoffs Sutter, the Kings play stingy team to learn how to win in the postdefense. Plus, Jonathan Quick is a season. But the Panthers have older players, such as Willie Mitchell and Jaromir Jagr, who know about winning championships. They also have veteran Roberto Luongo in net, and he has carried teams to an Olympic gold medal and a world championship.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning: With all the attention being paid to Steven Stamkos’ contract and Jonathan Drouin’s trade demand, everyone seems to have lost sight that the Lightning have gotten healthy and coach Jon Cooper has them playing more like they did last spring. Going into the All-Star break, the Lightning won nine of 11 games. They have straightened out their lines. Ben Bishop has been big in net. This team was two wins short of winning the championship last spring. If Tyler Johnson rediscovers his magic, it is not unthinkable that the Lightning could make another extended run.
6. St. Louis Blues: The Blues have the size, grit, coaching and defense to win it all. They have the fourth-best record. What we don’t know is whether they have the goaltending and mental makeup. This is a team that has been eliminated in the first round in each of the last three seasons. The Blues should be in all-in mode at the trade deadline, because there will be significant changes if the team doesn’t have playoff success.
7. Dallas Stars: Thanks mostly to precision offensive work by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars are the NHL’s No. 3 puck possession team (53.2% Corsi), according to War-on-ice.com. The Stars’ concern: They have been a middle-of-the-pack defensive team, and their team save percentage is ranked 20th at .910. They boast blue-chip young defensemen, but they are in need of more polish. Their offense will give opponents trouble. But they would need their goaltending to step up to be a serious threat.
8. Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings might be the sleeper among the top contenders. No one talks about this team, but it is consistently competitive under first-year coach Jeff Blashill. The defense is better than expected, and the goaltending is strong. The only issue is Detroit ranks 20th with 2.47 goals per game. It should be better than that. If Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar are more productive down the stretch and the Red Wings get more secondary scoring from the likes of Darren Helm and Riley Sheahan, among others, then they have the potential to be a postseason factor.