USA TODAY Sports Weekly

CHAMP BLACK­HAWKS STILL TEAM TO BEAT

- Kevin Allen @ByKev­inAllen USA TO­DAY Sports

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.

 ?? KAMIL KRZACZYNSK­I, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ??
KAMIL KRZACZYNSK­I, USA TO­DAY SPORTS
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