The halfway point of the season has passed, with numerous midseason predictions and awards handed out on hockey forums everywhere. Some of that material will prove to be remarkably accurate but, of course, a lot can change over the course of 41 NHL games — particularly the last 41 games of a season.
That said, the 2015-16 campaign has been a little unique up to this point. The NHL normally has more parity when compared to, say, the NBA. And while that may still be true in the middle of the pack this year, three clubs have emerged as pretty clear favorites to win it all — for the time being at least.
One quick caveat: these are the teams that seem most poised to win the whole thing. This list doesn’t include the having-a-really-good-regular-season-and-could-be-capable-of-winning-a-round-or-two-in-the-playoffs teams. There are definitely a few clubs capable of doing some serious damage in the postseason that just might not be poised to hoist the Cup just yet. Or they may have a key injury they’re currently dealing with. We’ll get to those some other time. For now, these are the three top contenders you’d likely want to choose from if you had to name the eventual winner right now.
Well this one seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it? Entering play on Thursday, they had ripped off 12 straight wins, with no real signs of slowing down. In that stretch, they piled up 47 goals. Again, that’s 47 goals over a dozen games. To put that in perspective, the team they narrowly edged in last year’s Western Conference Finals (Anaheim) has 88 goals… all season.
The ‘Hawks are rolling, and they have a lot working in their favor when you start to think big picture. The Artemi Panarin/Artem Anisimov/Patrick Kane line has been arguably the top line in hockey this season. It features the leading candidate for MVP honors and a frontrunner for the Calder as well, plus Joel Quenneville has actually kept them together all season. Granted, they’ve given him no reason to break them up, but still. Most lines get juggled over the course of 82 games. This one seems locked in for the long haul.
Thing is, it’s not just that trio that’s having success. In fact, that’s technically Chicago’s No. 2 line. Jonathan Toews has chipped in 10 goals over the last 17 games to get the “top” unit going again, meaning the Blackhawks have one of — if not the — most formidable top sixes in the game today.
Oh yeah, they’re also battle-tested in the playoffs, know what it takes to win the big games from years of experience and have a two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender that’s playing the best hockey of his career.
Los Angeles Kings
It’s beginning to look like another one of those years. You know, the years where the Western Conference comes down to an epic, six- or seven-game showdown between the conflicting styles of the Blackhawks and Kings. On the one hand, people outside of those two fan bases are undoubtedly getting a little sick of seeing the same two opponents fighting for supremacy out West. On the other hand, it’s must-see hockey.
The Kings haven’t looked dominant this season, but they have a few very clear factors working in their favor that tend to come in handy when April rolls around. For one, they’re about the only club with a roster that can match the big-game experience Chicago has. Secondly, they have an all-world netminder that’s more than capable of single-handedly taking over a seven-game series in Jonathan Quick.
On top of that, they’ve got a little more motivation from missing the playoffs altogether last year (not to mention rest, after making deep, physical runs for three consecutive seasons prior to that). They also already have a pretty decent hold on the Pacific at the moment, and they know what it takes to beat the Blackhawks.
There are still a lot of hockey enthusiasts that roll their eyes at this one. And the Caps have no one to blame but themselves for their reputation. They’ve compiled a lengthy history of coming up short in the playoffs, haven’t advanced past the second round since 1998 and routinely find themselves in Game 7 scenarios — where an entire season can come to down to one or two lucky (or unlucky) bounces. Not exactly the characteristics one typically looks for in a true Cup contender.
Of course, the only way they can change all that it by finally going on a deep run, and this year’s lineup is built to do just that. Plus, they play in an Eastern Conference that could prove to be a little easier to navigate than usual. Alex Ovechkin is always a force to be reckoned with, and a healthy Nicklas Backstrom only makes him that much better. Plus, they’ve never really had a weapon like Evgeny Kuznetsov before. Yes, he played last season — and was pretty valuable in the playoffs. But he’s clearly raised his game to an entirely new level this time around.
Washington also has more depth across the board now, including Justin Williams — a guy known for his past playoff heroics. And they have a workhorse netminder who may very well be taking home the Vezina soon. Nobody has needed a player that can step up like Williams more than the Caps have in recent years. And we all know what a hot goaltender can do in may and June.