The NHL never fails to produce excitement and action. Be it from the dangles and dazzling skills of stars like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, or heated clashes like that witnessed between Brendan Lemieux and Brady Tkachuk. Each year, the league seems to get just that bit more competitive at the top end, especially with the Stanley Cup Playoffs being the most hard-hitting and unpredictable of all of the major league sports postseasons.
Of course, there’s even more exposure to the league now as well, with EA Play being cheap and featuring the official game of the league, NHL 22, and the league expanding into Seattle to see the Kraken play their first game this season. Still, in the end, what really matters is which team hoists the Cup, and this season, three teams – two of which are from the same state – have emerged as clear frontrunners after emphatic starts to the 2021/22 NHL regular season.
Floridians look to go head-to-head for a shot at the Stanley Cup
This season, the regular format for the NHL season and playoffs has returned, meaning that all teams play 82 games, and divisional rivals that qualify in a top-three place can only meet as late as the Second Round. This puts the repeat champions, Tampa Bay Lightning, on a collision course with their upstart divisional and local rivals, the Florida Panthers. Not only does Florida boast the world’s largest cruise ship, but it also has two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Based on the performances so far, it would be fair to say that if one could beat the other in the playoffs, then they’d be favored to beat any team in the Eastern Conference bracket. As of January 27, the Lightning and Panthers do lead the way among Eastern teams to win the Stanley Cup in the sports betting, up at +700 and +650, respectively. However, they do trail a potential Stanley Cup finalist, the Colorado Avalanche, at +450. This will be heavily weighed by the Western Conference being seemingly easier, and it being tough to call any draw between Florida and Tampa Bay, especially given the complete rout of 9-3 the last time they played.
Making matters even more difficult for those trying to pick between the Floridian clubs is how similar they are. Both have mostly built from the draft, investing high picks in future core players and then patiently awaiting a breakthrough. The Bolts have been contenders for most of the last five years, but the Panthers only just truly got into the swing of it last season. Now, Florida is on a crazy point pace of 122 by the season’s end. 43 games in on January 27, the Lightning only trailed the Cats by two points – but also, a massive 24 in the goal differential column. The edge goes to the Bolts because, as they know all too well, postseason experience is invaluable.
Colorado to Try to Pry the Cup Away from the Sunrise State
Big things have been expected of the Colorado Avalanche for the last few seasons, with them tipped as Stanley Cup favorites multiple times before and during each season as well as in the playoffs. However, since breaking back into the playoffs in 2017/18, the Avs have failed to get beyond the Second Round. Billed as the most talented team on paper, the thinking is that the talent will eventually result in triumph. Sitting with 63 points in 41 games, Colorado is dominating the Western Conference and is on pace to get the Presidents’ Trophy. Much of this is down to their stellar home streak. As potentially the top seed, this matters a lot.
However, the NHL is never as straightforward as the best regular-season team walking to the Stanley Cup. The Pacific Division has been written off by most, but within the Central Division, there are certainly some banana skins. The Minnesota Wild essentially has to go all-out for the Cup this season due to their cap situation. Given that they’ve hit 53 points in 38 games and have a +34 goal differential, it’s fair to say that the players are going as all in as the front office on this season.
Another sneaky pick that’s ready to pounce is the Nashville Predators. Their star defenseman Roman Josi, starting goaltender Juuse Saros, top rookie Tanner Jeannot, and coach John Hynes, are all performing to trophy-winning standards this season. Both the Preds and the Wild are bound to charge head-first into the offseason, play rough against their matchup in the playoff picture, and grind their way to an upset or two.
The Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Colorado Avalanche have the playstyle, performances to date, and tier of a roster that are each capable of going all the way this season. While it’s incredibly rare – even unheard of in the modern NHL – the invaluable experience and seasoned roster of the Bolts looks to have the edge to claim an unprecedented three-peat.