Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ranking The Division Leaders As Cup Contenders

With most teams nearing 40 games played, we're essentially halfway through the NHL season, and no clear-cut favorite has emerged. But we do have a few convincing-looking division leaders who figure to be in the mix. Here's a midseason ranking of the current division leaders as Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay has had an impressive season thus far and remains slightly ahead of Montreal and Detroit for the lead in the Atlantic Division. A look at NHL team stats shows that the Lightning are second only to Toronto in goals per game, and that offensive firepower has been good enough for 23 wins through Dec. 30. Yet, it's hard to consider Tampa Bay as a favorite against the other three teams on this list.

The oddsmakers agree, at this stage, with Betfair's page on Stanley Cup favorites showing Tampa with just 15/1 odds, as noted here. These are just the eighth-best odds overall, and they even place Tampa below division foe Montreal. This is all due to a somewhat-unreliable defense. Ben Bishop has had a very good but unspectacular season in net, and Tampa is a middle-of-the-road team in goals allowed. They'll be a playoff threat, but a Stanley Cup run looks unlikely.

3. Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks have the most points through Dec. 30 with 54, though they have also played more games than fellow division leaders Pittsburgh and Chicago. That performance to date has earned them 10/1 Stanley Cup odds at this point (tied for second best), but as to just how they're going to beat teams in the playoffs, it's really anyone's guess.

Simply put, the Ducks don't do anything to overwhelm you. There's no one area on the ice or on the stat sheet in which they dominate opponents and assert themselves as one of the best teams in the league. But here's an interesting thing to consider, pointed out at the Ducks' Fansided page: Anaheim leads the NHL in man games lost this season. This does raise the question of just how strong and consistent they may be if they get healthier.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins will be in the Stanley Cup conversation once more, and as of now their 10/1 odds are even with Anaheim's for second best. They'll have to fend off a tough Islanders team if they want to keep their spot atop the Metropolitan Division, but ultimately Pittsburgh looks to be arguably the most complete team in the NHL. They're also a clear co-favorite to win a title.

Taking a look at the Penguins' team stats page at ESPN, it's incredibly impressive just how good this team is in all areas of the game. They rank fourth in both goals scored and goals allowed, sixth in power play percentage and third in kills. They're also one of only five teams with single-digit losses, despite a recent slide, and that sort of consistency matters come playoff time.

Displaying Kane_1.jpg1. Chicago Blackhawks

What's better than Pittsburgh's claim of ranking fourth in both goals scored and goals allowed? How about Chicago's marks of third in goals per game and first in goals allowed. This Blackhawks team has developed an elite defensive standing without sacrificing offensive prowess, and they're the favorite to win the Stanley Cup as a result.

Specifically, the Blackhawks lead the way with 13/2 odds, which are quite strong given how many good teams there are in the league. But as of now, it's difficult to imagine anyone beating the Blackhawks in a playoff series.

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