Stanley Cup Playoffs: Balance Of Power Shifts East

The Stanley Cup playoffs are set to begin in a matter of weeks and favorites to win the Stanley Cup are starting to take shape. For the first time in a few seasons, the favorites are coming out of the East. Perhaps the top three favorites.

Four of the last five Stanley Cup champions have come from the Western Conference, the lone Eastern champion being the Boston Bruins in 2010-11. The defending champion Los Angeles Kings are on the verge of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs entirely, opening the door for fresh teams to take their place. Unfortunately for the Western Conference, the three teams with the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup are in the Eastern Conference.

Start with the conference leading Montreal Canadiens, led by soon-to-be Vezina Trophy winner (but not Hart Trophy winner) Carey Price. In most other seasons Max Pacioretty would get MVP attention for his 37 goals and 66 points, clearly having the best season of all Habs forwards. P.K. Subban has bounced back nicely in the seasons second half, quietly (as least for Subban) piling up a team-leading 40 assists and is tied for fourth in the NHL among defensemen with 54 points.

Should the Canadiens fail to support Price, right behind them for Stanley Cup consideration are the New York Rangers. The Broadway blue shirts have charged through the last several weeks without top goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Cam Talbot has performed well in his absence and the tandem is as scary as any heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Rick Nash has hit the 40-goal mark and the defense is as deep as any after the trade to bring in Keith Yandle.

Only one point behind are my favorites to win the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The most offensively potent team in the NHL this season, the Lightning should have no problems producing when the Stanley Cup playoffs roll around with four players set to break sixty points (Ondrej Palat only needs one more) and a formidable duo in the crease with Ben Bishop and Andrey Vasilevskiy. And the Lightning record against the Rangers and Canadiens this season? A perfect eight wins, no losses.

It’s not that the Western Conference doesn’t have good teams at the top. The Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators are both over 100 points already and clearly are the class of the West. Goaltending questions seem to plague more teams out West as the St. Louis Blues are answering them again, as are the Ducks.  The Vancouver Canucks are still riding Eddie Lack until the eventual return of Ryan Miller, should the team stay afloat in the Stanley Cup playoffs long enough.

The Chicago Blackhawks desperately need Patrick Kane back. They are not the same team without him, easier to defend as any team losing their star would be. Other than the Predators, I think the projected top seeds in the West are all ready for upset by either the fearless Calgary Flames, the hot goaltending of Devan Dubnyk and the Minnesota Wild, or the physicality brought by the Winnipeg Jets.

I expect the Stanley Cup playoffs to start out West with two of the top four seeds, at least, being eliminated in the first round. The bottom four teams in the East don’t pose nearly the same threat in the Eastern Conference. By the time the Stanley Cup Finals arrive the only question to answer could be which Eastern Conference power is going to beat the Nashville Predators and claim the Stanley Cup?