Remember in the fall when you could write off a bad few days by your team with a simple, “It’s early, we will be fine.” Or how about that January swoon when the rebuttal went something like, “It’s a long season, let’s see after the trade deadline.”
Folks, we are there, or here, or something like that. That time in the NHL in the season when you can actually put stock in how a club is playing. More specifically, if your club is struggling, there is a legitimate reason to be really concerned. With single digits remaining on the games played list, those wonky clubs have to figure it out right now. The flip side, is there are a few clubs appearing to have fewer worries than a Canada Goose on a golf course.
My top five Stanley Cup picks, right now, this minute.
1) Tampa Bay. The Bolts are attempting to lock down one of the greatest regular seasons ever. Not just in the salary cap era, but all-time. The power-play is as productive, statistically, as any unit before. The goalie is brilliant and I think the blueline is underappreciated.
2) Washington. I am selecting the Capitals in the two positions on the basis of winning the Metropolitan Division. A woozy wild-card opponent in the opening round will allow for a fresher opposition by the Eastern Conference Final. Ovie and Holtby rallied to beat the Lighting a year ago and with the ultimate confidence booster on their right hands, I am putting the defending champions in the mix.
3) Vegas. This isn’t your daddy’s Golden Knights. These aren’t even your big brother’s second-year team. This club changed as few have ever been transitioned at a trade deadline. Mark Stone added skill, leadership, and an intangible that has been absorbed by the organization. With two legitimate lines that can score and a bottom six that adds stability and energy, Gerrard Gallant has the best compliment of forwards he’s ever had. (two years). VGK also has the best goaltender in the Western Conference. Put the Kights down as my number three.
4) Winnipeg. Expectations were raised when the Jets kicked the door down last spring and marched to the third round. The slightest of falloff and some significant injuries have combined to hold the club back. Recently there has been an awakening. Mark Schiefele has some jump, Kevin Hayes has added size and Kyle Connor just keeps on keeping on. When Buff is back and Patrik Laine finds his groove, the Jets are cup contenders. Winnipeg has to get better, but I think the road to the SCF is a little easier this season.
5) Calgary. I would have put the Flames higher but they didn’t make the playoffs last season. I believe in the lessons that losing teaches a team and the previous four have all been taught well. Calgary will be fun because of three main factors. Goaltending is going to be a talking point until the third round and maybe longer. Matthew Tkachuk will be an absolute joy to watch in a playoff environment. He has tenure, he has game, and he has swagger. The top line can score at a pace matched by very few. I am really excited about the return of the Red Mile. A Calgary vs Winnipeg matchup in the Western Conference Final would be epic and require my presence.
There is my Top Five. Disagree if you like, hell, send me your own top five. I reserve the right to alter this on the eve of the playoffs, but with only a few nights left in the season, I like this group.