Who’s your dark horse Stanley Cup contender from the Eastern Conference?
Corey Pronman: Looking at the Vegas odds, the two teams that stand out to me are primarily the Boston Bruins, and less egregious are the Blue Jackets. For the Bruins, if Tuukka Rask gets himself back to being an above-average No. 1, they’ve been the top team in terms of even-strength shot differential all season and have steadily inched their way up the standings. There is young (David Pastrnak) and older (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara) star power up and down their lineup. I’d love to be taking Columbus at 12-1 odds, though. They out-chance teams and they finish chances at a way above-average rate with a deep lineup of skilled skaters albeit lacking a superstar. They get great goaltending with Sergei Bobrovsky. I never thought I’d heard myself say this but the Blue Jackets have a very legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup.
Joe McDonald: With the Bruins playing as well as they are under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, they are the easy choice here. My one concern, however, is the workload Rask has once again had to handle because the of the team’s backup shortfall. He’ll likely end the season playing close to 65 games again and that doesn’t bode well for a goalie who will be relied on for a deep playoff run. As far as winning the conference, I’m going with the New York Rangers as my dark horse. They have the potential to get hot quick, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist has the ability to carry the Rangers on a deep run. They’re a strong team but a dark horse given the strength of the Metropolitan Division.
Pierre LeBrun: The Tampa Bay Lightning, if they get in, but a first-round matchup with the Washington Capitals, is awfully daunting. I honestly feel this is finally Washington’s year. Famous last words, I know. The Montreal Canadiens are a semi-dark horse, which seems a weak pick since they are leading the Atlantic Division, but given how lowly so many people feel about them, I would argue they fit the description as a dark horse in this context. Coach Claude Julien’s impact speaks for itself. Montreal’s record against one potential first-round opponent, the New York Rangers, is another factor. Oh, and superstar goalie Carey Price is Carey Price again. The Habs have the goods to reach the Eastern Conference finals. Can they beat the Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins or Columbus Blue Jackets there? That’s up to Price.
Rob Vollman: Nobody. This is finally going to be the Capitals’ year. I might have been tempted to choose the Bruins, but fired coach Claude Julien was one of the main attractions. The Bruins have one of hockey’s best top lines, great shot-based metrics, and the kind of goalie who can get hot for long stretches of time — but great coaching is what really makes all the difference in postseason upsets. Maybe Julien can have the right impact for the Canadiens — but only if Price gets hot.