Why each division leader has a shot at the Stanley Cup
As of today, January 2nd, the four division leaders in the NHL are the Columbus Blue Jackets of the Metropolitan division, the Montreal Canadiens of the Atlantic division, the Chicago Blackhawks of the Central division, and the San Jose Sharks of the Pacific division. Each team would be one of the top four seeds if the playoffs started today, and while they don’t, the divisions do seem to more or less be solidifying. So why do each of these four teams have a shot at the Cup, and who’s got the best one?
Columbus Blue Jackets:
The Jackets came out of nowhere real quick, currently posting a 15 game win streak, the season record so far. In this time the Jackets went from 5th to first in the Metropolitan in a matter of a few weeks, putting up some insane numbers. Their current goal differential is a whopping +50, with 123 goals for and only 73 goals against. The next closest team in that department is the New York Rangers with a +38, not even close. If you take a look at last year, Columbus had a goal differential of -33, with only 76 points for the season and coming in second to last in the Eastern conference wild card race. So what’s changed for the Ohio team? A cursory look will give you one of the main reasons: goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky has been playing like a mad man between the pipes, “standing on his head”, as Canadians say, for just about every game he’s played in this season. He’s put up a win/loss record of 24-5, which is in sharp contrast to last season’s record of 15-19. But while record is an important stat, the real indicator in showing a goalie’s skill is the goals against average stat or GAA. Bobrovsky’s this season is an incredible 1.95, this marking the first time in his career he’s been under 2.0. Of course, this season is about halfway through, but this is clearly a trend that is going to continue for the Russian netminder, leading to what appears to be an outstanding season. But an outstanding goalie can’t win every game, so who else is helping? One player who stands out is forward and relative youngster Cam Atkinson. With 17 goals and 20 assists, he leads the team in points with 37 and in power play goals with 7. He also leads the team in shots and short-handed goals. On defense, the shift of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones have a combined 40 points and 54 hits.
If you know hockey, then you know the Canadiens. One of the NHL’s original 6 teams, the Canadiens are one of the most storied organizations in history, if not the most. After missing the playoffs last year, and placing 7th in the wild card race in the East, Montreal had something to prove and started off the season very well. Within the first month they had posted an 8 game win streak, and even though they had lost to the Blue Jackets 10-0 in a huge upset game, they have not stopped putting up points. They’re fifth in the league in points and have a notable goal differential of +27. The story follows somewhat the same as the Jackets; an incredible goalie in net. Carey Price has been regarded as an elite netminder since he posted a 1.96 GAA two seasons ago. To go along with his 2.07 GAA this season, in 781 shots he’s allowed a mere 55 goals. Price isn’t the only one winning games for Montreal, with players such as captain Max Pacioretty putting up 30 points so far, leading the team in goals and second in assists. On defense, Shea Weber is putting in a workhorse of a year, with 21 points and a +/- of 16. For those who aren’t familiar with the +/- stat, players are given a plus when an even-strength or shorthanded goal is scored for while they’re on the ice, and a minus is given while an even-strength or shorthanded goal is scored against while they’re on the ice, and the two numbers are combined. At 16 Weber has one of the highest +/- for a defenseman in the league. However, I would be lying if I said part of the Canadiens’ success didn’t come from the division they are in. To put some perspective on the difference in the four divisions, the fifth place team in the Metropolitan division would be second in the Atlantic, third in the Central, and third in the Pacific. At 50 points, the Canadiens are lower than the first second and third place teams in the Metropolitan division, giving more evidence to the fact that the Canadiens spot in the standings might have something to do with the teams chasing them for the top spot in the division.
The Chicago Blackhawks are an original 6 team and have lately established themselves once again as a staple team in the NHL. since 2010, the Blackhawks have won the Cup 3 times, and manager Joel Quenneville hopes to make this year a fourth. Last season the Hawks finished 3rd in the division, narrowly behind the St. Louis Blues and the Dallas Stars. This year they sit at first in the division and fourth in the league with 51 points. And while their goalies Corey Crawford and Scott Darling are definitely good, this team’s success comes from a few very key players. The usual suspects are all there; Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith. But the player who leads the team in points is second-year forward Artemi Panarin. Third in assists on the team with 24, and second in goals with 15, this young forward is a real threat on the ice and everyone knows it, especially the Hawks. Leading the team in power play goals and +/-, Artemi Panarin is one of the main reasons the Hawks lead the Central. He is not alone, however. Right behind him in points is longtime Blackhawks player and icon, Patrick Kane. Kane is having a bit of an off year, with only 37 points through 40 games. Of course, it is hard to follow up a 106 point season, but there was an expectation he would post numbers hopefully close to his incredible previous season, but he seems on track for close to 80 points. This, of course, is nothing to scoff at, and Kane continues to be a driving force on the Chicago team, leading in assists on the team as he usually does. Another bright spot for the team is defenseman Duncan Keith, who has continued to be a rock the Blackhawks can rely on, with 26 points and 25 assists.
San Jose Sharks:
A household name for hockey fans is former Sharks captain Joe Thornton. Thornton has been in the league since 1997, and yet every year he seems to perform. By the way, if you think James Harden has a beard, you need to see Joe’s. It’s about as long as his neck(which wouldn’t mean much, but his neck is abnormally long) and blows any other playoff beard right out of the water. Back to the Sharks; last season they finished 3rd in the Pacific, and pulled their way to the Stanley Cup Finals, only to lose to Pittsburgh 4-2. San Jose has never won a Cup, and it’s quite possible Joe Thornton is the greatest player to never win one. Thornton leads the team in assists this year, as per usual, with 23. Throughout his career Joe has been known as a pass-first player, basically to the point where teams give him more space in the offensive zone because it’s almost guaranteed he won’t shoot the puck. But while Thornton can pass all day long, the player putting the puck in the back of the net, and so far the best player on the team, is defenseman Brent Burns. Burns leads the team in goals and points, which is odd enough coming from a defenseman. But, the kicker, and maybe a worrying trend for San Jose, is that Burns leads the team in shots too, and by a wide margin. Other big names such as Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau certainly contribute, but with a majority of the Sharks game resting on Burns’ shoulders, it definitely creates an issue.
So who wins the Cup?
The obvious choice is the Blue Jackets. From solid goaltending to playmaking forwards to sturdy blueliners this team has it all. The Blackhawks are a close second but rely just a little too much on Panarin, much like the Sharks with Burns. Columbus has a wide range of players to choose from, whether it be Atkinson, unnamed forwards like Scott Hartnell and Sam Ganger who are having impactful seasons as well, the defensive combo of Werenski and Jones, and of course the impeccable performance of Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets are definitely the favorites right now but, as any hockey fan knows, Sidney Crosby and his Penguins are always lurking, and with one of the greatest players of all time leading them, they’re somehow always Cup contenders.