Last year's Stanley Cup rivaled the NBA playoffs for pure action and Game 7 drama. Teams in the NHL will take stock in the offseason and prepare another assault, but who will make it and who will fall along the way?
Definite contenders

Boston Bruins

As Stanley Cup champions returning essentially the same team next year, the Bruins deserve to be considered the favorite heading into the 2012 season. Assuming Marc Savard and Nathan Horton return to form coming off serious injuries, and Tyler Seguin becomes a goal-scoring fixture, the Bruins could even be stronger than the team Tim Thomas Boston Bruins Goalkeeperthat won it all.

Is there any reason to pick against Boston? There are several: For one, the Stanley Cup is damn hard to win twice in a row no matter who you are. For another, Tim Thomas will be hard-pressed to equal his historic performance. This is more of a comment on the rare quality of Boston’s goalie play in 2011 than a knock on Thomas. It’s unfair to the goalie to expect him to be that good two years in a row. And finally, it must be mentioned that Boston was hardly dominant during its cup run. This was a team with resiliency that outlasted the other side in three seven-game series.

They were and are deficient on the power play and at even-strength goal scoring. Another deep Cup run playing the same style of hockey might be too physically exhausting even for a deep squad like the Bruins. 

Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh PenguinsConsider for a moment how well Sidney Crosby was playing before he was knocked out of hockey by back-to-back concussions in early January, with half the regular season remaining. The Kid had a 25-game scoring streak, which included 27 goals. His half-season total of 66 points was good enough to lead the Penguins in scoring by 16 points over Kris Letang. It just gets more ridiculous when you take a look at his points per game average: a league leading 1.61. Second place? Daniel Sedin, with a 1.27 average.

Quite simply, injury is the only force that could stop Crosby. If he is healthy this year, the Pens should be overwhelming favorites to hoist the Cup. This is a team with a Cup-winning goalie, a great coach, and enough solid players to push Tampa Bay to the brink in the first round of the playoffs. And they are getting back not just the best and most important player in the sport, but also the fourth or fifth-best player in Evegeni Malkin. 

Detroit Red Wings

Niklas Lidstrom Captain Detroit Red WingsIf the Red Wings were an ordinary team, one might be inclined to worry that their excrutiating seven-game loss to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference semi-finals would stick with them and damage their confidence. The Red Wings are not an ordinary team. They are synonomous with sustained excellence and in the light of their massive recent success, losing in seven after trailing 3-0 looks more like a moral victory.

Jimmy Howard needs to be better, and this team needs to learn that turning it on when they really need to, doesn’t always work. But other than that, the Wings are every bit of a serious contender. Put it this way: Nicklas Lidstrom didn’t return for one more year because he really wants to lose to the team that loses to the team that wins the cup again. The Wings are a balanced, veteran squad, and they have the cap space to make a move in the trade market if they want to.

Washington Capitals

Alexander Ovechkin Washington CapitalsThe perenial regular season favorite washed out in the playoffs once again last year. After successfully reconfiguring the roster to improve the defense, Washington was swept by Tampa Bay due to anemic goal-scoring.

The Caps’ offense sucked last year, to put it bluntly. There is no excuse for a team that dresses Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin to finish 19th in the league in goals per game.

On the plus side, this is a 100-point, division-winning team that is simply too talented to score so poorly again. Whether the Caps can finally break through and win the Cup is anyone’s guess, but with a loaded roster, they are a lock to at least see the second round.