The NHL has hit the Christmas break, which means it’s a great time for reflection. Let’s take a look at the futures and make some NHL picks to win the Stanley Cup based on what we’ve seen.
Oh, sure. Pick the favorite, why don’t ya?
Yes, that’s what I’m doing. Sure, the Blackhawks are the favorite on the NHL odds but they’ve looked so damn good. And there’s a good chance they get even better as the season goes on. Remember, this was a team that started the year with just six wins in their first 12 games. Since that time, they’ve been nearly unstoppable, going 17-5-1 over their last 23 games. What’s more is that they’ve only seen their starting goaltender, Corey Crawford, play in 20 games this year. They’ve already had to use backups for 16 games. Crawford is having one of the best years of his career with a 2.00 GAA and .923 save percentage so far. That GAA is second only to Pekka Rinne among goaltenders who have started at least 20 game.s How good would they be if played the entire way?
With an offense that’s fifth in the NHL in goals per game (2.94) and a defense that’s first with penalty kills (90.7%), this is about as complete a team as you’ll find. They’re also hungry after coming short last season. They’re the best NHL pick right now.
Tampa Bay Lightning
I’ve been big on the Lightning since the offseason and I still see some value with them at 12/1. They probably won’t be a team like Chicago in the final but if you get 12/1 now, they should have a great shot to win the East and then you can hedge in the playoffs. Or you could also just bet the win the East.
At any rate, this is a team that is about as complete as it gets in the Eastern Conference. They still have the second-most points in the East (46) even though they’ve dropped six of nine. It’s no coincidence that they’re slumping as lead goaltender Ben Bishop is hurt. They are 16-8 with him in the lineup.
But this team is complete from head to toe, with multiple lines of scoring, a solid defense and an elite goaltender. They don’t have a ton of playoff experience, which is a concern, but they’re capable of a run. They are capable of beating any team in the East in a seven-game series, so that’s why the 12/1 value is decent.
The Pens are at 8/1 and look like the best team in the conference right now. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has had an excellent season – maybe even a Vezina Trophy-like season. He’s 19-4-3 with a 2.09 GAA and .929 save percentage. As for the offense, it’s been just fine even without James Neal and all of the other parts they lost in the offseason.
The issue is that this team has choked in the playoffs a number of recent times and a lot of it has to do with Fleury. We’ve seen him play like an All-Star in the regular season only to completely melt down in the playoffs.
The reason I like them, though, is because Fleury has taken his game to another level – even if it is just the regular season – and the teams that normally give the Pens problems don’t appear to be in the mix. The Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins are both very average and aren’t even guaranteed to make the playoffs. With them out the way, the path for the Pens to win the East is much clearer. That’s why it’s easier to have faith in them.