Four stealth Stanley Cup contenders that could shock the hockey world this spring

ByJoe McDonald ESPN logo
Friday, March 17, 2017

A few teams are obvious choices to win the Stanley Cup. With the regular season in the home stretch, it's easy to pick the Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks as favorites.

But, given the talent in the league, it's possible for any team that reaches the playoffs to embark on a deep postseason run and eventually hoist the Stanley Cup in June. The toughest part is securing that playoff spot. But once a team is in, anything can happen.

Here are four teams that have the ability to shock the hockey world this spring.

Tampa Bay Lightning

It's been a difficult season for the Lightning. Injuries and inconsistent play derailed them early, but a late surge has the Bolts -- who are 5-0-1 in their past six games -- on the edge of the playoff bubble. The Lightninghave kept pace with theNew York Islanders who currently own the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and, like the Lightning, have 77 points.

After goalie Ben Bishop was traded to the Los Angeles Kingson Feb. 27, Andrei Vasilevskiy became the Lightning's No. 1. As expected, he's been solid, going 6-0-1 with a 1.38 goals-against average and a .958 save percentage. During the Eastern Conference finals last spring, Vasilevskiy proved he could handle the job after Bishop suffered a season-ending leg injury. Vasilevskiy thrives on the big stage, and his continued success could help Tampa Bay make that final push toward a playoff berth.

The Lightning will also get a major boost when captain Steven Stamkos returns to the lineup after a four-month hiatus following his knee surgery in November. Stamkos has been practicing with the team, but a return date has not been set. And there's the play of forward Nikita Kucherov, who has been outstanding. If the Lightning do earn a postseason berth, he should be in the discussion for the Hart Trophy. And his team will be dangerous.

New York Rangers

Even though the Rangers are currently a wild-card team, it's not really fair to call them a dark horse. New York has 90 points and has held its own in competitive Metropolitan Division,so the Rangers clearly have the potential for a deep run.

Valid questions remain about whether they're built for the postseason, especially with veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvistsidelined for two or three weeks with a hip injury. His late-season hiatus should be a blessing in disguise. The 35-year-old has played 51 games this season (including 49 starts) and has a 30-17-2 record, so getting a much-needed breather at this point of the season should help keep him fresh for the playoffs. Lundqvist is more motivated than ever because, after 12 years in the league, he understands how difficult it is to win a Stanley Cup -- and that his chances of accomplishing that feat are becoming less likely each season.

The Rangers are heavy and deep. With a healthy Lundqvist leading the way and a favorable first-round matchup, New York has a chance to make some noise this spring.

St. Louis Blues

No one, and I mean no one, is picking the Blues -- and that's exactly why they have the chance to be a dangerous team in the playoffs. Sure, losing defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk via trade to the Capitals on March 1 was a big blow, but St. Louis is finding its consistency at the right time and is clinging to the final wild-card spot in the West.

When the Blues were losing earlier this season, they weren't getting production from their best players. They are now. They are scoring the type of goals around the net and in the dirty areas that win games in the playoffs. Since assistant coach Mike Yeo took over for the fired Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1, the Blues have found a sense of purpose and they're playing well as a group. Overall St. Louis understands what it takes to win in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It could be an interesting spring in the Gateway City if the Blues are still playing.

Edmonton Oilers

Led by 20-year-old captain Connor McDavid, Edmonton looks likely to earn a postseason berth. The Oilers have youth, talent and a veteran presence -- which could provide a perfect storm for a deep playoff run. GM Peter Chiarelli decided to sign veteran free-agent forward Milan Lucic last summer for a few reasons. Sure, Lucic's looming presence serves as protection for McDavid and his teammates, but the veteran also brings a Stanley Cup-winning mentality. He understands firsthand what it takes to win, as he helped the Boston Bruins bring home a Cup in 2011 and returned to the finals in 2013 before losing to the Blackhawks. Lucic is also the type of leader who can keep his teammates focused and even-keeled during a stressful postseason run.

Speaking of focus, McDavid is beyond his years in that category, which bodes well for his first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Goaltending needs to be outstanding for the Oilers, and Cam Talbot has been solid for the majority of the season. He has limited Stanley Cup playoff experience, but he had a front-row seat as Lundqvist's backup when the Rangers reached the finals in 2014.