Despite the scare of positive COVID-19 cases this past Friday, the NHL is moving forward with their return-to-play plan. Training camps will begin on July 10, and the play-in round of the 24-team tournament will kick off on July 30.
As is the case every year, there are proverbial favorites in the playoffs, but there are always teams that shock the world and make a deeper run than most expected. Here are four dark horse teams that can win the Stanley Cup once the season restarts.
4. Winnipeg Jets
Forget about the Chicago Blackhawks, the Winnipeg Jets have the best chance of the lower-seeded Western Conference teams to reach the Finals. The Jets have four great players who can put the puck in the back of the net in Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and Patrick Laine, all of whom have tallied over 60 points this season. That alone should instill fear in opposing defenses and goaltenders. Not to mention, Winnipeg has Connor Hellebuyck, who led the league in shutouts (six) and is a strong candidate to win the Vezina Trophy. The Jets start off their tournament against the Calgary Flames, and should advance with relative ease. After that, they can bulldoze their way out of the Western side of the bracket and reach the NHL's championship finale.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets
Entering the 2019-20 season, everyone thought the Columbus Blue Jackets would drop off after losing the likes of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. That never happened, as the Blue Jackets solidified themselves as one of the best young teams in the league. Credit deserves to be given to head coach John Tortorella, who built a team full of grinders, and kept the team in the playoff picture despite their plethora of injuries. The good news is that Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Cam Atkinson are all expected to be ready to go once the tournament begins. Add that to the fact that they have a pretty favorable matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Blue Jackets have the chance to make a run to the Finals. It certainly helps that "Coach Torts" knows what it takes to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.
2. Dallas Stars
When you look at the Western Conference, many will point out the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Vegas Golden Knights as the favorites to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. But what about the Dallas Stars, the other top seed in the conference? The Stars have quality scorers in Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Denis Gurianov, a tough defense that includes John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, and a stout goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. On top of that, the Stars went 6-3-2 against the aforementioned top Western Conference teams this season! You've all been warned: don't sleep on Dallas.
1. New York Rangers
Out of all the teams in the play-in round, the New York Rangers present themselves as the most serious threat of the bunch. Prior to the halt caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Rangers were the hottest team in the league. New York boasts two of the best playmakers in Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, a stellar support group, and a young stud goaltender in Igor Shesterkin between the pipes. Their first-round opponent in the Carolina Hurricanes were vocally against facing them in the playoffs, and we guarantee other teams will feel the exact same way once the Rangers advance past the qualifying round. If you're betting individuals, put money down on the Rangers!