On Saturday, March 22, 2014, the Boston Bruins won their 12th straight NHL game. The Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins have been locked in virtually all season long, as division winners, and favorites to represent the Esastern Conference in the 2014 Stanley Cup final. Worthy of note, Saturday's competition also saw the Philadelphia Flyers beat the St. Louis Blues 4-1, and the Tampa Bay Lightning pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to overtime before losing 4-3. Philly and Tampa are two teams which should not be overlooked as the regular season winds down, and playoffs begin.
A quick look at these two dark horse contenders:
Philadelphia Flyers: The win over St Louis was the team's fifth straight win. All the wins were against playoff caliber teams. Not just the offense has been clicking, but they are playing very well defensively as well, only allowing eight goals against during the streak. The wins came against Pittsburgh (twice), Dallas, Chicago, and St Louis. The top two lines, Lacavalier/Simmonds/Schenn, and Giroux/Hartnell/Voracek have been dominant, the third and fourth lines have been gritty, and scored timely goals. Goalie Steve Mason has begun to play extremely well, and veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen continues to provide stability on the blueline. The horrible start to the season (losing 11 of the first 15 games) makes their current point total a bit deceptive. Do not take this team lightly, come playoff time.
Tampa Bay Lightning: After trading away longtime team captain Martin St Louis, the team struggled. It took time for newly arrived former NY Rangers captain Ryan Callahan to adjust to his new teammates, and for his new teammates to understand the style of Callahan. After losing the first three games after the trade, Tampa found the groove, and won five straight before the OT loss to Pittsburgh. Tampa will benefit greatly from both the hunger of Steven Stamkos who recently returned from a broken leg, and the drive and motivation of Callahan. Callahan is slated to become a UFA this summer. How well he plays down the stretch, and into the playoffs, will likely affect his value as he hits the open market. These two factors, along with the steady play of Ben Bishop in goal, will make this team a force to be reckoned with, as they head into the postseason.
Honorable mention -
Washington Capitals: This has been a puzzling bunch all year long. Though they understand the concept of team defense, it has been a challenge, as evidenced by the ridiculously poor plus/minus rating of superstar forward Alex Ovechkin. The Caps have played well as of late, with notable victory over the Anaheim Ducks, and also took the Los Angeles Kings to a shootout. It appears as though the dedication level is there, but they have a long way to go if they are to achieve a lofty goal such as Conference champion. In fact, they are still on the very fringes of the wildcard race. The addition of goaltender Jaroslv Halak at the trade deadline, has proved invaluable.
Toronto Maple Leafs: On Saturday night, they finally got center Dave Bolland back from injury. Bolland is a tough defensively responsible player, and his presence is crucial to any deep playoff hopes the team may have. Now with Bolland, Tyler Bozak, and Nazem Kadri in the lineup, the Leafs are pretty solid up the middle, though they have been a bit off their game lately. One of the other key issues is in goal. Jonathan Bernier has been injured, and they will need him healthy and ready to go, if they are to dream the impossible dream.
Detroit Red Wings: Wings have battled through an incredible rash of injuires, and have fought and clawed their way into the wildcard race. If the team can get healthy at the right time, they could be dangerous. Two of the main injuries have been to Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk. Without those two dynamic centers, it would be irtually impossible for the team to make a deep playoff run. With both of them in the lineup, anything can happen. Last season this team barely squeaked into the playoffs, and then upset the #2 seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round. They held a three games to one lead over the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks before losing in OT of Game 7 in the second round. Do not question the resolve of this team.