In the 2013-14 NHL season standings on the final day of March, there are only four teams officially out of the running for the 2014 Stanley Cup. In reality, the San Jose Sharks are one of only 10 teams with a legitimate chance to win it.
Teams fight hard to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, and they sell themselves on hope. The truth is that with the average team having fewer than seven games remaining in the 2013-14 NHL season, a gambler that could bet on 10 teams to win it all and have one pay out 100 times in 100 chances.
Whether the Dallas Stars or Phoenix Coyotes grab the last wild card berth in the Western Conference, neither has any chance to win the Stanley Cup. Either can pull off an upset in the first round, maybe even ride hot goaltending to a second round victory.
No team pulls off four upsets. The 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings may have been the lowest seed to win it all, but they were better than the New Jersey Devils and probably a Vancouver Canucks team without Daniel Sedin for most of the Western Conference quarterfinals. The Blues might have been better on paper the next round but there is no way Phoenix—just two points better in the Pacific Division standings that season—was as good.
The Sharks have shown since the 2011-12 NHL season that 15 games is about the limit for truly hot streaks. Even then, teams will not win them all. If that kind of streak happens in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it could possibly carry the Coyotes or Stars to a Western Conference title, but no further.
With the number of elite teams in their way to even reach the Stanley Cup finals, such a run is not going to happen. There will be multiple teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs that are simply not good enough to beat those elite Western Conference teams.
Both the Central and Pacific Divisions have three elite teams. No wild card team makes it through three of those six teams to win the Western Conference.
Even those teams have steeper climbs because they will have to go through at least three contenders to win it all. That is why it was a goal (and officially still is, but it is not going to happen) of San Jose to win the Pacific Division and avoid at least one of those teams.
The Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions are headed by elite teams, but any team can get hot enough to knock one or even both of them out. However, only Eastern Conference teams that can win the first round without being hot have a chance to get hot enough to beat the Western Conference champion. Thus the last two teams on the list (in order from most to least likely to win it all) are severe underdogs...
The Boston Bruins have all the advantages and thus are by far the most likely Stanley Cup winners. They will only have to face one elite team in the Eastern Conference before facing a team that comes out of the Western Conference battered and travel-weary.
If it was a level playing field, the Bruins would still be the team to beat. They have star power, fantastic goaltending, depth and plenty of playoff success to draw upon.
St. Louis Blues
The best team in the Western Conference is clearly the St. Louis Blues. They are going to have home-ice advantage until at least the Stanley Cup finals and added talent to their roster at the trade deadline.
They could use a little more star power but more than make up for it in depth. They should have a softer first-round opponent that will keep them from being worn down. Still, with the strong opposition they are only about 20 percent likely to emerge from the Western Conference.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are probably the most overrated team in the NHL. They have only twice gotten to the Eastern Conference finals since their Stanley Cup title in 2010 and rely too much on their forwards. They may in fact have the weakest back end in the entire postseason if Kris Letang cannot return.
That being said, they are an elite team because they have the best forwards in the game. They also back them up with depth, have championship experience and face a weak road to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks are as good as any team but the Boston Bruins in their own end. A deep blue line and defensively-minded forwards support a top-tier goalie.
When healthy as anticipated by the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, San Jose is the deepest NHL team at forward with four truly elite players. There are only two things stopping the Sharks—a lack of offensive talent on the blue line and the fact that the team with the heaviest travel in the NHL will have to go through four elite teams to win the title.
The Chicago Blackhawks have questions in net, but so did last season's 2013 Stanley Cup champions. They have injuries to key forwards but should have them healthy by the second round when the best competition is ahead of them.
No team has more stars with as many rings with their current team. They have struggled in the 2013-14 NHL season against the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, but neither of those teams have anyone on the ice that owns a ring with their current team.
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup the last time there was a full season with many of the same players they have now. They have probably the best goalie in the world and one of three truly elite blue lines, plus solid forward depth that possesses top-end talent.
They are built for the playoffs when they know how to get things done. They added the scoring forward they lacked at the trade deadline and have heated up down the stretch. If they did not have to win four series on the road against elite competition, they might be a better bet than the Boston Bruins.
The Anaheim Ducks look like they will be Pacific Division champions and avoid the tough first-round matchup. They are deep at forward with one of the top lines in the game. They are deep on the blue line and have great goaltending.
They are also old and injury-prone at certain positions. Will they be healthy enough to beat other elite Western Conference teams? They have the talent but won the Pacific Division last season before a first-round exit.
The Colorado Avalanche are fast and skilled. They are among the best shot-blocking teams in the NHL with an elite goalie. Chances are, they will have home-ice advantage when they face the Chicago Blackhawks that they have beaten in four of five meetings during the 2013-14 NHL season.
However, they are young and most of these players have not even been in the playoffs together. They would be lucky to make the Western Conference finals much less win the Stanley Cup.
The Montreal Canadiens have the goalie and enough of a supporting skating cast to make it through the first round without getting hot. After that, Carey Price can carry them through a series or two.
If they played in the Western Conference, they would not even make it through the second round. In the Eastern Conference, they may only need to pull off one upset to reach the Stanley Cup finals where almost anything can happen.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers may be putting it together. If their current play is an indication they are matching the talent they have on paper, they could be a contender in the Eastern Conference.
They have a blue line with at least four very solid players, the best goalie over the 2011-12 and 2012-13 NHL seasons and enough scoring to get to the Stanley Cup finals. There they could face a Western Conference team without much left and win the 2014 Stanley Cup.