NHL Playoff Power Rankings: Respect the favorites, but Stanley Cup chase is wide open

In another league, in another sport, the Pittsburgh Penguins would be the runaway favorites entering the playoffs. They have the best player in the world and the reigning most valuable player, and they aren’t the same guy. They had an all-star supporting cast, and they added to it, anyway.

But this is the NHL, and this is playoff hockey, and you don’t need to be the runaway favorite to run away with the Stanley Cup. The Los Angeles Kings went on a spectacular 16-4 run last season – as an eighth seed. For some, it’s a cautionary tale. For others, it’s inspiration. What matters is not who you are or what you’ve done, but what you do now. Right now.

As we offer our annual playoff power rankings, listing the 16 teams in order of their chances to endure four grueling rounds, we will not necessarily stick to the regular-season standings or the playoffs seeds. But we will not try to anoint some version of the 2012 Kings, either.

The favorites are the favorites for a reason – because of how they are built, because of their potential to play well this time of year. But the favorites are only the favorites for now. Right now. And half the fun is seeing how wrong you can be. If you didn’t have expectations, you wouldn’t have surprises.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

To Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and company, general manager Ray Shero added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray before the trade deadline. The Penguins are all-in, and they have it all – talent, depth, experience.

But that includes concerns. Crosby hasn’t played in a month because of a broken jaw. Malkin, Letang and others have been in and out because of injuries. Though the Penguins have continued to play well, they haven’t had a chance to integrate everyone into the lineup yet. That could be good or bad.

The pressure is on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to perform better in the playoffs, and the pressure is on this star-studded team to … well, forget the Cup for now. The pressure is on to win a round first. Since winning the Cup in 2009, the Penguins have lost in the second round and then in the first round in back-to-back years. They have lost three straight series to lower-seeded teams.

[Related: Rating the 8 first-round playoff series from marquee to mediocre]

2. Chicago Blackhawks

At their best, the Blackhawks are breathtaking. They have so much speed and skill. They pounce on turnovers, the defense moves the puck up ice, and they’re gone. They didn’t lose in regulation for 24 straight games – half this shortened season.

But while their core of stars has its best supporting cast since the 2010 Cup-winning team, this is a different type of supporting cast. This is not an overly physical, gritty group. How will they react when opponents try to take away their speed and grind them down game after game?

Get ready to hear a lot about going to the hard areas. If their even-strength scoring dries up, the Blackhawks likely won’t be able to survive with their power play, which remains mediocre despite all that skill.

3. Los Angeles Kings

These Kings are arguably better than the ones who won the Cup last year. They’re still the big, heavy group they were before, but now they’re more experienced and confident. Some individuals have improved. They’re not an eighth seed this time, either.

But their defense isn’t the same, with Matt Greene recently returning from injury and Robyn Regehr filling in for Willie Mitchell. It ain’t as easy as they made it look last year, either. The first time they felt real pressure was in the Cup final, when they took a 3-0 series lead, lost the next two and had to close it out at home in Game 6.

Now they’re the defending champions, and they’re targets instead of underdogs – starting in the first round, when they face the team they swept in the second round last year, the St. Louis Blues.

4. Boston Bruins

These Bruins are arguably better than the ones who won the Cup in 2011. They’re still a deep, balanced group. They’re just as physical and mean. Tyler Seguin has established himself, Dougie Hamilton has broken in, and while Mark Recchi is gone, Jaromir Jagr is here to help their greatest weakness: the power play.

Let’s not forget, though, that the Bruins won that Cup by winning three seven-game series and riding goaltender Tim Thomas, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs’ most valuable player. Let’s not forget they lost a seven-game series in the first round last year with Thomas.

Now Thomas is in a bunker somewhere and Tuukka Rask is in goal. As well as Rask has played in the regular season, again, he has a lot to prove in the playoffs. His teammates have a lot of work to do, too, to regain their championship form. Milan Lucic is their bellwether, and he had to be scratched down the stretch to get him going.

5. St. Louis Blues

The Blues felt they learned their lesson last year. After the Kings swept them in the second round and went on to win the Cup, coach Ken Hitchcock and captain David Backes talked about how they had seen what it takes up close.

The regular season didn’t go as well as it did in 2011-12 for the Blues, but here they are back in the first round against the Kings. We’ll see if they can apply what they learned, if the additions of Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold will pay off in the playoffs, if goaltender Brian Elliott can stay hot after a miserable stretch.

This team is a lot like L.A. The Blues don’t have the same kind of names up front, but they’re another big, heavy team, another pain to play against in what could be a meat grinder in the middle of the Western Conference.

[Also: Stanley Cup odds & MVP favorites]

6. San Jose Sharks

Have the Sharks gone from perennial disappointment to dark horse? People are tired of picking them and getting burned, and this was a tough team to figure out during the season – winning streak, losing streak, winning streak.

But look at how this team has evolved: Antti Niemi has played at a high level in goal consistently. The Sharks have improved their penalty killing and adopted a more conservative style at even strength. Brent Burns has moved up front, adding size on the wing, slotting the defense better. GM Doug Wilson has made this a faster team, shedding Murray, Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus, then adding Raffi Torres.

Logan Couture has emerged as a leader, and veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have every reason to play with desperation with one season left on each of their contracts. Their window is closing, even if Wilson insists the Sharks’ isn’t.

7. Vancouver Canucks

This team has the same core that came within a game of winning the Cup in 2011, and the Sedin twins – Henrik and Daniel – are healthy. That’s a good place to start.

But is the power play potent enough for them to play their turn-the-cheek style? Can Ryan Kesler be the catalyst he was two years ago as he comes back from injury, whether he’s on the wing or at center? Is there enough depth in the bottom six? Enough grit?

And, of course, the biggest questions of all: Is Cory Schneider healthy? If not, is Roberto Luongo ready? It is a huge negative when what should be a position of strength becomes a nagging distraction.

8. Anaheim Ducks

Why so low? Why below rivals L.A. and San Jose, when the Ducks finished above them in their division? Why below St. Louis and Vancouver, too?

Because as well as they played in the regular season, as much as they deserved more attention and respect, the Ducks don’t seem as complete as the Blackhawks, Kings, Blues, Sharks and Canucks.

They have some depth in their bottom six, but not much depth on defense. Top defensemen Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray have slowed after strong starts. For the Ducks to go deep, they will need captain Ryan Getzlaf to continue playing at an MVP level, and they will need Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth to continue starring in goal.

9. New York Rangers

If you want a version of the 2012 Kings, it could be the Rangers. They underachieved during the regular season. They’re supposed to be built for the playoffs with a collapsing, shot-blocking defense and a world-class goalie, Henrik Lundqvist. They went to the Eastern Conference final last year.

But who knows? Brad Richards has not been the same player this season. Marian Gaborik has been traded. And though they have played well lately and gotten a boost from new additions like Clowe and Derick Brassard, it’s hard to read into that because they played poor competition down the stretch.

The biggest concern with this team hasn’t been the lack of offense. It has been the lack of identity. Too often the Rangers have played without the passion and work ethic that made them what they were last season. Unless they rediscover that, they won’t last too long.

10. Washington Capitals

Adam Oates turned this team around during the season. Alex Ovechkin is moving his feet, scoring goals and having fun again. Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are playing like it’s old times, too.

But the goal is not for the Capitals to be what they once were. It is for them to go deeper in the playoffs. That’s why Bruce Boudreau changed his approach to emphasize defense. That’s why Boudreau was replaced by Dale Hunter, who sat back and simplified the game even more. That’s why owner Ted Leonsis talked about the Cup when Oates was hired.

Hunter tried to win in spite of Ovechkin, cutting the minutes of the Capitals’ most important player at the most important time of year. Oates will try to win with him, putting him out not just when the Capitals need offense. It’s up to Ovechkin to reward his coach for that trust and take the next step in the playoffs.

[More: First-round NHL playoff schedule & TV info]

11. Montreal Canadiens

Yes, this is absurdly low for the second-place team in the East, but we’re doing the Habs a favor here. Expectations were modest after they finished last in the East last season. Expectations skyrocketed when they got off to a great start this season. Now, expectations are too high.

Should the Habs be satisfied just to make the playoffs? No. But are they ready to win the Cup? Not yet. This is still a team that lacks size. The Habs played well 5-on-5 in the regular season, but 5-on-5 will get tougher in the playoffs and they won’t be able to rely too much on drawing penalties and cashing in on the power play. Will they be able to swarm and cycle when things tighten up, especially against bigger teams? Will they be able to draw calls when referees let more go?

Carey Price is a concern, too. He wasn’t the goalie when the Canadiens made their run to the 2010 conference final; Jaroslav Halak was. He has all the ability to do what Halak did, but he is not on his game right now.

12. Detroit Red Wings

Funny that the Wings are playing Anaheim. It used to be that the Wings were the dominant team but vulnerable to a hot goalie. One of the prime examples was 2003, when the second-seeded Wings were swept by Jean-Sebastien Giguere and the seventh-seeded Ducks.

Now the Wings are the seventh seed hoping to upset the second-seeded Ducks – coached by Mike Babcock, the Ducks’ coach then – and the key will be goalie Jimmy Howard. He has been the Wings MVP this season and was great down the stretch, playing game after game under pressure.

Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are playing at a high level. Johan Franzen, a big-time playoff performer, has been heating up. But things are different in Detroit nowadays, from a lack of offense to the youth in the lineup to the expectations in goal. Instead of being asked not to lose games, the goalie will be asked to steal some.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, but this is not a good first-round matchup for them and not a good situation for their star scorer, Phil Kessel. The Leafs have long struggled with the Bruins, for whom Kessel used to play before a contract battle and a lopsided trade.

Yeah, the Leafs like to fight. They can stand up to the Bruins that way. But they don’t play the tough, defensive style of hockey that teams like the Bruins do in the playoffs. They give up too many shots and rely on goaltending too much.

James Reimer will have to continue his stellar play in net. Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and James van Reimsdyk will have to make the most of their offensive opportunities. And Leafs Nation will have to hope the Bruins cannot get out of their funk.

14. Ottawa Senators

They won without their best forward, Jason Spezza. They won without their best defenseman, Erik Karlsson. They won without their best goaltender, Craig Anderson. They won because they played a simple game, kept grinding, kept believing and got great goaltending no matter who was in net.

Cinderella story? They are already a Cinderella story. They enter the playoffs with no pressure and plenty of pluck. They have learned how to play through adversity and have found ways to win when goals are hard to come by, and now they have Karlsson and Anderson back.

You just wonder how long they can keep it going, especially with Spezza still out. One round? Sure. Two rounds? Maybe. But three or four? That seems like a tall order – a tall tale, not just a fairytale.

[Nick Cotsonika: Ready for chills, thrill of wild playoff ride after lockout season]

15. New York Islanders

You want to slap the Islanders on the back for making the playoffs. You want to consider this another step in this team’s evolution, especially because they’re opening with the Penguins. This team has a young core of players who have developed together. It just needs more depth, seasoning and size, especially on defense.

But wait. John Tavares has blossomed into an MVP type, the kind of player who can will his team to win. Linemates Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes are dangerous. They have Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky on the blue line, Evgeni Nabokov in goal.

If the Islanders’ suspect penalty-killing unit can withstand the Penguins’ potent power play, maybe they can make this a series. Maybe they can pull off the upset. They can skate, and if you sleep on them, you might be surprised when you wake up.

16. Minnesota Wild

Zach Parise left the New Jersey Devils, and they missed the playoffs. Ryan Suter left the Nashville Predators, and they missed the playoffs. They joined the Minnesota Wild, and the Wild made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. No coincidence.

It will be up to Parise and Suter to lead the Wild in the playoffs, too. Parise will have to score key goals, especially with Dany Heatley out and Jason Pominville hurting. Suter will have to log his usual heavy minutes against top competition alongside rookie standout Jonas Brodin, with the defense thinning out quickly behind them.

But remember: Parise and Suter signed matching 13-year deals, not matching one-year deals. As exciting as it is for Minnesota fans to taste the playoffs again, they need to consider all the young talent in the organization and take a long-term view.

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