It’s not unusual, in a normal season, to have an NHL team come out of nowhere and win the Stanley Cup. Such is the case when you’re dealing with a grueling tournament that can be swung by red-hot play at one position.
This, of course, is no normal season. The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs will be a tournament like no other when the NHL restarts in August — at relatively neutral sites in bubble conditions with no fans in the stand. Slightly abnormal.
That probably will make predicting a winner more difficult than ever. It’s certainly possible the Boston Bruins or Vegas Golden Knights or another top-flight favorite are hoisting the Cup in September, but it also feels just as likely a team from out of nowhere gets hot for two months and shocks the hockey world by winning it all.
Here are a few dark horse teams who could surprise us all and win the Stanley Cup.
The Habs certainly check some boxes. They have a world-class goalie in Carey Price who’s capable of going on an unreal run throughout the playoffs. Montreal also has a head coach, Claude Julien, whose name already is on the Cup and who has been through it all in the playoffs. It also would be the most Canadien thing for the Habs to finally break through after nearly 30 years after essentially being gifted a spot in the playoffs. We’re not counting on it, though, as Julien’s team probably doesn’t have the horses up front and might not even survive a play-in series with Pittsburgh.
There’s one school of thought entering these playoffs that says younger teams could have an advantage. The theory is that teams with younger players will be able to find their skating legs quicker and be better-suited to jump right into the grind of the playoffs after three months off. If that’s the case, the Canucks are a team to watch. No one among Vancouver’s top six scorers this season is older than 25, including a nucleus of stars in the making, including Quinn Hughes (20), Elias Pettersson (21) and Brock Boeser (22). You could add Bo Horvat to that mix, but he’s an old man at 24. Sprinkle in some veteran leadership from players like Jay Beagle and Tyler Toffoli, and you’ve got a nice little mix. And for what it’s worth, goalie Jacob Markstrom just had the best season of his career.
The Panthers have a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender, a three-time Cup champion head coach and two of the best young players in the sport. While they were the definition of league average in the regular season, that combination could be just enough to ignite a spark in a team that had much higher aspirations entering the season.
New York Rangers
If you want to talk about high preseason expectations that went unrealized, the Rangers would like to enter the chat. If you just look at their roster, you’d think the Blueshirts would be playing for a top seed, not using the gift of an expanded playoff field to try and play their way into the dance. But New York now has that chance, and few teams can match its top-end talent. The Rangers might have the best top-six potential in the league, with Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome anchoring the two lines in the middle and Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin a threat to score every time he hops over the boards. Add in a top-10 power play and a potential breakout star between the pipes in Igor Shesterkin, and New York could make bullish preseason predictions come true after all.