3 dark horses that could make Stanley Cup push in 24-team format
The NHL postseason is unpredictable in a normal year. But under current circumstances, which may include a three-to-five month wait before 24 teams head into a revamped Stanley Cup Playoffs after a brief tune-up at most, there's no telling what could happen.
With the league and players' union reportedly progressing toward an expanded 24-team postseason format, we decided to put together a list of three dark-horse teams that could surprise and embark on a deep playoff run.
Only clubs that wouldn't have made the playoffs in a normal 16-team format based on points percentage were included.
New York Rangers
Record: 37-28-5 (.564 PTS%)
Rank: 11th in Eastern Conference
Absolutely nobody would want to face the Rangers in the playoffs. They have firepower up front with Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, a young, but talented blue line led by Tony DeAngelo, Adam Fox, and Jacob Trouba, and a phenom goaltender in Igor Shesterkin.
Shesterkin went 10-2-0 in 12 starts with a .932 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average after he was recalled from the AHL midseason. If the 24-year-old can pick up where he left off when the season resumes, he'd hide some of the club's defensive warts and allow the offense to go to work.
With an average age of 26.2, the Rangers are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets as the league's youngest team. This may help them get back up to speed quicker than some of the more veteran squads in the Eastern Conference, like the Boston Bruins or Washington Capitals.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Record: 33-22-15 (.579 PTS%)
Rank: 9th in Eastern Conference
The Blue Jackets have been a resilient group this season. The club lost Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency and dealt with an abundance of injuries but managed to carve out a rather impressive campaign.
Though the timing of the NHL's postponement wasn't ideal for anyone, injury-riddled teams like the Jackets stood to benefit more than others. At the time of the pause, Columbus was without Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexandre Texier, and Josh Anderson. Perhaps with the exception of Anderson, who was given a four-to-six month timeline at the beginning of March, the Jackets would have all key pieces back in the fold.
The Blue Jackets play a grinding, defensive style of hockey that can be effective in the playoffs and are backed by a stellar goaltender in Elvis Merzlikins. The St. Louis Blues used a similar formula to win the Cup a year ago.
Record: 37-28-6 (.563 PTS%)
Rank: 9th in Western Conference
The Jets would be a frightening postseason opponent. If the series turns into some river hockey, Winnipeg's offensive core of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers can go toe to toe with any in the league. If the series morphs into a defensive battle, the Jets have Vezina Trophy favorite Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes.
The blue line has been Winnipeg's Achilles' heel this season as the club lost Trouba, Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot from a year ago. But both Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey stepped up, and Dylan DeMelo was an under-the-radar trade-deadline pickup.
It's also possible that the Jets get Bryan Little back after the forward missed all but seven games this season due to a concussion and then a perforated eardrum.