Five games left of the season and the Tampa Bay Lightning have 306 goals for, 100 fewer against, and were 21 points clear of the next closest competitor with a 59-14-4 record. It’s finally all coming together for the Bolts to finish with a historic regular season and potentially go on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2004. But as we know in the NHL, upsets happen on a regular basis, and it’s not always the best team that ends up winning the league’s ultimate prize. That's why Tampa Bay can be found at relatively long odds of +200 to win the Cup when you consider their dominance.
With this in mind, we look to the dark horse contenders to win the Stanley Cup this year. They may not have proven themselves as well as the Lightning have, but over the course of four grueling postseason series, these teams catch momentum and give Tampa Bay a run for its money.
Only two of Nashville’s top ten point scorers had played a full 77-game campaign with five games remaining, with the likes of Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson missing well over 15 games each, and P.K. Subban and Kyle Turris skipping huge chunks of the campaign. But now, the Predators are fully fit and have been reinforced by some huge players – both in terms of personality and physical strength – with Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds.
Entering the final five games in good form, Nashville is unlikely to claim the Central Division at odds of +550, but they certainly have the players to be a major player in the postseason. The bulk of the team is well-versed in what it takes to make it to the Finals, having done so in 2017, and seeing as they’re all fit, they can certainly take on the best that the Western Conference has to offer.
The Predators are fifth favorites to win the Western Conference at +575 – odds which, at this time, are heavily influenced by regular season standings over team ability – but should they defy these odds and make it, they’ve already proven that they can conquer the Lightning.
In their two meetings with the Bolts this season, Nashville has had two wins, scoring seven goals while limiting the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners to a measly three. Nashville’s penalty kill was a huge factor, as was the team’s discipline, stopping the Lightning from scoring on all four of their man-advantage opportunities. Dominance in the faceoff circle also helped the Predators to control Tampa Bay, winning 61.9 percent of all faceoffs across the two games.
Should the Lightning and the Predators meet in the Finals, Nashville’s +1500 odds to win the Stanley Cup will be seen as a steal, especially if taken each-way.
Admittedly, it is very rare for a team to repeat and win the Stanley Cup two years running, and the Lightning have certainly stuck it to the Capitals twice this season. But with two Conference Finals losses in the last three seasons, if any team is going to stop the Bolts from making it to the Finals, it’s going to be the top contender from the other half of the Eastern Conference bracket.
Last season, Tampa Bay was demolishing all that stood in their path, sinking the upstart New Jersey Devils 4-1, then doing the same to far superior Boston Bruins. But in the Conference Finals, the Capitals managed to utilize their underdog status to go all-in against the Lightning with the difference-maker eventually being goaltender Braden Holtby, who shutout the Lightning in Game 6 and Game 7. Set for a similar route with the Lightning winning the Atlantic Division and the Caps at -320 to win the Metropolitan Division, we may see a repeat of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
At long odds of +1600 to win the Stanley Cup, the Capitals are certainly dark horses, once again, to go all the way. But there’s no doubt that Washington boasts a strong team and, having been able to stifle and quash a very similar Tampa Bay outfit in 2018, it may just be enough to do so again in 2019.
If you like to back the underdogs, consider the Nashville Predators and the Washington Capitals as good dark horse selections as we approach the postseason.