TORONTO, ON - APRIL 07: Toronto Maple Leafs Center Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his 1st period goal with teammates on the leaf's bench during the final NHL 2018 regular-season game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 7, 2018 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, ON., Canada. (Photo by Jeff Chevrier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NHL is the has the most competitive and unpredictable round of playoffs between the big four sports in North America. This is no more evidenced by the lack of Presidents Trophy Winner’s that walk away with the Stanley Cup in the same year. Over the last 10 NHL season’s only two teams that have finished the regular season with the highest point total and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Only two other teams have even made it to the conference finals.

This year looks to be no different as both conferences have about four or five different teams that could represent their side in the Stanley Cup Final. Last year it was Nashville’s dominating run to the finals that caught the hockey universe by surprise and the year before it was the San Jose Sharks. Expect to see at least one dark horse in the Stanley Cup Final again this year.

3 Stanley Cup Playoff Dark Horses

Toronto Maple Leafs – 3rd Atlantic Division (105 Pts)

The Leafs are looking to build off of their 2017 playoff exit when they took the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals to six games in an incredibly tight contest. Each of the six games played in the series was decided by one goal and only one was decided before overtime. The matchup showed that the Leafs were going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future and Mike Babcock‘s squad has confirmed that suspicion throughout 2018 as they finished with the third best record in the Eastern Conference.

This year the Leafs are deeper, more experienced, and more skilled than last season but draw a difficult first-round matchup with Boston. Toronto took the season series 3-1 but the Bruins have looked like a true Stanley Cup favourite over the last three weeks of the season — even taking first place from Tampa for a few days. However, the Bruins lack forward depth past their stellar first line and could struggle if that Patrice Bergeron and company fail to produce in every game.

Toronto had key injuries late in the season to their best player Auston Matthews and starting goalie Frederik Andersen but still only finished with one fewer win than Boston. They also had the second most goals for, second best powerplay percentage and tied for the most games won at home in the Eastern Conference. Anyone writing the Leafs off early needs to understand Toronto put up a fight with a co-Stanley Cup favourite last season could realistically beat any team in the entire Eastern Conference.

Anaheim Ducks – 2nd Pacific Division (101 Pts)

The Ducks cannot catch a break this year. Every time you look back at the Ducks roster you will find a new injury to a new key player — the most recent being Cam Fowler. Despite this, Anehiem has not missed a beat since early February. Since February 15th the Ducks are 17-5-2 and have only dropped points to two playoff teams (Winnipeg and Nashville) in their seven losses. The Ducks draw an intriguing first-round matchup with San Jose but should still be the favourites to advance considering how the Ducks finished the season.

This has largely hinged on the play of their captain Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, and goalie John Gibson. Getzlaf has played incredible when healthy posting a 1.08 PPG average, and his pairing with Rakell on the top line has helped the 24-year-old post career highs in goals, assists, and points. Together with Corey Perry, they form one of the Western Conferences best trios. Gibson has also been great despite lingering injuries all season; finishing the year with 60 starts, a .926 SV% and 2.43 GAA. He helped his team finish the regular season third in goals against and fifth in PK%.

Past their superstars, the Ducks have a great shot at the Cup because of their depth and playoff experience. A lot of people are forgetting that the Ducks came within two games of the finals last year and are playing better hockey right now than they were going into last years playoffs. They are missing Patrick Eaves this season but have adjusted to injuries all year and will have to again in the postseason. If Gibson’s incredible play continues and Getzlaf channels his playing style from last years playoffs, the Ducks should be a favourite to win the whole Western Conference.

Philadelphia Flyers – 3rd Metropolitan Division (98 Pts)

It’s not easy drawing a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in the first round of the playoffs, but the Flyers could be the kryptonite that ends the Penguins reign. Perhaps the greatest instalment of the battle of Pennsylvania came in 2012 when a thrilling six-game series game series saw Claude Giroux fight Sidney Crosby, James Neal getting so frustrated he tried to end then-rookie Sean Couturier‘s entire career, and three 12 goal games. Though the teams have both changed drastically since, there is never a clear-cut favourite in this rivalry.

This year it is once again going to be a matchup of the goaltenders. Matt Murray has experienced a terrible sophomore slump but only has to outduel Philly’s inconsistent goaltending combination of Petr Mrazek and Brian Elliott. Elliott will likely start game-one needing to improve upon his .909 SV% against a team that leads all playoff teams in shots per game. 2016 was Elliott’s only real playoff run – when he lead the Blues to the conference finals – and will need to find that form if the Flyers are to push through the first round.

The Flyers are the biggest dark horse in the entire playoffs because they have the ability to get in other teams heads and stay there for a while. Wayne Simmonds and Giroux both play a very feisty style of hockey and in the playoffs, a mental advantage can force other players into very uncharacteristic play. Radko Gudas is also always a good bet to stir the pot on the third defensive pairing for the Flyers. Philidelphia remind me a lot of Boston right now and could make a lot of noise in an Eastern Conference that is currently wide open.

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