Who's the Top Stanley Cup Contender: Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins?

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2013

There's something dramatic about the Stanley Cup playoffs that the other sports don't have.

It's the unpredictability factor. The NHL has it by the boatload, while the other sports have it in small doses.

Last year, the Los Angeles Kings rose from the No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup. A couple of years before that, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Montreal Canadiens were the seventh- and eighth-seeds in the Eastern Conference. They played for the Eastern Conference championship.

This year may be just as unpredictable as ever before. However, this could also be the year that the two favorites make their way through their conferences and fight for the Stanley Cup.

The Chicago Blackhawks were the most dominant team in the league from start to finish. They roared through the first 24 games of the season without tasting a regulation defeat and there was not much slippage in the second half. They had a few lulls that made them seem human, but they responded to every challenge and won the Presidents' Trophy.

The Pittsburgh Penguins did not get off to the same start as the Blackhawks, but they were solid in the early going. However, once they found their rhythm, they quickly became the best team in the Eastern Conference. Sidney Crosby came back to top form after two seasons that were torn apart by concussion-related issues. The Penguins won 15 games in a row in March to show the hockey world that they were not to be trifled with.

Neither the Blackhawks nor the Penguins may be all-time great teams, but they are the two best teams in the NHL this year.

The Blackhawks were done in by their goaltending in last year's playoffs as Corey Crawford let in two shaky overtime goals against the Phoenix Coyotes that led to the Blackhawks' defeat. Crawford and backup goalie Ray Emery have been sensational this year, but they they still have to prove it in the postseason.

Poor goaltending and soft defense were issues for the Penguins in last year's playoffs. They were humiliated by the Philadelphia Flyers and were punished in the first round. The defense is much improved and Marc-Andre Fleury looks much steadier this year.

The Penguins' biggest issue may be Crosby's health. His jaw was broken by a deflected shot March 30 and the idea was that he would be cleared to return to the playoffs. That may be the case, but it has not happened yet (source: NHL.com).

The Penguins should be able to handle the eighth-seeded Islanders with or without Crosby, but once they get past the first round, they will need him back in the lineup.

If these two teams play to the form they showed in the regular season, they should meet in a classic Stanley Cup Final.

The Penguins have a boatload of scoring and are probably more explosive than the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks play an exceptional puck possession game and may also be a better defensive team than the Penguins. Chicago would also have home-ice advantage in this series.

This would be a series decided by the team's star players and their goaltenders.

If Crosby (15 goals, 41 assists, plus-26) is healthy, he would be the brightest star. He was at his best prior to his injury, playing the game with an innate knowledge of where the puck will be in the next two seconds. That vision allows Crosby to get to the spot with his stick prepared to take a shot or make a pinpoint pass.

Last year's Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin (33 points) can take a tag from Crosby and relieve the pressure. The Penguins can also depend on James Neal (21 goals), Chris Kunitz (22 goals), Pascal Dupuis (20 goals) and Kris Letang (38 points) for a big chunk of their offensive production.

The Blackhawks may not be quite as explosive but they have Jonathan Toews (48 points, plus-28) leading the way. He is not Crosby's equal as an offensive force, but he may be the best all-around player in the game.

He is sensational face-off man, plays excellent defense and sees all three zones extremely well. Patrick Kane (23 goals, 55 points) has always been a talented offensive player, but there's a relentlessness to his game that he did not have before this season.

Marian Hossa (17 goals, plus-20) plays the power game as well as any of the Blackhawks. He can fend off a defenseman with one arm and still get his shot or a pinpoint pass away.

Combine those three with Patrick Sharp (20 points in 28 games), rookie Brandon Saad (27 points, plus-17), Duncan Keith (27 points) and Brent Seabrook (20 points) and it's obvious why Chicago has such a substantial team.

The duo of Crawford and Emery (both had a 1.94 goals against average) should give Chicago the edge in the net. Fleury is good (2.39 GAA), but he is not at the level of the two Chicago netminders.

In the end, Chicago's all-around play, defense and home-ice advantage should give them the slightest of edges over Pittsburgh's offensive prowess.

Both teams have a lot of work to do to get to the Stanley Cup Finals, but if they perform as expected, the Blackhawks would have the slightest of edges.


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