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Hockey is Back! Here are the Dark Horses to Get Behind

Every single season, without fail, at least one team in the NHL greatly exceeds expectations, makes it to the playoffs, kills some giants, and sometimes even has a run at the Stanley Cup. Last season, even with the Colorado Avalanche greatly favoured, it was the Montréal, home of many of the most unusually bizarre buildings of the world, which made it to the Finals, only to be undone 4-1 by Tampa Bay Lightning.

The sport of hockey itself incites such a rare mix of incredible finesse and skill with sheer physicality across a huge slate of 82 games that upsets are commonplace. Even recently, the Stanley Cup has been won by underdogs St. Louis Blues, who had only recently brought in a new head coach in 2019, and the Washington Capitals in 2018, who stopped a heavily-favoured Pittsburgh Penguins three-peat. Now, with the three-peat bearing down on the reigning champions, we are looking at the dark horse contenders who are well-positioned to stop history.

Finally, the Florida Panthers can be considered contenders

The home of Disney World and all of its secrets that you never knew existed is also the home of two top class NHL clubs. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the reigning repeat champions, but it is the Florida Panthers who look to put a cat amongst the pigeons this season. The Florida Panthers had been slowly building for the better part of a decade but were constantly hindered by an inept front office.

On August 7, 2020, however, that all changed when the team sacked their decade long general manager, Dale Tallon. Tallon had been with Florida Panthers since 2010 and n the decade that Dale Tallon spent with the club, they went to the post season three times. Unfortunately, Florida Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996 and things had to change.

Img source: miamiherald.com

The very next season after their decade long general manager left, the Florida Panthers looked like a completely different team, with some stability and truly savvy moves making way for the team’s best regular season run to date. In a regular campaign, they were going at a pace that would reach 116 points by the last game. Of course, it was sod’s law that they would meet Tampa Bay Lightning, their local rivals  and the reigning champions in the first round. Still, having improved last season to enter this season with another strong roster, the Florida Panthers have climbed into dark horse territory in the rankings.

According to Betway, as of October 19, Florida Panthers sits as the sixth favourites in the latest NHL odds to win their conference and eight favourites to go all the way, at +900 and +1800, respectively. Even with these decent odds, many would say that the Florida Panthers remain underrated. The combination of adding scoring depth, re-signing those who performed well, and the return of cornerstone defenseman Aaron Ekblad all signal a very strong campaign for the Florida Panthers.

Do the Toronto Maple Leafs finally have what it takes?

For years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been touted as a burgeoning super team that has the talent to be a menace in the playoffs for years to come. To make it clearer – the Toronto Maple Leafs failed to win a playoff series for the 17th consecutive seasons. The city that is home to one of the coolest offices to work in has struggled immensely, though, and always at the first offseason hurdle. In each of the last five seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs have made it to the playoffs only to bow out in the first round.

This may be one of the main reasons why, as of October 19, they are out at just four percent to win the Stanley Cup, despite being heavily backed to get to the postseason again at 65 percent. The recent lost from Carolina Hurricanes does not help them. By comparison, the same statistically driven predictions have the favourites, Colorado, up at 12 percent to go all the way to the top. The Buds are stacked in their forward lines, with the likes of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitchell Marner already verified superstars of the league.

Img source: torontosun.com

In fact, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews returns as the cover star for EA Sports’ annual hockey game, NHL 22. He also scored the 200th goal of his NHL career in the recent game against the Carolina Hurricanes. That said, Auston Matthews accomplished the feat in 338 games and he is the third fastest player to reach that milestone among the currently active players. Auston Matthews is also the second fastest player to 200 goals in Toronto Maple Leafs history. Before him is only Charlie Conacher who was able to accomplish that in 317 games.

Toronto Maple Leafs have also got a sturdy blueline corps, with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin at the fore. However, major question marks remain over the goaltending. They even had to call up a university goalie to fill in behind starter Jack Campbell on October 16. Still, goalie depth is not as much of an issue as goalie quality, and the Buds will be looking to trust a 29-year-old who has only once played a 30 game season in the NHL before with the glut of the games. That said, Jack Campbell’s .953 save percentage and 1.18 goals against in his first four games this season bodes well for the season.

The NHL has become very heavily weighted towards the Eastern Conference in recent seasons, predominantly because of the collapse of the three California clubs almost all at once. Still, the Stanley Cup Playoffs always see a surprise contender go on a deep run, and it is the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs who look primed to do exactly that in the season 2021/22. We will have to wait and see how this season will unravel.

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