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Top Shelf: A quick guide to the 2013 NHL season

4:49 PM, Jan 17, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It may be a little late in arriving thanks to the lockout but the NHL season is finally upon us.

Over half a calendar year has passed since the Los Angeles Kings -- the eighth seed in the Western Conference -- completed an improbable run at their first Stanley Cup title. The Kings ousted the New Jersey Devils in six games and they'll try to become the first team to win consecutive championships since the Detroit Red Wings claimed back-to-back Cups in 1997 and '98.

The 48-game regular season kicks off on Saturday and the campaign will be a sprint for the playoffs. Due to the compacted schedule, it wouldn't be shocking to see Los Angeles or other teams considered to be Stanley Cup contenders miss the postseason this spring.

At the start of a normal season, it's difficult to predict what teams will be left standing come playoff time and this lockout-shortened campaign should make prognosticating more of a challenge than usual. Anyway, here goes nothing.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver (Northwest Division winner)

2. St. Louis (Central)

3. Los Angeles (Pacific)

4. Chicago

5. Phoenix

6. San Jose

7. Minnesota

8. Nashville

WEST CHAMPION: St. Louis

Much like last year's Stanley Cup champions, the Blues are coming out of a long rebuilding phase and they hope to follow in the Kings' footsteps by emphatically announcing their arrival with the franchise's first Stanley Cup.

Coach Ken Hitchcock worked magic for the Blues in 2011-12, taking over for the fired Davis Payne early in the campaign and leading St. Louis to a 43-15-11 record over the last several months of the regular season. The club also landed its first division title since 1999-2000, but after ousting San Jose in the opening round, the Blues were unceremoniously swept by the Kings in the conference semis.

It's no secret the postseason has been anything but kind to St. Louis throughout its history. Although the Blues made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three NHL seasons from 1968-70, the club is the only surviving franchise of the Expansion Six to have never won a Cup. Since making it to the conference finals in the spring of 1986, the Blues have made it past the second round of the playoffs on one occasion when they lost to Colorado in 2001.

So, there's some historic playoff futility standing between the Blues and a Western Conference title this season, but the lockout-shortened schedule could help erase the ghosts of past postseasons.

The Blues are a relatively young team and that youth should serve them well during a season when playing four games a week will not be uncommon.

Secondly, St. Louis has a unique situation in the crease with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, who were both legitimate Vezina Trophy candidates after the 2011-12 campaign. Having that type of depth in net gives Hitchcock the opportunity to not wear either netminder out during the regular season.

Lastly, Hitchcock has earned a reputation as a taskmaster who is eventually tuned out by his players. However, with this sprint of a season ahead of us, a no-nonsense guy like Hitch may be just the coach to keep his players focused with so many games on the slate in such a short period of time.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. New York Rangers (Atlantic Division winner)

2. Boston (Northeast)

3. Washington (Southeast)

4. Pittsburgh

5. Philadelphia

6. Ottawa

7. New Jersey

8. Carolina

EAST AND STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: N.Y. Rangers

In 2011-12, the Rangers put forth the franchise's best effort since winning it all in the spring of 1994. New York claimed its first division title and regular-season conference crown since 1993-94 and booked the franchise's second trip to the Eastern Conference finals since reaching hockey's peak over 18 years ago.

Now with expectations raised for this season, anything less than matching the heights of '94 should be considered a disappointment.

Even though the Rangers won two playoff series last spring, the postseason seemed like a slog for head coach John Tortorella's troops. New York needed seven games to beat both Ottawa and Washington, the conference's eighth and seventh seeds, respectively, before losing to No. 6 New Jersey in six games.

One of the main reasons New York struggled in the playoffs against what should've been inferior opposition was the club's lack of scoring depth.

The Rangers boast one of the world's best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist and Tortorella has everyone buying into his mantra of defensive responsibility, but the 2011-12 Rangers lacked an explosive offensive element. Last summer, however, general manager Glen Sather may have landed the missing piece when he acquired prolific winger Rick Nash in a blockbuster trade with Columbus.

Nash has become a perennial 30-goal scorer by combining size, skating and skill and his presence alone should take some pressure off other New York forwards like Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards.

Although the power forward has notched 30 or more goals in each of the last five seasons, the one thing nobody really knows is how Nash will perform in the postseason. He only made one trip to the playoffs during his nine-season run with the Blue Jackets and that ended quickly after a four-game sweep at the hands of Detroit.

Much like Hitchcock, Tortorella isn't the type of coach to let complacency creep into his roster and his fiery style could work well during the shortened season.

According to Las Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the odds-on favorites to win the Cup, but the division rival Rangers are the NHL's real team to beat in 2013.

AWARDS

HART TROPHY (MVP): Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh

Honorable Mentions: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay; Jonathan Toews, Chicago.

VEZINA TROPHY (best goaltender): Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles

Honorable Mentions: Henrik Lundqvist, N.Y. Rangers; Mike Smith, Phoenix.

NORRIS TROPHY (best defenseman): Shea Weber, Nashville

Honorable Mentions: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa; Kris Letang, Pittsburgh.

CALDER TROPHY (top rookie): Justin Schultz, Edmonton

Honorable Mentions: Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida; Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis

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