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NHL - US Sports: Battle for the Stanley Cup Begins

After a gruelling 82-game regular season schedule, only 16 are teams left standing in the NHL with tension levels only likely to rise as the playoffs begin.

One franchise is now potentially just 16 games away from getting their hands on the Stanley Cup but with a strong field qualifying for the postseason, working out who will eventually come out on top isn't easy.

The Colorado Avalanche appear the strongest team in the Western Conference and are 15/4 to get their hands on Lord Stanley's Mug with Presidents' Trophy winners and Eastern heavyweights the Florida Panthers 17/4. On paper, those are the top two sides in the playoffs but plenty of others will feel they have a chance after a regular season full of surprises and you can follow all the action on our Sports Live Streaming hub.

Panthers get their teeth into Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference looks particularly stacked with Cup contenders with the Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals ready to do battle.

Those eight teams have been the cream of the crop in the conference since the turn of the year with the New York Islanders and last season's Stanley Cup finalists Montreal Canadiens, amongst others, performing way below expectations as they missed the cut.

The Lightning are the reigning champions and are bidding to become the first team since the New York Islanders in the early 1980s to win three Stanley Cups in a row. Tampa Bay have managed to keep the majority of their cup-winning roster in tack, with the big hitters continuing to deliver for them, led by centurion Steven Stamkos.

They know how to get it done in the playoffs but are in danger of being overshadowed by their state rival, the Panthers. They have enjoyed the best season in the franchise's history, going 58-18-6 to claim first place in the East and the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the highest number of points in the regular season.

Only three of the last 18 teams to win the Presidents' Trophy have won on to win the Cup but the Panthers have built a roster capable of breaking that curse. Six members of their squad have 50 points to their names on the year and only Edmonton's Connor McDavid (123) has more points to his name than Jonathan Huberdeau's tally of 115.

The Panthers are the only side to average over four goals a game and enter the playoffs on a hot streak, winning 14 of their last 17 games.

Matthews masterclass

Florida cruised to the Atlantic title, an impressive achievement given the strength of the division, with the Maple Leafs left to chase them home as the second seed. There hasn't been a Canadian winner of the Cup since 1993 but Toronto are 10/1 to change all that and they bring an impressive asset to the table in the form of the league's top-scorer Auston Matthews.

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Matthews is the first player in a decade to bag 60 goals in a regular season and is in line to pick up the Hart Trophy, the honour handed to the NHL's MVP. He'll need to continue to fire in the goals with the Lightning first up in the playoff for a Toronto side that's got big questions to answer over their goaltending having allowed over three goals per game on average.

The Leafs and Lightning are arguably in the tougher half of the Eastern Conference playoff draw, with the Metropolitan Division champions the Carolina Hurricanes the favourites to emerge from the other side.

The Canes lost top defenceman Dougie Hamilton in the off-season but invested the money they would have spent keeping him on improving their strength in depth along the blue line and in goal. The end result has been Carolina topping most of the defensive metrics, allowing the fewest goals on average in the league.

Avalanche heading for the West

Carolina will be an extremely tough opponent but that can be said for many of the playoff contenders in the East, whereas the West could prove more straightforward.

The Colorado Avalanche ended up romping away with the Central Division and top spot in the conference, as had been expected, breaking their franchise points tally in the process. Having stumbled out of the blocks, the Avs have really got going in the second half of the season, going 39-10-5 since the start of 2022. They are strong all over the ice, ranking fourth in goals scored per game on average, ninth in goals against and are 27/20 to win the Western Conference.

They are the only franchise to have five players averaging a point a game, led by Nathan MacKinnon, while defencemen Cale Makar is having an excellent campaign. Goalie Darcy Kuemper has proven an excellent addition, posting the second best save percentage in the league since January, and it's tough to look past the Avs, despite their previous playoff failures.

The Vegas Golden Knights were expected to be their main challengers in the conference but didn't even make the playoffs with the Calgary Flames taking top spot in the Pacific in their place. The Flames and the Pacific's second seed the Edmonton Oilers are exciting teams and could spring a surprise, particularly if the league's leading point scorer McDavid can continue to stay hot.

However, the Canadian duo both have their flaws, and the Avs' biggest challenge in the playoffs could come from Central Division rivals the Minnesota Wild. They traded for veteran netminder and three-time cup winner Marc Andre-Fleury mid-season and he's helped elevate those around him on a team that had been leaking goals before then.

Kirill Kaprizov is a future superstar in the league, bursting through the 100-point barrier this season in just his second year in the league. He's well supported by the likes of Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Fiala and the Wild have pushed the Avalanche hard in their meetings this season. However, getting the better of Colorado in a best-of-seven series seems like a tall order, not just for Minnesota, but every other team in the Western Conference.

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