The NHL is entering the critical stage of the season; with playoff spaces being tied up. But who will take the initiative once the knockout games begin, and are the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that everyone should fear? Or could the winners come in a surprise package in the form of either the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Tampa Bay Lightning (Currently 23/20 with Paddy Power)

When it comes to contenders for the Stanley Cup, the Lightning is on another level to their rivals.

There’s no team with a better pool of talent between offence and defence than the Lightning. Nikita Kurcherov is leading the NHL in terms of points with 88 points in just 57 games. While Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos have both scored at least 30 goals. Behind the star men, the Lightning has assembled a near-perfect depth throughout their team. Defensively, their top-six is excellent. Ryan McDonagh, Victor Hedman, and Anton Stralman are correctly placed in the roles that are tailor-made for them.

Tampa Bay is as good away from home as they are at home. They’re entirely stacked in crucial positions and could still add numbers to their roster. It’s their cup to lose.

Toronto Maple Leafs (Currently 12/1 with Paddy Power)

It’s been an incredibly fun season for Toronto, as off-season star signing John Tavares has masterfully fitted alongside Auston Matthews, Morgan Reilly, and Mitch Marner. With Reilly undoubtedly among the players that have most improved in the NHL. Their offence is as good as it gets. Any side that can boast William Nylander, Nazem Kadri and Andreas Johnsson would be regular starters for any other team in the league.

The core of the team is impressive while Frederik Andersen has yet again been a workhorse between the posts and continues to show why he is among the best goalkeepers in the world.

What’s holding the Leafs back is their defence and timing. The trade for Los Angeles puck-possession extraordinaire Jake Muzzin has helped defensively, but it still needs further work. The Leafs are still extremely young so experience may hurt them come the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins (Currently 19/1 with Paddy Power)

With the recent win over the Buffalo Sabres, the Penguins have put six points between themselves and being out of the playoffs. For most organisations and cities, that would be enough to appease the fans. However, this isn’t most teams or most cities.

To answer the most burning and pressing question with complete honesty: Yes, the Pittsburgh Penguins are again legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. There are distinct comparisons to the 2016 team.

The current crop will point to the Stadium Series game on Feb. 23. After losing Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang on the same play, the Penguins rallied around their remaining defence-men and in effect gathered around their coach’s philosophy.

These Penguins are not infinitely faster, shooting from the rafters or an avalanche of destiny like their predecessor. But the process of coming together and exerting their will over opponents sure seems the same.

The Penguins can again play with speed, they’ve become tough to play against, they’re able to dominate the walls, control the low zones offensively and defensively, their defence-man can clear the crease in addition to being able to move the puck forward, and goaltender Matt Murray is again a 6-foot-4 wall removing most daylight.