Rick Zamperin: And now for this year’s real Stanley Cup winner

Toronto Maple Leafs' goalie Frederik Andersen and his teammates are preparing for what many people believe will be an exciting season.
Toronto Maple Leafs' goalie Frederik Andersen and his teammates are preparing for what many people believe will be an exciting season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jon Blacker

If you’re a consistent reader of my blog, first things first, thank you.

Secondly, I did not select the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup in this space on Wednesday. I was merely pointing out that EA Sports, the makers of the video game NHL 19, ran a simulation and it showed the Leafs ending up hoisting the virtual Cup.

READ MORE: Rick Zamperin: Maple Leafs will be Stanley Cup champions

Listen, I’m a diehard Leafs fan and I would love nothing more than to see Toronto march all the way to the Stanley Cup final (which I’ve actually never seen in my lifetime) and actually win the whole shebang.

My life would be complete.

READ MORE: Hopes are high as Maple Leafs embark on brand new season

But, and here’s the sticky wicket: When your favourite team has a legitimate shot at winning the Cup — and let’s be honest, the Leafs are a legit contender — fans have to set their excitement aside and be realistic.

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Can the Leafs win the Stanley Cup this season? Sure they can. They have more than enough talent on the ice, they have a great head coach, and they have cap space to add pieces before the trade deadline.

But Toronto isn’t the only Cup contender. They are among a group of teams that can win it all. Defending champion Washington, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Boston are the other top contenders in the Eastern Conference while Las Vegas, Nashville, Winnipeg and San Jose are the top dogs in the West.

And I’m sure fans in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Columbus, Philadelphia, Florida and even Edmonton and Calgary can make a case for their clubs to go all the way.

READ MORE: Edmonton Oilers look to rebound after last season’s setback

For argument’s sake, let’s say there are 10 legitimate Stanley Cup contenders this season. That’s a third of the league. The fact of the matter is only one team can win it.

The Leafs, and every other team in the NHL, wants to win the Cup. That’s why they play. But if winning the Cup is on par with the sky is the limit, the Leafs are definitely capable of getting there. Realistically, however, I think advancing past the opening round of the playoffs is a must for this team.

READ MORE: Winnipeg Jets season will be ‘long road back’ from 2018 Stanley cup run

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Forget all the hype surrounding the blue and white for a moment and think about the narrative in Toronto if the Maple Leafs lose in the first round again. It won’t be good.

Many will compare them to the pre-Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals, an ultra-talented team that never lived up to expectations and always floundered in the post-season. That is, until very few expected the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup last season — thinking their window was just about closed — and they ended up winning the franchise’s first championship. Go figure, eh?

READ MORE: Rick Zamperin: With Erik Karlsson, the Sharks have cannonballed the pool of Stanley Cup contenders

This season, I predict the Leafs will at least get to the second round of the playoffs after exercising their demons in Boston, but they will fall to Tampa Bay in the East semifinal. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s what I’m thinking.

In the Stanley Cup final, I have the San Jose Sharks — buoyed by the acquisition of perennial Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson — beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven thrilling games.

However it shakes down, enjoy the season!

2018-19 NHL predictions

Atlantic Division  1. Tampa Bay  2. Toronto  3. Boston

Metropolitan Division  1. Pittsburgh  2. Washington  3. Philadelphia

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Eastern Conference wild cards  1. Florida  2. Columbus

Central Division  1. Winnipeg  2. Nashville  3. St. Louis

Pacific Division  1. San Jose  2. Los Angeles  3. Las Vegas

Western Conference wild cards  1. Dallas  2. Calgary

Eastern Conference champion: Tampa Bay

Western Conference champion: San Jose

Stanley Cup champion: San Jose