With only 10 games left in the NHL regular season, and with many of the teams in the Eastern and Western conferences sitting relatively comfortably in playoff spots I figured it would be a good time to start prognosticating on the playoff chances of various teams, and predict which teams had the best chance of hoisting the 2010 Stanley Cup. Of course, in this post-lockout era, parity is much greater than ever before, and playoff upsets are inevitable. Still, in most playoff years the cream eventually rises to the top, and in my opinion it will be one of the teams listed below that will carry home the hardware this year. Here are my picks for the top Stanley Cup contenders for 2010, counted down from 5 to 1:

5 – San Jose Sharks – A perennial regular season powerhouse the San Jose Sharks have been notorious underachievers come playoff time for the past half-decade or so. Despite an abundance of talent at forward, a strong defensive core, and a top flight goaltender in Evgeni Nabokov, the Sharks have been unable to take their game to the next level and match the playoff intensity of their opponents in years gone by. Will this year be any different? Sadly for Sharks fans, I don’t think so.

With the off-season acquisition of sniper Dany Heatley expectations by Sharks fans going into this season. Fans salivated at the prospect of Heatley and Joe Thornton – arguably the league’s premier passer – forming a one-two punch that would be the envy of the league. Heatley and Thornton have shown decent chemistry this year, but at his current pace Heatley will finish the season with between 40 and 45 goals, far short of the 50-60 most pundits were predicting.

However, if Heatley is a mild disappointment to date long-time Shark Patrick Marleau has been a pleasant surprise. With 41 goals, Marleau currently sits 4th in the league in that category. With both Marleau and Heatley a threat to score opposing teams have had a nightmare trying to defend the Sharks this season.

Unfortunately for the Sharks it is not goal-scoring that wins NHL championships, but defense and goaltending. Over much of the season the Sharks have been solid in both categories, but since the Olympic break the Sharks defense, and in particular goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, has been particularly porous – not a good sign heading down the stretch to the playoffs.

Overall, though San Jose certainly has all the pieces of the puzzle to capture a championship, questionable big-game goaltending and a tendency for stars like Thornton and Marleau to disappear in the post-season will keep San Jose from hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2010 – again.

4 – Pittsburgh Penguins – Yes, they are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and yes, they’ve been to the finals two years in a row now, but I think this year Pittsburgh is going to have their work cut out for them making it out of the Eastern Conference.

Sidney Crosby is having another terrific year. Always known as a terrific passer Crosby has reinvented his game this year, shooting the puck more, and driving the net harder rather than always looking to find a teammate. The impact to his game has been significant, and Crosby has been dueling all season long with nemesis Alexander Ovechkin for the league lead in goals – a race no one would have predicted even one short year ago.

Unfortunately, though Crosby’s been just as good or better than he was last year, teammates Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury have seen their respective games sag. Malkin, last year’s Art Ross Trophy winner currently sits 17th in league scoring, 27 points behind league leader Ovechkin. Fleury hasn’t been able to recapture the brilliance that saw him lead the Pens to the promise land last June. Amazingly, he recorded his first shutout of the year just the other night, with less than a month remaining in the regular season. He has been average at best, and he will have to regain his form if the Penguins have a hope of getting past the powerful Washington Capitals, a feat they barely accomplished in last year’s playoffs when Fleury was playing at the pinnacle of his capability.

Pittsburgh gained valuable experience over their past two playoff runs, and with Sidney Crosby leading the way, anything is possible, but I don’t like their chances of repeating, and I see them bowing out to Washington in the semi-finals this year.

3 – Chicago Blackhawks

Though fans of the Washington Capitals might argue, in my mind this is the most exciting young team in the league. With a plethora of young stars like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Kris Versteeg and Brent Seabrook, win or lose the Hawks put an entertaining product on the ice each and every night. Not only do the Hawks possess plenty of youthful enthusiasm, but all those young 20-something play with a poise belying their tender years.

However, as good as the Hawks are at the forward position and on the blueline they do have an Achillles’ Heel, and that is in net. Neither Cristobal Huet nor Antti Niemi can really be consider a bona fide number one goaltender, and their play throughout the season has been inconsistent to say the least. Fans were understandably upset when Chicago failed to make a move to address their goaltending deficiency at the trade deadline, and that failure may ultimately prove to be Chicago’s undoing in this year’s playoff run.

2 – Vancouver Canucks

Ranking the Canucks number two on this list of 2010 Stanley Cup contenders might raise some eyebrows, but in my mind it is a ranking that is well-deserved. For decades long-suffering Canucks fans have watched their team fail to achieve Stanley Cup glory, despite close runs in 1982 and 1994. In intervening years they’ve ice competitive teams, but there was always an ingredient missing. Sometimes it was a championship caliber goaltender; other times it was a lack of offense. This year, perhaps for the first time since 1994, the Canucks don’t have any glaring deficiencies.

On offense the Sedin twins have vaulted into the realm of superstardom, challenging players like Crosby, Ovechkin and Thornton for title of the NHL’s best player. With their emergence as bona fide superstars, and the improved offensive play of former grinders like Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler the Canucks have a balanced scoring attack. Having other players like Kesler, Burrows, Samuelsson and Demitra to worry about means opposing teams can’t strictly focus their defensive assets on the Sedins.

Ultimately the Canucks’ success is going to be determined by goaltending, and in that category they should have the advantage over the other teams on this list. For several seasons now Roberto Luongo has been one of the best goaltenders in the world, and he is capable of single-handedly stealing a playoff series. Luongo, much like Fleury in Pittsburgh, has been inconsistent this year, but if he can find his A game going into the playoffs, then it is hard to imagine anyone in the Western Conference beating this team in a seven game series.

1 – Washington Capitals – This team has been an absolute juggernaut all season long, and at this point, with the way they’ve dominated this year, it is hard to deny them top spot on the list of Stanley Cup favorites. Led by 2 time defending Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin the Caps are more offensively gifted than any team in the league. Backing up Ovechkin are stars like Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green. Even supposed role players like Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich have gotten into the act, contributing regularly to the Caps impressive offensive attack.

Though I said above that defense and goaltending wins NHL championships, this might be one of those rare seasons that is the exception to that rule. Washington’s defensive core is certainly far from horrible, but on many nights they give up too many chances, and only Washington’s ability to score goals in bunches keeps them from scrutiny.

In goal the picture is even cloudier. Semyon Varlamov was expected to carry the load this season, but due to injury has had to defer to veteran Jose Theodore. Varlamov is back, but has yet to find his game, giving up 14 goals in his last four games. If he continues to struggle going into the playoffs then Washington’s chances get a lot slimmer.

There you have it – the top 5 contenders going into the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. As I said before upsets happen all the time in the NHL playoffs, and there is a fair chance that another team than the ones listed above will capture hockey’s ultimate prize. The Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings and even the Phoenix Coyotes can be considered dark horse teams, and will bear watching in this year’s playoffs.

No matter how it plays out it is going to be a thrilling time for hockey fans. Every playoff year seems to get better, and 2010 is going to be no exception.