So now that playoff time has arrived again and after 82 games, 14 teams have been removed from Stanley Cup competition, including all the Canadian ones, it is time to get down to the nitty-gritty. When I wrote for another blog I always listed first certain teams and players who will have extra pressure on them when the playoffs begin. I will continue the tradition in NYAHB. Some of them I have already mentioned in previous articles.
1. Alexander Ovechkin
As mentioned in a previous article, nobody will have kind of pressure on them that Alexander Ovechkin will have, especially through April. He was expected to have the same type of career Sydney Crosby is having but instead it closely resembles Marcel Dionne, the best NHL player never to make even the Stanley Cup Conference Finals. Ovechkin and his Capitals have always been bounced out of the playoffs in the first two rounds, sometimes to teams of considerably lesser talent. Even more dismal is his Russian team international career with two ignominious Olympics finishes in Vancouver and even worse on home ice Sochi. He is now 30 years old and starting the downward side of his career. This may be his last chance to show he can lead a team – any hockey team – as the main man to a championship.
2. Marc Andre Fleury
Ever since Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in 2009, Pittsburgh has been struggling to find themselves in the playoffs again and the prime suspect in the struggle has been Fleury’s goaltending. Like Washington, Pittsburgh has sometimes lost to teams of considerably lesser talent. What sticks out in my mind is a horrible playoff loss to arch-rival Philadelphia in which Fleury provided the consistently worst playoff goaltending for an entire series that I have ever seen by a supposedly top goaltender. If the same thing happens in ANY round this time, his Pittsburgh career could be over.
3. Joe Thornton
Okay, the pressure is really over. He’s 37 years old and way past his prime but somehow he is still San Jose’s main guy. Somehow he is still expected to lead this team to a championship when he should be a good support player by now. But now the pressure is off because it is asking the impossible. San Jose should be rebuilding around young star players, not hanging on with Joe. Joe is an anachronism now. I used to flay him regularly in the playoffs when he was younger because he was such a disappointment. Now it will be sad to see what will happen.
4. Zach Parise
When Zach Parise returned to his native Minnesota, he was expected to put the Wild on the level with Chicago and Los Angeles. The truth is that by himself, he is simply not enough. Depending on the opponent, Minnesota is good enough to win a playoff round on occasion but they are not good enough to beat the big boys. Like Joe, it will be asking the impossible from Zach.
1. Washington Capitals
As mentioned in a recent main article, this is the team with the most pressure on them. Ovechkin/Backstrom was supposed to produce a championship like 2009 Crosby/Malkin. All the players on this team who have been around for awhile are now much older, on the brink of the downward part of their careers. For any hope, any remaining belief that this core of players, that a team led by Alexander Ovechkin has ANY chance of winning a Stanley Cup in the future, they MUST make at least the Conference Final. If they get put out in an earlier playoff round – especially to a team with much lesser talent – AGAIN – the core of this team including Ovechkin may have to broken up and a complete rebuilding done. Coach Barry Trotz will face his most difficult coaching task yet if the Capitals start to lose to a mouse-that-roared team.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
When they drafted Sidney Crosby and then Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh was expected to win championships, not championship. Since the victory of 2009, Pittsburgh has struggled to find itself in the playoffs, several times losing to lesser teams. The two men who were at the helm in 2009, coach Dan Bylsma and General Manager Ray Shero are gone. Somehow the formula that had blossomed in 2009 has been sabotaged and nobody knows why for sure. Prime suspects have been bad overall defensive play and the goaltending of Marc Andre Fleury. Still worse, they will not have Malkin in the early rounds. Pittsburgh roared down the stretch like a good team, moving up from 7th to 2nd. But if they get put out in an early round by a lesser team when they are supposed to win, there will be anguished, gut searching in Pittsburgh and perhaps a shakeup with a key trade in the off season.
3. Minnesota Wild
Minnesota used to miss the playoffs regularly and then added Zach Parise and other talent to get up the scale. But the best they can do in the playoffs is win against lesser teams like themselves, not beat the big boys, Los Angeles and Chicago. Minnesota is stuck at a plateau, not moving up. If they lose again, especially to a team that is neither Blackhawks or Kings, a close examination of the structure of this team should be ordered and maybe an upheaval in the off season will occur.
4. St. Louis Blues
When they first got a team back in 1967, St Louis was the best expansion team and made the Stanley Cup Finals their first three years. Since then they seldom make even the Conference Final. They are stuck at the first two playoff levels despite sometimes finishing first in their conference overall. St. Louis desperately wants to be on the level of Chicago and Los Angeles and break through this rut. Despite the promise of their first three years, they are the only 1967 expansion team never to win the Stanley Cup, tied with Toronto for the longest current streak without a championship. They have been sorely lacking players who rise to the occasion when the playoffs begin. This year is no exception. It is win – especially if the team is neither Chicago or Los Angeles – or face possible serious team chemistry changes in the off season.
This should be a no-brainer choice but is it? There is something about this chemistry, Washington Capitals-Philadelphia Flyers that I don’t like. The Capitals 2016 record against the Flyers is 2 wins and 2 overtime losses. Washington versus Buffalo, Ottawa, Florida, Carolina, Toronto, Detroit, etc., would make it an easy choice but against some teams including Philadelphia, the choice isn’t so automatic. If this team starts to lose to the Flyers, their morale will start to plummet rapidly. It will be the same old Ovechkin, same old Backstrom, same old Orpik, etc. New coach Barry Trotz will have a horrible time trying to plug all the leaks and rally the troops. All the pressure is on the Capitals and the Flyers have nothing to lose. The Capitals cannot lose to this team like they have done so often to lesser teams in their immediate past. Can they? CAN THEY? Yes they can. Not even new coach Barry Trotz can save this group from themselves. Philadelphia will win in 6 or 7 games and there will begin a deep rethink of building a championship team with Alexander Ovechkin as its leader, supported by Backstrom, Orpik and others. Washington is playing for its future as well as the present.
2. Pittsburgh-New York Rangers
There are several teams in the Eastern Conference that the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team struggling to find the proper playoff chemistry that has been lost since the 2009 Stanley Cup victory, did not want to face and the New York Rangers might be at the top of that list. New York has established a winning tradition against the Penguins in recent years and this year the Penguins are even weaker than before because they have to play this round without the injured Evgeni Malkin. New York knows how to beat Pittsburgh and it will be the same result as before. New York in 6 games, then a lot of anguish and soul searching in the off season for the Penguin organization and possibly the end of Marc Andre Fleury’s career in Pittsburgh.
3. Tampa Bay-Detroit
A few years ago this would be a great match-up: up-and-coming Tampa Bay against the dynastic Red Wings. But almost all the players from the Detroit glory years are gone and only Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyk remain. No more Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom. Detroit also has a negative goal differential. Tampa Bay made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year and put up a good struggle against Chicago. They will win in 5 games or maybe even a 4 game sweep.
4. Florida-New York Islanders
There is more at stake than appears in this match-up. Not only are these two teams playing for moving on in the playoffs, they are playing for establishing a winning tradition in the playoffs, something that is vital for potential future Stanley Cup champions. Both these teams have not won a playoff round in eons so this is their big chance. But there are many factors that are tilting this series in New York’s favor. The only edge that Florida has is that they have home ice advantage, whatever that is worth. But the Islanders have playoff experience as opposed to the new-kid-on-the-block Panthers. And they are led by a young, up-and-coming superstar, John Tavares, in the prime of his career while the Panthers best player is legendary, soon-to-be hall of famer, Jaromir Jagr, well past his prime. He’ll give Florida some valuable experience and leadership but it is not enough. Finally there is the desperation factor and Tavares desperately wants to prove that this Islander team is a contender not only this year but for the immediate coming seasons. They have more to lose in this series than the Panthers do and they will play with more desperation. Islanders in 6 games.
Dallas picked up Chicago Blackhawks core player Patrick Sharp in the off season and the result is a first place finish in the Western Conference. If you get a player who knows how to win the big one, his effect could spill over, hopefully on to perennial underachievers Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and possibly Tyler Seguin. They also have Johnny Oduya who knows how to win the big one and goaltender Antti Niemi who has won a Stanley Cup too, along with a competent backup, Kari Lehtonen. Minnesota simply does not have enough talent, particularly winning players. It will be Dallas in 5 games… and a big shakeup coming in the off season for Minnesota.
If there is one team that has come close recently to breaking the Chicago-Los Angeles monopoly in the Western Conference it is Anaheim. Nashville has improved and will put up a good fight but still does not have the overall talent and experience of the Ducks. This is not a mismatch and even an upset could occur but it will not. Anaheim in 6 games.
7. St. Louis-Chicago
As mentioned above, St. Louis desperately wants to be on the level of Chicago and Los Angeles and now they get the chance to directly prove it themselves. If they can do it, they will deserve all the plaudits for dethroning a defending champion. The problem is that they will not. Chicago has had St. Louis’s number in the playoffs for several years. The Blues still have to prove they are good enough to beat this team. Until they do, it will be Chicago in 6 games and more off season chemistry tinkering in St. Louis that may not be just limited to the players.
8. Los Angeles-San Jose
Two time Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings against anachronistic San Jose Sharks led by the Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau combination that has been around forever and cannot win the big one??? As long as there is life there is hope and the fact that San Jose will be lining up on the ice against Los Angeles means they still have a chance to win. But the Kings are too good to lose to a team based on a tried and untrue formula. Los Angeles in 5 games.