Well it is the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs again with 7 new teams in this year’s tournament. Changes are particularly noticeable in the Eastern Conference where 5 new teams have made it. And Canada which had no teams last year has 5 this year. As customary, before going into each playoff matchup, I’ll list players and teams that have extra pressure on them and thus have more to lose than other teams.
The CBC, which has five Canadian teams in the playoffs this year, including its biggest market, Toronto. Big ratings are coming.
Players With Extra Pressure
- Alexander Ovechkin
Every year Ovechkin tops the list of players with the most pressure on them in the playoffs. He has a basket load of individual honors, both in the NHL and internationally, but he has the most horrible team records. The latest was his Russian team making the semi-finals at September’s World Cup where they were badly out-shot and beaten by Canada. Believe it or not, that was actually an improvement. Washington under his leadership has never even made the Conference finals in the playoffs and frequently gets upset by lesser teams. He is past the peak of his playing days and time is running out for a Stanley Cup victory. He used to be compared to Sidney Crosby but his team record is nowhere on the horizon. Unless he wins a championship, his mentor is Marcel Dionne who had a similar career. Somehow the pressure on him increases every year, especially this year because Washington has acquired top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, largely at Ovechkin’s insistence. Washington is expected to win it all and if they do not, and Ovechkin is in the spotlight because of it, perhaps it is time to trade him and go in a new direction.
- Brooks Orpik
Right behind Ovechkin is his long time teammate Brooks Orpik who played like a bonehead in last year’s playoffs and was a major reason Washington lost to Pittsburgh. Like Ovechkin he is past his prime and time is running out on him in Washington. He too could be shoved out the door if Washington flops in the playoffs.
- Braden Holtby
The goaltender of the Washington Capitals, giving the team the hat-trick of players under the gun. Holtby is not a bad goaltender but he is nothing special. One just has to compare his work with that of Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray last year who seized his chance and ran with it all the way to the Stanley Cup where he should have been named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Holtby has to rise above what he can usually do and outplay the goaltenders of other top contenders. He has extra pressure on him now that Shattenkirk is here. If he cannot do it, Washington may have to get another goaltender to complete the final piece of the puzzle.
- Henrik Lundqvist
The Alexander Ovechkin of NHL goaltenders. At least he has a better record than Ovechkin in the playoffs because he took the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Los Angeles. But that was only once and his record in playoffs and international competition is undistinguished. The latest unremarkable effort was in September’s World Cup where he let in two critical goals to the hybrids Europe and North America and Sweden was put out of the playoffs. Now he has to go up against Carey Price in the first round and outplay him.
- Carey Price
Price at least has a distinguished international record both at the Olympics and the World Cup. But his Stanley Cup playoff record is not good where he has the Montreal defense, not the Canada defense to protect him. As noted above, he faces another top goaltender in the first round, Lundqvist in a similar situation, and the loser is going to come out, especially if one badly outplays the other, with a diminished reputation and questions hanging above him. That will mean increased pressure in future Stanley Cup playoffs. Something has to give.
- Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry
Under mediocre playoff coach, Bruce Boudreau, the Anaheim Ducks have choked against lesser teams. But they have rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle again so the pressure will now be more focused on the players who failed to rise to the occasion under Boudreau. If the Ducks fall to a lesser team in the playoffs this year, management might conclude that the roster is not good enough and does not respond any more. Top players like Getzlaf and Perry would come under serious re-evaluation and could be traded as part of a rebuilding process.
- Bruce Boudreau and Chuck Fletcher
I know this section is supposed to be about players but Boudreau and Fletcher, the coach and general manager of the Minnesota Wild belong on it. Boudreau is like Ovechkin in the playoffs. His teams can beat lesser lights but never a true contender. Fletcher’s team, Minnesota got Zach Parise and Ryan Suter a few years ago, patted himself on the back and then assumed that was enough to be a Stanley Cup champion. Alas Minnesota has never risen above mediocrity in the playoffs and has never added significantly better talent since to rise any further. Then last year, Fletcher hired mediocre playoff coach Boudreau. The perfect combination. Minnesota had better show something in this year’s playoffs or attention and pressure will be focused on the management, coaching, and ownership where it will belong.
Teams With Extra Pressure (The “Show Me” Teams)
- Washington Capitals
It goes without saying that the team with three players on the list above and the now two-time President’s Trophy winner has the most pressure on it again. The minimum that is acceptable for Washington is to make the Eastern Conference Final which has never happened during the Ovechkin era. Coach Barry Trotz will be under fire if the team underperforms because now Kevin Shattenkirk has been added, but NO COACH either in the NHL or internationally has been able to make a winner out of Alexander Ovechkin. General Manager Brian MacLellan got himself and the owners off the hook by boldly and bravely getting Shattenkirk at the trade deadline. Last year they got T. J. Oshie who made a notable contribution but it still was not enough. As noted above, if Washington flops and any of the three players listed in the above section is a part of the reason, it may be overdue time to try to keep Shattenkirk and Oshie, trade the others and go in a new direction.
- Minnesota Wild
Right behind the Capitals are the Minnesota Wild, especially since the Bruce Boudreau Regular Season Machine did so well this year. But Minnesota looked brittle coming down the home stretch and only their excellent earlier record kept them in second place in their division. Even more ominous was that they did poorly head-to-head against Chicago, who is the favorite in the Western Conference. As noted above, Minnesota added Suter and Parise and have done nothing since. If the Wild flops again and continues to stagnate, there should be a shake-up of both the roster and the management.
- Columbus Blue Jackets
Actually neither players, coaches, or management should have any extra pressure on them. They have overachieved. But Columbus plays in the Ohio-Indiana area, close to the Canadian border, where hockey is mysteriously unpopular, which I have termed the “Death Valley” of professional hockey. The Blue Jackets get consistently bad attendance. They have only made the playoffs three times in their history and have never won a playoff series. Sure Columbus had the finest regular season in their history, but is that enough to convince local fans to support the team? The cynical fans may be saying “Show me” before they really start believing in this team and that means a playoff victory. And if that is still not enough to attract increased attendance, perhaps it may be time to consider a franchise shift to Quebec, Hamilton, or Hartford.
Stanley Cup First Round Predictions
- Washington Capitals Vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
All the pressure is on Washington but at least in this round they should not have to worry. They have to be heavily favored over newly arrived Toronto which is a team full of rookies making their Stanley Cup playoff debuts. As if the Leafs didn’t have enough to worry about in this round, the Capitals added star defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk to push them over the top. This is the first playoff meeting ever between Washington and Toronto. It may seem a mismatch but the season series was very close, Washington winning 2-1 with one game going into overtime. The best things the Maple Leafs have going for them is that they have the young, up-coming superstar Auston Matthews, the overall number one pick this year who has been everything the Leafs wanted, and wants to make his playoff debut just as good as his regular season debut was; and the coaching of Mike Babcock. But with all the experience and star players, the Capitals should win in 5 games.
P.S. If the Capitals somehow blow this series, I would not want to be a Washington Capital in the off season.
- Montreal Canadiens Vs. New York Rangers
These two teams probably knew for months that they would be facing each other in the first round of the playoffs. At one time it seemed that both of them would be challenging for the President’s Trophy but they faded and weaknesses have showed. Montreal went so far as to fire its coach and replace him with their old mentor, Stanley Cup winning coach, Claude Julien who won with Boston. The Canadiens swept their series with the Rangers, establishing a clear edge over them.
Coaching wise the hockey gods mischievously matched up French Canadian coaches Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers against (you remember) the coach who beat him in the Stanley Cup Finals in 7 games, Claude Julien, another edge for the Canadiens. Canadiens have home ice. Henrik Lundqvist can be counted on to let in at least one goal at the wrong time. Montreal in 6 or 7 games.
- Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Poor Columbus. They overachieved and ended up with the worst playoff matchup possible, the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, just when they needed to convince local fans that they were for real the most. Even playing against choker Washington would have been better. The only good news that Columbus got was that Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, Kris Letang is out for the entire playoffs. But Evgeni Malkin will be back and combined with Sidney Crosby that should be enough for victory for Pittsburgh over Columbus who are a team of no-names. Sergei Bobrovsky is a good goaltender but Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray won it all last year. It would have been better for Columbus if Murray had been injured instead of Letang and Pittsburgh would have had to start the erratic Marc Andre Fleury. In Columbus’s favor is that they played Pittsburgh even head-to-head this year. Pittsburgh has the home ice edge and is vastly superior in talent and playoff experience. Columbus’s only hope is that the Letang injury means a serious drop-off in defensive performance but that won’t happen with Murray in Pittsburgh’s net. Pittsburgh in 5 or 6 games.
- Ottawa Senators Vs. Boston Bruins
This is the first playoff meeting between these teams since the 1920s. The Senators played bad hockey down the stretch and on paper may be the weakest team in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They would probably lose to every other playoff team in the conference – except the Boston Bruins who are 0-3-1 against them. For that reason, the Senators have to be favored in this series though it could go either way, especially if Boston goaltender Tukka Rask gets hot and outplays Craig Anderson. Ottawa in 6 or 7 games.
- Chicago Blackhawks Vs. Nashville Predators
When Nashville got P. K. Subban from Montreal for Shea Weber, many Predator fans and a whole bunch of predictors at the NHL website assumed that the Predators had got the “final piece of the puzzle” and that Nashville would at least be the Western Conference champion. Instead the Predators nearly finished out of the playoffs and only a late surge of good hockey got them back in. Subban is certainly not enough to topple Chicago who have won three Stanley Cups since 2010 and have to be the favorites this year to win it all again, especially since Pittsburgh lost Kris Letang. Chicago has too much talent and is too well coached to lose to a team like Nashville that needs a lot more talent than Subban to become a champion. Chicago in 5 games.
- Minnesota Wild Vs. St. Louis Blues
Bruce Boudreau is a mediocre playoff coach. The Minnesota Wild are a mediocre playoff team. The St. Louis Blues made a bit of a break-through last year and reached the Western Conference Final, where they seldom go, but then lost talent in the off-season and then obligingly traded one of their top defensemen, Kevin Shattenkirk so that Los Angeles could make the playoffs while they rebuilt their team. Instead the Blues responded and made the playoffs while Minnesota had a horrible last quarter of the season. Minnesota which is supposed to be superior cannot lose to a team which at least on paper is much worse than last year. Can they? Then again, they are the Minnesota Wild and he is coach Bruce Boudreau… And the hockey gods continued their weird sense of humor by matching Minnesota against their old coach, Mike Yeo. This is tough to predict. It could go either way. At least on paper, Minnesota should win, but I’ll go out on a limb and say St. Louis will rankle Boudreau and General Manager Chuck Fletcher and win for Yeo in 7 games.
- Edmonton Oilers Vs. San Jose Sharks
Last year, San Jose coach Peter DeBoer took a team that was supposed to be over the hill and on the way down into new territory, all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. For part of this season, San Jose looked like that team, but the Sharks had a horrible last quarter and tumbled out of first place in their division to third. Has an aging reality finally caught up to the Sharks? Meanwhile the Oilers, under Sidney Crosby’s heir, Connor McDavid made the playoffs after 10 years of futility. Added to the spice and intrigue is that the perverted hockey gods decided that the Oilers coach should be San Jose’s old coach, Todd McLellan. Martin Jones, who played so well for the Sharks in net during last year’s playoffs gives San Jose an edge at a key position. Unknown positive factor for the Oilers: How good is Connor McDavid? San Jose has nothing like him, just like they had nobody like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in last year’s final. Unknown negative factor for the Oilers: It took Wayne Gretzky three years before the Oilers won a playoff round. If San Jose had been playing good down the stretch, I would take them based on their playoff experience and Jones’ goaltending. But I don’t think San Jose will find themselves this time, McDavid will be the difference, and the Oilers will win in 6 games.
- Anaheim Ducks Vs. Calgary Flames
The Ducks had been choking in the playoffs under mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, so they reached back into their past and rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle again. So far it has paid off. The Ducks kept their heads while the Sharks faded and the Oilers and Flames also took a run at them and ended up winning their division. Carlyle certainly has the experience and knowledge to keep them playing that way in the playoffs. Meanwhile Calgary got hot at the right time and put together a 10 game winning streak in the last quarter of the regular season, just when they needed it the most. Rookie coach Glenn Gulutan should also be saluted because he took a team that seemed headed for the bottom of the Western Conference standings at the beginning of the season, turned it around and got it into the playoffs. Unknown factor: The coaching of Gulutan. Will he be just as good in the playoffs as he was in the regular season? Can he match the experienced, Stanley Cup winning coach, Carlyle? And how will the goaltending match up? This could go in Calgary’s favor if all the unknown factors go their way. Anaheim’s veterans have more to lose in this series than up and coming Calgary. Based on what I know about Carlyle, I’ll take the Ducks in 6 games.
Early Stanley Cup Prediction
Since the beginning of the season, until otherwise proven, I’ve consistently said that the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins were the teams to beat and I still hold to that. When Pittsburgh built its team around the latest member on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, Sidney Crosby (A list of the top Canadian players of their generation who is head and shoulders above everyone else, dating back to Maurice Richard), and top Russian, Evgeni Malkin, it was predicted that Pittsburgh would win many Stanley Cups during the coming era. But while Pittsburgh floundered under the bad goaltending of Marc Andre Fleury, Chicago seized its opportunity to win every other year. Chicago is back again this year and Pittsburgh has been hurt by the injury to top defenseman, Kris Letang. A dream matchup will be a Chicago-Pittsburgh final and the Blackhawks will continue their pattern by winning their fourth Stanley Cup in 8 years.