Much of the discussion over the next two weeks will focus on which NHL teams have the best shot at raising the Stanley Cup. However, it’s not enough for some teams to just be a contender.
As the picture of the 16-team field gets clearer, there are six teams with plenty to prove when the postseason begins. You could argue that every team has something to prove in the postseason, but these stand out.
Chicago and Los Angeles have both won multiple Cups so everyone already knows what they’re made of. Boston won a Cup in 2011 and they aren’t serious Cup contenders this season, so there are no external expectations. Tampa Bay made the Cup Finals last season with a young team in a small market. Is anyone going to blink if the Lightning don’t advance that far again?
Philadelphia, Detroit, the New York Islanders, Minnesota or Nashville aren’t Cup contenders, so anything they accomplish in the playoffs beyond getting there would be gravy. That leaves us with the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers.
You could certainly argue the Rangers have lots to prove after back-to-back conference finals berths and a Stanley Cup Final loss to L.A. in 2014, but it’s likely the Rangers’ window has already closed — they just don’t know it yet.
As for the Panthers, nobody saw this young team winning the Atlantic Division as Florida may do if it can hold off Tampa. In that respect, Florida is playing with house money. Expectations will ramp up in the coming years for a team with lots of young talent. When will that be? Probably when Jaromir Jagr matures at age 46.
But there are still six teams with a lot of skin in the game.
1. Washington Capitals: Washington has won eight division titles and two Presidents’ trophies since the dawn of the new millennium. The Capitals haven’t made it out of the second round in any of those previous seasons and obviously, they’ve never won the Stanley Cup, getting swept by Detroit in their only Final appearance in 1998.
Many will tell you this year’s team is different.
They have the goaltending, they have the scoring depth, they defend well, they have the special teams and their possession stats are OK, if not elite.
If you gauge the anonymous reactions of players and coaches, however, you’ll get a prevalent belief that the Capitals are not tough enough, and if you take a look at history, it’s hard to shed that 800-pound gorilla that is hunched squarely on their shoulders. Curses probably aren’t real, but they can be psychological and many will wonder about Washington’s collective state of mind until they finally deliver.
2. St. Louis Blues: Speaking of 800-pound gorillas, St. Louis has won exactly one playoff series in the last 12 seasons. The Blues are playing as well as any team in the league right now, and they have an excellent chance of landing the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference.
The Blues are still a good defending team, but analysts wonder if their goaltending stats are more a product of their system than ability and there are legitimate questions about the Blues’ ability to score enough in the postseason. St. Louis is 17th in the NHL in goals, with 206. If there were ever a time to break the hex, this might be it, with Chicago struggling and the Central Division looking more vulnerable than it did at the start of the season.
3. Anaheim Ducks: Coach Bruce Boudreau may have more to prove than his players. There were whispers last season that Boudreau got outcoached by Joel Quenneville in the conference finals, helping Chicago overcome a 3-2 series deficit in a series where Anaheim was clearly the better team for those five games.
Anaheim’s early-season struggles were perplexing, particularly its inability score, but the Ducks have righted the ship and have a chance to catch L.A. for their fourth straight Pacific Division title.
Anaheim appears to have all the tools if goaltenders Fredrik Andersen and John Gibson can hold up under the postseason pressure. How many more playoff flameouts can GM Bob Murray abide before changes are made, and how far must the Ducks advance to consider this season a success?
4. Dallas Stars: Kari Lehtonen’s save percentage is 0.906; Antti Niemi’s is 0.904. Can a team rally win a Cup with that kind of goaltending? Color us skeptical, but hey, trends aren’t set until the trend-setter comes along. If Dallas does back up a remarkable season with a deep playoff run, we won’t be disappointed. The pace-predicated Stars are fun to watch.
We still think that blue line is suspect, however, and we still wonder what will happen when the games turn to tight checking and Dallas has to rely on consistently good defense to win. We also wonder how a 15-percent cut of the Achilles tendon will heal in three to four weeks, allowing star center Tyler Seguin to return, but this is the NHL postseason so anything’s possible.
5. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks are 17-19-3 at home. If they had just managed an above 0.500 home record, like every other Western Conference playoff team, they’d be on top of the Pacific Division right now. If we had to pick one of these six teams as the team to be leery of in the playoffs, San Jose would be the overwhelming choice.
The reasoning in not breaking up the Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau core a couple seasons ago when the Sharks awarded them contract extensions was understandable, but something isn’t right in San Jose. It doesn’t matter who the Sharks play in the first round — L.A. or Anaheim.
They’re first-round cannon fodder and GM Doug Wilson might finally pay for that. San Jose has been past the first round just once in the last four seasons.
6. Pittsburgh Penguins: If Evgeni Malkin can’t return while the Penguins draw playoff breath, they get a pass this season. That’s too big of a piece to maintain normal expectations. If Malkin does return, however, the same old storyline will apply to the Penguins: Are they really going to waste the prime years of Sidney Crosby’s and Malkin’s playing careers?
Pittsburgh is 9-1-0 in its last 10 games; the best record over that stretch. That run may allow the Penguins to secure home-ice advantage in the first round, but that still likely means another date with the Rangers, who have ousted them from the postseason the last two years.
This one would presumably come without Malkin, who isn’t expected back until the second round at the earliest. Pittsburgh would really benefit from an Islanders surge that could push New York’s other team past the Rangers in the standings and allow the Penguins a more favorable first-round matchup.
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