Every NHL team feels the heat of the playoff spotlight, some more than others.
The Ottawa Senators were labelled chokers in the early and mid-2000s, when outstanding regular season success was often followed by post-season disappointment. After they erased that reputation with a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, the San Jose Sharks took over as the team most in need of a hockey Heimlich manoeuvre. They too answered critics with consecutive trips to the conference finals.
Even positives can be negatives when it comes to managing expectations. First-round losses for teams with long-standing track records of excellence (Detroit), the best player in the world (Pittsburgh) or recent Stanley Cup rings (Boston) are tough to swallow.
Two weeks from now, however, eight of the 16 teams who thought they had a shot will be packing up their lockers and stocking up their golf bags. So, which teams will be under the most pressure when the puck drops on Round 1?
Not only did the runaway 2011 President’s Trophy winners lose Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, they were humiliated in front of a worldwide audience when many of their fans embraced mob mentality as a way of blowing off steam. When the smoke cleared (literally … people set a lot of stuff on fire downtown), the Canucks had to come to terms with being so close and letting a championship slip through their fingers. In terms of key cogs, this is largely the same group that faced the Bruins last June, with the brothers Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Roberto Luongo leading the way. Add a little David Booth and Zack Kassian, subtract a little Christian Ehrhoff and Cody Hodgson, and you have a hockey team that should see anything less than a win in its final game as a failure. Plus, victory might have the happy side effect of driving down insurance premiums in Lotus Land.
Not only do the Predators have to convince the buying public in Nashville they’re for real, they also need to show two of their best players there are good reasons to stick around. Defenceman Ryan Suter can walk away for nothing on July 1, while perennial Norris Trophy contender Shea Weber will be negotiating his last contract as a restricted free agent over the summer. General manager David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz have done a masterful job of keeping the Preds competitive in spite of what should have been a crippling lack of financial resources, and ownership is finally ready to pony up. Nashville locked up goaltender Pekka Rinne to a $49 million deal over the summer, and would like to ink Weber to a long-term pact as well. A long playoff run would bring in some of the dollars needed to make that happen and convince him the lean years are over in Music City. First up: The Detroit Red Wings (eep).
What do you get when you cross an uninhibited, mercurial Russian goaltender with the notoriously tough Philadelphia media and fan base? Well, a few months ago you might have said, “a mess.” Season after season of watching playoff dreams dashed by shoddy goaltending prompted the Flyers to go out last summer and sign … a guy who said “I am goat” after his team was swept out of the first round in the spring. To be fair, Ilya Bryzgalov was an excellent regular season goalie for the Phoenix Coyotes, and he has turned his game around after a handful of meltdowns earlier this year with the Flyers. Still, if the guy who forced general manager Paul Holmgren to deal away popular forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for salary cap reasons turns out to be goat again, he’ll find the fallout to be “humongous big.”
Hey, remember the Washington Capitals? They’re those guys everyone liked to win the Stanley Cup during the preseason prognostication period. Just because they wound up limping to the dance in seventh, the pressure doesn’t subside. The acquisition of goaltender Tomas Vokoun was thought to be the missing link between the Caps and glory, but he won’t even be available to start the playoffs due to a groin injury. Backup Michal Neuvirth is out too, meaning the Caps will line up against the big bad Bruins with third-stringer Braden Holtby manning the pipes. That’s just the way things have gone this year. An early-season swoon cost coach Bruce Boudreau his job and Alex Ovechkin has been a shadow of his former self (65 points, after averaging 102 the previous six seasons). Will new bench boss Dale Hunter’s defence-first style pay dividends with a long playoff run? All the recent struggles and upheaval would be quickly forgotten if that was the case.
NEW YORK RANGERS
There weren’t many people picking the Rangers to dominate the Eastern Conference the way they did, and you still hear plenty of doubters: they don’t score enough, they’re too reliant on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, they have too many unproven players. While few outside the Big Apple would be shocked to see the Rangers get bounced before May rolls around, a top finish has raised expectations for John Tortorella’s bunch. One seeds simply don’t lose to lowly eighths and not hear about it. The Rangers rolled the dice on laying out big money for centre Brad Richards last summer, especially after coming up snake eyes on massive deals for the likes of Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Wade Redden in recent years. Playoff success is nothing new to Richards, however. He already has his name on the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) after leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to glory in 2004.