The puck drops on the NHL Playoffs on Wednesday, kicking off easily the most exciting and entertaining chase for a championship in professional sports. While there are great individual games and match-ups in countless other sports, there is something about the tense, tight action of the NHL Playoffs that reaches another level.
On the eve of the quest for hockey’s holy grail getting underway, we start our look at the key players for each team in the Eastern Conference; the Western Conference will follow tomorrow.
One note to start things off: goaltending is always important in the playoffs and every team needs their last line of defense to be at the top of their game, but there are some teams where how their goalie plays (or which one plays) will play a more significant role in within or not they can win the Stanley Cup.
New York Rangers: Rick Nash
Nash is the top goal-scorer on the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. After making the playoffs once in Columbus, the 30-year-old forward has been to the second season three straight years in the Big Apple, but he has been a disappointment in each of the previous two appearances.
Nash has 4 goals and 15 points in 37 playoff games with the Rangers. If the Blue Shirts hope to have a parade down Broadway this spring, their top offensive weapon needs to play as such from the first game to the last.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury
Here’s the first case of a goalie that has more hinging on his shoulders than some of his contemporaries.
Pittsburgh can score goals and have a lot of experience in the playoffs and that includes Fleury, who was between the pipes when the Pens made back-to-back Stanley Cup appearances and won it all in 2009. Fleury is a paradox – he led the league in shutouts (10) and won 34 games, but he was exactly average when it came to his save percentage and goals against average, finishing 15th in the league in both categories.
If he can get on a heater and string together a good run, Pittsburgh could pull off a major first-round upset. If he’s his usual inconsistent self, they could be done in four.
Montreal Canadiens: Max Pacioretty
“Patches” led Montreal in scoring this season, but missed the final three games of the year after getting slammed into the boards in Florida. As of right now, his status for the playoffs is uncertain and that’s a major concern in La Belle Province.
What makes matters worse is that Montreal has to face the hottest team in the league in the opening round. Ottawa had an historically good stretch run in order to make the playoffs and you have to expect that momentum will carry over, so starting out without your top offensive weapon is a cause for concern.
Ottawa Senators: Andrew Hammond
“The Hamburglar” put together one of the most impressive and improbable stretches in NHL history to help carry the Sens to the playoffs, but now that they’re there, can the 27-year-old netminder actually keep it up and carry them to a first-round upset of the Canadiens?
Going 20-1-2 in 24 games isn’t a fluke, but it isn’t normal either. You expect there to be some regression, but at the same time, we’ve seen goalies get hot and steal a series or two on their own and Hammond is already en fuego.
This is easily the most interesting series of the first round.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Tyler Johnson
There are several young forwards on the Lightning that will be under the microscope in the opening round, but Johnson is probably the biggest of the bunch… because he’s the smallest of the bunch.
The second-year center notched 72 points in 79 games, but things get a little tighter, a little more chippy in the playoffs which makes you wonder if the 5’8” forward can handle the increased physicality and still produce at a point-per-game level?
Detroit Red Wings: Petr Mrazek
The 23-year-old Czech goalie filled in for Jimmy Howard when he was hurt and doesn’t appear to be relinquishing his place in net now that the veteran is back.
Over 29 games (26 starts) Mrazek posted a 16-9-2 record with three shutouts, a 2.38 GAA and a .918 save percentage. There were more highs than lows, but he’s still inexperienced when it comes to the NHL Playoffs and if Detroit hopes to get out of the first round, Mrazek will need to step up and provide steady play.
This can’t be a case of musical chairs either – rotating goalies never works in the playoffs; you’ve got to go with one guy, no matter how it’s going, so if Mrazek gets the nod, it’s on him.
Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin
As “The Great 8” goes, so go the Capitals. While goalies can carry teams, so can superstar forwards and Ovechkin needs to maintain his tremendous play from the regular season into the playoffs this year.
He’s notched better than a point-per-game throughout his playoff career (61 points in 58 games), but Washington has never made it past the second round with the Russian sniper at the helm.
The most pressure in Washington is probably on coach Barry Trotz, who basically got bounced from his job in Nashville – where he had been the only coach in franchise history up until getting the axe – for failing to advance in the playoffs.
New York Islanders: Ryan Strome
This may seem like an odd choice, but here’s the logic: teams key on top players a little more in the playoffs, which means points could be a little more difficult to come by for top man John Tavares, which ups the pressure on first-year forward and second-line center Strome to produce.
The 21-year-old had a solid year on Long Island, netting 50 points in 81 games and he’ll need to maintain that pace as one of the lead sources of secondary scoring if the Islanders hope to advance.