While everybody's talking about the NHL playoffs, key analysis often gets overlooked. Here are the biggest obstacles each must overcome if they hope to make a successful playoff run this year:
(1) Washington Capitals: This is what the Capitals have been gearing up for all season long. After years of regular season success coupled with spectacular playoff failures, Coach Bruce Boudreau changed his team's style from a run and gun offensive team to a more conservative defensive team. While the team's scoring was down this season and there was a lengthy December slump while they adjusted, in the end, the Caps finished strong and captured first place overall in the Eastern Conference. Now it seems that Washington is mentally and physically ready for playoff-style hockey. Will the change in style pay off? Can the Capitals remain patient against a Rangers team in round one that specializes in blocking shots and aggressive forechecking? Round one will be a good indicator. If it doesn't and Washington makes an early playoff exit, this could be it for Boudreau as coach.
(2) Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals last season after finishing eighth in the conference. The big question in Philadelphia remains goaltending. Last year, unheralded Michael Leighton and veteran journeyman Brian Boucher led the Flyers charge to the finals. This year, rookie Sergei Bobrovsky started the majority of games and did a solid if unspectacular job. He finished with a 28-13-8 record and a .910 save percentage, but there was inconsistency to his game and he seemed shaky at times down the stretch. They play fewer games in Europe so the question is can Bobrovsky handle the physical and mental grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Boucher and Leighton are there in case Bobrovsky falters but one goalie is going to have to take control for the Flyers and be consistently good and occasionally great if the Flyers are going to make another long playoff run. No Flyers goalie recorded a shutout this season. Goaltending has been a question in Philadelphia since Ron Hextall left town and this year is no exception.
(3) Boston Bruins: The biggest issue facing the Bruins may be psychological. Last season, the Bruins had a 3 games to 0 lead on the Flyers and became the first team since 1975 and only the third team ever to lose a playoff series after winning the first three games. Will that be a motivating factor that propels the B's to new heights or a specter that hangs over the team's head and fills them with self doubt every time they lose a game or two in row? The team has had plenty of turnover since last year's playoff elimination and has enough experienced players like Zdeno Chara and Mike Recchi, to lead the team past the psychological hump. If they don't get past it, it could be a short spring in Beantown. If they do, this team has enough depth and balance to make a long postseason run.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins: Much like the Capitals, the Penguins had to change their style this season, although in the Pens case, it was mid-season and due to injuries to star players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Suddenly, Pittsburgh went from a team that beats you with skill to a team that checks hard and outworks you. More pressure will be placed on Marc-Andre Fleury since goal scoring will be down, but Fleury has won a Cup and reached a final so he has proven clutch credentials. Grinders like Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang will have to contribute on offense, as will Jordan Staal who did a good job stepping into the number one center's role after Crosby was lost due to post concussion syndrome. Veterans like Alex Kovalev will have to rise to the occasion as well if the Pens hope to score enough goals to be successful this spring.
(5) Tampa Bay Lightning: While some may question the goaltending in Tampa Bay, Dwayne Roloson has already taken one team to the Stanley Cup Finals (Edmonton) and is less a question than secondary scoring is for the Bolts. Sure, superstars like Steven Stamkos, Martin St-Louis and Vincent Lecavalier can put the puck in the net, but can the Lightning get scoring from their third and fourth lines. Other than the three players mentioned previously, no Tampa Bay player topped the 20 goal mark for the season. Also, no Tampa Bay defenseman scored 10 goals on the season or more than 31 points. In the playoffs, teams will concentrate on closing down the Bolts top scorers. Unless other players can add some offensive punch, the Lightning will struggle this postseason.
(6) Montreal Canadiens: Sure there will be pressure on Carey Price to be as strong in goal as Jaroslav Halak was last season, but the biggest question facing the Habs is goal scoring, specifically scoring at even strength. Montreal was 21st in the league in goals scored but relied heavily on their power play for scoring. The Canadiens will have to get some scoring at even strength to do well in the playoffs. Also, the Montreal defense relies heavily on rookie P.K. Subban, who has become much more consistent as the season went on. Subban showed a knack for coming up with big goals later in the season, but made too many errors earlier in the year to the point where he was a healthy scratch. The Canadiens need Subban to be ready for the rigors of the postseason where a premium is placed on not making mistakes.
(7) Buffalo Sabres: Ironically, the one thing nobody has questioned about the Sabres the past several years has become their top question mark as the playoffs begin: goalie Ryan Miller. Miller played in only parts of two games during the final two weeks of the season due to injury. While rookie Jhonas Enroth played well enough down the stretch to help the Sabres qualify for the postseason, the only way the Sabres upset the Flyers is if Miller is in Olympic form.
(8) New York Rangers: The Rangers biggest issue is goal scoring. Henrik Lundqvist provides stellar goaltending and keeps the Broadway Blueshirts in games they often have no business being in, but with Ryan Callahan out of the lineup with an ankle injury, who will score for the Rangers? Marian Gaborik has been a non-factor in too many games this season. Players like Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan and Wojtek Wolski play well for a few games and then go into extended droughts. The Rangers will have to win a lot of low scoring games but who will get them the two or three goals they need to win?
(1) Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks have the deepest roster in the Western Conference if not in the entire league and it's no shock that they won the President's Trophy. The loss of third line center Manny Malhotra will hurt, but the biggest question facing the Canucks may be goaltending. Despite his exceptional regular season performances, Roberto Luongo has never taken a team past the second round of the playoffs. If Luongo falters again, his playoff failure will become an albatross around his neck, and not just a coincidence, especially with a team as good as this year's Vancouver squad. Cory Schneider played well as Luongo's backup, but it's unlikely he could carry the Canucks deep into the playoffs. That burden will fall squarely on Luongo's shoulders. If he's equal to the challenge, the Canucks may just win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
(2) San Jose Sharks: The Sharks finally reached the Conference Finals last season after years of early postseason exits. They have been a bit overlooked this year, with the media focused on Vancouver and Detroit. The Sharks biggest issue is the penalty kill which can be dangerous in the playoffs where checking is tighter and power plays increase in importance. The Sharks PK ranked 24th in the league with only Phoenix and Chicago finishing below them among the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs. A series of ill-timed power-play goals allowed could be momentum changers in a tight series, something the Sharks need to avoid if they are to advance a step further in this year's playoffs than they did last season.
(3) Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings are a very experienced team and age may be a question for them, with eight players over the age of 35. But the bigger question remains goaltending. The Wings ranked 19th in the league in save percentage and 23rd in goals against average. Jimmy Howard is the starter and he was very inconsistent over the course of the season. His only playoff experience came last season where he was anything but special. The Wings have won Stanley Cups with backup Chris Osgood in net and they rarely needed their goalie to be super, just reliable. Has Howard even reached that status? If he fails to establish himself as a bona fide playoff goalie this season, he may not get another chance anytime soon, at least not with Detroit.
(4) Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks have two excellent scoring lines, including a top line that may be the best in the league with Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry. But can the third or fourth lines produce enough offense to help against top teams? The bigger question remains the absence of starting goalie Jonas Hiller who has been suffering from some form of vertigo. Ray Emery is also banged up and probably won't be ready to start the playoffs, which leaves ex-Predators and Lightning goalie Dan Ellis as the starter. Can Ellis play well enough until Hiller or Emery return? Or can he backstop this team deep into the playoffs if neither of them can make it back? History suggests he cannot do it over the long haul but the Ducks may be relying on just that this spring.
(5) Nashville Predators: The Preds had only two players with more than 20 goals this season, although nine players scored more than 10. They have balanced scoring, but no real "go-to guy." Nashville ranked 21st in the league in goals scored and may struggle even more to score in the playoffs where checking is tighter and players are even more willing to sacrifice their bodies to block shots. Look for the Predators to be involved in a lot of low scoring games because they won't win too many 6-5 shootouts.
(6) Phoenix Coyotes: The team's history may be the biggest obstacle facing the Coyotes. The franchise has not won a playoff series since 1987 when they were the Winnipeg Jets. In addition to the organization's lack of playoff success, the players on the team don't have much playoff experience either, although two Coyotes have Stanley Cup rings. Facing Detroit, a team with a ton of playoff experience in the first round, won't be easy, but then again, Phoenix gave the Wings all they could handle last season before losing in seven games. Even winning one series may help build up the fan base in the desert.
(7) Los Angeles Kings: The Kings have to proceed in the postseason without their top scorer, Anze Kopitar. They have played without Justin Williams during the latter part of the season, although Williams may be back during round one. Players like Dustin Brown and Ryan Smyth will have to pick up the slack and the Kings also need offensive production from their blue line corps, which is young, talented and deep. Nobody on the roster approaches Kopitar's pure offensive talent, but somebody will have to replace his production if the Kings hope to reign this spring.
(8) Chicago Blackhawks: The Hawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions, but this is not the same team that hoisted Lord Stanley's silver chalice last June. Corey Crawford is now the goalie and he lacks playoff experience, but the bigger question is can the new third and fourth line players replace key cogs in last year's Cup run like Dustin Byfuglien, John Madden and Kris Versteeg. Supplemental scoring and strong defense from the third and fourth lines are more important in the postseason. Now we see if the salary cap moves the Hawks had to make last summer will really hurt the team.
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