Three Stanley Cup contenders who could choke early in the playoffs

Max Pacioretty. (Getty images)

We’re close enough to the end of the season that trends matter. Hot upstarts may stay hot through the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Teams showing sneaky flaws may not have time to rectify them.

Speaking of those flaws – which supposed elite teams have scary habits or weaknesses that will lead to rude spring awakenings? Here are three teams to consider.

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For the first time in years, are the Pittsburgh Penguins actually – gasp – playoff underdogs?

Evgeni Malkin (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Hockey News this week revealed its collective pre-playoff pick to win the 2014-15 Stanley Cup (hint: team name rhymes with Grandpa Jay Whitening), but as an individual who was part of that process, I can tell you I wasn’t leading the charge for the team we selected (hint: my pick rhymes with…uh, to hell with it – I picked the Blackhawks). That said, I think this season’s playoffs will be like those that have preceded it in the salary cap era in that you can make excellent arguments for about two handfuls of teams, assuming each benefits from good health and solid chemistry at the right time of the year.

And that said, I think this post-season is particularly fascinating, because it’s the first playoffs in a long time in which the Pittsburgh Penguins are coming in as underdogs – or at least, as much of an underdog that any team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on it can be. Read more

THN’s prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning will win the Stanley Cup

Matt Larkin
TBCupWin

Forgive Steve Yzerman. He’s less impressed by his Tampa Bay Lightning than the rest of the world is. It takes more than a healthy run at the Presidents’ Trophy to elevate this GM’s heart rate. Call it the byproduct of three Stanley Cup rings, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Selke Trophy, a Ted Lindsay Award and three Olympic gold medals, one as a player and two as chief roster architect.

So when Yzerman learns in mid-March THN has chosen Tampa Bay as 2015 Stanley Cup champ, he doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t care if his team sits three points back of Montreal for the Eastern Conference’s best record. Bigger things to worry about? More like smaller things.

“We’re talking today, and we’ve yet to clinch a playoff spot,” Yzerman said. “You might be thinking Stanley Cup. We’re not. We’re just trying to make the playoffs.”

Yzerman has accomplished enough to never get ahead of himself, and the Bolts haven’t done much yet under his watch. He was hired in 2010 and they reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final a year later, but that wasn’t his team. He brought in aging goalie Dwayne Roloson for a Cinderella run, but most of the roster came from Jay Feaster and Brian Lawton.

The current Lightning incarnation is very much Yzerman’s, aside from pillars Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, and anyone would’ve taken those two with the first and second overall pick in 2008 and 2009, respectively. The Yzerman regime drafted Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. It traded for Ben Bishop and Ryan Callahan. It discovered Tyler Johnson and signed Anton Stralman and Valtteri Filppula. Tampa is where it is today because of Yzerman’s handiwork.

And Yzerman’s Bolts aren’t yet where he wants them to be, having lost to Montreal in four straight games last spring after Bishop dislocated his elbow days before the playoffs, derailing a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. But just because Yzerman thinks Cup talk is premature doesn’t mean we have to agree. Instead we elect to accuse him of modesty – and build a case for Tampa Bay to win its second Stanley Cup.

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Whose heads should roll if the Boston Bruins miss the playoffs?

Matt Larkin
Zdeno Chara. (Getty images)

Pop quiz, Bruins fans: where were you when the Joe Thornton trade went down Nov. 30, 2005?

And how did you feel when the ticker crawl on the nearest TV unveiled the return for your team’s franchise center?

BREAKING: Boston Bruins trade C Joe Thornton to San Jose Sharks for LW Marco Sturm…

…C Wayne Primeau…

…and D Brad Stuart.

“Wait. That’s ALL!?”

It was a doomed deal from the start, and Jumbo Joe went bananas upon arrival in the Silicon Valley, amassing 92 points in 58 games en route to his lone Hart Trophy and scoring crown. It also marked the darkest point in Bruins history since the team finished low enough to draft Thornton.

So why talk about it today? Because, if the Bruins miss the playoffs this season, they’ll reach easily their lowest point as a franchise since Nov. 30, 2005. They’ve made the big dance seven straight seasons since Claude Julien took over as coach, posting point totals of 94, 116, 91, 103, 102, 62 (in 48 games, pro-rated to 106), and 117. The run includes a 2011 Stanley Cup, another final appearance in 2013 and the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s top record a season ago.

But 2014-15 hasn’t been overly kind to the Big, Bad Bruins. They’re 36-25-12, good for 84 points with nine games remaining. The surging Ottawa Hamburglars Senators have nudged them out of a playoff position and have the dreaded game in hand. The Bruins spent a good chunk of the year without captain Zdeno Chara, they’ve been sans David Krejci for a month and, worst of all, Dougie Hamilton’s breakout season is paused indefinitely with a mysterious injury. The signs don’t exactly scream late-season comeback.

The Los Angeles Kings may miss the playoffs despite playing very much like themselves, taking it easy during the regular season and still posting strong puck-possession numbers. The Boston Bruins can’t say the same. They’re scoring less, possessing the puck less and allowing more goals. They look little like the perennial powerhouse of the past half-decade. It’s fair, then, to ponder an off-season of questions for this team. Which heads will roll? Who needs a change of scenery?

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Bracket busters: which NHL playoff Cinderellas could cause April madness?

Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Why does college basketball get to have all the fun?

There’s something magical about the first four days of the NCAA tournament every year. Are you one of the people who enjoy the rounds of 64 and 32 more than the rest of the bracket and gradually tune in less and less, almost forgetting to watch the national title game? There’s a reason for that. The earlier rounds produce the upsets, the Cinderella stories that steal our hearts.

The home stretch of the NHL season has produced a few exciting Little Teams That Could, too. Which have the best potential to pull insane upsets come April, should they squeak into the bracket? A few come to mind immediately, one of which makes analytics advocates wet themselves, another of which is out to steal your Royale With Cheese.

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2018 Olympic hockey format unveiled. Which countries will make it?

Sidney Crosby. (Getty Images)

Olympic hockey will happen in 2018, NHLers or not. At the very least, the tournament will feature the world’s best female players. Will the men’s elite make the trek to PyeongChang, South Korea? We’ll see. Whatever happens, the IIHF is proceeding as if everyone will come to play. It released the respective formats for Olympic men’s and women’s hockey qualification Wednesday. Let’s break down how each field will be determined – under the assumption NHLers play.

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What Jose Theodore’s Hart Trophy season says about Carey Price’s chances

Matt Larkin
Carey Price. (Getty Images)

The Carey Price Hart Trophy whispers simply aren’t whispers anymore. They’re screams. They’re wall-rattling trumpets. No player in the NHL has been more dominant or valuable to his team this season.

Price leads the league’s goaltending class in wins (37), goals-against average (1.89) and save percentage (.936), the latter two triple crown categories by a wide margin. His seven shutouts trail only Marc-Andre Fleury’s nine. Price has been remarkably consistent, posting a GAA of 2.48 or better and an SP of .920 or better every month. He’s also somehow improved since the all-star break, going 13-3-1 with a 1.34 GAA and .953 SP. Those numbers don’t even look like they’re from the modern era. The GAA seems stolen from Alec Connell.

Better still, Price has done all this for a team with the 21st-best Corsi Close rating in the NHL, and for a team that scores less than any other in a playoff position right now. His backup Dustin Tokarski’s numbers pale in comparison. This is no Martin Jones or 2013-14 Chad Johnson looking all-world understudying a superstar goalie on a dominant defensive team. Every possible way you slice Price’s season, his success is his own. He’s the best player in the NHL.

And yet, while the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie is all but cemented, history suggests the odds remain against Price in the Hart Trophy race. Dominant goalie seasons like Tim Thomas’ 2011 haven’t been enough to earn MVP status. No stopper has done it since Jose Theodore in 2002. Before that it was Dominik Hasek in 1997 and 1998. Then you have to flash all the way back to Jacques Plante in 1961-62. John F. Kennedy was alive and well then. Humans hadn’t landed on the moon.

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Fantasy hockey: NHL trade deadline risers and fallers

Matt Larkin
Keith Yandle. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Time to take a deep breath after several weeks worth of stunning NHL trades. We’ve seen Evander Kane, David Clarkson (!), Jaromir Jagr and Keith Yandle change teams, just to name a few players.

Real-life GMs can rest until the draft. Fantasy GMs? No way. Now’s the time to capitalize on altered player values as a result of the trade flurry. Some players’ situations improve in their new environments and others’ take a downturn. The guys to dig deep for are those whose values change by association. A new linemate or ‘D’ partner can work wonders.

Here’s a look at some risers, fallers and changes to keeper-league stocks in hockey pools.

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