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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So…what happens to the Kings if they don’t make the playoffs after all?

Jonathan Quick (Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

In being defeated 4-1 by the Blackhawks Monday in Chicago, the Los Angeles Kings missed out on a golden opportunity to insert themselves back into the Western Conference’s final wild card slot. Had they won, L.A. would have pushed Winnipeg out of that slot (by virtue of their tiebreaker advantage over the Jets) and kept pace with the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames in the race for second and third place in the Pacific Division. Instead, they’re now: two points behind Winnipeg with no games in hand; three points behind Calgary (the Flames have played one more game, but will hold the tiebreaker over the Kings if it comes to that); and five points behind the Canucks with the same amount of games (six) remaining.

For weeks now – to be specific, since February, when they reeled off eight straight wins after an abysmal January – many have been talking as if the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings were going to be a low-seeded team potential playoff opponents needed to respect, if not fear. And who can blame them? The incredible manner in which L.A. won its second championship in the past three seasons, the team’s collective spine that showed astonishing bend and no break, represent sufficient evidence on which to base a healthy trepidation of squaring off against them at the most important time of the year.

But that charge back to the playoff race has obscured a question that was being asked of the Kings as they stumbled out to a 21-18-12 record, and that question should be asked again now: what happens to Los Angeles’ roster if they fail to make the post-season? Read more

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

We’ve entered the two-minute warning phase of the NHL season – and man, is it glorious

Adam Proteau
Lance Bouma and Jiri Hudler  celebrate a Flames goal Sunday. (John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

I’ve argued recently that, for the sake of competitive integrity, the NHL ought to do away with its loser-rewarding points system. However, I’ve also said on a number of occasions that the league maintains the system because it functions as it’s intended to function: to create as tight a playoff race as possible in order to help more teams sell more tickets for longer into the regular season, to fans who hope their franchise somehow continues to play after its conclusion.

Never was that more true than on Sunday – the day it felt like the NHL has entered this season’s equivalent of the two-minute warning of a football game. Eight games were played, and every one of them had playoff implications. Read more

Why the Penguins should trade Sidney Crosby for the No. 1 pick

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Before any Pittsburgh fans go and get their jerseys in a jumble, just pause for a second, take a deep breath and think about it: if the Penguins fail to get back to the Stanley Cup final for the sixth straight season, what else is left for the franchise to do but blow up the core?

After an off-season of upheaval in which Pittsburgh brought in a new coach, a new GM and a new supporting cast for Sidney Crosby, there would be few options left but to raze the roster to the ground and begin anew. Sure, the Penguins could use Marc-Andre Fleury as a scapegoat and try using the same roster again next season with a different goalie, but that would only be putting off the inevitable. (Just ask the San Jose Sharks, who are years behind on the rebuilding schedule after sticking with their core despite perennial playoff failures, including their first-round faceplant last year.)

The best thing for the Penguins to do would be to try to trade Crosby for the next Crosby.

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Top five best-case-scenario first-round NHL playoff matchups

Brian Elliott, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews. (Dilip Vishwanat/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the end of the NHL’s regular-season approximately two weeks away, attention has settled on the possible first-round playoff showdowns. Many, if not most of the specific post-season berths won’t be finalized until closer to the final games on Apr. 11, but it’s not too early to start crossing fingers in the hope that some teams will wind up facing particular opponents and provide viewers with maximum entertainment value right out of the gate. Here are the top five best-case scenario first-round matchups this year:

5. Montreal vs. Ottawa. There are a few ways the Senators can take on the Canadiens in the first round, and most of them involve the Habs fending off Tampa Bay to retain top spot in the Atlantic Division, while the Sens hold on to the final wild card berth. Both results are entirely possible, and if it does happen, Canadian TV executives will be shimmying down the avenue as they celebrate the massive ratings that are sure to ensue. Read more

Top five goalies to be absolutely petrified of in the NHL playoffs

Devan Dubnyk has helped turn things around for the Minnesota Wild since being acquired on Jan. 14. (Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images)

One of the things that keeps NHL GMs awake at night is the prospect of facing a white-hot goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Your team could be a President’s Trophy winner, but if you follow up regular-season domination with a showdown against a netminder who gets in your players’ heads via consistently outstanding performances, the only thing you can do is sit by helplessly and wish you had a goalie who had as much impact on the outcome of games.

This season, there are five (or so) of those type of performers quite capable of giving opponents nightmares in the playoffs. Here are the top five goaltenders to be absolutely petrified of (unless they play for your favorite team) in the 2015 post-season:

5. Andrew Hammond, Ottawa Senators. The man known as “The Hamburglar” has the city of Ottawa in the palm of his hand thanks to his unreal 14-0-1 record – and if he can lead the Sens to a Wild Card post-season berth, there’s every chance his magic continues and he plays an instrumental role with a special playoff run. People are going to be waiting for his Cinderella start to go full pumpkin, but the 27-year-old Hammond is playing with house money in this first chapter of his NHL career. As a soon-to-be restricted free agent, he’s also got a clear financial incentive to stay hungry and capitalize on the opportunity the fates have provided him.

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Why bother winning a lot of games in the Western Conference?

Mark Scheifele and Tyler Myers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong has done a lot of roster building over the past few years and if the franchise is going to win its first-ever Stanley Cup, the window is open. Of course, the Blues could also get knocked out in the first round again and no one would bat an eye – the West is just that competitive.

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