From injuries, to breakout performances, key rookies, upsets and coaches on the hot seat, here are five things to watch as the Stanley Cup playoffs get going Wednesday night.
5. What impact will star-player injuries have?
The Colorado Avalanche will be without Matt Duchene for at least the first two games of their series against Minnesota and the Tampa Bay Lightning will start their series against Montreal without goalie Ben Bishop. What affect will that have on their series? The Avs went 8-1-2 without Duchene in the lineup this season and Semyon Varlamov allowed only 12 goals in eight starts in that time. Without their top scorer, the Avs can still lean on their Vezina caliber goalie to help offset the loss. And since goalies are so important to playoff fortunes, that makes Tampa’s loss of Ben Bishop troubling. They were a different team without him this season. Backup Anders Lindback had a losing record (8-12-2), a save percentage 33 points below Bishop’s and a GAA of 2.90 despite a strong finish in his last three games. Playing against Montreal and Carey Price, this could have a devastating impact on the Lightning. Remember, without Bishop’s elite performance last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning – with Steven Stamkos and Art Ross winning Martin St-Louis – were not a playoff team.
And while we’ll start hearing a lot about non-specific upper-body and lower-body injuries, what you won’t hear about are the players who are playing through the pain at less than 100 percent. Last year, Patrice Bergeron had a rib injury and a punctured lung that required a hospital visit, but he didn’t miss a game in the Cup final. He also separated his shoulder in the final game of that series with Chicago. This year, Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will return to the lineup in Game 1 after long layoffs down the regular season stretch. They’re healthy enough to play, but will they be at their best? And if it doesn’t affect the Blackhawks in the first round, how will it affect them in later rounds?
Detroit is in the same situation with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Dastyuk, the Rangers with Ryan McDonagh, the Bruins with Bergeron (again), the Kings with Drew Doughty, the Penguins with Evgeni Malkin, and the Blues with David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo. Keep an eye on all these guys.
4. Which team is going to get upset?
The last time the first round of the NHL playoffs went chalk (all the higher-seeded teams winning) was in 1980 when conferences didn’t matter and the league pooled all teams together to rank them from 1-16. Over the past four playoffs, the No. 2 team in either conference has a 4-4 series record, so that recent trend puts Pittsburgh and Colorado on watch.
Anaheim, San Jose, Tampa Bay and the Rangers are other higher-ranked teams who are popular upset picks this year. It’s going to happen to somebody, so set your brackets accordingly.
My picks: I have Colorado, Pittsburgh and St. Louis upset in Round 1.
3. Who will have the bust-out performance for the Stanley Cup champion?
Whoever wins the Cup will naturally need to get the most out of its best players, but it will also need an unexpectedly good performance from a lesser-light or two. Last year, Chicago got nine goals in 23 games out of Bryan Bickell, which equaled his goal total over 48 regular season games (this year he got 11 in 59 games). His 17-point contribution earned him a four-year, $16-million extension. In 2012, Dustin Penner was coming off an awful regular season and was a surprising force for the champion Kings. In 2011, rookie Brad Marchand emerged as a productive pest with 11 goals and 19 points in 25 games for the Bruins. 2010 had Antti Niemi, an unknown goalie at the time, help Chicago through the West and to the Cup.
My picks: I had San Jose winning the Cup, so I’ll go with Tommy Wingels as a bust-out performer.
2. Which rookie will serve notice?
Tory Krug joined the Bruins for 15 playoff games last season after spending the year in the American League. He scored six points – all in his first seven games – and came out of nowhere. This season, Krug scored 40 points with the Bruins to finish fourth in rookie scoring and tied for 23rd among all NHL defensemen.
In 2012, the Rangers’ Chris Kreider joined their playoff effort after leaving Boston College and he scored five goals – two of which were game-winners – in 18 games. Though he struggled at the NHL level last season and had to be demoted to the AHL, Kreider finished sixth in rookie scoring this season and notched 17 goals.
In 2011 it was Brad Marchand. In 2010, P.K. Subban joined the Habs in the playoffs, after spending only two games with them in the regular season. He scored eight points in 14 games, while averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. There’s always at least one rookie who adds solid contribution to a team and that player doesn’t always play the bulk of the NHL season.
My picks: Tomas Hertl has to perform well for my Cup pick. Also looking at Detroit’s Danny DeKeyser to have a strong showing against Boston and for Dallas’ Alex Chiasson to hang with Anaheim’s big bodies.
1. Which team will disappoint enough to cost the coach his job?
There isn’t much difference between the top contenders for the Stanley Cup – those teams all have similar strengths and similar well-rounded, deep teams. But with how close playoff games generally are, how tight the upper-echelon of competition is, how regular upsets are each year and how the current playoff alignment is set up, any one of those favorites could just as easily fall inches short in Game 7 of a first round series. And though a bad bounce, bad penalty call or unlucky break could be what ends some team’s season, a coach may have to take the fall for it. Or a team with certain expectations could just fall flat on its face – in which case the coach could experience the exact same fate.
Last season, the New York Rangers went to the second round, where they ran into the Boston Bruins buzz saw and that five-game loss cost John Tortorella his job one year after he advanced to the conference final. Alain Vigneault lost his job two years after going to Game 7 of the Cup final when his Canucks were swept by the San Jose Sharks in Round 1. But there was some question around the future of Sharks coach Todd McLellan when his team lost to the Kings in seven games and even Penguins coach Dan Bylsma after his Penguins were swept in the conference final by the Bruins.
Remember, Claude Julien had plenty of people calling for his job one year after winning the Jack Adams because his Bruins blew a 3-0 second round series lead to the Flyers. Julien led the Bruins to the Cup the very next season. Coaches don’t always have to get blown out or lose early to find themselves out of work – they can sometimes be victims of unfortunate circumstance.
This year, McLellan and Bylsma seem to be the head coaches to watch in this regard. Both San Jose and Pittsburgh have Stanley Cup aspirations and both have failed to live up to expectations over the past few years – sometimes only barely failing to meet them. But in some cases, that’s all it takes for the team to believe it needs a new voice.
My picks: I have the Penguins out in Round 1 and I’ve already wondered about Dan Bylsma’s future, so I have to go with the American Olympic coach here.