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Three Stanley Cup contenders who could choke early in the playoffs

Matt Larkin
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Max Pacioretty. (Getty images) Author: The Hockey News

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Three Stanley Cup contenders who could choke early in the playoffs

Matt Larkin
By:

Who are this spring's paper tigers? We look at a trio of so-called powerhouses that could crumble when the going gets tough in the playoffs.

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.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Monday night's home loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning revealed exactly what Montreal's problem is. The Bolts outshot the Habs 44-28, including 18-6 in the second period. On any night Carey Price isn't perfect or near perfect, this team struggles to win, because it allows far more shot attempts than it generates. The score-adjusted Corsi numbers from Monday's game favoured Tampa Bay 51.2 to 34.8. Why score-adjusted? Because the team trailing by multiple goals late will register more attempts when it adds an extra attacker and/or the other team plays more of a prevent defense, which doesn't accurately reflect the entire game's flow of pressure.

Per puckalytics.com, the Habs rank 20th in the league in Corsi Close, the lowest of any team currently in a playoff position save for the Calgary Flames. It makes perfect sense, then, that Montreal lost for the fifth straight time this season to the NHL's best possession team in Tampa Bay. We've seen the teams that generate the most shot attempts rise to the top and win the Cup again and again in recent seasons, and the Habs simply don't fit that profile.

Montreal added grit to its forward corps at the trade deadline with Brian Flynn and Devante Smith-Pelly, but the latter hasn't worked out so far. He's spending time in the press box. Montreal's forward corps doesn't play an overly heavy game. Guys like Brendan Gallagher and Brandon Prust literally can't, no matter how tenacious they are. They're just not big human beings.

This team can't score. The Habs are 23rd in goals per game, easily last among projected playoff teams. They have the 24th-best power play. They just don't have the support for Price, currently the world's best goalie, if he falters remotely.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Sidney Crosby leads the league in scoring. Evgeni Malkin isn't far behind. Quick – guess where the Pens rank in total offense. Did you guess 17th? This is the most top-heavy Pens team in years. It's one year removed from sporting a solid top-six forward corps of Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Malkin, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, albeit Dupuis missed last year's post-season. This year? Blood clots have ended Dupuis' season and possibly his career. Kunitz's production has tanked enough to make you wonder if he's just hit a wall at 35. Jokinen plays for the Florida Panthers now. It helps that Patric Hornqvist came over in the Neal trade, and that GM Jim Rutherford acquired David Perron. But let it sink in that Daniel Winnik is Crosby's latest winger. Nothing against Winnik, as he's a perfectly capable player, but he's a third-line checker, not a front-line triggerman.

The Pens will also be missing at least one and as many as three of their best defensemen when the post-season begins. Budding star Olli Maatta's season is over thanks to a shoulder injury. Kris Letang, the Pens' most important skater after Crosby and Malkin, sustained a concussion last Saturday. He could be back in a few days – or he might not play again until next fall. Letang has endured enough concussions for his situation to be touch-and-go. And Christian Ehrhoff isn't even skating at the moment, either.

Lastly, there's Marc-Andre Fleury. Amazing comeback season, yes, but it's not the first time we've said that. Fleury has almost always been a great regular season tender. We never know if those playoff yips of his will return.

What if the Penguins, who don't score enough, have a weakened defense and have a goalie with a checkered playoff history, draw the New York Islanders in round 1? The Isles have one of the league's deepest, most prolific offenses. They gave Pittsburgh a good fight in round 1 two years ago. Their starting goalie, Jaroslav Halak, keyed Montreal's upset over Pittsburgh in 2010. And they have the emotional lift of playing at the Nassau Coliseum for their final season before moving to Brooklyn. This series is more likely to happen than not – and I'll push my chips toward the Isles' side of the table if it does.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

Let's start by establishing how fantastic this St. Louis Blues team is. Its forward corps is so deep that it deploys Steve Ott, Marcel Goc and Ryan Reaves as a fourth line. Third liners? Paul Stastny, Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund, who could play on Arizona's first unit. A top-six forward corps of David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko is just unfair.

We can play the same game with St. Louis' defense corps. Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman, Carl Gunnarsson and Zybnek Michalek? Come on. This is silly. The Blues have arguably the NHL's most stacked stable of skaters.

But, as pointed out in our Playoff Preview magazine, this Blues team has zero Stanley Cup winners. It doesn't have a Cup finalist. It has one conference finalist. You read that right: Ott is the only current Blue who has surpassed round 2 of the playoffs.

Intangibles like grit, heart, nerves and so on typically make for weak arguments – every player is experienced until he's experienced – but what's left to say about the Blues? They've endured four-game losing streaks and subsequent playoff eliminations three straight years, spanning a round 2 sweep against the Kings in 2012 and two straight seasons in which they led a round 1 series 2-0 only to lose in six games.

The Blues have also shown a scary tendency to trudge into the post-season with the opposite of momentum. They lost six of their final nine games in 2011-12. They entered the 2012-13 playoffs piping hot, winning six of seven, but fell to the Kings a second straight year. Last season, the Central Division crown slipped through their fingers as they closed out with a six-game losing streak.

What about now? The Blues have lost five of six. They've lost three straight at home, scoring four goals over that span. Here comes the deflated balloon routine, for the third time in four springs under coach Ken Hitchcock.

Another strike against the Blues is summed up nicely in this NHL.com headline: "Brian Elliott, Jake Allen hope to end Blues' playoff struggles in goal." That's not a knock on NHL.com, by the way. It's a perfectly accurate header. And that's a problem for St. Louis. Resting post-season hopes on two goalies. Hitchcock has stated Elliott is his guy, but 'Hitch' keeps the leash short and likes to ride the hot hand. The past five Cup champs had one stopper start every game: L.A. (Jonathan Quick), Chicago (Corey Crawford) L.A. (Quick), Boston (Tim Thomas), Chicago (Antti Niemi). Elliott, on the other hand, seems one bad game away from swapping playoff depth chart positions with Jake Allen. Sometimes a 1/1A arrangement winds up more curse than blessing in the playoffs. And things stand to get more complicated considering Elliott had a .930 save percentage at the all-star break and sits at .907 since.

Now take this St. Louis team and toss it into another first-round match up with red-hot, uber-experienced Chicago, the team that gave them the willies last year. Loaded Blues roster, yep, but do they still get your bet against the Hawks? And what if Tarasenko's injury, sustained Monday night, proves serious?

Gulp.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

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Three Stanley Cup contenders who could choke early in the playoffs