Roberto Luongo

Five players who have the most pressure to win the Stanley Cup

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While there might be some teams and players that are happy to just get into the Stanley Cup playoffs (yes, we’re looking your way New York and Chicago), there are others for whom the pressure is enormous to win it all this year. For some, it’s pressure given the situation they’re in. For others, it’s past playoff failures coming back to haunt them leading up to having the fans shouting for their heads if they can’t bring Lord Stanley’s Cup home in June.

With such expectations lingering around the 16 cities where this year’s playoffs will take place, there’s five players in particular for whom the spotlight shines a lot brighter on them to perform in the postseason. Everyone wants to plan a parade and for these five players they can help make such urban planning fantasies a reality.

1. Roberto Luongo – Vancouver Canucks

It’s one thing to be on the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team. It’s another thing to be the starting goalie on said team. It’s an entirely new level of insanity to be the starting goalie on the Presidents’ Trophy winning team and having to face the team that’s ended your season the last two years right off the bat in the playoffs.

For Roberto Luongo, he’s got to exorcise his playoff demons against the Blackhawks in the first round. Should he be able to do that, it might seem like the weight of the world is off his shoulders but that’s only the beginning as there would ultimately be 12 more games to win after that to help get the Vancouver Canucks their first Stanley Cup championship. If after all the Canucks have accomplished this year they fall short of at least making the Stanley Cup final, the season will be a failure.

2. Alexander Ovechkin – Washington Capitals

For the second straight season the Capitals enter the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Last year, Ovechkin scored 50 goals and wasn’t able to do all the scoring for the Caps while they were ousted unceremoniously by eighth seeded Montreal in seven games. Once again they’ll deal with a team that plays tough defensively and has a goalie more than capable of stealing games on his own in the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist. You can understand why Caps fans might be sweating a bit.

For Ovechkin, the task is simple and the task is to win. After so much regular season success, the Caps must advance far in the playoffs. After all, when you’re the conference’s top seed you’re supposed to go deep. Should the Caps not make it to the Eastern Conference final or to the Stanley Cup final, all eyes will be turned toward coach Bruce Boudreau as well as to captain Alex Ovechkin. If Ovechkin’s offense doesn’t show up and the Caps are bounced out early, the grumblings in Washington will turn into shouts. Just hide the torches and pitchforks just in case.

3. Joe Thornton – San Jose Sharks

Every year the Sharks fail to make the Stanley Cup final the snarky words that are fired Joe Thornton’s way from a certain Northeast city he used to call home grow louder and nastier. Should the Sharks fail to go to the finals this year, the verbal barbs might start getting lobbed from both coasts.

Thornton had his lowest point output since his fourth year in the NHL this season (70 points) and while guys like Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture have been outstanding for the Sharks this year, not having Jumbo Joe being a major factor on creating those goals for the team is a bit alarming. The Sharks are rolling into the playoffs this year and while the “playoff choker” stuff hasn’t been in full bloom, San Jose not getting a shot at the Cup once again will have everyone questioning why the Sharks opted to make Thornton the team’s captain. Thornton’s had more playoff failures and upsets in his career than he’d care to remember and adding another one will make Sharks fans look for the chum bucket.

4. Sergei Bobrovsky – Philadelphia Flyers

Seems a bit unfair to put a rookie goalie on this list, but it’s Philadelphia and it’s the goaltending position. When you’re playing in Philly and you’re playing in goal, the pressure on you is immense. For Bobrovsky, he comes into this year’s playoffs after never having had a taste of what it’s like to play in the NHL postseason. There’s one of two ways this can turn out: Incredible success under pressure or heartbreaking failure.

Bobrovsky wasn’t around last season to see Michael Leighton come up short in the Stanley Cup final, but with the Flyers being Atlantic Division champions and the second seeded team in the East, there are certain expectations that Flyers fans and team brass want to have met. The Flyers aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year and coming up short and having it be the fault of the goaltending, people will think of Bobrovsky less as the next Ron Hextall or Bernie Parent and more like the next Roman Chechmanek.

5. Zdeno Chara – Boston Bruins

If the Bruins are serious challengers for the Stanley Cup this season, it’ll be up to Zdeno Chara to help show them the way to weather the storm early on. With their opening round series against Montreal set to be a full fledged three-ring circus, Chara will be the guy that has the bulls-eye on him the whole way. Should Chara keep a stiff upper lip and not let the Max Pacioretty-related nonsense affect him and the rest of the team, he can cement his legacy as a leader in Boston.

Boston comes into the playoffs hoping to end the franchise’s long Stanley Cup drought and Chara has to be the guy that steps up and keeps the team focused and playing the bruising, physical defensive brand of hockey they’ll need to play to help keep Tim Thomas’ sanity in check throughout the postseason. Another playoff failure in Boston will have fans coming down on everyone from the front office on down. If Chara can prove why he wears the “C” he might help Bruins fans get a chance to celebrate a Stanley Cup.

Report: Leafs win arbitration case with Cowen

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 21: Jared Cowen #2 of the Ottawa Senators prepares for a faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Canadian Tire Centre on January 21, 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Maple Leafs have won their arbitration case with Jared Cowen, who will remain bought out.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported the news today. It is a significant loss for Cowen, the 25-year-old defenseman who came to the Leafs in February as part of the Dion Phaneuf trade.

From Sportsnet’s story before the ruling:

At issue is whether Cowen was healthy enough to have the final year of his contract bought out by the Leafs last summer. A lengthy section of the CBA is devoted to “procedures for determining fitness to play,” and they include a player’s right to pursue a second medical opinion beyond what is provided by the team.

That information, plus witness testimony and other evidence, will be taken into account by the arbitrator while rendering a decision.

For Cowen, there is $3-million in salary at stake. That represents somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent of his career NHL earnings to date – a huge amount given his injury history and diminished future earning potential.

For the Leafs, it’s significant win. They’ll actually get a $650,000 cap credit this season. Next season, they’ll take a $750,000 hit, and after that their obligations are over.

If they’d lost, they would’ve lost the credit and assumed a $3.1-million cap hit this season, the final year of Cowen’s contract.

Sportsnet explains why the Leafs didn’t want to lose:

That’s a $3.75-million cap swing in total and would almost certainly result in the Leafs invoking long-term injury relief on one of three players – Nathan Horton, Stephane Robidas or Joffrey Lupul – to remain compliant.

Even though the LTI maneuver would offer immediate relief, it’s something the Leafs hope to avoid since it would increase the size of the cap overage penalty they’ll carry into next season because of performance bonuses expected to be earned by as many as five rookies in their current lineup.

Cowen had hip surgery after he was bought out. It’s been reported he may not be ready to play until February, assuming he can find a team. He played 37 games for the Senators last season, registering no goals and four assists.

Related: Lupul to start season on injured reserve, still aims to play again

No hearing for Taylor Hall after Larsen hit

NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 06:  Taylor Hall #9 of the New Jersey Devils hits Philip Larsen #63 of the Vancouver Canucks in the second period on December 6, 2016 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Devils forward Taylor Hall will avoid supplemental discipline for his big hit on Vancouver’s Philip Larsen, an NHL spokesman has confirmed.

Midway through New Jersey’s eventual 3-2 win over the Canucks, Hall caught Larsen behind the Vancouver goal with a massive bodycheck, knocking Larsen unconscious. The Danish blueliner was prone on the ice for several seconds before receiving medical attention, and was eventually stretchered off.

Hall wasn’t penalized on the play.

Larsen spent the night in a New Jersey-area hospital, per Sportsnet, and is flying to Vancouver today to meet with team doctors.

Hall said he didn’t regret throwing the hit, but felt awful about the result. He and Larsen do have a history, having briefly played together in Edmonton.

“I’m looking to make contact there, but I never want to see a guy laying on the ice there like that,” Hall said, per NJ.com. “I only know how to play the game one way, and you’ve got to play it hard. But like I said, I feel terrible.

“When you see him laying on the ice like that, he’s a former teammate of mine, and I just would have loved to make a hit there and continue the play. I hope he’s OK.”

Related: The Devils are hanging around, thanks to a great home record

The Devils are hanging around, thanks to a great home record

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 9: Cory Schneider #35 of the New Jersey Devils and teammates salute their fans after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on April 9, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Maple Leafs 5-1. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
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Last night’s game in Newark was mostly notable for the scary situation involving Vancouver’s Philip Larsen, who had to be stretchered off the ice following a devastating hit by Taylor Hall.

But the players played on, and the Devils eventually defeated the Canucks, 3-2.

The victory improved New Jersey’s record at Prudential Center to 8-0-2. The Devils are the only team in the NHL that has yet to lose in regulation at home. They’ve struggled on the road, going 4-7-4.

A quarter of the way through the season, the jury remains out on New Jersey as a legitimate playoff contender. The Devils have just six regulation wins, with four of their victories coming in overtime and two more in the shootout. Only the Panthers (5), Coyotes (4), and Canucks (4) have won fewer games in regulation.

But keeping games close has served the Devils well. Twelve times they’ve been tied after 60 minutes, guaranteeing them at least a point. Heading into tonight’s action, they sit just one point back of Washington for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re in a playoff race,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz told reporters this morning ahead of his team’s game with the Bruins (on NBCSN).

The Devils don’t play again until Thursday in Montreal, where a tough stretch starts for John Hynes’ crew. New Jersey returns home to face St. Louis Friday, then it’s back on the road for games at the Rangers, Blues, Senators, and Rangers again.

Wings activate Howard off IR following six-game absence

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 12:  Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings looks on during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on November 12, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings 5-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The Red Wings have played pretty well lately — 5-1-2 in their last eight — and got some good news on Wednesday, as veteran netminder Jimmy Howard was activated off injured reserve.

Howard has been out since Nov. 25 with a groin injury, suffered early in a game against the Devils. He’s missed the last six games as a result, but will — per NHL.com — take part in Thursday’s practice and presumably be ready to dress in time for Friday’s game against the Blue Jackets.

Howard was playing very well prior to getting hurt, posting a 1.82 GAA and .940 save percentage in 12 appearances, 11 of those being starts.

His return means it’s back to AHL Grand Rapids for Jared Coreau, who was recalled a couple weeks ago and made his NHL debut against the Penguins last Saturday, stopping 32 shots in a 5-3 loss. That game was the only one in the last eight in which Detroit failed to secure at least a point.

A big reason for that run was the play of Petr Mrazek. With Howard out, the Czech ‘tender has performed admirably, especially over his last five games — Mrazek has stopped 147 of 158 shots for a .930 save percentage, posting a record of 3-0-2.