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.

Penguins stun Capitals with Game 1 comeback

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With the Pittsburgh Penguins entering Game 1 of their second-round series without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, it looked like a great opportunity for the Washington Capitals to jump on them early.

Through 45 minutes it seemed like that was going to happen.

Braden Holtby was stopping everything in net. Alex Ovechkin scored 25 seconds into the third period to give the Capitals a two-goal lead. They were in a great position to take the first game of the series.

Then, for already the third time this postseason, the Capitals allowed a two-goal lead to turn into a loss when the Penguins scored three consecutive goals in four minutes to storm back for a 3-2 win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Pittsburgh comeback started with a Patric Hornqvist deflection of a Justin Schultz shot to finally beat Holtby.

Then the Sidney CrosbyJake Guentzel connection took over.

Crosby tied the game just three minutes after Hornqvist’s goal when he one-timed a shot off the rush that beat Holtby through the five-hole, and then Guentzel gave the Penguins the lead when he was able to get his stick on a Crosby shot to beat Holtby. Both Crosby and Guentzel have seven goals on this postseason, while Guentzel has factored into eight of the Penguins’ past nine goals over the past two games. He has scored five of them. Overall this postseason he has 15 total points (seven goals, eight assists) in seven games. This after after leading the league in postseason goal-scoring a season ago.

The Penguins have now won consecutive games without Malkin after taking Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday. That game also saw the Penguins erase a two-goal deficit thanks to four third period goals. Malkin traveled with the team to Washington, skated with the team on Thursday, and could be available for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon. The extra day off between games could be helpful for him.

Meanwhile, Penguins goalie Matt Murray was tremendous when he needed to be on Thursday night and played a huge role in the comeback, even if it might get lost in the third period goal-scoring outburst. The two goals he gave up were on odd-man rushes following defensive breakdowns in front of him (including one just 17 seconds into the game when Evgeny Kuznetsov was able to walk in alone), but other than that he was nearly flawless the rest of the way, stopping 32 of the 34 shots he faced.

Game 2 is Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL reportedly asked Brad Marchand to stop licking opposing players

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Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman regals readers with many great nuggets in his regular “31 Thoughts” column, but this bit on how the NHL reportedly responded to Brad Marchand‘s obnoxious kissing/licking of Leo Komarov from Game 1 (see the video above) might just take/taste the cake:

22. After Game 1 of the Toronto/Boston series, the Bruins got a, “We’d prefer if you could tell Brad Marchand to stop licking people” phone call from the NHL.

Seems fair enough?

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

That said, you wonder if the NHL might have sent the Boston Bruins pest a better message by, say, handing him a fine for unsportsmanlike conduct? The league could have attached a helpful message, such as: “There are better ways to tell Leo Komarov that you like his cologne.”

(One can only imagine how harsh the discipline might have been if Sean Avery was the one committing this … infraction.)

As a reminder, Marchand addressed his actions after that Game 1 win, not exactly apologizing for his actions:

You could say that Marchand had the last laugh being that the Boston Bruins ended up winning the series in Game 7 thanks to last night’s 7-4 win. Then again, Komarov didn’t get to dress for that game, so it doesn’t seem totally fair.

The bottom line is that Marchand revels in this sort of controversy, even as he’s gone from a good player with bad habits to an elite one who still makes questionable decisions.

Even last night’s Game 7 was an example of the kind of competitor he is. While Kasperi Kapanen shook him off for a memorable shorthanded go-ahead goal, Marchand got the last laugh, celebrating after an empty-netter that sapped any remaining drama from the game.

While Marchand surely gives the Bruins headaches with his antics and sometimes suspensions – don’t forget that there were years of rumors that his behavior might get him traded, at least before he jumped another level or two – he’s a huge part of a dominant line with Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. For all we know, Marchand wouldn’t be the same player if he avoided some of the uglier stuff. Hockey is a violent, emotional sport, after all.

Still, if you’re the Tampa Bay Lightning, you must be wondering: “Could we be the team to get the better of Marchand?” Few teams have the firepower to match that top line (not to mention a defender to make life tougher for them in Victor Hedman), so maybe the Bolts will find a way to push Marchand closer to becoming a net-positive?

One thing’s for sure: the NHL will be keeping an eye on what Marchand does, so he better … watch his mouth.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hall, MacKinnon, McDavid are 2018 Ted Lindsay Award finalists

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Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, and Connor McDavid were named the three finalists for the 2017-18 Ted Lindsay Award.

This award often stands as a fascinating alternative (or supplement) to the Hart Trophy, as this is essential the players’ choice. The NHLPA votes on who is “most outstanding player in the regular season,” while hockey media (The PHWA) determines the Hart based on wording (“player judged most valuable to his team”) that fuels many obnoxious debates.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Taylor Hall: Hall carried the Devils on his back this season, with the most obvious evidence being the gulf between his point total (93) and the second-best total on the team (Nico Hischier‘s 52). That might carry a bit more weight in Hart discussions, but it’s still very impressive.

Hall didn’t just hit 30 goals for the first time in his career, he nearly hit 40 at 39. His 54 assists also mark a new career-high, and it’s not as though he didn’t light up scoreboards even when he was scapegoated in Edmonton.

Hall brought his team up with him, certainly making life easier for Hischier during his rookie season.

The Case for Nathan MacKinnon: Nathan MacKinnon was right there (1.31) with Connor McDavid (1.32) in putting up point-per-game numbers relative to this era of scoring, generating 97 points in just 74 games. He mixes McDavid’s per-game brilliance with Hall’s “carrying his team to a playoff spot” factor.

The speedy center tied Brayden Point for the NHL’s most game-winning goals at 12.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar rightfully gets kudos for turning the Avs around, but MacKinnon is the guy who made it easier to say goodbye to Matt Duchene (and move on from a historically bad 2016-17 season).

The Case for Connor McDavid: For the second straight season, McDavid broke 100 points, setting a new career-high with 108 (41 goals, 67 assists). Consider how he scored those points, too; while other 100+ point men Claude Giroux (103) and Nikita Kucherov (100) both scored 36 of their points on the power play, McDavid only generated 20 that way.

McDavid instead was an even-strength maestro, and even threw in four shorthanded points on top of that.

Much like Crosby and other star athletes adding wrinkles to their skill sets as time goes along, McDavid keeps getting better. That’s a frightening thing for the league, as he’s already the best.

McDavid was last year’s winner, by the way.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Jack Adams Award
Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award
King Clancy Trophy
Calder Trophy

Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Second round begins with Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Sharks vs. Golden Knights

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Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. ET
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Call: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream here

Game 1: San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET
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Call: John Forslund, Joe Micheletti
Series preview
Stream here

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Slowing the Sharks, X-factors