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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 5 moments from Auston Matthews’ first 100 NHL games

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–The Dallas Stars have been hit hard by injuries lately. On Monday, they announced that Marc Methot and Martin Hanzal would both miss some time. Also, Kari Lehtonen is away from the team after he and his wife welcomed a baby boy into the world. (Wrongsideoftheredline.com)

Jay Bouwmeester, who has been out since the third day of training camp, is expected to return to St. Louis’ lineup tonight. “It’s been a long time, especially at the start of the year when you miss training camp. I’m excited and hopefully and I’ll just jump in and not interfere with what’s going on here.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

–Sabres coach Phil Housley is trying to find solutions to help his team get back on track. Right now that includes mixing up the lines. Jack Eichel finds himself with Zegmus Girgensons and Jason Pominville, which seems like a bit of a demotion. (Buffalohockeybeat)

–Anton Rodin’s time with the Vancouver Canucks has officially come to an end, as he’s been placed on waivers with the purpose of terminating his contract. “Anton asked to be released from his contract,” said Jim Benning. “We value the skill and depth he adds to our team but ultimately it was important to respect Anton’s request to move on.” (Vancourier.com)

–Yes, the Edmonton Oilers are struggling this season. Some people want to blame Connor McDavid for that, but according to NHLNumbers.com, GM Peter Chiarelli should be the one taking the heat. (NHLNumbers.com)

–The swap Mike Cammalleri-for-Jussi Jokinen swap between the Kings and Oilers was nothing more than a weak attempt for both teams to try to get back on track. Don’t expect the move to help either side. (Fanragsports.com)

–Hall-of-famers Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne were honored prior to the game between the Ducks and Panthers on Sunday night. “It was just a perfect way to end a great week and a half,” Kariya said. “Just the most memorable time, certainly in my life and both of our lives. To spend it with Teemu and his family, it was icing on the cake. I’ll always remember the ovation.” (OC Register)

–Like all of us, Jets winger Patrik Laine is impressed by Selanne’s 76-goal rookie record he set in 1993. Laine can’t imagine anyone will ever touch that one. “Thirty-six, that was hard,” Laine said of his own rookie total. “So imagine if I had to score 40 more on top of the 36 I scored. I would say it’s pretty hard.” (NHL.com)

–Jets prospect Jack Roslovic is ripping it up in the AHL, but Winnipeg shouldn’t recall him yet. He needs more time to grow in the minors. (Jetsnation.ca)

–Preds forward Craig Smith had been doing all the right things on paper last season, he just couldn’t buy a goal for long stretches. Now, Smith’s hard work has paid off, as he’s finally starting to produce with a little more regularity. (Ontheforecheck.com)

–The pairing of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy has worked out well for Boston because there’s a terrific teacher and a willing student. What does Chara like best about his defense partner? “That he’s quickly able to adapt to our system and our game. We saw it in the playoffs [last season]. He stepped in and gave us a contribution right away. He didn’t seem to be nervous, or caught in a situation where he’d be distracted.” (ESPN.com)

–Filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason believes Willie O’Ree (first black player to play in the NHL) and Herb Carnegie (Jean Beliveau said that he was one of the best players to never play in the NHL) should both be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Colorofhockey.com)

–Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the top prospect available for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. How we he help every one of the struggling teams in the NHL? The Hockey News breaks it down for you. (The Hockey News)

–Canadiens goaltender Antti Niemi is already on his third team this season. Since he’s been on the move a lot, he’s decided to go with the plain white goalie mask. He should embrace the simple mask. (Puckjunk.com)

–How can the NHL spice up some of the stale rivalries in the league? Scottywazz.com believes that handing out a trophy could help. (Scottywazz.com)

Auston Matthews suited up in his 100th NHL game, so The Score breaks down the top 5 moments from his young career. To no ones surprise, the top moment came in his first game. (The Score)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid have wrong things in common right now

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As the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, faces of beleaguered franchises, and recipients of eight-figure salaries starting next season, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel share a lot in common.

Sadly, though the first quarter of this campaign, their similarities mostly leave you kind of bummed out.

Sure, there are key differences, but if you paint in broad brushstrokes, the similarities are striking.

Varying degrees of blame

Look, it’s almost human nature to blame a team’s failures on its best player. The logic goes: they have the most power to change things, and they often draw the biggest checks (technically not true for McDavid and Eichel until next season), so they need to take the heat, right?

Well, maybe, but in almost every case in a team sport like hockey, it’s usually not on the best guy or even top guys on a team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure seemed “in decline” for a while there, and then the Penguins brought in Phil Kessel, played to their strengths as an attacking team with Mike Sullivan in charge, and are now repeat champs.

Here’s hoping that McDavid and Eichel get some help, but with things sour for the Oilers (middle of the pack with contender aspirations) and Sabres (cellar dwellers despite dreams of big strides), the two are getting thrown under the bus at times.

The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote this about Eichel, and keep in mind this was before Buffalo dropped its sixth in a row in falling short against Columbus on Monday:

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He’s got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let’s move to things you can’t measure.

Eichel’s body language has been terrible much of season. It’s a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

McDavid, meanwhile, saw his defensive struggles magnified during Edmonton’s frustrating loss to the Dallas Stars this past weekend:

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis felt the need to defend McDavid, and he wasn’t alone. That’s how bad things are getting for fans of the Sabres and Oilers, two teams who have been through these growing pains so often, they probably wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a mirage.

Varying degrees of success

You really don’t have to dig that deep to see that McDavid and Eichel stand among a handful of Oilers/Sabres who are carrying the scoring burden for their teams.

It’s especially stark with McDavid, who has 25 points while the second-highest Oilers scorer is currently Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has 15). Things are a little more even among Eichel and guys that he spends much of his ice time with, like a resurgent Evander Kane, but the broader view is the same: only four Sabres skaters are above 10 points while the Oilers only have five.

Yes, you can nitpick both players at times, but that requires the willful ignorance of looking the other way on an important point: few, if any, skaters are perfect. Especially during every night of an 82-game season.

The painfully obvious truth is that both McDavid and Eichel need more help and are being asked to do far too much. Harrington made an interesting point with this tweet, as it actually might apply to McDavid more than Eichel:

Deck chairs

From my vantage point, the situation might be more dire for the Oilers than the Sabres for a few reasons.

For one, it seems like Edmonton’s management has made its bed and now must lie in it. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis said it well (sub required) in a piece titled “There’s no retreat from the course Peter Chiarelli has plotted for the Oilers.”

Chiarelli has essentially cast his lot with the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell as key supporting cast members, and that hasn’t gone well, at all. Their bad contracts and trade clauses make them difficult to move.

And, really, how much do you trust Chiarelli to get the most out of moving, say, Nugent-Hopkins after he’s left behind a trail of shaky (at best) moves during his last years in Boston and his stay in Edmonton? To a lot of fans, he’s already a punchline.

Yikes.

In the short-term, the Sabres’ roster probably has bigger holes. Perhaps things might change as Kyle Okposo gets healthier, but the offense is a little slim beyond Eichel, Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Jason Pominville (though Sam Reinhart‘s showing some signs of promise).

While Edmonton’s actually fashioned a half-decent defense for itself, Buffalo’s a mess in that regard.

That said, this is the first season of the Phil Housley – Jason Botterill regime, and they deserve time to get things together. The best thing about this situation is that, while there’s a tough deal or two like that of Zach Bogosian, it’s a fairly clean slate in Buffalo. They don’t need to cling to bad moves out of pride or even to protect their jobs like, say, the Capitals stubbornly hanging onto Brooks Orpik and letting quality players slip by.

Essentially, these two teams are on different points in the board game that is team-building. The Oilers are advancing close to that make-or-break spot, which to some extent makes it scarier to see the same old problems bubbling up.

***

No, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but it’s remarkable to see the parallels between Eichel and McDavid right now. You can even meme them in similar ways.

With the right mixture of luck, progression, and good management choices, maybe we can go back to focusing on the delightful things that make them similar: financial security and being absolutely spellbinding at hockey.

Right now, that’s a difficult thing to do.

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.

The Buzzer: His name is Joonas

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Choice PHT cuts

Shockingly, Radko Gudas is not on board with a 10-game suspension. Shocking.

Yahoo for Aho.

Johnny B. Very Good.

Blue Jackets are looking like contenders (again).

Players of the Night

  • Joonas Donskoi scored two goals for the Sharks and also found the net during the shootout. The Ducks still won as goaltending continues to shine for them (Reto Berra played the role of John Gibson tonight), but it was quite the game by Donskoi.

This is now his third two-point night of the season.

  • Also in the running: Mikael Granlund, who two goals and also grabbed a primary assist. He collected the last two goals of regulation, helping the Minnesota Wild secure a standings point. Like Donskoi, his work wasn’t quite enough, as the Devils won in overtime.

Highlight of the Night

Kevin Fiala has been on a tear since Kyle Turris arrived in Nashville. Sometimes Turris factors into that, sometimes it’s Fiala, who might be enlivened by the addition. This time around, P.K. Subban deserves a lot of credit for setting up what ended up being just a brilliant goal:

That goal is almost poetic.

Factoids of the Night

The Devils won thanks to this 3-on-3 OT goal from John Moore, which apparently is a fairly frequent occurrence.

We might as well go for a trifecta of specific-but-impressive defensemen facts:

Scores

Blue Jackets 3, Sabres 2
Coyotes 4, Maple Leafs 1
Flames 4, Capitals 1
Predators 5, Jets 3
Devils 4, Wild 3 (OT)
Ducks 3, Sharks 2 (SO)

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.

Blue Jackets are trending up

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A couple of weeks ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz hit the nail on the head in stating that the Columbus Blue Jackets “are not going away.”

Still, for those of us who’ve been impressed by their play and their war chest of prime-age (and nearing the cusp) talent, it’s been a little frustrating to see Columbus stumble a bit here and there through the baby steps of becoming a contender.

While acknowledging the risk of being the blog that cried wolf on this situation, Monday once again presented evidence that the Blues Jackets might just find their stride.

Now, it wasn’t easy against a struggling Buffalo Sabres team on Monday night,* as the Blue Jackets barely protected a 3-2 lead, with this near-goal making people hold their breath:

The overall trend is way up, however, as the Blue Jackets are now on a four-game winning streak. A lot has gone right for Columbus during that span; Sergei Bobrovsky‘s been brilliant, they haven’t allowed a power-play goal, and Artemi Panarin did this on Monday.

Diverse weapons

Columbus can be a scary opponent because they can send waves of quality forwards at opponents, especially with Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand (also perhaps Pierre Luc-Dubois?) emerging as threats. That said, Panarin might rank as their most dangerous “gamebreaker,” so it’s promising to see him score a goalie-had-no-chance brand of goal like that.

Sure, it would have been nice to add even one extra push with, say, Matt Duchene … but there’s a lot to like here, nonetheless.

Actually, I probably should have specified that Panarin is arguably the team’s most dangerous gamebreaker among their forwards.

As Alison Lukan discussed for The Athletic (sub required), the Blue Jackets are allowing their superb defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to run while as “rovers,” and that’s scary news for opponents. Defensemen given the green light to be aggressive can sometimes be that much tougher to track, and Werenski and Jones have the tools to mix attacking and responsible defense for a potent, frightening mix.

The evolution of Torts

On a similar note, allow me to utter an opinion that isn’t often shared by people who are even mildly interested in “fancy stats” and non-traditional ways of thinking: John Tortorella’s evolution makes me intrigued about this team’s chances.

It’s fair to ding Torts for being stubborn about certain things, yet I wonder if there’s some Mike Babcock to him: the fiery nature of an “old school” coach mixed with the survival instincts and competitiveness needed to actually embrace changes in the league.

Giving Jones and Werenski isn’t the first example of Tortorella going “safe is death” and it’s not the first sign of innovation in Columbus. After all, it took the NHL some time to adapt to the Blue Jackets’ power play last season, which involved using a would-be depth forward (Sam Gagner) in a specialist role that was quite effective and off the beaten path.

Robber Bob

The last reason to be excited about Columbus is fairly straightforward: it sure seems like Sergei Bobrovsky is less streaky and more, perhaps, the best goalie in the world. Or at least the best goalie on enough nights to make this team pretty scary.

Now, does this mean that Columbus won’t stumble again this season? Of course not. Really, we don’t see many teams nearly immune to struggles, and some arguably suffer if they don’t hit much regular-season turmoil (the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Capitals, perhaps?).

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get excited about The Next Big Thing(s) in the NHL, and the Blue Jackets seem like they have the potential to be just that.

* – Check PHT on Tuesday for more on Jack Eichel and his struggling Sabres.

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.