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.

The Buzzer: Crawford leads Blackhawks out of slump

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Three stars

1. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks needed something to rally behind coming off their eighth straight on Tuesday. Two better periods to close out a 6-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets a night before was a start.

Scoring first would be crucial — something they accomplished on Wednesday — and they would need a solid outing by veteran netminder Crawford, which they received.

Crawford made 40 saves to help lift the Blackhawks out of their pit of despair after making 28 saves over the final two periods. Chicago squeezed out the winner in the third and that was that.

2. Ondrej Kase, Anaheim Ducks

The second hat trick of the night, but one that helped his team win (sorry Bryan Rust).

Kase opened the game’s scoring with his sixth, pulled the Ducks back to 3-2 with his seventh and capped off the hat trick to tie the game 3-3 in the third period with his eighth, which was the beginning of a four-goal explosion leading to the Ducks winning 6-3 against the Dallas Stars.

It’s been a pretty good past few games for Kase, who has six points in his past two games and nine in his past five.

3. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

There was a point in Wednesday’s game where Gaudreau had to leave after a hit from Radko Gudas. Gaudreau was shaken up after trying to duck out of the way of an incoming Gudas and probably took a bigger impact than he would have if he stayed standing.

Gaudreau returned of course, and in vintage Johnny Hockey style, scored the game-winner 35 seconds into overtime to hand Calgary their 10th win in their past 13 games. Gaudreau added two assists earlier in the game, too. Matthew Tkachuk had four apples. Sean Monahan had two goals, including the game-tying marker with seven seconds left in the third.

It was a total team effort for the Flames, who had to overcome a 5-3 deficit in the final 1:08 of the third, and it was capped off by Gaudreau’s theatrics in OT.

Other notable performances: 

  • Bryan Rust. Rust was the reason why the Penguins were in this one. His second career hat trick brought the Penguins back from a 2-0 deficit and then a 3-2 disadvantage.
  • Brandon Montour. One goal — the game-winner — and three assists for a four-point night.

Highlights of the night

Rust’s hatty:

Kase hatty:

Flames steal a victory from the jaws of defeat:

Factoids

Scores

Golden Knights 3, Islanders 2

Blackhawks 6, Penguins 3

Flames 6, Flyers 5 (OT)

Ducks 6, Stars 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks finally end their losing streak, again

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It’s finally over, again.

The Chicago Blackhawks ended their second eight-game losing streak of this season with a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN.

Playing just 24 hours after getting thrashed 6-3 by the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, Chicago was desperate not to extend that streak to nine (which would have been a first since 2012).

Chicago had no answers following the Winnipeg game. Head coach Jeremy Colliton said his team was playing against men, sharply implying his team wasn’t.

Patrick Kane flat out called it “embarrassing.”

All the losing was taking its toll, again.

One of the biggest knocks recently with the Blackhawks is that they started so poorly in many of those games that no matter how good they played in the final two periods, it was never enough.

A winning formula would likely begin with a good start, and that’s exactly what they got at the United Center on Wednesday.

Chicago scored first — something they hadn’t done in 11 previous games — and then scored second, too, to take a 2-0 lead through Andreas Martinsen and Brent Seabrook, respectively.

It helps when you shoot. The Blackhawks failed to get a shot on goal in the first 17:36 of the opening frame on Tuesday.

They reconciled that in 19 seconds on Wednesday.

Winning rarely comes easy, and Wednesday’s ‘W’ was by no means a comfortable one for Chicago.

Twice they coughed up the lead. Bryan Rust scored a hat trick in the game, potting his first with 1:20 left in the first period. He tied the game 5:46 into the second before Alex DeBrincat regained Chicago’s advantage on the power play late in the period. But as he did in the first, Rust scored a late (and lucky goal off Seabrook’s stick) to complete his hat-trick and bring proceedings level once more.

By all accounts, Pittsburgh had an easy path to victory laid out for them. Yeah, yeah… any team, any night and all of that. But an ailing team playing the second half of a back to back is as mouth-watering as it gets in the NHL.

Instead, the Pens allowed a fourth goal to Marcus Kruger in the third and despite throwing up 43 shots on the night, couldn’t solve Corey Crawford a fourth time as he came away with a 40-save win — his first in his past nine starts.

The Blackhawks fed two more into the back of the net — both empty netters — as Jonathan Toews and Brendan Saad drove the final nails into the coffin.

Toews, who had a goal and two assists for a three-point night, eclipsed 700 points in his NHL career. He came into Wednesday two shy of the milestone.

Chicago’s schedule doesn’t get much easier going forward. They face Winnipeg once again on Friday before welcoming San Jose and Nashville over the next week.

The Blackhawks took a stride on Wednesday and have something to rally behind now, even it was just a baby step.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This matchup features two teams that have combined to win 6 of the last 10 Stanley Cups, but are both currently outside of playoff position. The Penguins are in the mix though – they enter Wednesday night ninth in the Eastern Conference, and have a chance to move into a top-3 Metropolitan Division spot tonight. Chicago is last in the NHL with 23 points.

After losing 6-3 in Winnipeg on Tuesday, the Blackhawks enter tonight having lost eight straight in regulation. That stands in contrast to their current eight-game winning streak against the Penguins. The last Pittsburgh win over Chicago came on March 30, 2014.

This is the second time this season that the Blackhawks have lost eight in a row, and Tuesday’s loss means they’ve won only three times in their last 22 games (3-16-3). Once again, the team was doomed by a slow start, getting out-shot 14-0 to start the game and falling behind 3-0 after the 1st period. Chicago did eventually cut the deficit to 4-3, but Winnipeg added 2 more goals in the 3rd to seal it.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 19, the Penguins went 1-7-2 and were in last place in the East. But since then, they’ve gone 6-2-2 (including 3-0-1 in their past four) to vault up the standings.

Their latest win (2-1 shootout win over the Islanders on Monday) came with some drama, as Derick Brassard – who was moved up to Sidney Crosby’s line to ignite a struggling offense in the 3rd period – tied the game off an assist from Jake Guentzel. Guentzel later scored the decisive tally in the shootout on his first career shootout attempt.

“I think it was good for Brass,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s such a gifted player. He’s playing a different role on this team than he has on all the other teams he’s played on. I’m trying to find more ways to keep him involvedand maximize what he brings to this team because I think he’s a unique player.”

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Wednesday, December 12th, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Derick Brassard – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Tanner PearsonEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Zach Aston-ReeseRiley SheahanBryan Rust
Derek GrantMatt CullenJean-Sebastien Dea

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJamie Oleksiak
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Dylan Sikura – David KampfBrendan Perlini
Alex DeBrincatDylan StromePatrick Kane
John HaydenMarcus KrugerAndreas Martinsen

Duncan KeithHenri Jokiharju
Brandon ManningBrent Seabrook
Connor Murphy – Carl Dahlstrom

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hitchcock Oilers are double-edged sword for McDavid, NHL fans

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By just about any measure, the Ken Hitchcock era has been a slam-dunk success for the Edmonton Oilers so far.

Through 11 games, the Oilers are 8-2-1 under Hitchcock. Edmonton’s now on a four-game winning streak after beating the Avalanche 6-4 on Tuesday, while they’ve also won seven of eight games.

They’ve narrowly outshot their opponents 337-329 since Hitchcock took over on Nov. 20, and their possession stats have been respectable-enough during that span. With the way things are going, Mikko Koskinen could be the latest in a line of goalies who’ve enjoyed glorious times under Hitchcock, and he might actually have some staying power compared to, say, Pascal Leclaire and his nine shutouts with Columbus back in 2007-08.

People can fuss over how much this surge has to do with Hitchcock’s acumen (or the competence Hitch can wring out of fear), but the Oilers will gladly take this boost.

That said, there are reasons to have mixed feelings about the Hitchcock era and its potential impacts, whether you’re Connor McDavid, an Oilers fan, or a fan of hockey as a sport. How about we work through some of those conflicting thoughts and feelings?

The world is a saner, better place with McDavid in the playoffs

Look, life is short. Injuries can happen, whether they present speed bumps to a career or derail them entirely. Just look at the struggles Sidney Crosby eventually worked through (mostly?), not to mention how rapidly Marc Savard’s promising career fell apart. If Hitchcock’s tweaks can get McDavid to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, more fans will be exposed to the sheer, 120-mph genius that is number 97.

It’s been argued that the Oilers verge on being the best team in the NHL when McDavid is on the ice, and something quite far from that when he’s not. There are worse viewing experiences than turning your attention from another screen back to an Oilers game in time for all of McDavid’s shifts.

Aim higher

All things considered, Hitchcock’s probably close to optimizing this rendition of the Oilers.

While Hitchcock seems interested enough in the “little things” to get better results out of various players, it still feels like the plan boils down to “grind everything down to a halt and hope Connor (and to a lesser extent, Leon Draisaitl) will carry you to wins.

That might seem like an insult, until you realize that it’s the best course considering what Hitchcock’s working with. After all, a little less than a month ago, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli railed against the defense he built, admitting that none of them are “exceptional passers.” With that in mind, it would be foolish to try to emulate, say, the Mike Sullivan Penguins by hoping to play a space-age, innovative, breakout-heavy game. Slowing the game down makes plenty of sense in context, and Hitchcock remains almost freakishly effective at giving his teams short-term boosts:

So, the good news is that Hitchcock is a shrewd hockey mind who can eke out better results from this limited group.

The less-sunny-side is that there are bright, shining, neon lights pointing to this not working. It was honestly surprising that Chiarelli remained as GM after last season, considering he’s the architect of a roster that generally asks McDavid to be Superman every night.

Hitchcock’s success conjures some worst-case scenarios, then. What if he’s clever enough to get them to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, possibly winning a round or two? Such success could lull Oilers management into a false sense of security, keeping them from making the progress that might open the door for McDavid to actually, you know, have some help around him.

In that way, Hitchcock could be the best possible paint on a hole in the wall/Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Considering that Hitch is already 66, it’s likely that he’s a short-term fix. He’s a great one in that, but still.

[More McDavid, Draisaitl under Hitchcock.]

Harming a revolution?

Much of the focus has been on the Oilers, aside from notes about how all of our lives will be brightened by more Connor McDavid, particularly Playoff Mode Connor McDavid.

But the NHL is a copycat league, and there’s the more existential fear that other NHL teams will see an Oilers team that might ride low-scoring, low-event games and think, “Hey, we should play boring hockey again, that clearly works.”

This would be unfortunate, as the league’s currently continuing its upward trend of scoring, which saw a noteworthy bump starting in 2017-18. So far, teams are allowing 2.89 GAA per game, up from last year’s 2.78. Some of that disparity can be chalked up to curiously shaky goaltending, but it’s important to note that the pace of games has improved, with a modest bump in shots each night. If you were to randomly turn on an NHL game in 2018, you’d likely face higher odds of being entertained than, say, in 2015. Sometimes the bump in entertainment value is pronounced; in other ways, the differences can be subtle. Nonetheless, we’re generally seeing more skill on the ice, less dump-and-chase drudgery, and more entertaining hockey.

The worry, then, is that coaches will see situations like Hitchcock succeeding with the Oilers and return to their worst, fun-killing instincts.

Hopefully these concerns aren’t justified, but those thoughts surface. After all, Hitchcock’s history points to the Oilers’ blueprint for winning being closer to “McDavid scores the only goal” (1-0 win against Calgary on Sunday) than 10-goal games (beating the Avs 6-4 on Tuesday).

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Ultimately, these “state of the games” aren’t Hitchcock’s concern, and the Oilers seemed to make a wise decision by hiring him. The sky won’t fall if this only portends greater success in, say, June.

Nonetheless, there’s the dream of the Platonic ideal of the McDavid Oilers: a team that embraces their speedy, near-superhuman superstar, playing fast and skillful hockey. The fear is that, if things break the wrong way, the Oilers will end up looking more like a nightmare: a bland team that mires the best player in the world in mediocrity.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.