PHT Power Rankings: Teams under the most pressure to make Stanley Cup run

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The championship-or-bust mentality we have with sports teams can be a dangerous and frustrating one because it usually sets us up for nothing but disappointment, anger, and, sometimes, shockingly bad sports takes.

We have high expectations for teams, especially those loaded with high-end talent, and view them as disappointments or underachievers (or worse, “chokers”) if they do not reach the arbitrary goals we set for them. Sometimes, depending on the makeup of the team in question, even one championship is not viewed as good enough. But the reality in sports is that for even the very best teams in any given season the chances of winning a championship are remarkably low with the odds being overwhelmingly stacked against them.

Chances are, your favorite team is going to end its season with a loss, no matter how great it may be, and that loss is going to be greeted with massive amounts of disappointment.

When you are a fan of a team you are rooting for that one team against the field. Taking one team against the field is always a bad bet.

Often times the biggest opponent your favorite team faces isn’t any one team lining up across from it, it is the battle against the expectations that were set for it.

Still, having said all of that, some teams do face higher expectations and more pressure to win than others.

With that in mind, we are using this week’s PHT Power Rankings to look at the teams facing the most pressure to win the Stanley Cup, or at least make a serious run at it, this postseason.

Just for added emphasis: This is not a ranking of the best teams or a statement on where each team stands on the ice in terms of its ability — it is a ranking of teams facing the most pressure to win. 

With that said, to the rankings!

The expectation is a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Now that the Washington Capitals broke through their glass ceiling and finally gave their fans a championship, the Lightning, at least with this current group, are the new “so close, yet so far” away team. The only difference is the Lightning’s situation is probably even more frustrating because of how painfully close they have been the past four years, reaching at least the Eastern Conference Final three times, only to fall just short in spectacularly bad ways.

Just look at how their past four seasons have ended.

  • In 2014-15 they had a 2-1 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final and then never won another game in the series, scoring only two goals in the three games.
  • In 2015-16 they had a 3-2 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 6 on home ice, and were outscored by a 7-3 margin in Games 6 and 7, losing both.
  • In 2016-17 they were decimated by injuries during the regular season and missed the playoffs by one point.
  • In 2017-18 they had another 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Final and were then shutout in Games 6 and 7 while giving up seven goals.

If you are a Lightning fan that is … frustrating. Your team has clearly — CLEARLY! — been one of the NHL’s best over the past five years and has not only won a ton of regular season games, but also a ton of playoff games. Since the start of the 2014-15 season only one team (Pittsburgh, with 39) has won more playoff games than the Lightning’s 36. You have some of the best individual talent in the league with front-runners or actual award winners at every position (and behind the bench and in the front office). It is all there. Now your team this season is the best it has ever been and might actually be one of the best single season teams in league history. Again, I hate “championship or bust” mentality because it is setting yourself up for failure and disappointment, but if it ever had to apply to a team, this is the team.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — Heaven help this team if they lose to Boston in the first round again because the pitchforks will be out. A reasonable approach to this team would be that they have a great core, a strong future, and a pretty good team that probably isn’t quite good enough to win the Stanley Cup right now. But nothing surrounding this team is reasonable. The core is great, but they still haven’t won a playoff series yet. Mike Babcock gets paid more money than any other coach in the NHL and is still regarded as an elite hockey mastermind even though he has coached in the second round exactly one time since 2010, while 23 different coaches have won a playoff series since he last did. If this team, with all of that following them around, loses again in the madhouse that is Toronto it is going to be absolute mayhem. Pressure!

3. San Jose Sharks — When it comes to their forwards and defense the Sharks might be the best team in the Western Conference (at least when they are healthy) and should be the favorites to win it. They have also invested heavily in this season to go all in. Erik Karlsson is a free agent after this season, they are running out of time to get Joe Thornton a championship, and they gambled at the trade deadline that Martin Jones and/or Aaron Dell will get their act together and start stopping some pucks. If they do not start stopping pucks this team is going to be in trouble, and that will not be good news for anyone.

[Related: Sharks goaltending is historically bad for Stanley Cup Contender]

You need to do something

4. Columbus Blue Jackets — The Blue Jackets entered the NHL at the start of the 2000-01 season. Since then, they are one of just two teams (the Florida Panthers being the other) that has not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs in that time. They have only won five playoff games (total!), a level of futility that has been matched only by the Panthers. At some point you have to do something come playoff time, and this season would be a good time for that something to happen given the circumstances surrounding the roster. They not only decided to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky throughout the remainder of the season (a decision I agree with, for what it is worth) knowing they will almost certainly lose them over the summer, but went all in on trading for even more potential rentals in Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. Barring a terrible collapse over the next week they have probably done enough to avoid the embarrassment that would have been missing the playoffs entirely after all of that, but this is currently a franchise that has to be over the “just happy to be here” phase.

5. Nashville Predators — Probably the Western Conference version of the Lightning at this point, only without  quite as much “oh so close” frustration. General manager David Poile was aggressive in the trading game once again and has put together an impressive roster that is not only signed long-term, but also still has plenty of wiggle room under the salary cap. Expectations should be high.

6. Boston Bruins — Here is a sentence that has probably never been said or written about a Boston sports team in the past 10 or 15 years: They are really underrated, probably overlooked, and have very quietly been one of the most dominant teams in the league this season, especially when you take into account the injury situation they have dealt with at times. The biggest obstacle they face is playing in the wrong division with two other Stanley Cup contenders, but it shouldn’t shock anyone if they are playing in June.

7. Winnipeg Jets  — After reaching the Western Conference Final a year ago and coming back with a roster that boasts one of the best collections of high end forwards in the league this should be a team expected to go on another lengthy run, especially if they can hold on to the Central Division lead and draw a Wild Card team in round one.

8. Calgary Flames — The Flames have been a huge surprise this year and there probably were not many people that had them pegged as a potential Stanley Cup team at the start. But when you are the No. 1 seed in a conference that definitely brings some expectation to win. Nobody in Calgary should be mad if they fall short of a championship, but at this point there should be an expectation to at the very least make it to the second or third round.

9. St. Louis Blues — The Blues went on a huge spending spree over the summer in an effort to boost an offense that kept them out of the playoffs a year ago, and they seem to have found a goalie — at least for this season — that has not only put them in the playoffs, but has given them a chance to maybe steal the Central Division in the final week of the regular season. Given the way Nashville and Winnipeg have played at times down the stretch neither one of them looks unbeatable in the first two rounds, and the Blues have been one of the league’s best teams ever since Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington were added to the mix. The door is open for them.

10. Dallas Stars — Always the winners of the offseason, never the winners during the season. This has been a truly bizarre year in Dallas that began with the team’s CEO publicly ripping his best players even though they were (and still are) the only ones producing any sort of offense. Given the way the goaltending has played they are going to be a tough out if that continues. The trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn can take over any game offensively at any time, but there is not much after them. Realistically? Not a championship team at the moment. But given how the GM is always looking for the blockbuster move and the way the CEO acted this season it would probably be beneficial to not go out early.

You get the benefit of the doubt

11. Washington Capitals

12. Pittsburgh Penguins

13. Vegas Golden Knights

All three of these teams get to go together because the same rule applies to all of them and I would say the same thing about all of them. The players and coaches are professionals that are wired mentally to compete and win and go all in every game, and they will. In their eyes as coaches and players anything less than a championship will be a disappointment because this is what they play for. But if you are a fan of any of these teams you really don’t have a reason to be too disappointed if the season ends with anything less than a championship just because of what they have accomplished lately. The Capitals are literally the defending champs, you get at least a one year grace period. The Penguins have played in four Stanley Cup Finals over the past 10 years, winning three of them, including two of the past three. As for Vegas? You are still in the honeymoon phase as a fanbase and were able to experience more excitement, enjoyment, and winning in your first year of existence than fans of probably 90 percent of the league have been able to experience in the past decade. Or more. Not only that, in year two your team might be even better and has a great chance to do it all over again. You have literally never experienced bad hockey.

Nobody expects you to win, but you better make the playoffs

14. Montreal Canadiens — It feels weird saying the Canadiens are under pressure to simply make the playoffs given how low my expectations were for them at the start of the season, but they have maintained a spot in the top-eight for most of the year and to fall out of that at the very end, after going through a couple of ugly late-season collapses in recent years, would be less than ideal and a bad look for everyone.

15. Colorado Avalanche — This is a very flawed team that still has plenty of reason for optimism in the future. They have three outstanding young forwards just now entering their prime years in the league, they have some good young talent coming through the system and they are going to add to that with a top-four pick in 2019 that might even be the top pick in the draft. Still, they were a playoff team a year ago and started the season with 17 wins in their first 29 games. That should be enough to get in the playoffs, especially in what has been an historically weak Western Conference Wild Card race.

The playoffs are a bonus

16. New York Islanders — Look, this entire season has been an incredible ride for Islanders fans, and with their goaltending playing the way it has all year there is every reason to believe they can make some noise in the playoffs and maybe do something meaningful. Even if they do not, Islanders fans are going to look back at this season and this particular team fondly because of what they accomplished and the way the team gave a giant middle finger to everybody that counted them out (me included) at the start given the way free agency went.

17. Carolina Hurricanes — No matter what happens this season with the Hurricanes it almost feels like a new beginning for a franchise that had been, quite frankly, forgotten about. The future is bright, the team is fun during and after games, and all of it together has re-energized a fanbase that has known nothing but losing and disappointment for the past decade.

18. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago and have been completely decimated by injuries for most of the season. Nobody would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they struggled on the ice again. Making the playoffs would be an incredible accomplishment and a huge stepping stone for the organization.

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.

Schwartz, Tarasenko have Blues close to Cup Final

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jaden Schwartz is on a scoring run that has the St. Louis Blues dreaming big.

Schwartz’s hat trick in Game 5 on Sunday helped give the Blues a 3-2 series lead against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final and set the single-season franchise record for playoff wins.

The Blues could advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970 when they host Game 6 Tuesday night.

”It’s probably tough to put into words,” Schwartz said. ”It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have played huge roles in the Blues’ playoff success. Just not necessarily in the way that was expected.

Tarasenko has come up with more big assists than goals against the Sharks.

Meanwhile, Schwartz has found a scoring touch that eluded him during the regular season. After scoring 11 goals in 69 regular-season games, Schwartz has 12 goals in 18 playoff games.

”He’s obviously a tenacious player, a hard-working player,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”I know, goal-wise, he didn’t have a good regular season, but the work ethic was there and other things besides not producing with the goals.

”He’s a 200-foot player for us and he’s around the net for us, that’s where he scores. His hard work, being relentless and staying with it is paying off.”

Schwartz’s scoring run began on a quick pass from Tyler Bozak with 15 seconds left in regulation to snap a 2-2 tie in Game 5 in the first round against Winnipeg. He followed that up with a hat trick in Game 6 to send the Blues to the second round.

Schwartz is the first player to have two hat tricks in the same playoffs since Johan Franzen did it for Detroit in 2008 and he is the first to do it for the Blues.

Not bad for a guy who went 23 games without a goal during the regular season.

”He’s obviously been kind of our engine and a guy that’s scored huge goals for us throughout every series,” Bozak said.

”Pucks weren’t going in as much as he probably wanted in the regular season, but he was still playing really good hockey I thought and getting a lot of chances. And obviously what he’s done in this playoffs so far has been incredible. We’re pretty lucky to have him and we know he’s just going to keep getting better and keep doing those things for us.”

Tarasenko is the only player to get a point in every game of the Western Conference Final. But just two of his seven points in the series are goals.

Instead he has become a potent playmaker, setting up Bozak’s eventual game-winning goal in Game 4 and assisting on two of Schwartz’s goals in Game 5.

”Every time he gets the puck he puts them on edge,” Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Having such a shot like he does, teams are scared when he gets the puck and obviously they maybe will overcompensate for that and other things come available. Having played with him throughout the year, you see how dangerous he is whether it’s taking that shot or just being that threat that opens so much up.”

Tarasenko’s unselfish play was evident on Schwartz’s third goal. Carrying the puck on the power play, he could have taken a shot. But with San Jose playing the shot, he found Schwartz cutting towards the net for a one-timer into a wide-open net.

”Vlady is a good passer, he makes plays,” Berube said. ”He’s got his head up a lot, sees the ice well. His hard work is paying off. He’s working hard without the puck, and he’s a powerful guy.”

Tarasenko has led the Blues in goals in each of the past five seasons. Though he has taken a back seat to Schwartz in goal-scoring, the Blues are thriving in the postseason as never before from his playmaking ability.

And they are one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup, which many thought would have been impossible on Jan. 3 when the Blues were at the bottom of the NHL standings.

”Everyone knows we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to get their best game,” Schwartz said. ”They’re going to have the most desperation they’ve had in this series. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know there’s a lot of work yet.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ Chara says he’s on track for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara returned to practice and worked out with the full squad Monday, his first such workout since sitting out Boston’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over Carolina with an undisclosed injury.

Chara had skated prior to practices over the weekend but didn’t participate in any full sessions. He said he felt good after the Bruins’ 45-minute workout on Monday and is on track to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 27.

Chara was the first player on the ice Monday. Forward David Krejci also returned to practice. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci was given a ”maintenance day” on Sunday.

Being a spectator for a series-clinching victory was difficult for the 42-year-old Chara. He was a member of the Bruins, who defeated Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost to Chicago in the Cup Final in 2013.

”It was, I’m not gonna lie,” Chara said. ”Watching games are not fun. You want to play them, you want to be involved in them. It was that feeling of an anxiousness to play. But the guys did a great job.”

But Chara was easy to spot following the Game 4 win over the Hurricanes, when he suited up to shake hands with Carolina and celebrate on the ice with his teammates.

He has one goal and two assists in 16 games this postseason.

Patrice Bergeron said having Chara paired back up with Charlie McAvoy provides a major boost to the blue line.

”I think they complement each other really well,” Bergeron said. ”Obviously the experience that ‘Z’ has is something that he shares. And Chuck is the type of young guy that wants to learn and listen to everything that ‘Z’ has to share.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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It was only a matter of time until Vladimir Tarasenko started to get on a roll for the St. Louis Blues.

Not only has he been the team’s best and most impactful player for the past five years, he has been one of the most dangerous postseason goal-scorers the league has ever seen. As we wrote at the start of the series, he was going to be one of the biggest keys for the Blues in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks, especially if his puck luck started to change a little bit.

It has definitely changed for the better, and the Blues are greatly benefitting from it.

First, just a reminder as to how good Tarasenko has been in the playoffs during his career. Before this season his 0.50 goals per game average in the playoffs was second among all players that had appeared in at least 40 playoff games since 2010-11 (trailing only Jake Guentzel), and was among the top-20 in NHL history. The only other players in the top-20 that played in the NHL after 2002 are Alex Ovechkin and Mike Cammallerri.

If you want to call him “clutch,” or a “big-game player” that is entirely up to you, but even more than any of that it is really just a matter of him being an outstanding talent that has always been a great finisher. Get him the puck and enough chances, and he is going to score a lot of goals no matter what the situation is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is what made his production through the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs a little surprising. He was definitely not playing poorly, but his overall numbers were down a little bit, he was relying almost entirely on the power play to score goals (four of his first five goals in the first two rounds were power play goals), and he had yet to record a single assist. Obviously power play goals are worth the same as any other goal, but with penalties and power plays not always being available come playoff time due to the “let them play” mindset that takes over at this time of year, even-strength scoring becomes even more important.

Despite all of that were still plenty of signs that Tarasenko was due to break out. He had 47 shots on goal in 13 games (more than 3.5 per game) and the Blues were dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength. He was doing everything right except consistently putting the puck in the back of the net. But when you have an all-world talent like Tarasenko does, it is only a matter of time until those attempts, shots, and chances start to turn into goals.

You might limit players like him for a little bit, but you are not going to be able to shut them down forever.

Starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Tarasenko’s luck started to turn a bit.

After his three-point effort on Sunday in the Blues’ 5-0 win, a performance that included his nearly unstoppable penalty shot goal in the second period to help put the game away, he is now riding a five-game point streak and has at least one point in every game of the series.

He was probably the Blues’ best player in their Game 2 win when he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and set up Jaden Schwartz‘s goal early in the first period, and then assisted on Tyler Bozak‘s game-winning goal in Game 4 to even the series. He followed that up by playing his best game of the playoffs on Sunday with three points (his second multi-point game of these playoffs) in the win that brought the Blues one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

His seven points in the series are two more than any other player on the team while he has been on the ice for nine of the Blues’ 18 goals (literally half of them) in the series.

If the Blues were going to put themselves in a position to win this series — which they have if they can win just one of the next two games — they were going to need Tarasenko to be one of their best and most productive players.

He has been with what has been his best five-game stretch of these playoffs.

The timing could not have been better for the Blues.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports