2014 Pressing Playoff Questions

Pressing question: Could this be the year of the upset?

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One of PHT’s 10 pressing questions in advance of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs…

Here’s hoping the answer is yes, because I picked all four lower seeds to win in the West.

The thing is, I doubt I’d feel any less uncertain (and I feel quite uncertain) if I’d done the complete opposite. To illustrate, let’s quickly run down all four series involving top seeds versus wild-card teams:

Ducks (1) versus Stars (8): Dallas has the superior possession stats, plus Anaheim will probably have a rookie in goal.

Avalanche (2) versus Wild (7): Colorado has terrible possession stats, plus Matt Duchene is out to start the series.

Bruins (1) versus Red Wings (8): Boston’s gone the distance in its last three first-round series, and now it gets a Detroit side that almost certainly would’ve finished higher in the standings if not for all its injuries.

Penguins (2) versus Blue Jackets (7): In my opinion, this would be the biggest upset if it were to happen. But is anybody all that bullish on Pittsburgh this year?

In reality, the potential for a massive upset doesn’t actually exist anymore in the NHL. It’s not like back in the day when there was no salary cap and only five out of 21 teams missed the playoffs.

The Miracle on Manchester, now that was an upset. The Kings finished the 1981-82 season with a 24-41-15 record and knocked off Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers, who finished 48-17-15.

Three decades later, when the No. 8-seed Kings beat the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks in the first round, nobody was all that shocked. In fact, a lot of people had predicted it would happen, based on the possession stats.

Earlier today, I published a fun post called “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup.” (OK, commenter wtfkwp, a real hit at parties, didn’t think it was so fun: “I’m not sure how you get paid for takes like that.”) But it really wasn’t that hard to write. There isn’t a single team without significant concerns heading into the postseason.

All of which is to say, thanks for reading PHT’s first-round predictions. But we really have no idea what’s going to happen, so you’ll have to watch the games.

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Pressing question: How much pressure is on the Pens?

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One of PHT’s 10 pressing questions in advance of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs…

Here’s the list of teams Pittsburgh has defeated in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009:

Ottawa Senators
New York Islanders

End of list.

The lack of wins over quality opponents — neither the Sens nor Isles are in the playoffs this year — speaks to a larger issue facing the entire Penguins organization, prior to what could be the most important postseason in franchise history:

Over the last five years, the Pens’ playoff exits have defined them far more than any of their wins.

There was running into the Halak wall in 2010. The defensive meltdown against Philly in ’12. The offense seizing up like an engine with no oil against Boston last year. For a team that looked to be on the cusp of a dynasty after beating Detroit five years ago, the playoffs have become vexing — something few expected to see.

“Given the guys that I played with on the ’09 team, you’d think that they were going to be a perennial Cup candidate,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said, per the Columbus Dispatch. “But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

“Just because you have a team on paper that looks like it’s going to blow the doors off the playoffs doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. You have to come together at the right time and for a long time. As much as you think this team would have had more wins, it’s not shocking. It’s a hard time of year to win.”

Yes, it is a hard time of the year to win. But one has to wonder what happens if the Penguins don’t.

Head coach Dan Bylsma will undoubtedly come under fire — again — should Pittsburgh flop. Rumors flew after last year’s sweep to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, with one report claiming owner Mario Lemieux was mulling over a coaching change, followed by another suggesting the Rangers were ready to pounce if Bylsma was let go.

Marc-Andre Fleury will also be under the microscope. Replaced by Tomas Vokoun midway through last year’s opening-round victory over the Isles, Fleury rebounded this regular season and posted great numbers, but that’s done little to shake his playoff reputation. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Fleury isn’t the goalie that backstopped Pittsburgh to the Cup in ’09; he’s the one that followed up an awful series against Philly two years ago by getting yanked last year.

So, how does Fleury deal with it all?

“Not read too much. Not watch [TV],” he said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And remind myself that I have won one more Stanley Cup than a lot of people.”

Like Bylsma, Fleury’s future could hinge on this postseason. He’s heading into the final of a seven-year, $35 million deal and it’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh re-signing him after another playoff disappointment.

Others are in a similar boat. Longtime defenseman Brooks Orpik, who’s spent all 11 of his NHL seasons in Pittsburgh, is a pending UFA. Same goes for Matt Niskanen, who’s played the last four years with the Pens. It’s all part the overall theme of pressure — along with the weight of expectations comes the added weight of uncertain futures, possibly hinging on how the Pens do this spring.

“This team has had the weight of expectation on them for a long time,” Scuderi explained. “It’s something you just have to learn how to deal with. Those are mostly kind of outside sources putting the pressure on you.

“You just have to be able to shut it out and play your game.”

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Pressing Question: Can the Sharks get over past playoff hurdles?

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One of PHT’s 10 pressing questions in advance of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs…

It’s playoff time. For the San Jose Sharks, this time of the year has not been too kind to them.

Sure, they’ve been a terrific regular season team dating back to the resumption of National Hockey League operations following the 2004-05 lockout. They even won a Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular season team back in 2008-09, and the addition of Joe Thornton only helped that team roll over the competition but only up until playoff time.

Including that season, the Sharks have amassed a record of 271-130-57. Impressive. Here comes the ‘Yeah, but…’

The post-season is now upon us again. The Sharks go into their first-round series up against the L.A. Kings – Stanley Cup champions from 2012 and Western Conference finalists a year ago.

So, if the Sharks are indeed to follow up a strong regular season with a substantial playoff run, it will need to go through their California rivals, the Kings. No easy task.

“It’s a very evenly matched series and I think both teams respect each other,” Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Sharks watched this season as Joe Pavelski emerged as one of the league’s top scoring threats. He recorded 41 goals, which was 10 above his previous career best set two years ago.

Yet, based on reports out of San Jose, it appears he could start this series on the third line.

According to CSN Bay Area, 20-year-old rookie Tomas Hertl, out for 45 games due to an injury suffered on Dec. 19 in a collision with Kings’ captain Dustin Brown, could slot back onto the top line with Thornton. And certainly Hertl has his own motivation in this series, admitting he doesn’t like the Kings after what transpired earlier on.

“The debate isn’t a raging one in the coaches’ locker room. We feel equally comfortable going either way,” said Sharks’ head coach Todd McLellan, as per CSN Bay Area.

“The wild card is Tomas, and making sure that he’s capable of handling minutes against the other team’s key players, and [Raffi Torres’] potential return to the lineup. A lot of that will dictate which way we’ll go.”

Goaltending might be the biggest factor if San Jose is to make a run. Consider who the Sharks will face in the first round. Jonathan Quick has, since taking the Kings to a Stanley Cup victory two years ago, emerged as an elite goalie in the league.

Who the Sharks start in goal isn’t set in stone as of yet. Will it be Antti Niemi, the incumbent, or Alex Stalock, who played 24 times this season with a 12-5-2 record?

“It’s been, the whole season, a little different playing L.A. because we have faced them twice in the playoffs, and last year we lost to them,” Niemi told CSN Bay Area. “So, you always get a little extra energy against those guys.”

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Pressing Question: Can the Blackhawks avoid the Stanley Cup hangover?

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One of PHT’s 10 pressing questions in advance of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs…

The Chicago Blackhawks are the hunted in these Stanley Cup playoffs, which is really no different from their position throughout the regular season.

That’s what happens when you win the silver chalice, hockey’s Holy Grail, the previous season. Not only did they win it all, they enjoyed a record-breaking regular season, too. But that was last year.

Now, the question becomes: Can the Blackhawks avoid the Stanley Cup hangover as they look to defend their championship?

It should help Chicago’s cause that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are expected to be ready for when the post-season begins, as the Blackhawks open up against the St. Louis Blues in the first round. This best-of-seven series begins Thursday in St. Louis.

‘‘They’re going to play the way they play, and we’ll play the way we play,’’ said forward Ben Smith, as per the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘In a best-of-seven series, we’ll see who comes out on top.’’

True enough.

But while discussing the Blackhawks and that whole element of the championship hangover, it’s worth pointing out Chicago’s struggles following their last Stanley Cup victory, which came back in 2010.

That was also the year of the Vancouver Olympics, which surely put added burden on the likes of Toews and Kane, as well as Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith.

The next year, the Blackhawks barely made it into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference and were eventually beaten in the opening series in seven games by the Vancouver Canucks.

This season looked to be on a similar path to the 2013 lockout-shortened campaign. The Blackhawks were on top of the Central Division with 84 points and a 35-11-14 record heading into the Sochi Olympic break. But since then, they’ve been hardly above average or of championship caliber.

Their record since the NHL schedule resumed: 11-10-1. Some of that had to do with injuries to key players.

And now, they have a date with the Blues, losers of six straight but a team that challenged for the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team right up until the final days of the schedule.

“That’s what everybody wants to talk about, but we’re not going to think that we have an easier team to play against,” Toews told ESPN Chicago.

“That’s definitely not going to be the case. They’re a team that loves to play physical against us, and we’ve got to expect that. There’s no reason why we can’t return that as well. We’ll be ready to bring that type of effort.

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Pressing question: Will Philly get the goaltending?

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One of PHT’s 10 pressing questions in advance of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs…

Heading into the Flyers-Rangers series, most pundits gave Henrik Lundqvist the edge in goal over Steve Mason.

Assuming Mason would be in goal, mind you.

That’s the big issue facing the Flyers right now, as Mason barely practiced on Tuesday amid reports he’s still feeling the effects of a collision during Saturday’s game against the Pens — putting his availability for Thursday’s series-opening game at MSG into question.

“I feel better each day and we’ll see how I feel [Wednesday],” Mason said after following Tuesday’s skate, via the Flyers public relations department.

He didn’t meet with reporters.

The injury situation added a deeper layer to the goaltending narrative. Yes, Mason had a very solid regular season and yes, he tied his career high with 33 wins and yes, he recorded a career-best .917 save percentage — he was quite good. But the last time he was also “quite good” was in 2008-09, the year he set all those personal bests and, not coincidentally, made his first and only playoff appearance.

Problem was, that ’09 postseason wasn’t kind for Mason or his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Mason finished the series with an ugly .878 save percentage and 4.27 goals against average as the Jackets were swept by Detroit. It marked the beginning of Mason’s downward spiral in Columbus, one that finally ended upon being acquired by Philadelphia at last year’s deadline.

Despite his turnaround with the Flyers, some were still skeptical of his ability to carry the load — and that was before the injury issue.

Speaking of that injury, we’re not entirely sure what to make of it, but it’s worth noting Mason’s suffered two previous head injuries in the last three years. In 2011, he took a puck to the head in practice and proceeded to miss three games; a year later, the same sort of incident sidelined Mason for three more games late in the season.

Which brings us to Ray Emery.

The 31-year-old journeyman was a clear-cut No. 2 in Philly this year, making 28 appearances to Mason’s 61. Yet there’s something to be said for how much Emery played and the role he filled — heck, Wayne Simmonds believes the beating Emery put on Washington’s Braden Holtby back in November helped turn Philly’s season around.

All told, Emery finished with pedestrian numbers (9-12-2, 2.96 GAA, .903 save percentage), but does boast a pretty extensive postseason resume. In 2007 he backstopped Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Final and in 2011, was Anaheim’s No. 1 in a six-game opening-round loss to Nashville. Last season he won a Cup with Chicago, but failed to make a single postseason appearance.

So, back to the original pressing question — will the Flyers get the goaltending? Let’s put it this way. Given they only managed to score six goals on Lundqvist all season, they’re going to need it. If they do get it, it’ll probably have to come from Mason and for that to happen, Mason’s going to have to be healthy.

That’s a lot of convoluted ifs, but hey…it’s goaltending in Philly. Nothing’s ever simple or easy.

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