It’s playoff time, which means 16 teams are facing more pressure than they had at any other point so far this year. Once you get to the playoffs, one game – even one play – can make or break your season. Fans from around the league are watching your every move, breaking down and debating each decision that got you here. And if it goes wrong, it can all be over in a few days. That’s pressure.
But not all pressure is created equal. There’s “gosh it sure would be great if we won” pressure. And then there’s “half of us are getting fired if we lose, and the rest of us will be chased out of town with pitchforks” pressure. That’s a pretty wide spectrum, and teams can fall anywhere in between.
So today, let’s run through this year’s 16 playoff teams and figure out who wants to win, and who needs to win. We’ll count them down from the least pressure to the most, starting with the teams that would never admit to being just happy to be here, but probably could be.
It feels like we’re not making a big enough deal out of the Avalanche being in the playoffs. Think about how awful this year’s Sabres were, and how remote their prospects for a quick turnaround feel right now. Now remember that the 2017-18 Sabres were 14 points better than the 2016-17 Avalanche. That’s how hopeless last season felt in Colorado. And the only major roster move that they made since was one that, at least in the short term, was supposed to make them worse.
And yet here they are. Depending on your perspective, that’s either an inspiring story of triumphing over expectations, or a reminder of how random this league often feels in the age of parity. Either way, the Avalanche should probably be considered the most amazing story of the year. They’re not, but only because of an even more surprising team we’ll get to in a bit.
The story will still be amazing even if the Avalanche head home early. They’re missing some key players and nobody expects them to beat the Predators, so even winning a game or two is gravy. They want to win, no doubt, but they don’t have to. Given where they were coming from, the season is already a massive success by any realistic measure. That’s not a bad place for a franchise to be, but it doesn’t add up to a lot of pressure.
You could take an awful lot of what we just said about the Avalanche and apply it to the Devils. Nobody expected them to be here, nobody expects them to win now that they’re here, and the season is a giant step forward no matter what happens now. The Avalanche turnaround is the more surprising one, which is why they get the No. 16 slot on our list, but otherwise it’s a similar story.
The Flyers are another underdog who slipped into the playoffs late in the season, and even making it this far in a season that featured a 10-game losing streak is pretty impressive. They’re also a team on the way up, so a first-round exit against the defending champs wouldn’t be a disaster. But we’ll nudge them up a few spots, given that they’ve drawn a matchup with a key rival. Everyone wants to be the one to end the Penguins’ reign, but Philadelphia would be insufferable about it.
The Kings are another wild-card team, but don’t carry the same sort of pressure-free status as the Devils and Avalanche. That’s because their return to the post-season wasn’t the same kind of longshot, and they went into their first-round matchup with at least a decent chance of pulling off an upset.
That isn’t going all that well so far, and wasting a fantastic performance by Jonathan Quick will sting, especially if they head home in a sweep. But with two relatively recent Cup wins to fall back on, we can’t move the Kings much further up the list.
12. San Jose Sharks
The Sharks feature an aging core, including what could be Joe Thornton‘s final run at a Stanley Cup. There’s plenty of baggage from past playoff failures. And while the team seems like it’s probably good enough to make a run this year, it feels like there’s no guarantee that remains true next season and beyond, so the window may be closing.
Add it all up, and maybe the Sharks should be higher on our list. But here’s the thing: It feels like we write that paragraph about San Jose pretty much every post-season. Doug Wilson was vowing to rebuild this team four years ago. And yet the Sharks end up hovering around the 100-point mark and the 2-3 matchup in the Pacific just about every year. At some point, it’s hard to feel like a team is facing a must-win if you’re half-assuming they’re right back in the same spot next time around.
The Penguins are a tricky team to slot onto our list. On the one hand, they’re gunning for a three-peat, which in today’s NHL will probably quite literally be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the other, with a room full of players wearing multiple Cup rings, it’s hard to feel like this year’s run is do-or-die. The Penguins players would probably disagree – Sidney Crosby and friends didn’t get to this level by taking any game lightly – but there are other teams facing far more pressure to win right now.
10. Boston Bruins
We don’t typically think of the Bruins as an aging team, although maybe we should. Zdeno Chara is nearing the end of the line, Patrice Bergeron is 32, Brad Marchand turns 30 next month, and Tuukka Rask and David Krejci are 31. There’s plenty of young talent on the roster too, so it’s not like they’re about to shift into rebuild mode. But the sweet spot in terms of the overlap between the veteran core and the younger guys won’t last much longer.
The last of the four wild cards is the only one that cracks the top 10. That’s partly because plenty of people picked them to have a real shot at knocking off the Capitals, and the first two games of the series suggest they will. But this is also a case where history comes into play. The Blue Jackets have yet to win so much as a series in franchise history, and at some point that has to weigh on you.
It’s one thing to consistently put up strong regular seasons, which the Blue Jackets have recently started to do. But it’s hard to get too excited about that if all it ever leads to is yet another early exit. Columbus fans want to see this team be something more than a warmup for the real contenders. This year seems like a decent chance for it to happen.
There may not be a team in the league that’s as well positioned for long-term success as the Jets, so the pressure to win it all this year is low. It would be nice, sure, but the window is wide open and should be for a while.
But winning a Stanley Cup isn’t the only type of pressure out there. Sometimes, the target is set a little lower. It’s been over 30 years since fans in Winnipeg have seen their team make the second round. With a dream season in the books and a very winnable opening-round matchup with the Wild, another early exit would feel like a disaster. But assuming they can clear that hurdle, fans will breathe a sigh of relief and settle in for what should be the first of several long runs as legitimate Cup contenders.
The Knights may be the toughest call on the entire list. Clearly, the season is already a monster success, one that reaches far beyond anything that even felt remotely possible this time a year ago. In Vegas terms, they’ve been gambling with house money since October. Even a first-round loss would still deserve a parade, because their season has been a miracle.
But the problem with miracles is that they don’t come around very often. Even today, the Golden Knights roster hardly looks like a dynasty in the making. They’re good, and far better than anyone thought. But are they really going to run away with the Pacific again next year?
They might. But maybe this is just one of those seasons where absolutely everything falls into place, and it turns a good team into a great one. And if so, there’s no guarantee the opportunity comes again. Remember, the 1995-96 Panthers probably thought their run to the Cup final was something to build on. Twenty-two years later, they’ve yet to win another round.
That’s the extreme example, and the Knights aren’t the Panthers. But that’s thing about playing with house money – you never know when (or if) you’ll get the chance again.
There’s always pressure in Toronto, but last year’s Leafs went into the post-season with just about as little as possible. Jumping from dead last to the playoffs in a single year will do that.
This year, things are different. The rebuild is still in the early stages, and nobody went into the season insisting on a Cup run. But winning a round or two seemed reasonable. Even as it became clear that the Atlantic would be a tough road, expectations remained high. At the very least, fans expected signs of progress.
Instead, a nightmare start to their series with the Bruins represents the first real adversity the team has faced since winning the Auston Matthews lottery in 2016. With several key players set to leave as UFAs and the clock ticking before the younger stars need big-dollar extensions, getting thoroughly outclassed by the Bruins threatened to raise some tough questions about where this team is headed, and whether reaching the league’s elite tier was as inevitable as it had seemed.
After last night’s win, we can hold off on that chapter for at least a few more days. A comeback to take the series would just about end it all together. But for now, a cloud of doubt is still hanging over this post-season, even if it’s not quite as grey as it looked this time yesterday.
Not many expected them to beat the Jets, and they probably won’t. With Ryan Suter out, there’s even a built-in excuse if the series ends poorly. But with both Bruce Boudreau and Chuck Fletcher rumoured to be on the hot seat, the Wild are probably the first team we’ve hit where it feels like multiple jobs may be on the line based on what happens over the next few days. That gets them into the top five of our list
The Lightning are relatively young and have a manageable long-term cap situation, so this year certainly doesn’t feel like an all-or-nothing run. But one year after coming into the season as Cup favourites and missing the playoffs altogether, if any team knows that you can never assume you’ll be back, it’s these guys.
The pieces are all in place for a championship, and GM Steve Yzerman paid up to make the biggest deal of the trade deadline. You don’t do that when you’re thinking years down the road.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but after a 100-point regular season, it looks like the Ducks may fall short in the playoffs once again. Last year’s trip to the conference final felt like something to build on – at least they didn’t lose a Game 7 for a change – and they rebounded nicely from some tough injury luck early on.
But a first-round loss to the Sharks would reinforce the Ducks’ image as a team that’s always good, but never quite good enough. And a loss where they didn’t even look like they belonged on the same ice would be far worse. And of course, that’s exactly where we’re headed.
Their contract structure makes it tough to break up this core, but GM Bob Murray already played the accountability card for his players two years ago. At some point you wonder if bigger changes are on the way.
The window isn’t closing in Nashville any time soon. But there may not be a team in the league that’s more obviously in “win now” mode than the Predators, who’ve spent the last few years aggressively adding pieces to build a contender. It’s worked, as this year’s Presidents’ Trophy win proves. Now they have to finish the job.
There’s a good chance they will, because everything seems to be breaking right for them in the Western Conference. What we thought was an up-and-coming powerhouse in Edmonton went off the rails, and the Blackhawks went from being the Central’s standard to missing the playoffs altogether. That’s left the Predators with two major obstacles between them and a return to the final – an expansion team, and a franchise that’s never won a playoff round. Nothing comes easy in today’s NHL, but you can’t ask for a much better scenario than the one Nashville’s facing right now.
This isn’t their last shot, and the Predators should be contenders for years to come. But they may never get another opportunity that’s as perfectly laid out as this one. They just have to grab it.
Hello darkness my old friend…
When we did this list for the 2016 playoffs, the Capitals were an easy choice for the top spot, based on their storied history of playoff misery. And that was before they suffered through a pair of heartbreaking eliminations at the hands of the Penguins, both of which ended Presidents’ Trophy-winning seasons in the second round.
This year’s team didn’t come close to finishing first overall, and there’s a case to be made that the pressure level has actually dropped in Washington. After all, much of the hockey world seems to have moved on from considering the Capitals true contenders. By this point we’ve all seen the movie enough times to know how it ends, so really, how devastating can it be? Fool me once, etc.
Maybe that’s all true. And maybe, as we tried to argue last week, there’s even a chance for nice little redemption story here. Maybe the Capitals have eaten their way through to the other side, where they’ve built up so much pressure that it somehow starts to feel like no pressure at all.
But then you remember that Barry Trotz is almost certainly coaching for his job. And you see the team make the call to park recent Vezina winner Braden Holtby on the bench in favor of Philipp Grubauer. And then you watch them blow a multi-goal lead to lose in overtime in Game 1, and you read stuff like this, and you see stuff like this, and then they blow another multi-goal lead to lose in overtime in Game 2, and you remember that oh right, it’s the Washington Capitals in the playoffs.
So yeah, they take the top spot yet again. Sorry for the lack of suspense. We might need to just pencil them in for it every year, at least through the end of the Alex Ovechkin era. That’s not what Capitals fans probably want to hear, and lord knows those folks have suffered enough. But if you’re a neutral fan who enjoys a nice playoff-related meltdown, the Caps are your team.
They always have been, and probably always will be.