The playoffs are a pressure cooker. Every moment of every game is massive, every little thing is magnified, and any mistake can cost a team their season. We know this, because for the next eight weeks, we’ll be told about it constantly.
In fact, it’s tempting to say that playoff pressure is a constant, something faced in equal measure by all 16 teams. But that’s nonsense. Not all circumstances are created equal, and some teams are absolutely under more pressure than others.
Every year, there are a few teams for whom just qualifying at all is enough to make the season a success, and any noise they can make from there is just a bonus. Then you’ve got the other end of the spectrum — the teams for whom the playoffs truly feel like a defining moment, the start of a do-or-die quest that will either end in ultimate success or total, irredeemable failure. They walk together in history forever, or they all walk together to the first bus out of town.
So how does it break down this year? Here’s a best guess at how much pressure each team is facing – counting down from least to most.
16. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers are this year’s surprise team, one that was languishing in 12th place in the East back in January and then made a late push to sneak into the last wildcard spot on the season’s final weekend. GM Ron Hextall has the team in a surprisingly patient rebuild mode and didn’t bring in any reinforcements at the trade deadline, so just making the postseason at all means the season will be viewed a positive step forward.
Now they’ve got a matchup with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, and go into the series as big underdogs. Could they pull off the upset? Sure they could – it’s closer than you think. But even if they’re swept, they won’t look at this season as anything but a success.
15. Florida Panthers
The Panthers are coming off a dream regular season — one that saw them making a big jump up the standings, winning the second division title in franchise history and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in four years. Along the way, they became the hockey world’s favorite story, packed with fun personalities and even the occasional celebrity cameo.
They’d no doubt love to keep that story going by winning their first playoff round in 20 years, and there’s a “strike while the iron is hot” vibe to their momentum right now. But while dropping what looks like a very winnable matchup with the Islanders would be a disappointment, it wouldn’t undo much of the goodwill they’ve built up over the course of a successful season.
14. Chicago Blackhawks
The defending champs are playing for their legacy at this point. Last year’s Cup win boosted them into the “Wait, is this a dynasty?” discussion, and another title would make them a lock.
So yes, there’s unquestionably something on the line here. But even a first round exit would be easy enough to shrug off – remember, it’s already happened twice during the Hawks’ six-year run – and they’d come back next year with some extra rest and motivation. The Hawks didn’t get to where they are today by taking anything lightly. But this isn’t exactly do-or-die.
13. Nashville Predators
The Predators have largely flown under the radar this year; they were never considered part of the Central’s Big Three, but were rarely in much danger of missing the playoffs. Now they head into the postseason as an underdog, crossing over to the Pacific to face a Ducks team that everyone expects to go deep. That’s not to say that there’s no urgency here – Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber aren’t getting any younger, and the Predators will need to make their push into the league’s top tier eventually. But it’s hard to feel too much pressure when everyone has already written you off.
12. Los Angeles Kings
Much like the Blackhawks, the Kings have already collected multiple banners from recent years. They end up a few spots higher on the list mainly because of last year’s playoff miss – if they were to go out in the first round this year, you can expect to see plenty of “What’s gone wrong in L.A.?” think pieces. But they’d still be the Kings, and they’d still head into next year as one of the favourites.
11. Detroit Red Wings
Like the Flyers, the Red Wings made the playoffs with a late push that could threaten to put them into “Just happy to be here” mode. But they’re under more pressure for two reasons. One, unlike the underdog Flyers, they Wings have drawn a matchup with an injury-riddled Lightning team that looks very beatable. And two, there’s the Pavel Datsyuk factor. If the veteran star really is heading home after this season, that leaves some serious questions about where the team is headed next year and beyond. The Wings will figure it out – they always do – but at the very least, this run feels like the end of an era in Detroit.
10. New York Islanders
This is the part of the list where we start to get into the potential for some serious repercussions if a team loses. Specifically, would an Islanders’ first round exit spell the end of Jack Capuano’s stint as the longest-serving coach in the Metropolitan? The Islanders haven’t won a playoff round since 1993, and while they’ll be underdogs against the Panthers, the matchup looks winnable. Nobody’s really expecting the Islanders to chase the Stanley Cup this year, but with a new fan base in Brooklyn to win over, you’d have to think that another short run might mean changes.
9. San Jose Sharks
Hey, it’s the playoffs – what’s the worst that could happen? The Sharks already know, because they lived it two years ago, blowing a 3-0 series lead to their arch-rival, in the process seeming to slam the window shut on a team had once looked like it was destined to win a Cup or two.
Now they’re back in the playoffs after a one-year absence, and they’ve drawn those same Kings in the opening round. It’s hard to feel too much pressure when you’ve already lived through the worst of the worst, but the Sharks aren’t completely off the hook. This may be the last run for the Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau version of the roster, meaning it’s their last chance to avenge that 2014 disaster in any meaningful way. And if they could actually pull it off, well, who knows how far this team could go when the spotlight is burning on someone else for a change?
8. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins head into the playoffs on a roll, finally looking like the powerhouse we all thought they’d be on opening night. With plenty of experts picking them to come out of the East, it’s an easy team to feel good about right now.
It’s also easy to forget that there’s some real urgency in Pittsburgh, as the prime years of the Sidney Crosby Era continue to tick by. The Penguins came out of the lockout loaded with so much generational talent that their one championship so far almost feels like an underachievement. They’re not over the hill, and they’ll have other chances after this one. But how many?
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
They’re young and well-positioned for the future. They already went to the Final last year. And after a recent run of injuries, they’ve gone from Cup favourite to borderline first round underdog. That should all point to a relatively pressure-free situation.
But the elephant in the room, as it has been all season long for the Lightning, is the Steven Stamkos situation. If this really is the end of the Stamkos era in Tampa – and yes, Maple Leafs fans, that’s still an if – then this playoff run starts to feel like something bigger. That’s not to say it’s a last chance for the Lightning, who should be very good for years to come with or without Stamkos. But at the very least it feels like the end of a chapter, and that adds some gravity to what was already going to be a tough run.
6. Minnesota Wild
On the one hand, the Wild go into the first round as major underdogs — the 16th-best playoff team by a fairly wide margin and facing a top-seeded Stars team that finished 22 points ahead of them. So no pressure at all, right? Well, yeah, except that this Wild roster has been built to contend for a Cup ever since their big free agency spending spree in 2012, and they’ve yet to come especially close yet.
They’re old and expensive – their six highest paid players will all be 30 or older by the end of the playoffs, and only Thomas Vanek comes off the cap before 2018. They’ve already played the coach card. If they show that they can’t compete with the Stars, where do they go next?
The Wild don’t need to win the Cup this year. But some vague sign of hope that this team won’t spend years stuck in the dreaded mushy middle? That would be nice.
5. New York Rangers
Much of what we just said about the Wild could apply here too. You’ve got a team built to win championships, an aging core, and a tight cap situation that doesn’t leave much room to maneuver with. But New York’s situation feels even more urgent than Minnesota’s, in part because they’ve come so much closer over the years. More importantly, the Rangers are blessed with arguably the best goaltender of his era in Henrik Lundqvist, and generational goaltenders usually translate into a championship or two. But it hasn’t happened yet, and Lundqvist just turned 34. It sure feels like Cup-contending time in New York is running out — and quickly.
4. Dallas Stars
After two straight teams battling the closing window narrative, here’s one that has no such concerns. The Stars’ key players are relatively young and locked in on nice contracts, so there’s no reason to think that they can’t be this good for at least a few more years.
So why the pressure? Because there’s a big difference between regular season good and Stanley Cup good, and it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the Stars might be the former. They’ve assembled a team around speed, skill and offense, while skipping that whole “build from the net out” conventional wisdom. That’s resulted in a team that’s all sorts of fun to watch. But if they crash and burn in the playoffs, they’ll have to face some downright existential questions. Are they even on the right path? Can a team like this really win in today’s NHL? Do they need to rethink their entire identity?
Remember, we’ve seen teams face this crisis before, and it hasn’t gone well. But hold that thought for a few more picks…
3. Anaheim Ducks
There may not be a more unfair reputation in the hockey world than Bruce Boudreau being unable to win the big one. This is a guy, afterall, who’s had eight full seasons in the NHL, and has won a division title in all of them. But the reputation persists, because he’s yet to guide one of those very good teams to a Stanley Cup — or even reach the final.
That’s had him on the hot seat in Anaheim for a few years now, and the rumor mill had him on the verge of being fired midway through this year. (A rumor that Bob Murray didn’t exactly deny.) The Ducks have locked in a very expensive core for a very long time, and they don’t have much time left to take advantage of that. If they flame out early, do they send Boudreau packing? He may have no choice, even though it’s hard to see how that would make the Ducks any better. Best for everyone involved if they never have to find out, and that might mean winning at least three rounds.
2. St. Louis Blues
The Ken Hitchcock-era Blues have been one of the league’s best teams. They’re well-built, well-coached, fun to watch and have won a ton of games. And if they lose to the Blackhawks, the whole thing almost certainly gets blown sky-high.
We’ve been able to read that writing on the wall all season, dating back to the organization’s decision to give Hitchcock a one-year extension. You knew the season was going to be do-or-die at that point, certainly for the coach and probably also for the older pieces of the team’s core.
Fast forward to the end of the season, and the Blues have rolled through another strong year, earning 107 points and falling just two points shy of top spot in the West. And what’s their reward? The Blackhawks, with their fistfuls of Cup rings and built-for-the-playoffs swagger. Hey, if you’re the Blues, you knew the road to a championship went through Chicago. So you either slay the beast right out of the gate, or you come home on your shield. It’s hard to see much middle ground for the Blues.
1. Washington Capitals
They’re the best team in the league, running away with the Presidents’ Trophy and earning home ice throughout the playoffs, so there’s already a massive target on their backs. When you have a 120-point season, you just can’t lose early without calling it a disaster.
But of course, there’s something far bigger looming in Washington. The Capitals have a long history of going into the playoffs with high expectations, and it’s fair to say that the history has not been kind. Time and again, the Capitals look like they’ve got a series wrapped up. And time and again, they find a way to blow it, often in agonizingly dramatic ways.
So what does something that happened in the Peter Bondra era have to do with Alex Ovechkin and friends? Logically, not much. But this is the playoffs, and logic doesn’t have much to do with it. Capitals fans are all too familiar with the history here, and by all accounts they’re not dealing with it all that well. And it’s hard to blame them. How do you enjoy one of the most successful seasons in recent NHL history if you suspect it’s all just a setup for the hockey gods to break your heart all over again?
The good news is that all it takes is one championship to erase an entire generation of bitter memories. The bad news is that redemption is four rounds away, which means four chances for everything to go wrong all over again. So that’s what’s at stake as the Capitals take the ice tonight. Other teams are playing for this season, or maybe for a few more to come after it. The Capitals are trying to hit the reset button on an entire franchise’s psyche.
Other than that, there’s not much on the line. No pressure, boys.