Four teams under the most pressure in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Toronto Maple Leafs stars Auston Matthews (34), Mitchell Marner (16) and Nick Foligno (71) celebrate Matthews' goal against the Winnipeg Jets. (John Woods/CP)

The start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this weekend has brought new hope and optimism, no matter how the regular season ended for any team. It’s a fresh start, the second season, and every remaining team will see a path to winning it all.

That said, some teams arrive just happy to be here in the first place, and any series wins will be gravy. Others have a certain level of expectation they’ll have to meet, or an opportunity they can’t let pass by. Those teams will have a little more pressure to win this post-season.

We’ve identified four in particular who have the most to lose by falling short and getting eliminated early in 2021.

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Toronto Maple Leafs
The pressure is at its highest here. They have the offence. They have a hugely improved team defence. They made the aggressive deadline moves to round out the roster, finished atop the division, and — no knock on the rest of the Canadian teams — this is Toronto’s best route through to the final four in recent memory.

If they don’t get that far, some hard questions will once again be asked about this team’s potential, making the difficult decisions around next contracts for Frederik Andersen or Zach Hyman all the more complicated. Next year, if divisions are realigned again as expected, the Leafs may have to go through Tampa, Boston and now a much-improved Florida team. This is the chance Leafs Nation has been waiting for.

Pittsburgh Penguins
They’re four years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, and the core players on this team won’t necessarily be feeling pressure at the same level of a younger squad that hasn’t gotten over the hump yet. This is all about a narrowing window. Since their last championship, Pittsburgh has just a single series win, didn’t technically qualify for last year’s playoffs when Montreal eliminated them in the qualifying round, and the season before that, they were swept by the Islanders — who they’ll meet again in Round 1.

The Jeff Carter trade pick-up has been a smashing success, Sidney Crosby has led the charge after a slow first month, and the Penguins have the NHL’s top points percentage since mid-February. We don’t know how many quality runs they have left, and they can’t waste one in which they’re coming in so hot.

Florida Panthers
This will be the Panthers’ fifth post-season since they reached the Stanley Cup Final all the way back in 1996 — maybe now they can win their first series since that run. This may be the best team they’ve had since the ’96 Rat Race, and their reward for it is the first all-Florida playoff series where the Panthers draw the defending-champion Lightning.

Florida’s offence is one of the best in the league, its defence one of the most improved overall, and this is one of the harder Panthers teams to play against in the past 25 years. A win over the Lightning would be monumental, but this is a team good enough to win more than one round. Another first-round exit, though, and who knows how GM Bill Zito will approach the off-season?

Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas has played fast and loose with the salary cap, seemingly in on every big name that becomes available in free agency or trade. That’s left them with little room to maneuver and so Vegas was forced to start a less-than-full roster a few times this season, including in a crucial game against Colorado last week where a Vegas win would have locked up the Presidents’ Trophy. They lost that game, finished second in the division, and drew the tougher first round matchup.

As soon as it became clear this was going to be an overachieving team in its inaugural season it’s been pedal to the metal in Vegas. Owner Bill Foley’s initial expectation that the team could reach the playoffs in three years and challenge for the Cup in four or five was surpassed right away and this has been a contender in each of its four seasons.

That brings a certain degree of pressure. Just getting to the playoffs isn’t good enough — winning it all is the new expectation.

With how aggressive the front office has been to acquire talent, it’s left Vegas with not a lot of wiggle room to make further moves. Of course, we’ve thought that before and they’ve found ways to just continue adding. But it does make it harder to change things on the fly if anything were to go wrong with any part of the roster. So, while everything is going right, the Golden Knights can’t let any more opportunities slip through their hands.

They are one of the best teams in the league in every facet, but in Round 1 will face a Minnesota Wild team who Vegas had a losing record against this season. It would be a major disappointment to lose here, but that’s not an impossibility. If they win and meet Colorado in Round 2, it would be an incredibly tough matchup and, as long as it’s close, would be understandable if Vegas lost. However, a Round 2 elimination would still mean Vegas fell short of expectations.

There’s no room for error here. The window is wide open, but the cap situation stresses that at least a little. And there are no free passes — this is a tough road through for Vegas.

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