Quest For The Stanley Cup: Breaking Down Weaknesses Of Eastern Conference Playoff Teams
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BOSTON (CBS) - With the playoffs just around the corner, the Bruins are on a roll. However, there is still concern surrounding the Bruins’ young defensive corps in postseason play, or the team “peaking too early.”
Regardless, there’s no such thing as a perfect hockey team in the NHL, and an examination of the flaws of the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff contenders should prove reassuring to Bruins fans.
Weaknesses: Goaltending, Discipline
Ah, Marc-Andre Fleury, we meet again. The Penguins’ starting goaltender who earned a stellar reputation during the regular season has had well-documented struggles when the calendar turns to April. Last season Fleury started all of four playoff games, before being benched for veteran journeyman Tomas Vokoun, and Fleury’s GAAs in the last two postseasons are 3.52 and 4.63, respectively. To complicate matters further, Vokoun hasn’t made a start all season after being diagnosed with a blood clot, and rookie Jeff Zatkoff has been serving as Fleury’s backup in his absence.
The Penguins also struggle with discipline, and if you can get under their skin they’ll become more focused on antics than scoring goals. This happened during the Bruins sweep last season, with Sidney Crosby going after Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara. In the first round they were almost knocked off by the No. 8 seed New York Islanders, and the year before when they were eliminated by an inferior Flyers squad. Heck, it even happened again last weekend against Philly.
Dan Bylsma needs to keep his players’ heads in the game for the Pens to succeed, something that hasn’t happened in recent seasons.
Weaknesses: Size, Goaltending
The Canadiens were nicknamed the “Smurfs” last year because of their lack of size and physicality, and their makeup doesn’t appear to have changed much this season. In their current top-six forward grouping, Max Pacioretty is the only forward that stands above six feet, and he doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a heavy hitter. A big part of postseason success is wearing down an opponent’s defense with a strong forecheck, and with this lineup the Habs may struggle to do that.
Montreal’s goaltending situation isn’t any better than Pittsburgh’s. Carey Price has garnered a similar reputation to Fleury’s, only with less success. Price has only won one playoff series in his NHL career, and that came in his rookie season with the Habs. Since that first win, he’s lost five in a row and only had one appearance with a GAA under 3.26.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Weaknesses: Chemistry, Power Play
The Lightning shook things up at the deadline, and sent captain Martin St. Louis to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan. Since the trade they’ve lost as many games as they’ve won, only playing one playoff team over the six-game stretch.
The area they’ve really struggled is on the power play. St. Louis was an excellent PP quarterback, but since his departure the Lightning man advantage has given up more shorthanded goals than they’ve scored. Call it growing pains, but they need to figure it out or else they’re in for an early exit.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Weaknesses: Defense, Giveaways
Toronto is currently fifth in the conference in points, but they sit 13th in goals allowed. This is compounded by the fact that they’re 27th in the NHL on the penalty kill, and opponents are scoring 21.3 percent of the time against them on the man advantage. Some of this blame has to be lumped on captain Dion Phanuef, who is a poster boy for their next weakness.
The Maple Leafs are guilty of being terribly careless with the puck. They currently have nine players in the top 100 in the league in giveaways. Nine! And Mason Raymond is sitting at No. 101! The only team with more giveaways this season? That would be the Edmonton Oilers, currently owners of the league’s second-worst record. The aforementioned Phaneuf is billed as a shut-down defenseman, and he’s been credited with 48 giveaways on the season. The Leafs need to clean this up or they’ll be golfing earlier than they’d like.
Weaknesses: Penalties, Goaltending
You know the Broad Street Bullies are going to be leading the league in PIMs, but that’s only because they drop the gloves so much, right? Wrong. The Flyers do indeed lead the league in penalty minutes, but they also sit second in the league in minor penalties, only trailing Ottawa. They boast the NHL’s seventh-ranked penalty kill, but that stat is deceptive. They’ve taken so many penalties that they sit 19th in the league in regard to goals allowed while shorthanded.
This one may come as a shock, but the Philadelphia Flyers have also been victimized by inconsistent goaltending. Steve Mason has had an up and down season in the cage, and backup Ray Emery is unlikely to carry the Flyers come playoff time. They’ll need more consistency from Mason if they’re going to make a run at the Cup.
New York Rangers
Weaknesses: Goaltending, Top Line Production
Since Henrik Lundqvist got his new contract that pays him like royalty, King Henrik’s play has been anything but regal. Lunqvist has lost as many games as he’s won this year, and is in the midst of posting the highest GAA of his career. You could look at is as a departure from John Tortarella’s defensive system, but backup goalie Cam Talbot his outplayed him, posting a superior GAA, save percentage and winning percentage.
The Rangers’ “elite” forwards have struggled to live up to their billing this season. They don’t have a single player over 50 points, and Rick Nash is the only player that has scored 20 goals with the team. Brad Richards has recorded an anemic one goal and three assists since the Olympic break. Even Martin St. Louis has struggled since donning a New York uniform, going goalless and only notching three assists in eight starts as a Ranger.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Weaknesses: Defense, Elite Scorers
The Blue Jackets’ defense may be their downfall come playoff time, as they don’t have a shutdown pairing. Their first pairing features Fedor Tyutin, who hasn’t started a playoff game since the Columbus was swept in 2009, and Jack Johnson, who is so inconsistent that he didn’t make the thin Team USA blue line. They’re backed by James Wisniewski and 21-year-old Ryan Murray, who has only landed 25 hits in 61 games this season. If faced with a strong top line on the opposing team — which is a near certainty in the playoffs — this Columbus club will have its hands full.
The Blue Jackets’ best forward has been Ryan Johansen this season, as the impressive 21-year-old has scored 26 goals and added 25 assists in their 2013-14 campaign. However, as Bruins fans can attest, the playoffs are an entirely different animal for skilled young forwards, and Johansen has never been in a postseason contest. There is a significant drop-off after Johansen, as the Jackets don’t have another regular season 20-goal scorer. However, they’ve been playing well in since the calendar turned to 2014. They’re 18-8-2 in their last 26 contests, a stretch that began when Nathan Horton first entered the lineup after offseason surgery.
Weaknesses: Leadership, Winning
A team’s best players are supposed to lead by example. In Boston, Selke winner Patrice Bergeron does it all for the Bruins. He kills penalties, he blocks shots, he wins faceoffs, and he scores goals. The captain down in Washington seems a little too fixated on the last part of that description. Alex Ovechkin is running away with the Rocket Richard Trophy, but he’s also zeroing in on another category: last in the league in plus-minus rating. Coach Adam Oates hasn’t done much to curb the Russian’s fly-bys, and what you see seems to be what you’re getting moving forward.
This point seems to coincide with the Capitals’ second weakness: winning. Washington has actually lost more games than they’ve won this season. They’re currently sitting 33-27-10, or 33-37 if you count an overtime loss as what it ultimately is — a loss. The 10 overtime losses do jump out at you, and it’s easy to blame shootouts. However, the Capitals actually have a winning 8-7 record in the shootout, and a 2-3 record in games decided in the overtime period. Their 25 ROW (regulation or overtime wins) leave them tied with Ottawa for 12th in the Eastern Conference.
What does this all mean? It means that ultimately, Boston’s problem with inexperienced defensemen doesn’t seem all that problematic, and that Bruins fans should be thankful to have Tuukka Rask in net for them. The most common problem among playoff teams seemed to be goaltending, and Rask appears to be making a run at the Vezina trophy this season.
Discipline hasn’t proven to be a problem for Boston with Claude Julien at the helm, as the entire team seems to have bought into his system. They rely on sound defensive habits and timely offense from guys like Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and David Krejci. The Bruins locker room is filled with leaders, and from Zdeno Chara to Patrice Bergeron to Jarome Iginla to Shawn Thornton, the veteran corps knows what needs to be done.
At the end of the day, the Bruins have their weaknesses. But they’re a team with one goal, and they’ve got all the weapons to go out and score it.
Christopher Mason is an intern at 98.5 The SportsHub.