5 players carrying the freight
Some players will be feeling the pressure of expectations more than others during these Stanley Cup playoffs. Here are five:
When the Blues acquired the former Vezina Trophy winner and 2010 Olympic tournament MVP, the widespread belief was that they had found the missing link, the final piece to the long-awaited Stanley Cup puzzle. But the storyline has taken an abrupt turn in the final days of the regular season, with the Blues relinquishing top spot in the Central Division while suffering injuries to key players, including David Backes and T.J. Oshie. Now Miller, who can become an unrestricted free agent in July, will be called upon to be an even stronger force if the Blues are to advance deep into the playoffs and avoid adding another chapter to the team's long history of playoff disappointment.
We were not enamored with this pickup by Kings GM Dean Lombardi at the trade deadline given Gaborik's lack of durability and his penchant for going dry in the postseason. But early returns have been positive for the skilled winger who, at one point, delivered 15 points in 15 games for the Kings. With Mike Richards and Dustin Brown suffering through down seasons offensively and with Drew Doughty banged up, Gaborik's continued production will be key to a Kings offense that ranked 26th.
Like everyone, we're anxiously awaiting the first matchup of longtime rivals the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers since the Eastern Conference finals of 1997. As he has throughout the season, look for Flyers captain Giroux to be the driving force if the Flyers are to advance against a Rangers team that looks to be more balanced top to bottom and better in goal. Giroux's performance after the team's dismal start should earn him a spot on the final ballot for the Hart Trophy, as he has collected points at an average of 1.15 per game after he scored his first goal of the season in Game 16. The Flyers were 21-2-1 when he scored and 34-15-3 when he recorded at least one point. After the team missed the playoffs last season, look for Giroux to be the emotional focal point of the team this spring.
It doesn't seem all that fair to be putting the weight of a franchise's playoff hopes squarely on the shoulders of a young man who won't turn 22 until July. But that is an indication of the meteoric rise of Johansen to prominence in what has turned out to be a seminal season for the hard-scrabble Blue Jackets, who are headed to the postseason for just the second time. The fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, Johansen has been somewhat under the radar until this season, when he led the Blue Jackets offensively with 33 goals and 63 points. The closest teammate had 11 fewer goals and 12 fewer points, highlighting Johansen's dominance. With Nathan Horton sidelined for six weeks after abdominal surgery, the Blue Jackets, who don't score at will, will be relying even more significantly on Johansen, who has not gone more than two games without a point since Jan. 11, another indication of his rapid maturation.
When you think of the Tampa Bay Lightning, you think, naturally, Steven Stamkos, the drama of the Martin St. Louis situation and the late-season injury to netminder Ben Bishop. And those are all compelling storylines. But if you're looking for the focal point come playoff time, look no further than defenseman Victor Hedman, the second overall pick in 2009. For a time, there was talk that Hedman might never live up to his lofty draft status, but he has enjoyed a breakthrough year, not just offensively -- where he had 13 goals and 55 points, good for the fourth-highest point total among NHL defensemen -- but in terms of being able to change the course of a game with his play at both ends of the ice. At 6-foot-6, he has grown into a big-time defenseman. While he won't be a Norris Trophy finalist this season, one senses that such accolades are coming. Meanwhile, the Bolts will be looking to Hedman to help guide them in what is just their second playoff berth in the past seven seasons.
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2014 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
Sixteen teams began the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup, only two remain: