There is pressure on every NHL team that makes the playoffs, but three teams have added pressure on them this time around. If they do not have greater success than what they have had in recent years, internal upheavals may occur in the offseason.
Here are the three teams and why they have added pressure, followed by my playoff predictions for the first round.
San Jose Sharks
This team has the most pressure on them because they have to win two playoff rounds in order to be considered making progress. Defeat in the Conference Championship is the minimum that is acceptable. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Evgeni Nabokov will have to be extra visible in a positive way.
If the team fails because they do not produce, there might be a major upheaval in the offseason in which the team's character chemistry will be changed.
I can't remember the last time the Bruins won a playoff round. They were the best team in the Eastern Conference this year by a wide margin, and losing in the first round will not be acceptable. If they bomb out in the second round, that is OK because they will have shown that have progressed and can win in the playoffs.
But a first-round playoff exit again will result in management looking at the character chemistry of the team with possible major changes.
They have not won a playoff round since making it all the way to the finals. General manager Darryl Sutter made major additions at the trade deadline, which most observers felt put the team in the same league with San Jose and Detroit.
Instead, the team mysteriously reacted negatively to the changes and seems to be infected with the worst kind of malady a team can have...spiritual rot.
Ottawa got that last year and has yet to be fully recovered. Pittsburgh had it this year and did not begin to recover until their coach was fired. If the Flames do not win a playoff round, the spiritual soul searching may not only result in changes to the roster, but also in the coaching and general management levels, too.
FIRST ROUND PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
The only reason to pick the Canadians is the long tradition of almost always beating Boston in the playoffs, no matter how big the gap appears to be between them. Not even Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito could beat Montreal. This time, no hex will save them, not because Boston is so much better, but Montreal is so much worse.
They played terrible for much of the year, lack the character players they had in the past, with the exception of Saku Koivu, and Carey Price is a suspect goaltender, particularly in the playoffs. Boston will win 4-1 or even 4-0 and not have to face the potential turmoil described above.
Washington-New York Rangers
Rangers can win if they get superior goaltending. But Alexander Ovechkin showed he can produce in the playoffs last year and will be the difference in this series. Washington will win 4-2.
New Jersey's big weapon was always superior goaltending, personified by Martin Brodeur. But Cam Ward has also won the big one and Carolina was the hottest team in the NHL at the end. Carolina will make the NHL happy by solidifying their fanbase and eliminating the Devils either 4-2 or 4-3.
They met in the Conference Finals last year where the talent-gap showed. It has not closed, and any chance for a Philadelphia upset was eliminated when they lost home ice advantage. In addition, Pittsburgh purged itself of spiritual rot by firing Michel Therrien. Pittsburgh will win 4-1 or even sweep the series.
San Jose has to win to avoid the horrors I have listed above. They will do it 4-2 or 4-3 in a hard-fought series.
But Anaheim knows how to win the big one, and if Giguere is much better than Nabokov or San Jose's stars do not produce like they have not done in the past, an upset by the same count will not surprise me. Then there will be a hockey earthquake in northern California.
Poor Columbus. They thought they would play an easier team like Vancouver, Chicago, or Calgary, but instead they played poorly against St. Louis and ended up with Detroit. This series is winnable if they get consistent superior goaltending, but I doubt it.
Columbus might win one or even two games, but not the series. Detroit 4-1. Will Columbus draw sellout crowds for their first playoff series? For that matter, will Detroit?
This is a tough one to call and an unfortunate draw for the Vancouver Canucks, one of the hottest teams at the end of the season. If they had been playing Chicago, Calgary, Columbus, or Anaheim, as seemed likely, I would have picked them without hesitation.
Instead, they drew St. Louis, which, with the exception of Carolina, has been just as hot and hungry as Vancouver at the end of the season.
Even Vancouver's edge in goaltending is gone. Either St. Louis's inexperience and talent differential will show and they will be a complete bust and lose 4-0, or this series will go the distance and Vancouver will prevail with superior talent 4-3, though an upset could happen.
I don't think St. Louis is a mirage, and a tough seven-game series will occur.
On paper, playoff experience and superior talent should have made Calgary a heavy favorite. But Calgary has been affected by spiritual rot since the trade deadline and has showed no sign of being rid of it.
It will be like the similarly-affected Ottawa Senators a year ago and Chicago will win 4-1 or even 4-0. Then there will be a stampede in Calgary to purge itself at every level.
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