Which Stanley Cup Contender Is Under the Most Pressure to Win This Season?

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Which Stanley Cup Contender Is Under the Most Pressure to Win This Season?
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It's Stanley Cup or bust in Pittsburgh.

After making four impactful trade deadline deals to strengthen their roster for a playoff run, the Pittsburgh Penguins are under the most pressure to win the Cup during this shortened season.

When Penguins general manager Ray Shero gave up prospects and quality draft picks to acquire veteran forwards Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and defenseman Douglas Murray, it signaled that the team was "all in" for the 2013 season.

"The pressure is on," said Shero after acquiring Iginla in late March (via Penguins.com). "It'll be a challenge for our group. There's plenty of good teams out there in the East, it's going to be a battle. "

The last time we saw an NHL team with as much talent as this year's Penguins squad was the 2003-04 Colorado Avalanche, whose roster featured Hall of Fame-caliber players such as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. The end result for this team was a first-round playoff loss to the sixth-seeded Minnesota Wild in seven games.

Which team is under the most pressure to win the Cup?

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Hockey fans in Pittsburgh, who haven't seen their beloved Penguins reach the Eastern Conference semifinals since 2009-10, are hoping that their team handles the pressure to succeed in the playoffs better than the '04 Avalanche squad did.

Since the Penguins won the 2008-09 Stanley Cup over the Detroit Red Wings in a thrilling seven-game series, the franchise has been to the playoffs three times, including two consecutive first-round exits (2010-11, 2011-12) and a second-round elimination (2009-10).

Last year's loss to the rival Philadelphia Flyers in a six-game first-round series was a low point for the franchise. The Penguins struggled in nearly every aspect of the game and lost their composure several times in the series.

Injuries to superstar forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (they've missed a combined 167 games since the start of 2010-11 season), who are widely considered as the two best players in the NHL, have hurt the Penguins' ability to make deep playoff runs over the last three seasons. This team has won only one playoff series since it won the Cup.

But with Malkin healthy again and in the lineup, in addition to Crosby skating again after suffering a jaw injury on March 30 (per the Penguins), Pittsburgh has its best opportunity to win the Cup since the team hoisted it in 2009.

This team has dominated the regular season with a 32-10 record atop the East standings, including a 15-game winning streak during the month of March.

Pittsburgh has also played well against the top four teams in the East with a 7-0 record against the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. This success against quality opponents will only raise expectations during the playoffs, especially since the Canadiens and Bruins will be the two toughest teams for the Penguins to defeat en route to another Stanley Cup.

When you add players of Iginla and Morrow's caliber, who were arguably the two best forwards available at the trade deadline, the pressure to succeed in the postseason is going to increase drastically. The Penguins have the league's highest scoring offense, and when all of their forwards are healthy, no team in the NHL has more scoring depth.

The challenge for the Penguins during the playoffs will be to outscore top contenders in the East such as the Bruins, Canadiens and Rangers, all of whom have much better goaltending and are more talented defensively than Pittsburgh.

The key to the Penguins' defensive game plan for the postseason is getting a consistently strong performance from starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, whose terrible play in last year's first-round series versus the Flyers was the main reason for the team's failure to reach the East semis.

Here are his career playoff stats, which aside from two runs to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and 2009, are unimpressive.

Year W/L SV% GAA
2006-07 1-4 .880 3.76
2007-08 14-6 .933 1.97
2008-09 16-8 .908 2.61
2009-10 7-6 .891 2.78
2010-11 3-4 .899 2.52
2011-12 2-4 .864 4.63

Fleury has failed several times to carry his impressive regular season form into the playoffs, and for the Penguins to accomplish their top goal, they need spectacular goaltending from Fleury and backup Tomas Vokoun.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Marc-Andre Fleury

However, Fleury won't be the only star player feeling the pressure to perform at a high level during the playoffs. Iginla will also be expected to be productive offensively on a consistent basis and provide some valuable playoff experience to this Penguins team.

Iginla is the most accomplished player in the NHL who hasn't won a Stanley Cup in his career, and the pressure to "win one for Jarome" will be a factor in the postseason.

It's a very similar situation to what the Avalanche dealt with during the 1999-00 season when they acquired Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque for a Stanley Cup run. Colorado failed to win the Cup in Bourque's first season, but the team accomplished its goal in the following season. Winning Iginla's first championship will certainly motivate the Penguins in the playoffs, but it also heightens the pressure on this team to lift the Cup.

There's also a sense of urgency to win this season because of the Penguins' salary cap situation beyond 2013.

According to Capgeek, Pittsburgh has $8,501,667 of cap space for the 2013-14 season with 17 players under contract. The team's notable free agents this summer include Iginla, Morrow, Murray, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke. Bringing these players back for the 2013-14 won't be cheap.

Shero also has to consider re-signing Malkin, forward Chris Kunitz and defensemen Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang before the summer of 2014, which is when all of these players are eligible for unrestricted free agency. Keeping Malkin and Letang in Pittsburgh long-term won't be easy because both players will likely earn an annual average salary of $7 million or more in their next contracts.

With that said, the current Penguins roster will likely undergo quite a few changes over the next few seasons, which is why it's so important for this team to capitalize of its opportunity to win a championship in 2013.

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When the salary cap goes down about $6 million to $64.3 million next year, keeping everyone on their roster long-term will be difficult for the Penguins. Pittsburgh probably won't have the same amount of depth and talent over the next two years that it has now due to cap restrictions.

To Shero's credit, he was aggressive at the deadline by taking advantage of his team's cap space and surplus of top-tier prospects, but he won't have that same financial flexibility next season with the cap ceiling decreasing.

The Penguins were arguably the favorite for the Stanley Cup before they made several trades before the deadline to improve their roster, but after loading up for the playoffs, there is no team under more pressure to win a championship than Pittsburgh.

Another disappointing exit from the playoffs will not be tolerated in Pittsburgh because this year's team has the perfect combination of talent, experience, leadership and depth needed to win the Stanley Cup.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.

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