Three factors stand between the 16 NHL playoff teams and the Stanley Cup. Star players stepping up to the lead way, unsung heroes providing timely production and, as is always the case, a couple lucky bounces along the way.
The first one is the most important. Depth and luck are extremely useful pieces of a championship puzzle, but if a team's top scorers aren't playing at an elite level, its upside is limited. In other words, now's not the time for a slump.
With that in mind, let's examine three players who will be under immense pressure to perform at a high level in the coming weeks. If any of the teams listed are going to win the Cup, these are the stars that are going to help made it happen.
Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings)
Quick was unbeatable for extended stretches of Los Angeles' title run last season. He had previously struggled in the playoffs, as the Kings were knocked out in the first round two straight years. But something finally clicked and he carried them to a title.
Now he will be asked to do it again. It comes after a lackluster regular season for the netminder. He posted a .902 save percentage, his lowest for a season with at least 30 starts, and recorded just one shutout during the lockout-shorted campaign.
He entered last year's playoffs with much better numbers, which raises questions about his ability to rise to the occasion for a second straight year. He certainly set the bar incredibly high and must find a way to match it if the Kings are going to repeat.
Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals)
Even though Ovechkin is one of the most naturally gifted players on the planet, it appeared he was in line for a down season. He scored just eight goals over the season's first two months and sported a minus-seven rating over that time.
Which of these stars will have the best playoff showing?
Then, Ovechkin exploded. He tallied 41 points, including 24 goals, in his last 29 games to help rejuvenate the Washington offense. The late surge allowed him to capture the NHL scoring title with 32 goals, three more than Steven Stamkos.
Outside of him, the Capitals lack star power to carry the offense up front. Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer had good seasons, but they are more secondary scorers. Nicklas Backstrom is very talented, but he's more of a playmaker. So the onus is on Ovechkin to stay red hot if the Caps are going to make a run.
Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks)
Few players in the league are forced to handle more responsibility than Toews. He plays on a scoring line, features prominently on the power play, kills penalties and is one of the game's top faceoff takers. To top it off, he's also the team's captain.
So it's easy to see why Chicago's success tends to rely on his performance. The Hawks have a handful of other stars, such as Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, but Toews is under the most pressure. It's illustrated by the fact he had 29 points in 22 games when they won the Cup a few years ago.
The Blackhawks, along with the fellow top seed the Pittsburgh Penguins, are the top contenders heading into the postseason. Whether Chicago lives up to that hype depends on how Toews handles the various roles he needs to play. It's a lot to ask of any player, but he's done it before.