The 10 NHL Players Struggling the Most in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs
The Stanley Cup playoffs are the perfect venue for NHL players to make a name for themselves. League history is filled with stories of stars stepping up in the postseason. Superstars burnish their reputations, while lesser lights improve their value.
While a strong effort is magnified in the heat of postseason action, so too is a poor performance. A healthy, usually reliable player struggling in the playoffs comes under far more scrutiny and criticism than in the regular season. Fans and pundits measure his play against his regular-season performance and previous postseason numbers.
As the playoffs progress, the pressure mounts, increasing the difficulty for a slumping player to regain his form. Given the stakes, a talented player failing to perform at his expected level can have serious consequences for a team's championship hopes.
The following is a ranking of 10 players struggling the most through the opening round of this year's playoffs.
10. David Krejci, Boston Bruins
Since 2008-09 Krejci has consistently finished among the Bruins' top three regular-season scorers. This season, the 27-year-old center led the club in points (69) for the first time. He also led them in assists (50) and plus/minus (plus-39, which also led the league), as well as finishing third in game-winning goals (six).
Krejci made his reputation as a clutch playoff performer during the Bruins' 2011 Stanley Cup playoff run (23 points in 25 games) and their march toward the 2013 Cup Final (26 points in 22 games). However, he went scoreless in the first three games of the Bruins' divisional semifinal against the Detroit Red Wings.
Despite Krejci's lack of offensive production, The National Post's Michael Traikos reports Bruins coach Claude Julien defended his center's performance. “Just because he wasn't on the scoreboard doesn't mean he wasn't a good player”, said Julien, adding that it's only a matter of time until Krejci shows up on the scoresheet.
Given the Bruins' dominance of the Red Wings in Games 2 and 3, Krejci's lack of scoring wasn't an issue. Still, the sooner he snaps out of his current funk, the better it'll be for the Bruins.
9. Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings
Following his call-up in last November, Nyquist quickly became the Red Wings' hottest scorer. In only 57 games, the 24-year-old finished the regular season as their leading goal scorer (28) and tied for third in points with 48. Nyquist's sizzling play throughout March (12 goals, 18 points) earned him second-star-of-the-month honors from the league. His efforts contributed to the Wings clinching an Eastern Conference Wild Card berth.
But with the Boston Bruins holding a 2-1 series lead over the Red Wings in their divisional semifinal matchup, Nyquist has failed to register a postseason point. His slump stretches back to April 2, when he scored the game-winner to beat the Bruins in their last regular-season clash before the playoffs. Combining regular-season and playoff games, Nyquist was held goalless in nine straight games.
Nyquist has some previous NHL playoff experience and won an AHL championship last season with Grand Rapids. However, MLive.com's Josh Slagter cited Fox Sports Detroit analyst Chris Osgood's belief that the Bruins are more focused on shutting down the young sniper. “They're checking him hard”, explained Osgood. “Boston has a lot of guys that are making life difficult right now.”
If the Wings are to rally back in this series, Nyquist must find a way to shed the defensive blanket the Bruins have thrown over him. Coping with this new and unwanted attention is yet another step in his development of becoming an NHL star.
8. Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks
Among the NHL's most skilled and versatile forwards, Sharp led the Blackhawks this season in goals (34) and points (78). The latter was a career high for the 32-year-old veteran. He was among the league's hottest scorers down the stretch, collecting 14 points in his final 15 games.
However, Sharp is scoreless through four games in the Blackhawks' divisional semifinal series against the St. Louis Blues. His performance hasn't seemed hampered by injury during these games. He is second in shots (18) and has been physically involved, tied for second in hits (12).
Throughout this series, the Blues have done a good job keeping Sharp off the scoreboard. With the series knotted at two games apiece, the Blackhawks' chances of winning could improve if their regular-season scoring leader starts finding the back of the net.
7. Jason Pominville, Minnesota Wild
Prior to the Wild's divisional semifinal series with the Colorado Avalanche, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Michael Russo reported Pominville gave them an added playoff weapon. Russo cited NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire's assessment of Pominville, particularly his offensive skills. “He's a five-on-five scorer, he's a power-play threat, both from the top of the circle and also up by the blue line because he's a great distributor and he can also shoot the wicked one-timer”, said McGuire.
The praise was justified. In a season that saw a number of key players sidelined by injuries, Pominville was a reliable presence for the Wild. Of their core players, only he and Ryan Suter played all 82 regular-season games. The 31-year-old winger led the Wild in goals (30) and points (60), tied with Zach Parise for most game-winning goals (five), was second in shots (226) and tied with Suter for third in power-play points (17).
In three games against the Avalanche, however, Pominville's scoring evaporated. Though among the team leaders in shots, he managed only one assist with a plus/minus of minus-one. Hardly the kind of production expected from him entering this series. For the Wild to rally back and win this series, Pominville must become more of an offensive factor.
6. James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins
Despite missing 23 games throughout the season to injuries and suspension, Neal tied his second-best NHL season total for goals (27) and had his second-best campaign for points (61). He was also second on the Penguins in shots, third in goals and power-play points (26) and fourth in points.
Neal is part of a high-octane Penguins offense expected to make quick work of the underdog Columbus Blue Jackets in their divisional semifinal matchup. Through the opening three games, however, the Penguins struggled to take a 2-1 series lead over the plucky Jackets. Among the reasons was Neal's inability to score, despite leading the Penguins in shots (16) through those games.
In Game 4, Neal finally tallied his first goal, as the Penguins jumped to an early 3-0 lead. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to prevent the Blue Jackets from rallying back to win in overtime, 4-3, and even the series at two games apiece. Neal displayed more energy in this game than in the previous three. The Penguins will need more of it going forward in this series.
5. James Wisniewski, Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets surprised the hockey world by tying their best-of-seven series with the Pittsburgh Penguins at two games each. They've proven to be a surprisingly resilient opponent for the heavily favored Penguins. Veterans like Jack Johnson, Brandon Dubinsky and R.J. Umberger have led the way for the Jackets with their clutch play.
Missing from this veteran group is Wisniewski, the Jackets' regular-season leader in assists (44) and power-play points (28). He was also second overall in points (51) and fourth in shots (166). In the first three games against the Penguins, he averaged plenty of ice time (27:37) but failed to tally a point. He also managed only three shots with a team-worst plus/minus of minus-three over that period.
Wisniewski finally broke through offensively in Game 4 with two assists in the Blue Jackets' 4-3 overtime victory. If the Jackets hope to upset the mighty Penguins, they need a complete team effort. That means more contributions from Wisniewski.
4. Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins
The 34-year-old Kunitz had a terrific regular season, setting career bests in goals (35) and points (68). He led the Penguins in power-play goals (13) and game-winning goals (eight), plus he was second in goals and plus/minus (plus-25) and third in points and shots (218).
In the Penguins' opening three games of their series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Kunitz led his team in hits but managed only one assist and had the worst plus/minus (minus-three). He finally got his first goal of the series in Game 4, as the Penguins jumped to an early 3-0 lead. That wasn't enough to prevent the pesky Blue Jackets from rallying back to win the game in overtime and tie the series 2-2.
Through much of this series, the Penguins have been outworked by the Blue Jackets. Kunitz's lack of production is among the reasons they have their hands full with these determined underdogs. He and his teammates must considerably improve their work ethic and consistency to prevent an upset.
3. Mike Richards, Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings find themselves down 3-0 in their divisional semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks and on the verge of elimination. Richards is among several of the Kings' core players struggling in this series.
Though a proven playoff performer, the 29-year-old center entered the playoffs mired in a scoring slump. LA Kings Insider Jon Rosen noted Richards finished the season going 22 games without an assist and nine games without a goal. His slump has continued against the Sharks, going scoreless through the first three games. Rosen reported Richards had five shots in Game 3 after going without a single shot on goal in Games 1 and 2.
The Score's Justin Bourne recently examined Richards' curious decline and believes he's slowing down very quickly. "He’s laced up the skates for 758 NHL games including 101 brutally physical post-season battles (over only eight NHL seasons), most of which have come towards the latter half of his career", wrote Bourne. "And, that style he’s played isn’t exactly one that’s allowed him to float around and get through many games without contact. He’s never been the most fleet-of-foot guy in the league, so losing a half-step is bound to affect his game more than most."
As Bourne observes, Richards is still an effective defensive forward, but the Kings need more offense, which at this point he seems unable to provide.
2. Anders Lindback, Tampa Bay Lightning
Lindback was thrust into the starter's role when Ben Bishop was sidelined on April 8 by an upper-body injury (later revealed to be a dislocated left elbow) early in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bishop was among this season's top goaltenders and arguably the main reason the Lightning defied the odds to clinch a playoff berth this season.
Concerns over Lindback's performance were allayed during the final week of the regular season. He was named NHL star of the week, winning his three starts (against Toronto, Philadelphia and Washington) with a 0.67 goals-against average, .975 save percentage and one shutout.
However, Lindback was a playoff novice, and it showed in the Lightning's divisional semifinal series against the Montreal Canadiens. He gave up 14 goals with a 3.91 goals-against average and a .881 save percentage, as the Lightning were swept in four games. In Games 2 and 4, he was given the hook after giving up three goals in each.
Midway through the series, the Tampa Bay Times' Gary Shelton didn't pin the Lightning's struggles solely on Lindback, but he wondered how different the series might have been if Bishop had been healthy. A bigger concern could be how Lindback's difficulties in this series will affect his development going forward. This could be a pivotal moment for the 25-year-old. He'll either use this disappointment to improve his game, or it could mark the beginning of the end of his NHL career.
1. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Over the past two years, Quick garnered a reputation as a clutch playoff goaltender. He won the the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2011-12, backstopping the Kings to a Stanley Cup championship, and followed up by carrying them to the 2013 Western Conference Final. Despite missing 24 games earlier this season to a groin injury, Quick finished with 27 wins, a 2.07 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and six shutouts.
In the opening two games of the “Battle of California” against the San Jose Sharks, Quick was lit up like a Christmas tree. The Sharks romped to lopsided 6-3 and 7-2 victories, as the 28-year-old goalie gave up 12 goals in only five periods of play.
Quick seemed at a loss to explain his poor play following Game 2. “I don't know if it's not feeling sharp. It's just (that) I'm not doing the job”, he told Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times. “I feel fine. When I'm going into the games, I feel good. I think it's going to go the way we want it to go, but it hasn't.”
Quick's performance improved in Game 3, but it wasn't enough to prevent the Sharks from winning 4-3 to take a 3-0 series lead. His bloated 5.72 goals-against average is the worst among this year's playoff goalies, his .852 save percentage second worst. His struggles are a key reason the Kings find themselves on the brink of elimination.