NHL Playoffs 2014: Teams That Must Step Up to Avoid Early Exit

Alex BallentineFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2014

Colorado Avalanche center Brad Malone (42) gets into position for a face-off during the second period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday, April 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Ann Heisenfelt

For some teams, an anticipated journey for the Stanley Cup may be over before it really starts if they don't step up. 

From the underachieving Pittsburgh Penguins in the East to the Colorado Avalanche in the West, there are a few teams who aren't playing up to their seeding and could pay the price. With many series heading into pivotal Game 5s or 6s, here's a look at the teams who must start playing better if they want to survive and make a run at the Cup. 


Pittsburgh Penguins

COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 23:  James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game Four of the First Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 23, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus d
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

This team comes first on the list because, well, it's a team that should be well aware it can't sleep on anyone in the playoffs. The Penguins have suffered an early exit from the playoffs in four consecutive seasons despite being one of the most talented teams in the league.

Now they find themselves in an extremely close series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, a position they find themselves in after blowing a two-goal lead in two of the first four games. 

According to coach Dan Bylsma, the problem hasn't been with talent; it's been a questionable level of desire and competitiveness. 

Given the Penguins' recent playoff history, this is something that Bylsma will need to address expediently. The Penguins have little margin for error, and he can bet that a fifth consecutive season without an appearance in the Stanley Cup will have fans wondering aloud if he should remain the head coach in Pittsburgh. 


Colorado Avalanche

ST PAUL, MN - APRIL 24:  Jared Spurgeon #46 of the Minnesota Wild controls the puck against Ryan O'Reilly #90 of the Colorado Avalanche during the first period in Game Four of the First Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 24, 2014 at Xcel
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Colorado Avalanche find themselves in a similar situation as the Penguins, albeit without the recent history to add even more pressure. 

In truth, it's impressive that the Avalanche are even still playing at this point in the season. They haven't made the playoffs since the 2009-10 season. Boasting a roster that is teeming with young talent, it isn't likely they will wait that long to get into the playoffs again. 

Building a successful franchise means not just being happy to be there, though. The Avs will need to get more aggressive if they want to swing their 2-2 series against the Wild back in their favor. According to NHL Public Relations, their offense was historically timid in a crucial Game 4 that set up a possible first-round upset:

With the series heading back to Colorado, now is the time to find a way to create more shots and get the offense back in rhythm for the rest of the playoffs. 


St. Louis Blues

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 25: Ryan Miller #39 and Maxim Lapierre #40 of the St. Louis Blues defend against Patrick Sharp #10 of the Chicago Blackhawks in Game Five of the First Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on April 25, 2014 i
Mark Buckner/Getty Images

The Blues were one of the most impressive teams in the regular season with 111 points, but they weren't exactly rewarded with a playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1. 

After all, this is the same Blackhawks teams that proved last season it could make it through the grind of the postseason to hoist the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for the Blues, their quarterfinal series is looking eerily similar to their series against the Kings last season, when they were eliminated in six games.

Reversing the course they're currently on will take better performances in the clutch. With four of the five games going to overtime in the series so far, it's execution down the stretch that's been the difference.

Going against a team that has thrived under pressure the last two seasons has made the final two games of this series must-wins for the Blues in order to survive.