Players Under the Most Pressure in the 2014 NHL Conference Final
Pressure. It's everywhere at this point in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Everyone experiences it, but some players bear it more than others.
Those who are relied upon to score goals certainly feel the pressure more than those on the fourth line who are required to throw the body around, not pucks into the net.
Those who are asked to make big save after big save experience it more than goaltenders who are sheltered by excellent defensemen.
Captains and those who log the most minutes feel the weight on their shoulders more than little-used rookies or sixth defensemen.
Here are seven players taking part in the conference final who have more pressure on them than others, at least according to one man's arbitrary and subjective viewpoints. They are not ranked in any particular order, as the pressure to do so was too much to handle.
Brian Gionta, RW, Montreal Canadiens
One of the most difficult jobs in sports is captain of the Montreal Canadiens. When things are going poorly, it's you who is under the spotlight, which is where Brian Gionta stands right now.
The Canadiens are down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers, and Gionta has been a no-show through most of the postseason. Since his one-goal, one-assist performance in Game 1 of the first round against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Gionta has zero goals and three assists in 12 games.
The 35-year-old had 18 goals and 40 points in the regular season, and his production has dipped severely in the postseason.
The Canadiens' season is on the brink, and Gionta has the weight of a nation (well, at least Quebec and for sure Montreal) on his shoulders.
Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York Rangers
Some teams are good enough to win without a great goaltender, or in spite of their goaltender.
The New York Rangers are not one of those teams.
With the Rangers' season on the brink in the second round, Henrik Lundqvist had to play above and beyond the call of duty in order stave off elimination three times and vanquish the Pittsburgh Penguins. Before that, Lundqvist was good in the playoffs, but not great.
Now that he's at that great level, any dip in play can cost the Rangers.
"I think it's important to have the right mindset, obviously," Lundqvist told NHL.com's Dan Rosen about pressure in Game 7s, of which he has won two of this postseason and five straight overall. Said Lundqvist:
You need to put the right amount of pressure on yourself. It's a great opportunity. At the same time, you have to go out feeling you have nothing to lose, everything to win. I think that makes you relax a little bit and enjoy it. That's what we try to do. It's a very special type of game to play. You want to enjoy it at the same time.
The pressure may seem to be off Lundqvist now that the Montreal Canadiens have turned to Dustin Tokarski to replace Carey Price in the Eastern Conference Final, but the opposite could be true.
Does Lundqvist really want to be the goaltender who blew a chance at a trip to the Stanley Cup Final by getting outplayed by a third-stringer?
Drew Doughty, D, Los Angeles Kings
Perhaps only P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens is the one defenseman who means more to the fortunes of his team than Drew Doughty.
When Doughty is on top of his game, he's a force at both ends of the ice; when he's less than that, the Kings have problems winning games.
According to Extra Skater, the Kings are 2-4 in the six games in which Doughty had a negative Corsi-relative, including Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. In the Kings' five-game loss in the West Final last year, Doughty had a negative Corsi-relative in four of those games.
As Doughty goes, so go the Kings, usually.
Dustin Brown, RW, Los Angeles Kings
It's been nothing but disappointment for Kings captain Dustin Brown throughout this season.
His 15 goals in 79 regular-season games were the fewest of his career since he scored 14 in 2005-06, his first full season in the NHL.
At the Sochi Olympics, Brown was a complete nonfactor and found himself glued to the bench in Team USA's 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinal and the subsequent loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game.
So far in the playoffs, Brown has two goals in 15 games and has just two assists in his past 10 games. He was held without a point in the Kings' five-game loss to the Blackhawks last season, and a repeat performance against Chicago this season will likely doom the Kings again.
Patrick Sharp, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
Patrick Sharp led the Blackhawks in goals (34) and points (78) while playing in 82 regular-season games. That production has yet to translate to this year's playoffs.
Sharp is eighth among the Blackhawks with six points, and his two goals are one fewer than Montreal's Dale Weise. The Blackhawks have slipped through two rounds without their leading scorer doing much, but that will have to change at some point.
Consider Jonathan Toews last season. He tied for the team lead in goals (23) and was second in points (48) in 47 regular-season games. Toews struggled to produce for three rounds and had one goal through 20 games, but he scored twice over the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final to help the Blackhawks win the Cup.
Sharp (49.2 percent Corsi) isn't carrying the play like Toews (53.4 percent Corsi) did last year, so it's not as though the goals are necessarily coming.
The Blackhawks need more from Sharp, and he knows it.
Rick Nash, RW, New York Rangers
Congratulations, Rick Nash. Your goal-scoring drought is over! After 14 games of futility, you scored a power-play goal against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final and another one in Game 2! You did it!
The slump may be over, but the fans at Madison Square Garden who booed you during Game 4 of the second round are looking for an excuse to boo you again.
Nash failed to score a goal through 14 games during the first two rounds, then broke his drought against the Canadiens by scoring the Rangers' seventh goal in a 7-2 win. That's the equivalent of one of those Alex Rodriguez solo home runs that gives his team a 10-2 lead in the ninth inning.
His second goal was a thing of beauty, although he slipped his shot through career AHL goaltender Dustin Tokarski. It may have been an easy save for a bona fide NHL goaltender.
All in all, Nash has two goals in 16 games, and one of those goals was about as meaningless a playoff goal as you can find. It may be the one that gets him going, but he could wilt at home playing in front of some of the sport's most fickle fans.
Dustin Tokarski, G, Montreal Canadiens
OK, Dustin Tokarski, here's your situation.
Carey Price, who was among the favorites for the Conn Smythe Trophy for two rounds, is out for the entire Eastern Conference Final. Coach Michel Therrien has tabbed you to take over for Price, and after a 3-1 loss in Game 2, your team is in a 2-0 series hole with the series shifting to New York.
No pressure. Piece of cake, kid.
Tokarski has won a championship in the AHL and also in the junior ranks, but nothing can prepare you for this. Unless Therrien turns to Peter Budaj in Game 3, it will be up to Tokarski to win four of the next five games, three of which will be on the road.
If that's not a pressure-packed situation, nothing is.