2010 NHL Playoffs: Five Players Under Postseason Pressure
During the NHL’s second season, pressure filters through arena corridors, locker rooms, and onto the ice throughout the two-and-a-half month chase to be champion of the hockey world.
Every player who suits up for one of the 16 teams that have earned their way into the annual spring tournament internally feels the change in intensity and meaning as the games transform from competitive contests into immensely intense battles.
It takes everyone on a team to win the Stanley Cup (arguably, the most difficult chalice to attain in professional sports).
From the No. 1 center down through the seventh defenseman, everyone’s role is an important piece to complete the championship puzzle.
There are those, however, who are looked to by teammates, analysts, executives, coaches, and fans to perform at a level above that of most others who play the games.
These superstars are the ones who shoulder much of the load for their respective organizations.
If they reach that herculean level of play and succeed, much of the adulation and praise for their team’s long playoff run will be showered upon them. In turn, if they do not perform and their club falters, many fingers around the hockey world will be pointed in their direction.
The following is a list of five NHL stars who skate into the playoffs burdened with their franchise’s (and the cities they represent) Stanley Cup dreams.
Roberto Luongo—Vancouver Canucks
When Luongo was toiling away in southern Florida, it was widely speculated by pundits that he was the missing ingredient to a contending team’s championship recipe.
In Vancouver, Luongo has had two postseason appearances with solid, but unspectacular, Canuck teams.
“Louie” played well in both playoff stints, but he was unable to help his team advance past the second round in either season.
2010 marks Roberto’s third venture into the postseason and he is surrounded by his most formidable team to date, but for them to make any noise in the playoffs, Luongo has to step up his game.
He has struggled since his return from the Olympic break (some fans, such as myself, thought although he won gold in Vancouver with Team Canada he was far from spectacular in his performance) and has not inspired an overwhelming amount of confidence in Western Canada.
There are starting to be whispers around the NHL that perhaps the Canucks captain is a bit overrated and cannot elevate his game to the level of play that the greats of the league have done so often when it matters most.
Luongo can silence those critics and confirm his place among the league’s elite goaltenders by backstopping the Canucks to the NHL’s final four or beyond.
Ilya Kovalchuk—New Jersey Devils
Savvy GM Lou Lamoriello was able to land the biggest prize on the trading block this season in super sniper Ilya Kovalchuk.
The Devils already solid if unspectacular team was given a large infusion of offensive skill with the arrival of the 26-year-old Russian left winger.
Already well known as one of the most skilled players in the NHL, Kovalchuk is a relatively unproven commodity in the postseason.
While with the Atlanta Thrashers, Ilya played a grand total of four playoff games (one goal and one assist) as his team was swept by the New York Rangers in the franchise’s lone postseason appearance in 2007.
Kovy was brought in by the Devils to help lead the club to its fourth Stanley Cup championship.
They paid a pretty penny to potentially “rent” Kovalchuk, and anything less than a trip to the Finals could be considered a waste of resources if the crafty Russian leaves in the offseason.
Ilya needs to show his effectiveness when it matters most if he truly wants to be mentioned among the top skaters in the NHL, as well as land that huge free agent contract that he will be looking for come July 1.
Joe Thornton—San Jose Sharks
Seemingly the poster child for this article, Joe Thornton has been the classic playoff underachiever along with his team, the San Jose Sharks.
“Jumbo Joe” has far too often turned into “No Show Joe” once the ante is raised in the NHL come spring time.
Although Thornton is probably blamed a bit too much for the past playoff failings of both Boston and San Jose, that is what happens when you are consistently one of the best players during the regular season for the last several years and your stature shrinks to mere mediocrity when it matters most.
Thornton’s Sharks have been many “experts'” favorite to win the Cup ever since the 6’4”, 230-pound center was obtained from the Bruins in 2005-2006. Unfortunately, the Sharks and Joe have failed to live up to expectations year in and year out.
If Thornton is ever going to shed the label of playoff bust, he needs to ratchet up his intensity and drive (which is often questioned) and bust out of the postseason doldrums, bringing his team along with him.
Anything less than an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals will be considered just another failure on the West Coast.
Antti Niemi—Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks are gunning for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship since 1961, and with arguably the deepest and most talented lineup in the NHL, their chances seem strong.
The one question mark that has plagued the team throughout its incredibly successful 2009-2010 regular season has been the goaltending.
Would the 'Hawks be able to ride veteran netminder Cristobal Huet to the promised land? The answer has been a resounding “No.”
That is where Antti Niemi steps into the playoff pressure picture.
It looks like the crease will be Niemi’s to begin the Hawk’s playoff run and the 26-year-old Finn will be looked upon to deliver a strong performance in his first foray into NHL postseason play.
Niemi has played well for the red-hot 'Hawks down the stretch, but can the inexperienced puck stopper handle the championship expectations that have been placed upon his team?
The fans in Chicago hope that he can because with cap issues coming up for the franchise, this may be their best chance to capture the Cup before they lose some key pieces off their roster because of financial restrictions in the offseason.
Alexander Ovechkin—Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals are certainly miles away from the days when they depended on Alex Ovechkin to be and do everything for their organization.
They have an offense that is beyond explosive with the league’s most dangerous power play and the ability to roll four very effective lines.
But make no mistake, the Capitals are still Ovechkin’s team, and their recently anointed captain will be expected to lead the Caps to their first-ever Stanley Cup this spring.
“Ovie” has already proven that he can perform in the playoffs, but if the President-winning Washington hockey club falters during the postseason, the whispers will start to swirl in regards to Ovechkin being able to carry his team to the top of the NHL mountain.
Just as he was supposed to be the catalyst for a Russian gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics (and we all know what a disappointment the Russian team ended up being), “The Great Eight” will be looked upon to be the lead horse, in a stable full of thoroughbreds, racing towards a common goal.
Without a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, all of the regular season accomplishments in the U.S. Capital will be meaningless and the 24-year-old Ovechkin will be left to wonder when his greatness will lead to something more meaningful than a slew of individual awards.