Stars Under Fire : Ovechkin and Eight Other Stars with a Lot to Prove
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Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Eric Staal, Henrik Zetterberg. These are star players, leaders in their respective teams who have excelled in the post-season recently, fighting off and feeding off of tremendous pressure and emerging victors, holding up the Stanley Cup at the end of a glorious battle.
But every year, while only one team can win, 29 others are disappointed. And among those teams are some star players who excel in the regular season but have thus far been unable to lead their teams to playoff glory, some of whom have come under intense criticism for just that.
All of these players have that rare star quality. They lead their teams, they make the highlight reels, they're up there in the top of the stats year after year, they win the individual awards.
But so far, they have come up short when it counts, or have run into a rut in their careers.
They are all coming into this season with a lot to prove. They need to prove they can be real leaders for their teams, that they are capable of winning, that they want to win so badly they can no longer be denied.
Come playoff time, we will see which one, if any of them can get over that hump. Only one team can win the Stanley Cup, so a lot of these players will wind up disappointed and under fire yet again.
They will all surely be leaders and stars in the regular season. Can they be that in the playoffs when it gets rough and they face the best of the best every night?
These are the nine star players with the most to prove in 2010-2011.
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
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Roberto Luongo has been one of the elite goaltenders in the league since he broke into the NHL in 2000-2001. He has amassed 270 regular season wins in that time. He finally made the playoffs for the first time in 2006-07 with the Vancouver Canucks, but they have never been able to progress past the second round with Luongo in net.
Coming off of back-to-back second round playoff losses to the Chicago Blackhawks, Luongo has a lot to prove this year. He faced criticism both times for failing to play up to his standard in the biggest games of the year. He had his captaincy stripped away this summer.
Luongo needs to be able to step up his game and lead the Canucks further in the tough Western Conference this season. The team in front of him is much improved, and Luongo should improve as well.
Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
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Thornton and the Sharks' playoff struggles have been much discussed. The team has been a perennial favorite in the West, having amassed 107 regular season points or more in each of the last four years. But each time, they sunk in the playoffs, only making it as far as the conference finals, and even suffering a humiliating first-round loss to Anaheim as a huge favorite in 2008-2009.
Joe Thornton has been a part of that team each time, and each year he has faced tougher criticism for how he disappears in the playoffs. During the regular season, he is consistently a dynamic force and a big leader for the Sharks, during the playoffs he is too easily eliminated by the opposing team's top guys.
In the 2010 playoffs, Thornton took a big step and had a great series against Detroit in the second round. He was however, still inconsistent and could not help the Sharks past the powerful Blackhawks.
In 915 career regular season games, Thornton has 931 points. In 91 playoff games, he has 65 points, and is a combined -23. That's 1.02 points per game in the regular season and 0,68 points per game in the playoffs. A huge disparity that he needs to fix to prove he has the heart and the star quality to be a true winner and get his team to the Stanley Cup.
Mike Green, Washington Capilals
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Mike Green is a model case for a star player in the regular season who has struggled mightily in the playoffs. Last season he was a Norris Trophy finalist, only to fade (like a number of other Caps) in the first round upset loss the the Canadiens.
Green was a point per game player during the season, finishing with an astounding 76 points and a +39 rating. That point total was good enough for 20th in the entire league, by far the best among defencemen. For sake of reference, that tied the point total of Corey Perry and beat out Pavel Datsyuk by six points.
In the playoffs, he had three assists in seven games and struggled defensively against a determined Montreal team. Whether the pressure of high expectations got to him or he was just one of many Capitals who seemed to underestimate their opponent, Green needs to do better next year. Everyone knows to expect a great regular season from him, the Capitals need him to be at his best if they are to progress towards the ultimate goals of winning the Cup.
Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames
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The long-time captain of the Flames is unquestionably a heart-and-soul player, a winner and a genuine star. That star, however, seemed to be fading last year in a depressed Flames team that had the second-worst offense in the NHL and finished outside of the playoffs.
Iginla's 69 points were his lowest since 2000-2001 and he finished a minus player for the second straight year. Part of this decline could be attributed to a lack of quality forwards around him, but looking back at the Flames teams he has played on during his career, he has never really had a star center to feed the puck to him.
Iginla led his team to the cup finals once. But it's been six years since that unlikely climb all the way to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Can he bounce back and bring this underwhelming Flames team back to the playoffs?
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
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Kopitar differs from the rest of the players on this group in that he is still very much an up-and-coming star. The NHL's only Slovenian had a breakout year last season with 34 goals and 87 points and led his team to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
The Kings are a team that's been much compared to the Blackhawks of two years ago, full of young talent and a few grizzled veterans. After last season's impressive regular season and a playoff berth, expectations will be higher this year. Everyone will be expected to improve, and playoff success is demanded.
Kopitar will be leaned on to provide much of that offense and spark this exciting Kings team needs to succeed. It's on him to prove he is the genuine article that belongs in the top tier of creative centers in the National Hockey League, and this is the year to do it.
Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils
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After toiling in Atlanta for the first eight years of his career, Ilya Kovalchuk has now joined a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference in the New Jersey Devils. He has 338 goals in his eight seasons in the league, trailing only Alex Ovechkin in goals scored since the lockout. He is without a question one of the absolute best, most exciting offensive talents in the NHL.
Kovalchuk is also now on a $100 million contract in a team that is expected to contend for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis. He has never won a playoff series in his career. A part of that is attributable to playing on a terrible, badly managed team for most of his career. Regardless, that direction needs to change quickly, and he needs to prove himself as a reliable playoff performer as well. Right now, his career playoff stats are unimpressive at nine games played, with three goals and eight points.
All eyes will be on the Russian superstar this season to prove he is worth the massive contract he earned over the summer. Just scoring 50 goals in the regular season won't be enough any more (and he probably will do just that), playoff success is now expected as well.
Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning
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The only player on this list to have already won the Stanley Cup, Lecavalier has hit a rough patch in his career in the past few seasons in a team sabotaged by a confusing ownership situation and bad managerial decisions.
With a new classy owner in Jeff Vinik, an exciting GM in Steve Yzerman and young star coach Guy Boucher, the Lightning appear to be headed back in the right direction. To do that, they need their captain to return to his best form.
Lecavalier has been a minus player for the past three seasons, and he finished with 70 and 67 points the past two years. That's a respectable total, but for a guy who scored 108 points three years ago and had five consecutive 30-goal seasons on each side of the lockout, it's a worrying downward trend.
Lecavalier is a born leader and proven star scorer. He's also under contract for another ten years. He will be counted on to be that leader on the ice again and return to his best form and show this team what Stanley Cup success demands. This is a big year for Vincent Lecavalier.
Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks
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If it wasn't clear that Henrik Sedin is one of the premier playmakers in the game today, last season's 83 assists and 113 points in 82 games should have cemented that. Add in the Art Ross Trophy and the Hart Trophy as league MVP and you could say the Swede had himself a pretty good year. He will be expected to build on that to increase his team's chances of winning a trophy as well.
This year, expectations in Vancouver are high. As with Luongo, Sedin will have to elevate his game in the playoffs, along with his brother Daniel. They were strong in this year's first round playoff matchup against the LA Kings, but were overpowered by the deep Chicago team. This year, the Sedins will be counted on to lead the Canucks' offense and power them past that second round as well.
The pressure is on for this team to succeed, and it's directed heaviest at their biggest stars. The Western Conference will be tougher than ever this year, and Henrik and Daniel likewise need to be at their very best for Vancouver to stand a chance in the playoffs.
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
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Perhaps the most exciting hockey player in the world today. 259 goals in just five seasons. He led the Washington Capitals to the President's Trophy as the best team in the regular season with a sizable eight point difference. The team scored a ridiculous 318 goals, 46 more than the second-best offense in the league, the Vancouver Canucks.
But then they were eliminated in the first round by number eight seed Montreal. A disaster of a series that they should have put away when they were up three games to one. One playoff series that put a nasty end to a perfect season.
This year, the pressure is on in the capital. Everyone expects the team to do well in the regular season. It's the playoffs that count, though, and that is what the team is waiting for as well. Alex Ovechkin needs to step up and be that dominant player he is in the playoffs as well the regular season.
Ovechkin has 20 goals in 28 postseason games so far. This Capitals team is strong enough to progress further than the second round, and expectations in the team are focused on nothing short of the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin has pressure on him to come up big in the big games and score the big goals. He needs to not let that pressure get to him and not try to force it himself like he often seemed to against Montreal. Here is a player with greatness in his fingertips, one step away from the ultimate trophy. This might be the year for Alex Ovechkin to win it all. Anything less than the Stanley Cup will be considered failure.