Yesterday we brought you the top five contenders for Lord Stanley. Here are the five pretenders who I believe will fall short of making the Cup Finals…
1. Washington That Presidents’ Trophy is really nice, huh, Mr. Leonsis?! Just don’t drool over it like the Sharks did last year, and you should be fine. You may be surprised to see them on this list, but a couple things worry me with the Caps when you look past the glitz and glamour. First, it’s the goaltending. Jose Theodore’s playoff experience last year was, well, brief; and Semyon Varlamov hasn’t proved to me that he can consistently be the go-to-guy between the pipes. Also, the defense is solid, but it’s not built for the grind of the ‘second season’.
When you have question marks in net and on the blue-line, it sends off an alarm come playoff time. Having Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin up front is really nice, but you don’t win Stanley Cups with offense. If they run into a hot goaltender, or can’t win those 2-1 type games, Bruce Boudreau’s club will be in trouble. I'm not saying they CAN'T win the Cup; but to fix the back end issues before the playoffs begin will be difficult. I don't see them advancing past the third round.
2. San Jose Is this THE year in San Jose… or is it just another year?? There’s no team that has had so much regular season success that more people have doubts about in the playoffs on an annual basis. In recent postseasons, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has been the opposite of clutch… he’s been a liability in the big moments. There is no question he has to step up now (and keep in mind he’s in a contract year).
Two others that have received criticism, fair or not, are Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. ‘Jumbo Joe’ has been miniscule… err, nonexistent when the lights have shined the brightest. Marleau hasn’t been the problem in the playoffs, but received a lot of the heat with the ‘C’ on his chest. Without being the captain, will it be any different this spring?? With the West as deep as it is this season, I don’t think this will be ‘the year’ for the Sharks. But maybe since everyone is doubting that they’ll get it done, it finally will be…
3. Phoenix I really hate to put the ‘Yotes in the ‘pretender’ category… but can the feel-good story of this NHL season really go all the way to the finals?? They have a great netminder in Ilya Bryzgalov, who’ll be able to steal games for Phoenix. Dave Tippett and company also have a solid defensive core that plays extremely well as a unit. When you look at the forwards, though, you wonder if it’s a group that can score goals when they need them.
To go deep into the postseason you need depth down the middle. Last year, Crosby-Malkin-Staal was the great center-depth for the Penguins. When Detroit won the Cup, they had Datsyuk and Zetterberg, surrounded by good role players. Does the trio of Lombardi-Fiddler-Hanzal jump out at you?? One stat to keep in mind is that they have not beaten a Western Conference playoff team on the road in regulation since the first game of the year. They’ve been good all season long, but the Coyotes may fall back to earth a bit in these playoffs.
4. Buffalo First off, I want to make clear that I think this Sabres team can make noise in the playoffs. If Ryan Miller is even close to the goalie we saw in the Olympics, they can challenge anybody in the East. If the defensive prodigy, Tyler Myers, doesn’t show his age in the playoffs, the Sabres can give the Caps or Pens a run for their money. If Thomas Vanek shows up and becomes the goal-scorer he can be, this team can go places. But if none or only one of these things happen, Buffalo will be in a world of hurt.
I really do like the makeup of this team. They have a good mix within the forwards, a solid group of defensemen, and a world-class goaltender. The Sabres also possess quality special teams, which is always important in the postseason. With all that said, they will be vulnerable come playoff time.
5. Ottawa Cory Clouston’s Senators have been a funny team to try to get a grasp of this season. For weeks at a time, they can either look like world-beaters or a team that doesn’t deserve to make the playoffs. Before their 11-game win streak in January, they had a nasty 5-game losing streak where it looked like things were going to fall apart. But Clouston glued the pieces back together, and the rest is history.
As the likely 5-seed in the Eastern Conference, the Sens will have a tough road. Like Buffalo, I like their team… but not for the postseason. Brian Elliott has been streaky, and has zero playoff experience. The offense has little depth, considering Alex Kovalev and Jonathan Cheechoo have been disappointments. Defensively, they are good – not great. A lot of people think the Sens can make a deep run… I don’t.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.