Win the Stanley Cup and all the moves and all the doubts are erased. But lose in the playoffs and you’re left with nothing but regret and what could have been. As teams in the Eastern Conference wrap up their training camps and prepare to enter The Bubble in Toronto, it’s time to take a look at which one of them faces the most pressure to win a Stanley Cup this season.
Pressure, like momentum or luck, is one of those nebulous things that is hard to define precisely. Some teams deal with it better than others and no player will ever admit to losing because the pressure was too great, but it can still be a factor.
An argument can be made that pressure is a media-driven construct and that the players and coaches could care less about it. That is possibly true, but if the players are constantly hearing about how this is “their year” to win it all, doesn’t that seep in in some way? Veteran players who may be nearing the end of their career know that they might not have a better shot than this year, so they raise the stress on themselves. Team’s facing big financial decisions in the off-season or ones that made big investments in free agents face the tension of seeing their risks pay off. Just because pressure can’t be measured doesn’t mean it’s not there.
So, before the puck drops in Toronto, who is facing the greatest amount of pressure? Let’s rank ‘em from least amount or pressure to win the Stanley Cup to most.
As a Canadian-based team, there is always going to be a certain amount of pressure for them to succeed in the playoffs, but this season seems a little different. It’s unlikely they would have clawed their way into a spot had this been a normal season. As the lowest seeded team in the Eastern Conference they will face the toughest competition in each round.
While they have had some players come back from injury, they lack the offensive talent to keep pace with some of the other Eastern Conference juggernauts. Asking Carey Price to carry them through five rounds is a bit much.
Also, losing in the play-in round comes with a unique reward this season - a chance at drafting local product Alexis Lafreniere. Ask a random Canadiens fan if they’d rather have lost in the second round of the playoffs or have Lafreniere for the next ten years, I think they’re taking option number two.
It’s probably weird to see one of the top four seeds in the conference ranked so low on the list, but if there is any team playing with house money, it’s the Flyers. At the beginning of the season, playoff expectations were mediocre at best, a division title was unthinkable. At the same time, they’re also the one team that might be most affected by The Pause. They were the hottest team in the league when sports stopped. Now, a fairly young and inexperienced team has to find a way to attain that success again.
It seems the Rangers are everyone’s dark horse pick to cause a ruckus in the Eastern Conference playoffs. If they decide on the right goaltender and Artemi Panarin continues to run roughshod over his opponents they have a puncher’s chance. It’s more likely that constant play against better opponents will expose their lack of depth.
Next year they will see the pressure increase dramatically, but for this postseason, just being there is good enough for them.
After losing Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in the offseason and then enduring a regular season where everyone was hurt, it’s kind of amazing that we’re still talking about the Blue Jackets. A play-in series against the Maple Leafs gives them the chance to play upset underdogs for a second season in a row.
John Tortorella earned his Jack Adams nomination by keeping this team together despite the injuries. Now that he has almost all of his players back, any type of post season success is just icing on the cake.
The Islanders exist. They play solid defense. Any idea of who their leading scorer this season was? It was Matthew Barzal with 60 points (19 goals, 41 assists). They had a nice little season but weren’t going to make the playoffs. If they lose in the play-in round it’s not going to ruffle a lot of feathers.
Their long run to the conference finals last year was one of the best storylines of the year. They reveled in their image as a bunch of jerks. While some of that playfulness remained this season, they also had the pressure of following up on that success. Is anyone outside of the Carolinas picking them to win the Stanley Cup? Not really, but bowing out in the play-in round would be a huge disappointment.
The Panthers probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs in any other year. So, like some of the teams above them on this list, they are essentially playing with house money. However, they did make a few big splashes in the offseason, signing Sergei Bobrovsky to a big contract and making a play for Artemi Panarin as well. They also brought in Joel Quenneville, his mustache, and fist full of Stanley Cup rings.
The Stanley Cup might be a long shot for them, but in order to pay off the investment the owners made, they do need to show that they can compete with the powerhouses of the conference. It’s been eight years since they won a playoff series. Getting past the Islanders (and possibly facing the Lightning) would be a big step for the organization.
Let’s lump these two teams together (which is sure to annoy their fan bases). They are both veteran teams that have recent Cup victories on their resumes. Had Washington not won in 2018 they may have topped this list, but they did win and Alex Ovechkin checked off the big prize and hushed a lot of his critics. Pittsburgh’s recent success has made them arguably the least-liked team in the NHL (a feat, considering the Flyers exist).
Success does create its own pressure though. Winning one Stanley Cup makes you want to win another. With Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin entering the later stages of their careers they know their chances of winning are narrowing. So, the players themselves, more so than outside media, will be putting on the pressure to win the Cup this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Three first round exits. No Stanley Cup parades since 1967 (although the fans have planned one for almost every season since). A prolific collection of young offensive talent including a contender for best player in the league (hi Auston Matthews). A playoff where half of the games are played in their home arena. The notoriously tough Toronto media.
Yeah, there is some pressure for the Maple Leafs this season. Having finished on the outside, the route to the Stanley Cup is going to be tough for Toronto. Columbus has shown in the past that they can deal with an offensively talented team. If the Leafs survive their play-in round then they get to face one of the best teams in the East. Losing in either round will lead to a lot of angry words in the press and on social media.
However, a lot of that will be alleviated if they win a couple of rounds. There are some flaws on this team so falling short of the Cup isn’t the end of the world for them. That helps relieve the pressure a micron or two.
Call it the curse of success. Much like the Lightning last season, the Bruins had a great regular season. It will feel like a waste if they don’t win the Stanley Cup this season. If any fan base is upset about the way the unique way the playoffs are formatted this year it will be theirs. Boston had the top seed in the Eastern Conference all but locked up and now they have to fight for seeding.
It’s been nine years since they last raised the Cup. For a franchise that went 36 seasons between Cup victories nine years isn’t that long, but in today’s sports world, that is an eternity. Especially when you factor in the two Cup final losses since 2011.
Their core is starting to age, Zdeno Chara is 42, Patrice Bergeron is 34, Tukka Rask is 32, and Brad Marchand is 31. How many more shots at the Cup do they have left in the chamber? Heck, winning their own division is going to be tough moving forward. They have had the Lightning challenging their dominance in the North for the last few years. Toronto is on the rise. Florida is competitive again and Ottawa may be building the best young club in the East.
Add in the high expectations of the Boston media and the pressure is on in Beantown.
Tampa Bay Lightning:
You knew this was coming, right? Ever since they made their somewhat surprising appearance in the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals they’ve been a favorite to win it all. While they’ve gotten close a few times since then, they’ve fallen short of the ultimate prize each season, highlighted by the first round sweep last season.
Windows and doors of opportunity open and close all the time and the Lightning have been skirting cap-related catastrophes for the last couple of off-seasons, but there will be some sort of reckoning later this fall. That adds a sense of urgency to this go round because they could actually lose a core member of the team in order to make the financials work for next season.
One the ice, they’ve addressed some of the issues that plagued them in previous post season appearances. The addition of forwards Pat Maroon, Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman have turned this season’s Lightning team into one that is much more adept at handling the physical nature of the playoffs. Anthony Cirelli’s development as a top-tier defensive forward gives Coach Cooper a shutdown center to match up against other team’s top line.
The pressure will also be on Coach Cooper this year. He has the history of winning at every level he’s coached at except for the NHL. In past seasons he’s been viewed as inflexible during series, preferring to stick with what has worked in the past as opposed to adapting to changing circumstances. He admittedly misread his team after they blew the 3-0 lead in game one against Columbus last year. Hopefully he’s learned from his past experiences.
The Lightning have basked in regular season success over the past few seasons only to see their Stanley Cup dreams go up in smoke at the end of the season. Having been forged in the fire of defeat we’ll see if this is the year they stand up to the pressure and pull it all off.