Wednesday April 8th, 2009

Spring is a time for rebirth and fresh starts in the NHL. But as the playoffs approach, some prominent players will be entering this two-month odyssey with more baggage than Madonna on tour.

There are stars who will not merely carry the weight of their teams' Stanley Cup chances on their shoulders, but the burden of their own past playoff performances. A player can rehabilitate his image during the playoffs -- think of Dallas goalie Marty Turco's three shutouts in the first round against Vancouver in 2007 after two straight disastrous first rounds, or Marian Hossa's yeoman work for Pittsburgh late in the playoffs last year -- but an indifferent playoff for some of these stars can leave a mark which, like your high school guidance counselor once told you, might be on your permanent record.

These are the players -- or groupings of players -- who personally have the most to gain or lose during the pursuit of Lord Stanley's Cup this year.

If Savard doesn't have much of a playoff reputation, it's because he doesn't have much of a portfolio: seven games since entering the NHL in 1997-98. They came last year with Boston when returning from a broken back he contributed a goal and five assists and earned widespread praise for his grit.

But even under personally trying times, those two weeks were relatively easy because the expectations on him and the team were so staggeringly low. The Bruins, an eighth seed, had lost all eight regular-season meetings against their first-round opponent, Montreal. Savard will now be in the crosshairs as the leading offensive force on the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Said one rival GM: "If he's getting his points and the Bruins are doing well, he'll be great. If he's not getting his points and the Bruins are doing well, I'm not so sure how happy he'll be."

Savard can shed his career-long "me-first" label by continuing to work both sides of the puck, whether the points flow or not.


Jumbo Joe has been an oversized playoff disappointment, both in terms of numbers -- 11 goals, 37 assists in 70 games from a point-per-game player during the regular season -- and his inability to take a team past the second round. He was marked lousy in 2004 when he went pointless for the Bruins in a seven-game series against the underdog Canadiens although there were extenuating circumstances surrounding the Boston captain: he was playing with broken ribs. Instead of being lauded for his leadership, Thornton was mocked for his fecklessness.

While Thornton has 30 points in 35 playoff games with the Sharks, those second-round exits in his three seasons there have been laid at his feet. If he has a flaw, it's his inability to lock into a big-game gear (although he was excellent as a checking center for Team Canada in the 2004 World Cup). He gets anchored on the half boards too often and looks content to make his deft passes to teammates rather than using his bulk to create scoring chances for himself. Former coach Ron Wilson urged him to make some adjustments, as has new coach, Todd McLellan. If the best team in the Western Conference disappears prematurely, Thornton will have taken another giant step down the lonesome road of Nice Guy Finishes Early.

Marleau, San Jose's captain, has not been targeted for as much criticism as Thornton even though he has been at least as culpable as his more renowned teammate. His playoff numbers provide a degree of camouflage -- 35 goals in 86 games -- but his leadership has failed San Jose at critical junctures.

In a pivotal second-round game in Detroit in 2007, Marleau, on the ice to protect a one-goal lead in the final minute, was caught cheating on the wrong side of the puck and the Sharks wound up giving up a late goal and losing in overtime. Last year in Game 1 of their second-round series against Dallas, he hopped out of the way of a Mike Modano shot that found the net in an eventual 3-2 Stars win. If he had pulled a similar stunt in a more critical market than San Jose, Marleau would have been figuratively flayed instead of mildly criticized.

If the NHL's best team for the entire season slinks out of the playoffs in the early rounds -- and he doesn't block a shot -- Marleau will have no place to hide.

In 2001-02 Théodore, then with Montreal, won the Hart Trophy. He spent the next season taking a victory lap and never has been the same. (There was also that little awkwardness about his positive pre-Olympic drug test in 2006 for the banned substance, which can be used as a steroids masking agent, in Propecia. Montreal's team physician said the goalie had been taking the hair-care remedy for eight years.)

The Canadiens offloaded Théodore's albatross contract to Colorado and although he had his moments, including battling back smartly after losing his job to Peter Budaj last season, he was not a difference-maker in two-plus seasons with the Avalanche. Théodore has a 19-26 playoff record, and his goals-against average is lower in the regular season than the postseason, when goals are harder to come by.

Now after a modestly successful year in Washington -- his .902 save percentage and 2.80 GAA are as much a byproduct of the Capitals' hair-on-fire offensive style as his own middling play -- Théodore has a chance to reestablish his credentials as a top 10 NHL goalie. If Washington gets to the Cup final, he will be known as something more than a one-hit wonder with great hair.

Tough to knock the presumptive Art Ross-winner, a sure Hart Trophy finalist and dominant forward on a rejuvenated team that is poised for another long spring run. When Malkin foundered in his first NHL playoffs two years ago, he was universally given a pass because of his fatigue from a long season (even though a week later he wound up as the star for Russia at the World Championships in Moscow).

Malkin made a huge impression early last spring against Ottawa and New York, but began to slow against Philadelphia and was mostly ballast during the final vs. Detroit. (Injured? Perhaps, but he never copped to it.) He still finished with 22 points in 20 playoff games, but didn't play with the brio of teammate Sidney Crosby against the Red Wings.

Malkin doesn't turn 23 until the summer. He is a phenomenal talent and should have at least 10 or 12 more playoffs in him. But like Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, who once went 26 straight playoff games without a goal before burying that blotch forever last spring, Malkin should nip this thing early before it can diminish what he has, and presumably will continue to, achieve in the NHL.

Last year prior to the final, On the Fly read off some numbers and asked Detroit mucker Darren McCarty if he figured they sounded Hall of Fame-worthy. He answered, "Eighty per cent of fans would think so."

When told the gaudy statistics were those of his own goalie, Osgood, McCarty smiled and said, "Now it's down to 50 per cent."

There has been too much negativity surrounding Osgood, who has stumbled through a season with a .884 save percentage and unseemly 3.18 GAA, so we are going to come at this from another direction.

Let's assume he pulls himself out of his funk and the Red Wings, whose defensive zone coverage has not been nearly as crisp as it was last year, repeat as Stanley Cup champions. ("If anyone can forget a bad goal or a bad game," says one GM, "it's Ozzie.") Osgood already has backstopped two Cup-winners and played on a third. He has 387 regular-season wins, and, with two years left on his contract, surely will zip past 400. (Only nine goalies have reached that milestone. Of those who are eligible, all have made the Hall of Fame.)

Shouldn't one more Cup -- especially after his slog through this season, which included a 10-day sabbatical for a "mental break" -- boost those percentages of reaching the Hall far north of 90?

The Red Wings, of course, need Osgood as much as he needs a stellar performance. GM Ken Holland has built the team not from the goalie out, but from the forwards back. Still Osgood and backup Ty Conklin have to play at least moderately well to not undermine what still is the NHL's most formidable team. In holding up their end of this symbiotic bargain, the other Wings will have to find more emotion and sense of purpose than they have displayed all season.

And did we mention defensive zone coverage?

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