Most contending teams have reasons for concern as playoffs near
Problems. This time of year almost every team outside of the seemingly unbeatable Rangers and Wild has them, from injuries to inconsistent goaltending to underperforming stars. With the playoffs less than two weeks out, here’s a look at the pressing issues that are bedeviling some of the league’s top clubs.
DUCKS: There’s so much to like about this team. They Ducks are loaded down the middle with Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Rickard Rakell. Their defense, bolstered by a couple of deadline acquisitions, is as deep and skilled as any group in the league. And they have a couple of quality goaltenders in Fredrik Andersen and rookie John Gibson. The problem is, they don’t seem to have a starter. While both goalies have played well at times, neither has forced coach Bruce Boudreau to leave either between the pipes. Gibson is 6-2 in March but he gave up nine goals in back-to-back losses to the Rangers and Blue Jackets. Andersen has won his past three starts, allowing just five goals, but he posted back-to-back months with a save percentage below .900. Are either of these guys up to the task of being Anaheim’s playoff No. 1?
Red Wings: It’s no wonder that Mike Babcock has taken to calling his goaltending “a bad rerun” The tandem of Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek are taking inconsistency to bold new levels of late, allowing 51 goals in their past 16 games. Only two teams, Toronto and Edmonton, have been lit up more often since March 1. And a coach who is always talking up the statistical merits of goal differential can’t be happy about his team's 25th-ranked –8. Like Boudreau, Babcock is waiting for a chance to hand the keys off. He just wants someone to demand them.
BLACKHAWKS: A lineup that boasted Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith didn’t have much trouble scoring earlier this season, averaging 2.82 goals per game. But in the 15 contests since Kane was lost to a clavicle injury on Feb. 24, the Hawks have been reduced to ham-fisted scavengers who scrape by on just two goals per game. That number is troubling enough on its own, but it looks even worse in context. Over that stretch, just three teams have scored fewer goals than Chicago. The sight of Kane at practice on Wednesday raised hopes that his return might be imminent, but the team is still sticking to a 12-week recovery timeline that would keep him on the sidelines into May. That may be conservative by a couple weeks, but can this team get by on scraps until then?
CANADIENS: It’s no secret that Montreal struggles to generate offense. Since March 1 just three teams—New Jersey, Buffalo and Arizona—are scoring at a lower rate than Montreal’s 2.13 goals per game. What’s shocking is how ineffective the Habs have been at even strength. The Canadiens have potted only 17 five-on-five goals during their past 15 games. Only the woeful Coyotes, with 15 in 14, have less, which goes a long way toward explaining Montreal’s 6-9 record during the past month. The brilliance of Carey Price has kept the Habs on top of the Atlantic Division, but his excellence becomes a thin wire to walk come playoff time.
ISLANDERS: If only this team could spend more time shorthanded. New York’s much-maligned penalty kill, the league’s worst for much of the season, finally found its footing in March. The unit went 12 consecutive games without allowing a goal, an impressive stretch that saw the Isles kill 25 consecutive chances. But while one special team was rolling, the other veered off the tracks. Before connecting three times against the Red Wings on Sunday, the Islanders’ power play was just five for 35 in March. It’s easy to pin those struggles on Kyle Okposo, a power play beast who hasn’t been the same since returning from a detached retina. But the bigger issue might be courage. The Isles haven’t established much in the way of net presence lately, and that’s led to softer chances. Until they start paying a price, they won’t scare anyone with the extra man.
KINGS: There’ll be a lengthy post-mortem if the defending champs fail to make the cut, but the key to their struggles down the stretch is obvious to the ever loquacious Darryl Sutter: “We still have a lot of guys who haven’t scored a goal since Jesus was a baby.” Among them are some of the team’s most battle-hardened veterans. Drew Doughty hasn’t scored since Feb. 7, a span of 24 games. Dustin Brown, mired in the worst offensive season of his career, has gone 19 games without a goal. Justin Williams has two in his past 17 games. While Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar are doing their part to carry the load, the lack of consistent secondary scoring, especially on the power play, is killing this team.
BLUES: Are the Blues being overcoached? T.J. Oshie raised a few eyebrows this week when he told reporters that “there’s a lot of information going around, guys are getting a little indecisive.” He also said that he felt mentally refreshed after missing Saturday’s game against Columbus with the flu, adding it was nice “not having to sit through all the meetings and same old practices.” There’s no denying that Ken Hitchcock is one of the most detail-oriented coaches in the league, and it’s possible that an overload of input could lead be leading to some of the defensive mistakes this team has been committing lately. If that is the case—and it’s unlikely that a veteran like Oshie would speak so boldly without some consensus—the staff will have to simplify its message ... but there is no guarantee of success.
CANUCKS: “The objective is to get better discipline,” coach Willie Desjardins said after reading the riot act to several veterans in a private meeting on Wednesday. It’s a good message, but does it come too late? The Canucks are the league’s fourth-most penalized team, averaging 11.1 minutes per game, and as Desjardins points out too many of those fouls come at inopportune moments or are guided by selfish motivation. The penalty kill has been sharp at 84.9%, but all that time spent defending is time lost to the attack. In a tight series, that could be the difference.
PENGUINS: Not to overlook the fact that the suddenly hamfisted Pens scored one goal or fewer in seven of their 15 games in March, but this team has bigger concerns. Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff, two of the team’s top-four blueliners, are out indefinitely while dealing with concussion-related issues. That’s bad. Really bad. The salary cap crunch that prevents GM Jim Rutherford from calling up a sixth defenseman won’t be an issue come playoff time, but the depth and three-zone capabilities of this group will take a significant hit if these two veterans can’t go.
JETS: It’s not those late-game heartbreakers scored by Chris Kreider and Jonathan Toews that are crushing Winnipeg’s playoff chances. It’s the penalty kill. Since Jan. 1—a span of 24 games-—no team has allowed more shorthanded goals than the 26 given up by the Jets. Only one other club, the Sabres with 21, has come even close to coughing up an average of one per game. That’s the sort of hole that few teams could dig out of, but the Jets could help themselves by cutting back on the number of trips made to the sin bin. Winnipeg averages 13.5 minutes in the box per game, second only to Pittsburgh. Dustin Byfuglien’s four-game suspension for cross-checking certainly isn’t going to make life any easier.