Ten NHL playoff contenders have serious problems to fix before the postseason begins.
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?
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?
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.
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.