The longtime Columbus Blue Jackets captain was obtained last offseason to be the final piece of the Stanley Cup puzzle. While New York endured an up-and-down year, not qualifying for the playoffs until the final days of the regular season, Nash was the Rangers' most consistent forward and led the team in goals (21). That he is an elite player is undeniable. But he's also played in just four career playoff games, none of which were victories. You wouldn't think that nerves would be a factor for a player of Nash's pedigree, but you never know. This we know: With Marian Gaborik, the Rangers' resident whipping boy the last couple offseasons, in Columbus, the expectations on Nash are as high as they are for anyone in the postseason. If he doesn't produce right away, even if New York is an underdog, the critics will come out of the Madison Square Garden woodwork.
There's little doubt that Crawford has matured as a goaltender following a disappointing playoff turn against the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round last spring. Crawford and Ray Emery have been a nearly unbeatable tandem, losing just six games in regulation this season. But you know what that means now? Zero. Nothing. Zilch. And the first time Crawford falters -- and who doesn't falter now and then in the playoffs? -- there will be questions about his mental toughness. With Emery, Chicago's 1A netminder, nicked up going into the playoffs, already significant pressure on Crawford will rise exponentially.
Never mind Nash; Bouwmeester is the poster boy for playoff droughts. The 29-year-old and third overall pick in the 2002 draft has played in more than 760 regular-season games and had never reached the playoffs until now. Rescued by St. Louis from the moribund Calgary Flames at the trade deadline, Bouwmeester has become an integral part of a very good, deep Blues blue line, playing mostly alongside Alex Pietrangelo. The cool-as-a-cucumber Bouwmeester isn't likely to be thrown off his game by the playoff atmosphere; still, if St. Louis is to take on the big boys in the West, his ability to calmly move the puck out of his zone and join the rush will be key to the Blues' effort.
Yes, we know Ryan Suter and Zach Parise signed $98 million deals last summer and carry the heavy burden of expectation as the Wild join the playoff tournament for the first time in five seasons. But both are proven playoff performers, especially Parise, who helped guide the New Jersey Devils to the 2012 Cup finals. But the Wild, who flirted with falling out of the playoff picture in the last weeks of the regular season, have struggled to score. Koivu, who had just two goals in the final 16 games of the regular season, is going to need to elevate his game. He hasn't played in a playoff game since 2008 (he scored four times in a six-game, first-round loss to the Colorado Avalanche), and he'll need to rise to the occasion if the Wild are going to be anything but one-and-done.
Isn't this why the Leafs gave up so much to get the speedy goal-scoring forward, to produce big games in the big tournament? The Leafs, of course, are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and Kessel has a small body of playoff work on which to draw for a team that has little to show in playoff experience. He collected 15 points in 15 postseason games with the Boston Bruins, and the Leafs' regular-season scoring leader finished on a tear with 17 points in Toronto's final 10 games. Everyone knows that the Leafs can mix it up with anyone, but it'll take the timely scoring that Kessel will be expected to deliver for the team's first playoff run in a long time to be anything but a short one.