The pressure is on all 16 teams once the postseason begins, but a few players have a little bit more to prove this spring.
Hey, what's not to like about Rick Nash's season? His 42 goals ranked third in the NHL. But (and you could hear this coming a mile away, no?) Nash has shown a distinct penchant for going dry. He finished the regular season with just five goals in his last 23 games. Does that remind you of Nash's performance in the 2014 playoffs? It might. Last spring, Nash struggled through 14 games without a goal to start the playoffs, and then finished up with one goal in his last nine postseason games. The Rangers are one of the favorites in a wide-open field this spring, but in spite of being a deep, balanced, experienced squad, New York cannot return to a second straight Cup final, let alone win their first championship since 1994, without more consistent scoring from Nash.
The Jets proved they could win without Big Buff during the burly defenseman's four-game suspension for cross-checking J.T. Miller of the New York Rangers in the back of the neck. It wasn't the kind of play a leader makes. It's a testament to the character in the Jets' locker room that Dustin Byfuglien's absence didn't cost the team a playoff berth. Now he owes them one. Maybe two. And we know historically Byfuglien can bring it to the big stage. Although Chicago was using him as a forward then, Byfuglien was a force in 2010 as the Blackhawks won their first championship since 1961. At times this season he has been the Jets' most important player. Now we'll find out if he's got the maturity to be that kind of player when the stakes are at their highest as the Jets travel to Anaheim to open their first playoff series since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011.
The Ducks have won three straight Pacific Division titles and yet playoff success has eluded them. The team failed to hold a series lead two seasons ago against Detroit in the first round, and again last season in the second round against Los Angeles. Last offseason, Anaheim general manager Bob Murray went after highly sought after center Ryan Kesler. In theory, the addition of the former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner would have seen the Ducks match up better against the Kings, but of course that's not going to be an issue this season. But the Ducks' first-round opponent, Winnipeg, is similar in terms of size, speed and physicality. Still, Kesler and captain Ryan Getzlaf are going to represent as good of a one-two playoff punch down the middle as there is in the West now that the Kings are gone, giving the Ducks an exponentially better chance of making a long run this spring -- at least in theory. Now that theory will be put to the test.
Yeah, we get that all 16 goalies who start the playoffs for their respective teams will be under the gun. But the combination of Ben Bishop's inexperience and the sky-high expectations in Tampa make this a unique situation. Bishop was injured late in the 2013-14 season and missed their first-round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. This season Bishop proved his 2013-14 season, one that saw him nominated for the Vezina Trophy, was not fluke. But the fact still remains this spring will represent his first-ever NHL playoff competition. Bishop told ESPN.com recently he doesn't figure to approach these games any differently than he does the regular season. And if he replicates his play of the past two regular seasons, the Lightning have the kind of team -- young, fast, deep, defensively sound -- that is poised for a long postseason run. And as head coach Jon Cooper told us: Everyone had to start somewhere, right? For us, goaltending coach Frantz Jean put it best: It's time now for Bishop to write his own playoff story. Now, the question is whether that story will have a happy ending.
Not many folks give the Predators much of a chance to knock off the Chicago Blackhawks, even though the Predators own home ice advantage, have two defensemen in Roman Josi and Shea Weber who might end up on the final Norris Trophy ballot, a goaltender in Pekka Rinne who could be on the final Vezina Trophy ballot and a rookie in Filip Forsberg who finished third in rookie scoring with 63 points, one off the league lead. Part of the reason for pessimism surrounding the Preds is that they pretty much stunk down the stretch, going winless in their final six games. If they're to reverse that trend against a Blackhawks team getting Patrick Kane back to start the series, they'll need the balanced scoring they showed during a sterling first half of the season. That means the Preds will be looking for more from James Neal, who was acquired from Pittsburgh at last June's draft to provide scoring punch. That's what Neal does, he scores. Or he should. Injuries have taken their toll on the big winger who finished with 23 goals in 67 games. But Neal is also a streaky player and right now he's streaking in the wrong direction with two goals in his past 15 games. Worse, Neal has not scored a power play goal since Feb. 5 and came up with just three power play markers all season. That's a trend that will have to change -- and in a hurry.