On paper, there should have been no team that could have defeated the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who were arguably the most dominant team in recent memory.
That season, the Red Wings finished 28 points clear of the next-best team, the Eastern Conference’s Philadelphia Flyers, and en route to their remarkable 131-point Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign, Detroit pummelled all comers. By the time the season closed, the Red Wings had three 35-goal scorers, six players with at least 20 goals and 10 players who scored at least half a point per game. The end result was a stunning plus-144 goal differential, the eighth-highest in NHL history and the largest spread between goals for and goals against since the 1970s.
But when the post-season rolled around, Detroit showed some cracks against a top adversary in the Avalanche, and despite what you might be thinking, it wasn’t exactly that Patrick Roy, who posted a .905 save percentage across the six-game set, stole the series for Colorado. Instead, it was the limiting of the top-six scorers that turned the tide.
The Avalanche defense, led by Adam Foote and Sandis Ozolinsh, shut down the Red Wings’ top scorers. Case in point: Detroit’s second-highest scoring forward in the series was Paul Coffey, who registered five points. The second-best offensive production among forwards came from Doug Brown, who scored four points.This is to say the Red Wings’ Achilles heel – and it was likely Detroit’s only flaw – was a lack of scoring depth that could carry the load if the top players were shut down.
So, as we enter the post-season, what is the greatest flaw of each Stanley Cup contender?
Arizona Coyotes: One point away from elimination – anything less than full value in their next two games and Arizona is done, and even then a single point from the Colorado Avalanche ends this run for the Coyotes – the biggest concern is actually making the dance. But after that, it’s the offense that is Arizona’s greatest hindrance. (Yes, even more than the current goaltending concern.) Look, Darcy Kuemper has been great and being without the keeper, who suffered an eye injury last time out, in the final two games could prove devastating, but when you don’t have a single 20-goal scorer in your lineup, it’s tough to have much faith in consistently getting the job done on the attack against a playoff-caliber opponent even with a healthy starting netminder.
Boston Bruins: The Bruins’ top line strikes fear into the hearts of every opponent. The rest of Boston’s forward corps, though? Not so much. In fact, the Bruins’ success is largely predicated on the performance and scoring success of its top trio, and the depth has been along for the ride much of the campaign. Beyond David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, only two Boston forwards – Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci – have more than 15 goals, and the goal-scoring drops off precipitously after Krejci’s 19 tallies. Middle-sixers and grind-line guys will have to step it up if Boston wants to go deep.
Calgary Flames: It comes down to goaltending for the Flames. Many assumed David Rittich would be the go-to guy for Calgary in the post-season, but his .898 SP since February is cause for concern. And while Mike Smith has been significantly better over the same span – .914 SP in 16 appearances – his track record since being brought aboard by the Flames doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Calgary can run-and-gun and hang offensively with any team in either conference. If the goals dry up at any point, though, poor goaltending will sink the entire operation.
Carolina Hurricanes: Anyone who doesn’t want the Hurricanes to succeed in the post-season for the potential of a home ice, post-Stanley Cup victory Storm Surge is a cop. That said, this team, which has posted one of the league’s best records since the beginning of the calendar year, isn't without its flaws. The Hurricanes’ biggest issue is getting scoring beyond its top lines. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Justin Williams and Micheal Ferland are the only players who have skated in at least 60 games with Carolina this season and scored at more than a point per game. If the top-six is shut down by a good two-way trio or top defensive pairing, the Hurricanes are in for a battle.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche have answered some earlier questions about their ability to get scoring down the lineup, and the goaltending has likewise been better in recent weeks than it has for much of the season. That’s not the issue. The penalty kill, however, is, as it hasn’t been all that great at any point throughout the campaign. Though slightly better since Jan. 1 than months prior, the full-season penalty kill rate is 78.3 percent. No potentially playoff-bound team has been worse when down a skater. Teams with poor penalty kills rarely fare well in the post-season, and without improvement at the most pivotal time of the campaign, Colorado will kiss the post-season goodbye in a hurry.
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets are the inverse of the Avalanche, which is to say Columbus is a brilliant penalty killing team that has had very little success on the power play. Only four teams in the NHL have a lower power play percentage than the Blue Jackets’ 15.5 percent. That's hard to fathom with the talent, from Artemi Panarin to Cam Atkinson, coach John Tortorella can throw over the boards. And while Columbus has been better in recent weeks, it’s still cause for concern, especially if the Blue Jackets draw the Tampa Bay Lightning, against whom Columbus will need every ounce of offense possible to defeat.
Dallas Stars: Depth is so incredibly important in the post-season and that hasn’t exactly been the Stars’ specialty this season. Dallas’ offense has been guided almost solely by the trio of Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, who have combined to score 42.4 percent of the Stars’ goals this season. Against a top team that can zero in on and shut those three down, though, Dallas might have a tough time finding twine. Already they’re primed to enter the post-season with the fourth-lowest goal total in the NHL, and if Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin show cracks, a lack of offense could result in it being curtains for the Stars early in the post-season.
Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens are a great possession team with a top-tier goaltender and a consistent attack, despite no single superstar scorer. What Montreal doesn’t boast, however, is a power play that can propel the club to victory. In fact, the Canadiens have the league’s worst power play at 12.5 percent. That is a concern given the first-round draw, should the Canadiens make the post-season, is likely to be the Tampa Bay Lightning. In such a series, Montreal would need every advantage it can get, and failing to capitalize when up a skater could come back to haunt the Canadiens.
Nashville Predators: Special teams is an important part of building a winner, and while the Predators have been fairly good on the penalty kill, the power play has bordered on disastrous. Since Jan. 1, Nashville is scoring at less than a 10-percent clip with the man advantage and the full-season success rate isn’t much better. At 12.8 percent, the Predators boast the second-worst power play in the entire NHL. For a club that already ranks in the bottom half of the league in per-game production, not being able to connect with the extra man is a concern, especially when trying to escape a division that is so painfully close at the top.
New York Islanders: It’s all about possession. The Islanders have been excellent in a number of ways this season, from scoring depth on through their arguably league-best one-two punch in goal. New York has needed their netminders to show up, though, in the face of some subpar underlying metrics. With a 47.7 percent Corsi rating, the Islanders have the worst possession percentage of any playoff-bound club at five-a-side. The ice often appears tilted in Islanders’ games, and that’s a concern. If the goaltending doesn’t hold New York is likely to be one-and-done.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Pittsburgh is a middle of the road possession team that allows the second-most attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of any playoff team. (Assuming the Coyotes miss out, that is.) The blueline is still the weak spot for the Penguins, and with Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin nursing injuries entering the post-season, the depth of the defense could be tasked with taking more minutes at the most crucial time of year. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the charge, you can never count out Pittsburgh, but the blueline gives one reason to at least consider picking the Penguins for an early exit.
St. Louis Blues: The Blues are entering the post-season on a heater than has lasted the better part of four months. Since Jan. 1, no team has accumulated more points than St. Louis, who also boasts a plus-40 goal differential, 20.5 percent power play and 85.7 percent penalty kill over that span. So, where’s the worry? It’s in goal, where Jordan Binnington is about to get his first taste of playoff action. Though the rookie keeper has been outstanding, after posting a .936 SP through his first 19 games, he’s down to a .913 SP over his past 10, allowing three or more goals against four times. Binnington has to stand tall on the big stage.
San Jose Sharks: The Pacific Division has three top teams, each of which has had issues with its goaltending. No club has had it worse, though, than the Sharks, who are hoping and praying that Martin Jones’ poor play during the regular season is cleaned up when the post-season rolls around. The Sharks’ .888 SP – the combined effort of Jones and backup Aaron Dell – is the worst in the NHL, and San Jose has lived and died by its offense all season. If any game, let alone series, turns into a goaltending duel and Jones doesn’t revert to past playoff form, the Sharks are doomed.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The threat of someone kidnapping Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos? Maybe Andrei Vasilevskiy is struck with narcolepsy and sleeps through the entire series? There are few holes that can be poked in the Lightning. If there is a way to beat them, though, it’s by targeting their bottom six and depth of their defense. Tampa Bay is rock-solid, but there are cracks in the third and fourth lines and the bottom pairing. That’s where the Bolts can be attacked, and any team with designs on beating the Lightning is going to have to do so by executing a great matchup game.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs are suspect defensively, and while Toronto is a positive possession team, they’re not one that sits above the 50-percent plateau by way of a suffocating and limiting blueline. Entering the final days of the campaign, the Maple Leafs have the second-highest rate of 5-on-5 shot attempts against, 60.3, per 60 minutes. The only team with a lower rate is the Ottawa Senators at 65.6 per hour. And that has resulted in Toronto giving up the third-most shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, 32.9, of any team in the league. That puts the onus on Frederik Andersen to be at his very best every night – and that’s worrisome as he heads into the post-season in the midst of one of his worst stretches of the season.
Vegas Golden Knights: So-so in the middle of the season, Marc-Andre Fleury was excellent in early March...and then he hit the sidelines and hasn’t played since. He is expected to play this week, but being without a full-strength ‘Flower’ is concerning as backup Malcom Subban and his .902 SP across 21 appearances this season isn’t going to get the job done. Truly, this is another case of goaltending making or breaking the post-season for a Pacific Division club.
Washington Capitals: The Capitals need Braden Holtby to be at his best in the post-season, and much of Washington’s run to the Stanley Cup final hinged on his excellent play. Back-to-back shutouts against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final last season is what propelled the Capitals into the final in the first place. Why it’s especially important this time, though, is that Washington has had a tendency to give up quality chances. No goaltender, not even Anaheim’s John Gibson, has faced as many high-danger chances against at five-a-side, and if Holtby doesn’t come up big in those situations, get ready for a short playoff stay.
Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are entering the playoffs in a serious funk, losers of five of their past seven games and plagued by poor defensive play. The ability to defend is the concern, too, especially since the beginning of January. Only two teams, the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators, have allowed more shots and shot attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 since Jan. 1 than Winnipeg. Part of that can be blamed on the absences of Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien, who returned recently, but that doesn’t excuse it entirely. If the Jets don’t shore it up defensively, they stand to be served an upset special in Round One.