Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid feeling heat of Stanley Cup playoffs spotlight ESPN logo
Thursday, April 13, 2017

No team enters the Stanley Cup playoffs facing higher expectations and carrying more playoff baggage than the Washington Capitals. Winning their second straight Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team will only further bring into focus their failure to get the job done if they go home early. Captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored just 33 goals after averaging more than 50 goals per season for the past three seasons, is the lightning rod for much Capital discontent, but he is likewise the most important player if the Caps are to break through this spring. As one scout told me recently, "Helluva team." But, he added, sometimes that's not enough. Will it be this spring? Yes.

More big things to know about this year's Stanley Cup playoffs:

Pressure's on the Pens: The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are led by captain Sidney Crosby, the reigning playoff MVP and current goal-scoring champion. No team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings, and it's nearly impossible in the salary-cap era. Further hurting the Pens' chances is that they are banged up, going without star defenseman Kris Letang, and big center Evgeni Malkinis just returning from injury. Still, as no less than Wayne Gretzky has said, Crosby is the best player in the world. And when you have the best player in the world, anything is possible. Should the Pens defy history and win a second straight Cup, Crosby's likeness should be on the game's Mount Rushmore among the greatest of all time. And, oh yeah, he's only 29.

Keep an eye on McDavid: The most potent of the young players, Connor McDavid, will be getting his first taste of playoff action, as his Edmonton Oilers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006. McDavid, 20, won his first scoring title this season and will probably win the Hart Trophy as MVP as he continues to fulfill early expectations that put him on a par with the likes of Crosby, Mario Lemieux and Gretzky. Blazingly fast, McDavid causes scouts, opponents and coaches to marvel at his ability to accomplish the most intricate and daring of plays at full speed. As one scout told me, McDavid might be faster with the puck than without it. So far, no one has found an answer for the No. 1 pick in 2015, and I don't expect the San Jose Sharks, the Oilers' first-round opponent, will either.

Matthews is close behind: Want to talk other generational players? Let's talk about Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews. The No. 1 overall pick in 2016, Matthewsbegan his NHL career with a four-goal game and finished his first regular season by guiding the moribund Leafs to just their second playoff appearance since the 2004-05 lockout. Matthews is a virtual lock to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year -- he scored 40 goals, the most by a rookie since Ovechkin scored 52 in 2005-06 -- but first he and a collection of wildly talented rookies, including Mitch Marner and William Nylander, hope to throw a scare into the Capitals in the first round. That isn't likely to happen, but there is more optimism in hockey's biggest media market than there has been in two decades because of the ridiculously talented and mature Matthews.

Sonic-boom youth: The rise of talented young players will continue to be compelling storyline in the playoffs: Columbus Blue Jackets defensemen Zach Werenski, 19, and Seth Jones, 22, formed one of the most dynamic duos in the league. ...Leon Draisaitl, 21, patrolled the right side for the Oilers alongside McDavid and collected 77 points -- and might be the best-kept secret in the NHL. ... Because of injuries to veteran players, Crosby has played with a collection of youngsters, including Conor Sheary, 24, playing in his first full season, and Jake Guentzel, 22, who had 33 points in 40 games after being called up from the American Hockey League. ... Seven rookies collected 105 points for the Chicago Blackhawks, who are fighting for an amazing fourth Stanley Cup since 2010. ... Youth equals speed, and the game has never been faster. Don't expect any yield signs when the games start Wednesday.

Undesirable streaks: The Blue Jackets have never won a playoff round. ... The Capitals have never advanced beyond the second round in the Ovechkin era (which began in 2005-06). ... The Nashville Predators have never advanced beyond the second round. ... Barry Trotz, who coached the Predators before taking over the Caps, has never coached beyond the second round.

First-round series watchability rankings:

1.Pittsburgh Penguins-Columbus Blue Jackets: Two of the top four teams during the season meet in the first round, so one, possibly the defending Cup champs, will be going home early. Can the best scorer in the league in Crosby solve the best goalie inSergei Bobrovsky?

2.Edmonton Oilers-San Jose Sharks: Last year's Stanley Cup finalists face the red-hot Oilers and McDavid. Is this it for classy veteran Joe Thornton of the Sharks, who recorded his 1,000th assist this season and is still chasing his first Stanley Cup? A McDavid-Thornton matchup would be a good test for the Oilers captain.

3.Washington Capitals-Toronto Maple Leafs: Ovechkin versus Matthews gives us a collision of generational talents. Don't blink, though, because the Caps will make short work of the youthful Leafs.

4.Montreal Canadiens-New York Rangers: This is a battle of two of the greatest goalies of their generation in Carey Price of Montreal and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers. Both have Olympic gold. Neither has a Cup ring. Yet.

5.Chicago Blackhawks-Nashville Predators:The Predators have never been out of the second round, and the two times they faced Chicago in the first round (2010 and 2015), the Hawks went on to win Stanley Cups. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith are looking to go for the Nashville trifecta.

6.Minnesota Wild-St. Louis Blues: Former Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo is looking for a little postseason revenge, and he has the Blues cooking. They're the best defensive team in the NHL since Yeo took over from the fired Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1. But look out for the Wild, who were the best team in the West for the first half of the season behind a reborn Eric Staal and goalieDevan Dubnyk.

7.Anaheim Ducks-Calgary Flames: The Ducks are without top defenseman Cam Fowler but enter with points in 14 straight games (11-0-3), led by top two-way forwardRyan Kesler. Lots of folks seeJohnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, rookie Matthew Tkachuk and the rest of the Flames upsetting the Ducks, who won the Pacific Division for a fifth straight time. Not me.

8.Ottawa Senators-Boston Bruins: The Bruins are back to the postseason after missing the past two years. Captain Zdeno Chara is 40 and with injuries to fellow defensemen Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug, will shoulder a bigger load than he should if they're to knock off Norris Trophy favoriteErik Karlssonand the surprising Senators.

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