And so we’re down to two. After a pair of weekend Game 7s, we finally have our Stanley Cup final matchup, as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks prepare to drop the puck for Game 1 tomorrow night.
We’ll spend the next few weeks picking apart the Hawks and Lightning, starting with a detailed final preview that will run tomorrow. But before we get there, let’s take today as an opportunity to look back at the 14 playoff teams that didn’t make it to the promised land and are left to ask the question: What went wrong? What fatal flaw kept each of this year’s playoff casualties from taking their place on the league’s biggest stage? And perhaps more importantly, can they fix it?
Needless to say, this will be easier for some teams than others. Sometimes a well-built team runs into another well-built team and somebody has to lose, and digging for some greater shortcoming feels like nitpicking. Of course, in other cases, we’ll have to work a bit to narrow the list of flaws down to just one.
Here’s a look at each of the 14 teams that fell short of the final and why it happened, in the order that they were eliminated.
What went wrong? Ondrej Pavelec just wasn’t good enough. That wouldn’t have been a surprise based on his career numbers, which are decidedly average, but he was very good for most of this season and downright fantastic over the season’s final month. So as strange as it now seems in hindsight, there was reason to look at the Jets-Ducks series and figure that Winnipeg held an advantage in goal.
Instead, Pavelec posted a sub-.900 save percentage and gave up four or more in three of the series’ four games. Would the Jets have won with better goaltending? Probably not. The Ducks just crushed them, and anyone short of late-’90s Dominik Hasek probably would have only delayed the inevitable. But Pavelec was the weakest link in a series full of them.
Can they fix it? The Jets have stuck by Pavelec for years, so they apparently don’t think there’s anything here to fix. Backup Michael Hutchinson was excellent as a rookie, and Team USA World Championship hero Connor Hellebuyck is in the system, so there’s depth at the position. Trading Pavelec now would be a gutsy move that could pay off, but it seems exceedingly unlikely.
What went wrong? There wasn’t enough depth. That’s been an issue in Pittsburgh for years, as a top-heavy lineup hasn’t been able to get the timely contributions from role players that seem to define Cup contenders. When Sidney Crosby didn’t dominate and Evgeni Malkin disappeared, there wasn’t enough talent to pick up the slack.
All that said, we’re leaving out a pretty important detail: The Penguins were devastated by injuries, especially on the blue line, where key players like Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff weren’t available. That kind of bad luck will thin out any team, no matter how well built, and the Penguins deserve credit for still playing a very good Rangers team fairly tight.
Can they fix it? They’ll get healthy again, and it’s always easier to add depth than top-end talent. The bigger question in Pittsburgh is whether they should tear down the core by moving a guy like Malkin. I don’t think they need to do that — you’ll notice that I didn’t go with “Malkin choked” as their biggest problem — but I don’t get a vote. The Pens wouldn’t be the first team to overreact to a disappointing playoffs, so they’ll be interesting to watch this summer.
What went wrong? Shea Weber got hurt. Oh, there were other flaws, not least of which was a lack of scoring up front and Pekka Rinne’s second-half regression into a merely average goaltender. But even with those problems hanging over them, the Predators still gave the Blackhawks all they could handle, and they did it while losing their best player to a dislocated kneecap midway through Game 2. If Weber had returned to the series, maybe it would have been enough to flip the result of Chicago’s triple-OT win in Game 4. And if that had been the case, then the Predators would have hosted Game 7, and … well, who knows, right?
Can they fix it? Weber is expected to be back at full health in time for training camp, so this one’s an easy “yes.” Now about Rinne and those forwards …