With the second round set to begin in Vancouver tonight, the stakes are rising for the remaining 8 teams. Still, expectations and future outlooks play a huge role in how a team's playoff run is evaluated. Taking that into account, which teams have the most to lose (and gain)? Are there any teams "playing with house money"? Let's take a look.
1. Boston vs. 6. Carolina 2. Detroit vs. 8. Anaheim
Both teams defied expectations this season. For the Bruins, that came early, as Boston went from being a nice little 8th seed last year to a squad good enough to make people wonder if they could go toe-to-toe with San Jose and Detroit. In Carolina, the Hurricanes went through most of the regular season looking like their typical selves (limping through stretches, remaining thoroughly mediocre ... the ultimate bubble team) and then all of a sudden became arguably the hottest team in the NHL.
Hockey fans will probably remember the Canes stunning two goals in 1:20 to shock the Devils for years to come. At this point, Carolina is the perfect foil for a number one seed: they're playing their best hockey of the year and just seem to have everything falling in place. If they lose, no sweat, really. Right?
One thing that stands out for Boston is that they have some tough salary cap decisions to make. David Krejci and Phil Kessel are RFAs this summer. Marc Savard only has one year left on his contract and will certainly command a bigger cap hit than his current $5 million.
The B's are a nice story, but the startling depth that made them such a juggernaut won't last forever.
Bruins have way, way WAY more to lose than the Hurricanes.
Anaheim will have a lot of questions to answer this off-season, particularly when it comes to Scott Niedermayer. Could this be the last year of the Norris brothers?
Still, the Ducks can't sweat it too much when they look at their young forward trifecta: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan make up quite the nice group of sub-25 threats. With Getzlaf and Perry wrapped up for a long time at a low cap hit, Anaheim isn't crazy to wonder if the sky is the limit.
And if they get bounced, it will at least make Jonas Hiller easier to re-sign.
It's difficult, however, to muster much fervor for the Red Wings. Yes, it would be a letdown if Detroit blows this series but they won the Cup last year. They have a mountain of talent wrapped up for below market value prices. If they screw up this year, they'll be a top-3 seed for the next decade anyway.
Detroit has more to lose than Anaheim, but they both have bright futures.
2. Detroit vs. 8. AnaheimThe second of two "behemoth vs. Cinderella" match-ups, although the Ducks have more to lose than the Hurricanes (and the Red Wings are probably yawning at the pressure of being heavy favorites).
2. Washington vs. 4. Pittsburgh 3. Vancouver vs. 4. Chicago
No doubt about it, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have a lot to lose in this series. They are the two faces of the league and will suffer from harsh Photoshops, mouth-breathers in comments and a predictable "I TOLD YOU SO!!!!!11" mentality. Evgeni Malkin can obviously swoop in and show that perhaps he should be the Hart trophy winner instead of Ovechkin.
Hell, even Alex Semin has plenty to prove after his "Kane over Crosby" comments from earlier this year.
If you had to choose, the slight edge in pressure might go to the Capitals. They are the higher seed with home ice advantage. After barely beating the Rangers in a 7-game series - and getting, honestly, severely out-played at times in that decisive game - the Capitals need to show that they're not just a weak willed collection of gorgeously talented Europeans.
The Penguins have "been there" before, putting up a cute little fight against the Red Wings in the SCF last year. In some ways, that means that they have quite a bit to lose, as they don't have the excuse of inexperience.
The Capitals and Penguins face extreme pressure to deliver on all the media hype, with a slight bit more on the Caps' shoulders. Either way, someone's getting flamed in a message board before this one is done.
That being said, there's the "aha!" season of Alex Burrows and the assorted flavors of hard scrabble two-way forwards this team provides. Will Kyle Wellwood make you pay for that fat joke? Shall Ryan Kesler show us why he's a Selke finalist? Lots of sneaky good guys on this team.
One story I promise to beat to the ground is that the Chicago Blackhawks shouldn't be so loosey goosey this year. Everyone seems to think that the BLACKHAWKS ARE A TEAM OF THE FUTURE. While that would be great, it might not be so easy.
Martin Havlat and Nik Bulin are all but gone, barring some crazy hypnosis-based contract signings. As I wrote before, the team might have a devil of a time re-signing its talented trio of Kane-Toews-Keith between now and the 2010 summer.
Yes, the Hawks are still in their cliched "losing to learn how to win" season, but they might want to think about skipping that process altogether. Things might get a lot tougher for this team in the future.
The Canucks are under more pressure, but the Blackhawks are under more pressure than you'd think.
3. Vancouver vs. 4. Chicago