By Wayne Whittaker, Boston Bruins Correspondent
All first round playoff exits are not created equal.
For some teams, just making it into the tournament is enough to render a season successful. For instance, overachievers like the 2011-2012 Ottawa Senators can pat themselves on the back for proving critics wrong, and for possibly giving the organization something to build on should they fall to the first seed New York Rangers.
But what happens when you add the pressure of expectation into the mix? What happens when a team is expected to win two or three rounds, only to bow out in late April?
For a team like the Boston Bruins, it would be disappointing to lose in the Conference Quarterfinals to a Washington Capitals team that appears to be beatable, but all things considered it would not be the end of the world.
If worse comes to worst, Boston can fall back on its laurels from last year, and use the half-truths of exhaustion as an excuse for underperforming.
From an organizational stand point, not much would change.
Tim Thomas just turned 38, and with future starter Tuukka Rask approaching restricted free agency, win or lose, the goal of the summer is to solidify the goaltending position for the long-term future.
Beyond a few third/fourth liners, the majority of the team’s roster for next year is more or less solidified.
Off all 16 teams in the playoffs, the defending champs have it the easiest.
Their opponent, however, is in a much different situation.
Washington entered the 2011-2012 season with high expectations after a number of infamous early playoff exits. They started out hot, flat-lined, changed coaches, and have crept back into the playoffs. For the Caps, the second season is a chance for redemption. A chance to validate a frustrating regular season.
If the Capitals don’t win at least two rounds this year (or even if they do at this point) it’s likely that there will be some organizational changes. As if the pressure of competing for a Stanley Cup weren’t enough, the players on that roster are fighting for their jobs, for the jobs of their teammates, and for their identity.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are another team that were expected to be one of the last contenders standing. But some incredibly porous defense, inept goaltending, poor decision making and just plain ol’ frustration have put the Pens on the brink. However, much like the Bruins, winning a Cup does quell some of the desperation.
Sure, it would be a very disappointing end to a promising campaign that saw the world’s best player brought into a roster already capable of competing for a Cup, but in all likelihood not a ton would change.
Call it a hiccup. Call it a learning experience. Crosby and Co. know what it takes to win, and can be very honest with themselves in the offseason should they fail to recover.
If former champs have it the best, the runner-ups clearly have it the worst.
The Vancouver Canucks had two opportunities to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup last spring, one of which came on home ice, neither of which turned out to be successful.
Another year, another President’s Trophy, and the Canucks entered another post-season poised to make a run.
This had to be The Year for Vancouver. So far, it’s not turning out that way.
A first round playoff exit for the Canucks would be devastating to the team. Perhaps they would try and let cooler heads prevail, but at a certain point they’ll be forced to look at their closing window of opportunity (and Roberto Luongo’s decade spanning contract) and decide to make a move.
A coaching change is almost certain. A goaltending change is possible. Key members of the team could be traded away, just to shake things up. The core of the team could take a hit.
From a salary cap standpoint, the Canucks are right up against the ceiling. From a contract standpoint, they’re not in awful shape. The Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, David Booth, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamuis, Keith Ballard, and Roberto Luongo are all locked up until at least 2015. But the supporting cast of characters such as Alex Burrows, Manny Malhotra, Chris Higgins, Maxim Lapierre, Alexander Edler all see their contracts run up at the end of next year.
Not to mention the Cory Schneider situation.
So many things have to go right in order to win a Stanley Cup, and you only get a certain number of chances to compete for it. The Canucks have had a window of opportunity much longer than most, and have still come up empty. Another disappointing ending could be the knockout punch for this organization.