Thursday, March 22, 2012
Injuries Muddy Stanley Cup Playoff Picture
When it comes to the NHL stretch drive and upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs, you often hear the phrase "the best players have to be the best players." But what happens if those best players are in the press box due to injury? Not only does it impact the team's positioning, it also affects the big picture — once players return, there's conditioning, timing, and chemistry, not to mention the fact that there may also be a little bit of a savior complex for teams that are struggling.
Where will this impact be felt? Enough teams have been bit by the injury bug that the epidemic of fallen star players reaches wide. You can't start anywhere except in Pittsburgh, where Sidney Crosby's long-documented concussion/neck issues have kept him out of the majority of this season. He's back now, but the nature of his injury — from symptoms to diagnosis to treatment — will leave a question mark hovering over his name probably until the final shift of his season. The Penguins managed to thrive without Crosby, and his return could go any number of ways. The logical thinking is that the Penguins will be even stronger with their captain back, but there's always a chance that the rest of the Penguins exhale and let their performance dip following the initial adrenaline rush.
Out West, the biggest question comes with Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. The ageless wonder may finally be feeling his age — not so much in his performance, but a bone bruise to the ankle has kept him out for nearly a month. During that time, the Wings have hit their roughest stretch in years, and home ice advantage — a certainty during their massive home winning streak — is now in jeopardy. Reports out of Detroit peg Lidstrom's potential return as this upcoming weekend, but there's nothing certain for sure, and there's no guarantee about how the injury will affect Lidstrom's play when he does get back in the lineup. So much of Lidstrom's game comes down to his positioning, something that will probably be affected given the nature of his injury. Still, Lidstrom's mere presence is a steadying influence on the entire Detroit lineup, which could be enough to steady the injury-plagued squad.
In Washington, Nicklas Backstrom's absence has been significant. Playing at more than a point-per-game pace when a concussion knocked Backstrom from the lineup, many pundits have connected Alex Ovechkin's struggles with Backstrom's injury. Ovechkin has recently shown flashes of his old brilliance, but there's no doubt that the Capitals miss their No. 1 center, particularly because the team has struggled to score during much of Dale Hunter's reign. Ovechkin's recent surge may help rectify this situation, but there's no doubting the importance of someone like Backstrom, especially for a team with such high playoff hopes going into the season. Backstrom has started to skate again, but there's no timeline for his return. Recent history has shown us how tricky concussions can be, but if the Caps do make the playoffs and Backstrom is healthy, things are quite different.
Injured players in secondary roles can impact a team just as much as front-line players. The San Jose Sharks have been without Martin Havlat for the majority of the season. When healthy, the shifty Havlat solidifies the second line and the second power play unit. This creates a trickle-down effect, not just slotting players in their proper positions but also forcing opposing coaches to rethink their defensive deployment. Havlat's return has coincided with a jump in San Jose's scoring; whether it's enough to undo their February free-fall remains to be seen, but it does demonstrate the importance of second-line players and role players.
From Detroit's Darren Helm (out 4-6 weeks) to Los Angeles' Simon Gagne (concussed since December), key figures are missing from NHL lineups across the map. A quick review of Stanley Cup winners over the past 20 years or so demonstrates the importance of both luck and health in the lineup, and while injuries will always be part of the game, a complete lineup is certainly a greater threat than one running on spare parts.