1. Can the Los Angeles Kings repeat?
We're still waiting on our first repeat champion since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. Are the Kings the ones to do? Thanks to the lockout, they didn't experience the short summer like other Cup champs do. They entered this season with an almost identical roster that was celebrating on Staples Center ice last June, added the likes of Robyn Regehr and Keaton Ellerby to their defensive depth and got an entire season with Jeff Carter up front. Jonathan Quick wasn't the same goaltender during the regular season like he was in the playoffs a year ago. His strong numbers during the 2011-12 regular season carried over into the playoffs. Will he improve upon what he did in the 2013 regular season?
The Penguins were one of the favorite heading into the season, while the Blackhawks played themselves into the "heavy favorite" category thanks to their 24-game point streak to start the season. Since the puck dropped on Jan. 19, the two teams have been on a collision course to face one another in the Final. They've separated themselves from their individual conference foes and could set up a rematch of the 1991 Final; though we'd bet heavily this one wouldn't end in a sweep.
3. What to make of the goaltending situation in Vancouver?
When discussing the Vancouver Canucks, it's hard to ignore the two men they have in net. Cory Schneider is currently dealing with a "body" injury, meaning Roberto Luongo may get the start in Game 1 versus the San Jose Sharks. And for as much pressure as there is on head coach Alain Vigneault and the entire Canucks team to win a Stanley Cup, the focus will be on what happens in the crease. Any time either Schneider or Luongo falter during the playoffs, the media will run to both them, and Vigneault, to further stir up a crease controversy. Unless they win a Cup or Luongo is traded, the spotlight will be very bright on the Canucks' net.
After two straight series losses in the Western Conference Final, the Sharks couldn't get past the St. Louis Blues in the opening round last season. Their star players aren't getting any younger and the sense is that the window for this group is closing. Guys like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle have one year left on their contracts, and the job securities of head coach Todd McLellan and GM Doug Wilson have to be under the spotlight if San Jose comes up short again. Logan Couture is the future of this team, as he displayed in the regular season. You'd have to wonder what kind of reaction new head of ownership Hasso Plattner might have if the Sharks experience another spring disappointment.
5. Will any of the new blood cause a disturbance?
Take a look at the standings for the 2011-12 season. Scroll down to the bottom seven teams. What do you notice? Five of last season's bottom seven teams made the playoffs this year. There's new blood in the water. A year ago, the Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, and Toronto Maple Leafs were all watching. They're also the only five non-playoff teams from 2012 to get into the dance in 2013. What does this mean? In the cases of the Ducks and Canadiens, better coaching (Anaheim with a full year of Boudreau) and improved play of their stars like Ryan Getzlaf's 15 goals and 49 points and P.K. Subban leading all defensemen in scoring and tying his career high in points in just 42 games; the Wild flashed the cash for Zach Parise (18 goals) and Ryan Suter (32 points, 27:16 TOI); and the Islanders and Maple Leafs saw their young stars develop into leaders. Anaheim and Montreal are both No. 2 seeds, but can the lower-seeded Wild, Islanders and Maple Leafs cause some havoc in either conference?
6. Can either No. 8 seed follow up what the Kings did in 2012?
For the third year in a row, the West's No. 8 seed will face off against the Presidents' Trophy-winning team. The Minnesota Wild will have their hands full against the Blackhawks in the opening round, and considering the way they've played down the stretch, not many are giving them a chance. Same for the New York Islanders who, despite playing much better heading into the playoffs than the Wild, face a tough task in the top-seeded Penguins. Pittsburgh and Chicago have their weaknesses, but their strengths, what helped them to their No. 1 seeds, seem too powerful for the Islanders and Wild to withstand. Of course, not many gave the Kings a shot against Vancouver last April, either.
7. Will home ice be an actual advantage?
It's the playoffs. As we've seen time and time again, home ice advantage isn't always a difference maker. The only real true advantage is that the home team gets the last choice during a line change. During the regular season, the top four teams in the East and West went a combined 127-50-15 at home, while the bottom four playoff teams in both conferences posted a 86-83- 23 record away from home.
8. What to make of an (almost) fully healthy Ottawa Senators?
Erik Karlsson is back. Craig Anderson is back. Jason Spezza... well, not yet. He'll probably miss at least the first round, according to GM Bryan Murray. They began April with a 5-game losing streak, but finished winning six of their last nine games. In the process they got back Anderson, who started nine games to finish the season, and then Karlsson (three game). That's enough time for the Senators to get back the chemistry they lost when the injury bug bit them. Of course, head coach Paul MacLean was once again able to manage through those losses on the roster and get Ottawa back in the playoffs. If Karlsson is 100 percent, the Senators make for a sure dark horse in the East.
9. Can Bruce Boudreau get over the second round hump?
In his parts of five seasons with the Washington Capitals, Boudreau was unable to get past the second round. Taking over the Anaheim Ducks in December of 2011, they failed to make the postseason. Now, with a full season of Boudreau behind the bench. the Ducks finished second in the West and look to pick off a transitioning Detroit Red Wings team. After a forgettable 2011-12 season, Ryan Getzlaf played himself into Hart Trophy consideration, while Andrew Cogliano (13 goals) and Kyle Palmieri (21 points) were strong secondary producers. With Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth as options in goal, Boudreau has another strong lineup on his hands. Can he guide that talent toward a deep playoff run?
10. Will there ever be a louder reception for Commissioner Gary Bettman than when he walks out on to the ice to hand out the Stanley Cup?
It won't matter if it's an American or Canadian city. A second lockout in eight years won't be forgotten when he makes that march to center ice to hand out the Cup. You can probably already hear the boos.
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