With the Olympics finally behind us, it's time to turn our focus back to the NHL season, which is now in its final stretches. The games started up again Tuesday. The trade deadline is just weeks away, and the end of the regular season isn't long after that.
In an effort to help get you reoriented, here are 12 story lines to keep an eye on as we settle into our seats to watch what should be a fascinating and entertaining end to the 2013-14 campaign.
1 | No playoffs in Detroit. For the last 22 years, there have been two things that you were guaranteed to see in the NHL playoffs: someone losing a tooth, and the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings have been a playoff team for 22 consecutive seasons, the fifth-longest playoff streak in NHL history. But while it's been all but guaranteed that we'd see the Red Wings in the postseason for the entirety of my adult life, it's hardly a guarantee this year. The Red Wings are currently holding down the second wild card spot -- i.e. the last playoff spot. Can they hold onto it, or are the Red Wings finally going to see their season end when the schedule does?
2 | Rebuild in Vancouver? The Canucks don't have anything close to the same playoff streak -- the Sharks are next in line, with nine consecutive appearances -- but they are another team that's been good for quite awhile, and is now on the verge of missing the dance. Will they try to strengthen their lineup down the stretch and fight the decline? Or will they try to strengthen their lineup for future seasons by dealing away pieces like Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler that could fetch a pretty penny on the open market? There are some big choices to be made in Vancouver.
3 | Barry Trotz and David Poile forever? Same goes for Nashville. The Predators have only ever had one coach, and they've only ever had one General Manager. But if their club misses the playoffs this season, which seems likely, it will be the first time they've missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since they first made the playoffs back in 2004. Is that cause for dismissal for one or both of them? Will we see the dawn of a new era in Nashville?
4 | The playoff push for Pittsburgh. Far less up in the air is the Penguins' postseason berth. They're going. There's no question about that. But once the postseason begins, so too do the questions for the Pens. Healthy up front and Crosy-led, people are expecting them to win it all. Can they? Can Marc-Andre Fleury shake off his supposed shakiness and prove that he's still a winner? And what will Ray Shero do to improve his team and, hopefully, get them past the Bruins? For the second year in a row, there are already rumours that he's planning to go big.
5 | Crosby, Crosby, Crosby. It's hard to believe the last time Sidney Crosby won the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy was 2006-07. Fortunately, it appears this absurd wrong is about to be righted. Can anything -- or anyone -- stop Crosby from walking away with two of hockey's major awards?
6 | Ovi, Ovi, Ovi. He's got the Rocket Richard all but sewn up, but something tells us Ovechkin is a little more concerned with a team accomplishment: getting the Capitals into the playoffs. Can he do it? Washington is on the outside looking in right now, but Ovechkin has a little extra motivation after Team Russia's performance in the Olympics. An angry and driven Ovi could be fun to keep an eye on.
7 | Are the Lightning and the Avalanche for real? The two biggest surprises in the NHL this season, both the Lightning and the Avalanche headed into the Olympic break in a playoff spot. Now it's just a matter of guiding things home. But things could still go sideways. The playoffs seem assured for both, but once they get there, will they be exposed? Winning at least a round would do a lot to convince people that Tampa and Colorado aren't just flash-in-the-pan teams.
8 | Stamkos's impact. The sub-storyline in Tampa Bay is all about Steven Stamkos, whose return is imminent, and should do a lot to help the Lightning come playoff time. Again, that's should. Stamkos is coming back from a pretty major injury, and if it takes him too long to find his game, the offseason could come rather quickly.
9 | Fire sale in Buffalo? The best thing about the trade deadline is that the attention suddenly turns to some of the worst teams in the league. This is their moment. That's certainly the case for Buffalo, who need to add more pieces to their rebuild and have a few tradeable UFA veterans with which to do it. Will Ryan Miller get moved? How about Steve Ott? Matt Moulson? And will some team be dumb enough to think John Scott is a playoff necessity? For the sake of the comedy jokes, we can only hope.
10 | Vanek watch. Speaking of Buffalo, they parted ways Thomas Vanek because it was clear he wouldn't sign there. Long Island tried their luck, and after having their big offer rejected, appears to be poised to do the same. Will Vanek be traded again, and if so, where will he end up?
11 | Oh man, the trade deadline. Every year someone says the trade deadline could be the wackiest ever, and every year it turns out to be kind of lame. That in mind, at the risk of being accused of a failure to learn from the past, this could be the wackiest trade deadline ever. The cap is going up. GMs got three extra weeks to furtively talk deals during the Olympic break. And there are a lot of teams that could, conceivably, win it all. It should be a fun day.
12 | Will we see a 2013 Stanley Cup Final repeat? The last time we saw a Final repeat was in 2009, when Sidney Crosby's Penguins avenged their loss to the Detroit Red Wings by reversing the outcome. But we could see another one this year. The trendy prediction coming into this season was a repeat of last year's Final, with the Chicago Blackhawks facing off against the Boston Bruins, and nothing has happened through the first three quarters of this season to change minds. Can the Blackhawks and Bruins find their way back to one another?
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