Ten burning questions as the 2006-07 Stanley Cup playoffs get under way.
Just how far can these Baby Pens march?
Make no mistake, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the story of the National Hockey League playoffs. They have the marketable superstars, the handsome hall of fame owner and a new arena deal with barely a pen stroke of dry ink on it. To give the conspiracy theorists a head start: The league would like nothing more than to see the Penguins make a deep playoff run and get Sidney Crosby's face on NBC as much as possible. Pittsburgh is your classic rags to riches story, and its a plotline the league as a whole would like to follow.
The reality, however, is that eight of Pittsburgh's top 10 scorers – not to mention its starting goalie – have no postseason experience. Yes Carolina won it all last year with a pair of playoff newcomers in prominent roles, but for every Eric Staal and Cam Ward there was a Rod Brind'Amour and Doug Weight. The balance in Pittsburgh tilts sharply toward youth, with only Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts (and to a degree Sergei Gonchar) bringing substantial postseason experience to the table.
Crosby will get all the attention, but the guy wearing the bulls-eye will be Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. His play improved in March and April, but he was prone to concentration lapses in the regular season. His 2.83 goals-against average ranks second-worst among playoff goalies. You don't win a lot of 5-3 games in the playoffs. For Pittsburgh to get out of the first round – and do not forget Ottawa is loaded with playoff experience and will be fueled by memories of postseason frustration – Fleury will have to be the team's most important former first-round draft pick.
Can the top seeds restore order in the Wild Wild West?
A year ago they fell one by one – Dallas and Nashville bowing out in five, Detroit exiting in six and Calgary, the final higher seed to stumble in the conference quarterfinals, finally succumbing to Anaheim in seven. Four series, four upsets. It didn't end there, of course, as eighth-seeded Edmonton would go on to dispatch the Sharks after trailing two games to none in the West semis.
Who's to say it won't happen again? The No. 8 seed this year is a Calgary team that is playoff tested, tough, and backstopped by Miikka Kiprusoff, who owns a 1.93 goals-against average in 37 postseason games. Seven-seed Minnesota has the best goalie nobody has heard of in Niklas Backstrom and was 33-9-6 with a healthy Marian Gaborik in the lineup. Should we even call it an upset if the Wild get over on the Ducks? A No. 7 seed has defeated a No. 2 in each of the last nine postseasons.
Dallas and San Jose are also "underdogs" in this upside-down conference race. Guess which two Western teams finished tied with the best record over the final 10 games? Another clean sweep is unlikely, but look for at least two and possibly three lower seeds to push through to the semifinals.
Roberto Luongo needs a successful playoff run to validate his status as hockey's next superstar goalie. As for Marty Turco, he simply has years of playoff demons to slay. One of the league's best regular-season goalies since 2000, Turco has lost three straight series in the postseason, winning a total of four games. Three times in his last 10 starts he allowed five goals in defeat.
Just how good will the defense and goaltending be in the Dallas-Vancouver quarterfinal series? Take a look at the final scores from their regular-season meetings: 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1. Now those are playoff scores. It's a shame that one of these guys has to check out in the quarterfinals. If there's a series destined to reach overtime of Game 7 tied at 1-1, this is the one.
Can the Sabres stay healthy?
Buffalo's injury woes went from cruel to comical last spring when defensemen Dmitri Kalinin, Jay McKee, Teppo Numminen and Henrik Tallinder were all forced by one ailment or another to watch Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Health was again a concern in the regular season as Maxim Afinogenov, Tallinder and Tim Connolly all missed significant time.
The team is in relatively good shape entering the postseason, but you can bet general manager Darcy Regier will breathe deep every time an opposing forward crashes the net. It was Regier's deal that sent backup goalie Martin Biron to the Flyers, effectively leaving Buffalo without a safety net should Ryan Miller go down. The last time current backup Ty Conklin, then with the Oilers, was pressed into playoff duty, he handed Game 1 of the 2006 finals to Carolina with a giveaway in the final seconds.
Is this the year Jumbo Joe gets big?
In Joe Thornton's defense, opposing teams approach a series against the San Jose Sharks with the following game plan in place: Stop Joe Thornton. Don't take penalties. Stop Joe Thornton. It's not all on him, of course, particularly after the Sharks got older and wiser by acquiring defenseman Craig Rivet and winger Bill Guerin at the trade deadline. By focusing on Thornton and giving the Patrick Marleau line room to skate, opponents are essentially choosing their poison.
Still, hockey fans are waiting for a breakout postseason from the league's reigning MVP. In six trips to the postseason, Thornton has advanced past the first round only twice. His 0.59 points per game average represents a precipitous drop in production even when budgeting for the standard postseason dropoff. Thornton loves the laid-back hockey climate in California, which is interpreted by some as softness. Jumbo Joe and the Sharks were plenty physical against Anaheim and Vancouver in the final weekend. Could this be the year?
Will the Stanley Cup come to California?
It just might. Anaheim and San Jose sure have a shot. The Ducks have two Norris Trophy winners (Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer) in their lineup, a formula that worked for Detroit in 2002 (Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios) and Colorado in 2001 (Ray Bourque and Rob Blake). Few conserve energy with the efficiency of Pronger and Niedermayer. Both guys are capable of playing upwards of 30 minutes a night, leaving opposing stars little time to come up for air.
The Sharks successfully addressed both of their 2006 postseason weaknesses, acquiring Mike Grier and Curtis Brown to bolster their penalty kill and win faceoffs. San Jose is big and physical, but disciplined enough to stay out of trouble. They wont lose many series when they hold a special teams edge.
Who is this year's Glen Wesley?
It's the easiest storyline for casual fans to get their arms around – the aging veteran making one last run at Stanley Cup immortality. Last season, Carolina defenseman Glen Wesley danced with the Cup after a pursuit that spanned more than 1,300 regular season games and 150 playoff battles. In prior years it was Dave Andreychuk and Ray Bourque who pulled at the heartstrings.
This year's candidate is a huge longshot. Atlanta Thrashers forward Scott Mellanby has never won a championship despite 1,431 career games and two trips to the Stanley Cup finals. Atlanta did win 12 of 18 games with Keith Tkachuck in the lineup but, like the Penguins, will take the ice with a first-time playoff goaltender.
Is two better than one?
Both Carolina and Anaheim switched goalies in Game 4 of the conference finals in 2006 and both shakeups led to wins. Edmonton needed a couple of strong efforts from backup Jussi Markkanen to force a Game 7 in the finals. The old conventional wisdom held that you picked a No. 1 goalie and leaned on him. Think New Jersey and Martin Brodeur. But more and more it looks like two capable netminders are needed for a deep playoff run. The teams best suited in this department: Nashville, Dallas, San Jose, Minnesota and Anaheim.
Which rule that nobody likes will rear its ugly head (again)?
Nobody seems to like the mandatory delay of game call for clearing the puck over the glass. The rule was a persistent presence in last years playoffs all the way through Game 7 of the finals, when Carolina faced a 5-on-3 for nearly two minutes after a failed clearing attempt. Never mind the intent.
With apologies to Teemu Selanne's illegal stick and the always perplexing hooking-diving combo call, the delay of game penalty remains the most likely to be the focus of attention.
Who is this year's Eric Staal?
OK, so Staal didnt exactly come out of nowhere to embark on a 15-game postseason scoring streak (scoring 100 points in the regular season probably didn't go unnoticed). Still, Staal and Oilers leading goal scorer Fernando Pisani were hardly household names heading into the postseason.
A few candidates for a coming out party in 2007: San Jose's Milan Michalek, Anaheim's Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal, Nashville's Alexander Radulov, Vancouver's Taylor Pyatt and Buffalo's Drew Stafford.