April 12, 2010
1. Is this finally the year for the San Jose Sharks?
In the past five seasons, the Sharks have advanced past the second round just once - the 2003-04 season. Of those five, the Sharks won three Pacific Divison titles and a President's Trophy, and every April, they end up being the hot pick to win the Stanley Cup, only to end up disappointing. With the addition of Dany Heatley(notes) and the contract year performances by Patrick Marleau(notes) and Evgeni Nabokov(notes), San Jose is once again among the favorites. There will be plenty of fans and experts, however, who will refuse to pick the Sharks as their Cup winner without finally seeing them live up to their hype in the postseason.
There's pressure on everyone in the organization to go the distance this season. It may be "Cup or bust" for GM Doug Wilson, who's on the hot seat if things fall apart, and with eight unrestricted free agents this summer, this could be the last chance for this group to make a run.
2. When average goaltending happens to really good teams
For the President's Trophy-winning Capitals, Jose Theodore(notes) was wonderful for them posting a 30-7-7 record with a 2.81 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in the regular season. But regular season success hasn't followed Theodore into the playoffs with his 19-27 career record. A year ago, he was replaced in favor of Semyon Varlamov(notes) during their opening round series with the New York Rangers and didn't play again. With Varlamov healthy, Bruce Boudreau won't be slow to make the same move again should Theodore falter early on against the Montreal Canadiens.
In Chicago, Cristobal Huet(notes) was supposed to be the man there, but when he started to become overshadowed by rookie backup Antti Niemi(notes), he was replaced. Niemi has owned the job since taking over starters' duties and heads into the playoffs a winner in his last six starts. Varlamov may be a strong backup plan in Washington, but there's not much confidence in Huet's abilities if Niemi cannot handle the grind of a seven-game series.
3. The Cinderella story of the Phoenix Coyotes
No question, the story of the 2009-10 NHL season is the Phoenix Coyotes. After their tumultuous summer and more questions surrounding their future being asked during the season, the team surprised everyone posting 107 points to finish second in the Pacific Division and earning home-ice against the Detroit Red Wings as the No. 4 seed in the West. Entering the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-02 season, the diverse production throughout their lineup and stellar goaltending by Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) can't take a night off with an experienced Red Wings team currently on 10-1-1 in their last 12 games.
The Coyotes have defied the odds all season and heard all of the preseason talk about how they would struggle. They'll likely do the same over the next two days as many will likely predict that Detroit's experience will be what does in the Coyotes' season.
4. The prospect of Pittsburgh repeating
No team has repeated since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings, so the odds are against Pittsburgh from spending another summer with Stanley. Having played deep into the postseason each of the previous two years, the Penguins and their young legs have played a lot of hockey - 208 regular and postseason games to be exact. They enter the playoffs with the need to find consistency in their game and questions about whether or not they can flick the "on" switch once the playoffs begin Wednesday night. The expectations around the team are a far cry from their 8-2-1 finish to close out the '08-09 season after Dan Bylsma was installed as head coach last February. Sidney Crosby(notes) has been Sidney Crosby and more, but Evgeni Malkin(notes) has been slowed by injury and seen his production dip 36 points. Marc-Andre Fleury's(notes) numbers are similar to a year ago, but he's won consecutive starts only twice since the end of January. Is he capable of turning it up like he did a year ago?
Pittsburgh's lack of a victory over both the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals is also alarming considering the route to the Stanley Cup Finals could go through either of those teams.
Since being dealt from the Atlanta Thrashers on February 4th, Kovalchuk has posted 10 goals and 15 assists in 27 games with the Devils. He brings a dimension to the New Jersey lineup that could make fans forget about their early departure last season against Carolina. Having played just four playoff games in his eight-year career, Kovalchuk is entering new territory being part of a team that has a reasonable chance to win a Stanley Cup. Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire is still working to find the right fit for Kovalchuk in the lineup, but since he's been almost a point-per-game player as a Devil, the line tinkering hasn't affected his production.
There's also the fact that Kovalchuk will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and this is his opportunity, with an extended playoff run, to show that he is a money player and raise his price tag with a strong showing.
6. Redemption for underwhelming teams
The Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers were expected by many to be among the Eastern Conference's elite teams this season. Injuries for the Bruins and another season of goaltending woes for the Flyers saw both teams wait until this weekend to clinch playoff spots.
Now in the playoffs, it's an entirely new season and every team begins a fresh slate. If the Bruins can upset the Buffalo Sabres or the Flyers knock out the New Jersey Devils in the first round, the ugliness of both teams' seasons could be wiped away, at least for a little while.
If there's one sliver of hope for Philadelphia, it's that the previous two road teams in the Winter Classic have gone on to the Stanley Cup. They may have ended up losing in the Finals, but an appearance there would change the current mood around the team drastically and also mean they finally got some decent goaltending for a change.
7. When will Stanley return to Canada?
This has been a question every postseason since the Montreal Canadiens won it all in 1993. Four teams have fallen short since and the pressure will now be on the Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks. Most experts will likely have the Canucks going furthest of the three, with some (Wyshynski), believing that they will be the ones to return the Cup to Canada. Then again, there's three Canadian teams compared to the 13 American franchises vying for the title of Stanley Cup champion, so the odds aren't exactly in their favor.
8. The post-Olympic impact
San Jose (8), Detroit (8), Vancouver (7), Nashville (6), Chicago (6), and Boston (6) are the leaders among playoff teams with the most players who participated in the Olympics. Will the condensed NHL schedule along with the two weeks of Olympic be a factor in the health of some players?
9. How often will the Wheel of Justice spin?
The NHL will be spraying its Wheel of Justice in WD40 over the next two days to get it ready for the playoffs. With the amount of times Colin Campbell had to spin it during the regular season, you can be assured it will be put to use in the playoffs. Last year we saw Dan Carcillo get dinged for a game after butt-ending Pittsburgh's Max Talbot(notes) off a faceoff. Mike Cammalleri of the Calgary Flames would punch Martin Havlat of the Chicago Blackhawks square in the jaw and didn't miss any games.
The scrutiny of the NHL's disciplinary process was at an all-time high this season and now with the headshot rule a suspendable, but non-penalized offense, how many times will we be questioning the legality of a hit or stick-infraction over the next two months? If there's a set line in Las Vegas, take the "over".
10. The ratings game
Is there a potential Stanley Cup Finals match up not including Pittsburgh or Detroit that could even come close to the massive ratings we saw last June? Game 7 between the Penguins and Red Wings alone drew 7.5 million viewers for NBC in the United States and about 3.5 million in Canada on CBC. Other than the Winter Classic, five of the six highest rated Sunday games on NBC involved the Red Wings or Penguins.
A Canadian team would throw a huge monkey wrench into the NHL's and NBC's ratings hopes should the Senators, Canucks or Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup Finals. A third Pittsburgh-Detroit would bring strong ratings, but seeing NBC's Sunday Game of the Week schedule for this season, if those two teams or Washington, Philadelphia, Boston or Chicago aren't involved, there will be some worrying going on inside the offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.