Thursday January 1st, 2009

1. The San Jose Sharks in the playoffs: If the Sharks were flying any closer to the sun, they would be chartering between cities on Air Icarus. The proof will be in the postseason. After four straight second-round exits, it would be a profound disappointment if the NHL's most complete team -- from goaltender out -- didn't get through the valiant Detroit Red Wings in the difficult Western Conference and reach their first Stanley Cup Final.

2. The March 4 trade deadline landing spot of future unrestricted free agents: Whither high-end players like Minnesota's Marian Gaborik and Florida's Jay Bouwmeester? Although the Panthers still hope to sign their big defenseman, Bouwmeester likely will be moving to a team willing to give up a package that includes at least one solid NHL player, a prospect, and a No. 1 draft choice. Will he help some Stanley Cup contender? Who knows? Although a member of Team Canada at various levels and times, including the 2006 Olympic squad, Bouwmeester never played a playoff game with either Medicine Hat of the WHL or the Panthers. (He did play for the AHL Chicago Wolves in the lockout season, with no points in 18 games.) Gaborik has all-world skill, but his injury history and so-so playoff résumé (22 points in 29 games) indicate he is no surefire thing, but that won't slow the rental market.

3. The Jan. 14 Pittsburgh-Washington game: This will be the rivals' first meeting since Alex Semin of the Capitals made his unkind remarks about Penguins captain Sidney Crosby: Semin thinks Chicago's Patrick Kane is a more appealing player than Crosby, who is a rival of Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin. Meanwhile Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, fellow Russians, don't much like each other. Is this an NHL regular season game or High School Musical III on Ice?

4. Boston goaltender Tim Thomas: His save percentage is stratospheric, his Bruins are stupendous, and the NHL didn't even put him on the All-Star ballot. That's the abridged version of hockey's best story. Too many people expect Thomas to have a Humpty Dumpty fall, but they might be waiting in vain. While he is the most unorthodox goalie since Dominik Hasek -- like a snowflake, every Thomas save is one of a kind -- he figures out a way to stop the puck. Now that the Bruins can actually score, the demand for his nightly acrobatics has been reduced.

5. Martin Brodeur's return: Like death, taxes and the shenanigans of the opposing player who referred to him as Fatso in the playoffs last season, the New Jersey Devils goaltender was one of the things you could count on in this crazy world. Only seven wins shy of Patrick Roy's career mark (551) and five shutouts from Terry Sawchuk's (103), Brodeur is scheduled to return from biceps surgery just prior to the playoffs. But no one knows how a 36-year-old goalie who has never missed many games, let alone many months, will respond.

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