After an eventful regular season, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will be central playoff figures. (Getty Images)
By Brian Cazeneuve
The mad 48-game lockout-shortened sprint is over, and the playoff field has been set. As the grueling battle for the Stanley Cup begins, here are some important questions to ponder:
Do the Penguins have Stanley Cup chemistry?
Sure, the sum of their parts is scary good. GM Ray Shero took an already intimidating roster of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Kris Letang and Marc Andre-Fleury and beefed it up with late-season acquisitions Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray. Those players offer a combined 3,000 games of NHL experience to Pittsburgh.
But here's the cautionary tale: While the Pens' collection of talent is now the most robust in the NHL (sorry, Chicago), the unit hasn't been able to jell over any meaningful length of time. Crosby has been out since March 30 with a broken jaw. James Neal just returned from a concussion, and the Pens have been without Malkin and Letang for blocks of time. So how will all this talent mesh if and when it finally comes together?
The belief is that it will all work, in part because Iginla and Morrow have played in winning situations before (both with the Canadian Olympic team that won gold in Vancouver; Iginla also with the 2002 Olympic team and 2004 Stanley Cup finalist Calgary Flames). In those cases, they had to subjugate their talents to alter their roles for team success, which they did very well. Should the Pens pool their resources effectively, the Islanders and every other opponent along the way will be hard pressed to stay competitive.
EAST PREVIEWS: Pens-Islanders | Canadiens-Senators | Capitals-Rangers | Bruins-Leafs
WEST PREVIEWS: Hawks-Wild | Ducks-Red Wings | Canucks-Sharks | Blues-Kings
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Can Tuukka Rask be Tim Thomas?
In 2011, the Bruins rode superior goaltending to the Stanley Cup. Thomas' unusual, aggressive style often seemed doomed to fail, but always worked. Rask is a more conventional goalie who plays back in his net more often than Thomas did. His career numbers (66-44-16, .927 save percentage, 2.14 GAA in 137 games) are rock solid, and he was the club's No. 1 goalie during the 2010 playoffs -- though that was the year Boston blew a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia, capped by a fold in the decisive seventh game on home ice after taking a 3-0 lead. Being good is one thing; being clutch is another. Rask has proven his mettle for much of the regular season, but for the Bruins to win the Cup, he'll need to steal some games the way Thomas did in 2011. Replacing a player who won the Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies won't be an easy task. Rask was in goal this season when the Bruins dropped a pair of one-goal decisions to the Penguins, who are certainly the favorites to emerge from the East. Is he good enough to beat the best this spring?
Which teams could be most affected by injuries?
Penguins: Sidney Crosby has returned to practice after a puck nailed him in the jaw and broke it on March 30, but he has reportedly lost weight and hasn't been able to eat solid foods. Defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin have not been healthy at the same time for much of the season. Martin just returned for his first game after suffering a broken hand last month. Winger James Neal suffered a concussion and missed eight games, but looked great in his first outing back, scoring a hat trick against the Hurricanes. Yet, how fragile is he? Will another hard hit take him out of the playoffs? And what about Crosby? The first round is usually a war of attrition.
Senators: Medical marvel Erik Karlsson has shown no signs of slowing down in his three games back from a severed left Achilles tendon that required surgery on February 14 and was supposed to keep him out until training camp next September. The nature of his amazing comeback still makes his long-term health seem tenuous. In contrast, center Jason Spezza hasn't come back after surgery on February 1 to repair a herniated disc in his back. Coach Paul MacLean said this week that Spezza is "not even close to joining the team." The Senators' offense suffered during the absence of those two key players, but the team found a way to stay in the playoff hunt. The health of Karlsson and goaltender Craig Anderson, who missed a considerable stretch of the season with an ankle injury, is crucial if Ottawa is to go anywhere this spring.
Red Wings: This team of veterans who have been there before has a number of support forwards who are on the mend. Darren Helm has been out with a bad back since early February. Todd Bertuzzi has been cleared after missing 11 weeks with a pinched nerve in his back and would be a good addition to a club that boasts mostly finesse on its front lines. Mikael Samuelsson has missed time with groin, finger and chest injuries, but has an effective two-way game when he plays. Drew Miller, a top penalty killer, had surgery on his broken right hand and won't be back for the first round. Optimum health for this team certainly seems to be a must as it goes up against the formidable Anaheim Ducks in the first round.
Will Ovechkin still be Alexander the Great?
For all Alex Ovechkin has done on the offensive side of the ice this season, the most revealing look at his recent efforts took place on Saturday night in Boston when he made one of the best defensive plays of the season. With Washington pressing the attack in the second period, the Bruins jumped on a loose puck in their own zone and started turning the play up the ice. B's forward Rich Peverley had a solid stride on Ovechkin, who in recent years might have given up on the play or at least followed it with less zeal. Instead, Ovechkin charged up the ice, caught Peverley and shouldered him off the puck in front of the Capitals' goal without using his stick or drawing a penalty. It was a masterpiece worthy of the type of backchecking shoulder hits that the great Bob Gainey threw at well-meaning forwards. Ovechkin led the NHL with 32 goals, finished tied with Sidney Crosby for third in scoring with 56 points and inserted himself into the Hart Trophy discussion by leading the Caps to another division title. Since embracing his switch to right wing, his resolve has been evident all over the ice. The Caps have other major contributors such as Troy Brouwer, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Green and Nick Backstrom, but it will be up to Ovechkin to maintain his frenetic play over 200 feet of ice for Washington to accomplish what it has failed to do in past postseasons: advance beyond the second round.
Will the real Sharks ever stand up?
Few teams have had the array of stars that San Jose has rolled out during the past dozen years. In that time, the Sharks have won six division titles and finished 223 games above .500. Coach Todd McLellan entered this season with a .657 winning percentage, the highest of any active NHL coach and second-best in history after Tom Johnson. Yet San Jose has never gone to the Stanley Cup Final in its 20-year history. Yes, the franchise has been a success on many levels. It is well run and profitable. GM Doug Wilson has smartly arranged the Sharks' contracts without having to buy out players. But this team has been like the Boston Bruins were for many years: always good, always profitable and seemingly always falling short of a championship, as the B's did for nearly four decades.
The Sharks will ultimately be judged in the court of public opinion by the championships they are able to win. So is this the year, as 2011 was for the Bruins, when the Sharks slither through the playoffs and win a title? San Jose looked like a seller before the trade deadline when it sent veteran defenseman Douglas Murray to Pittsburgh, but just around that time the Sharks caught a second wind. Now they stand sixth in the Western Conference with the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle and Martin Havlat ready to try another assault on the mountain. It is as potent a group as any in the playoff field. And with goaltender Antti Niemi putting up good numbers (24-12-6, 2.16; .924), it is fair to wonder if this is finally the year for San Jose.
How do these Blackhawks compare to the 2010 Cup team?
The true strength of the club that won the Stanley Cup three seasons ago could best be seen after the fact. Look at the important roles that former Hawks Kris Versteeg played in Florida and Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien played in Winnipeg. Remember that those three players were merely spare parts on the Cup team that featured Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. But when salary-cap restrictions kicked in, the Hawks shipped out 10 players. "A lot of chemistry went out the door," said coach Joel Quenneville. It has taken GM Stan Bowman three years to rebuild the roster, and you can see the results.
No less than 14 Blackhawks scored game-winning goals this season, so there was no need to panic if one player or one line was having an off-night. Twelve Hawks had plus ratings in double figures and only one (sorry, Dave Bolland) was worse than -3 for the year. Perhaps most impressively, Chicago found a second wind in the last half of the season after getting off to a record-setting start. The Hawks won seven straight games between April 6 and April 19. Teams need that type of run in the spring in order to win a title. Chicago has shown it is capable of doing so. From one end of Quenneville's bench to the other, there are ample resources to contribute to another championship.
Which team has the most to prove?
It could be the Sharks' first-round opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, who rode a great season to the Presidents' Trophy in 2011 but were never really in any of the four games they lost to the Boston Bruins in the final. When things went well, the Canucks could pull out one-goal wins. When they went poorly, they sort of gave up. Last season, they again finished with the top regular-season mark before slinking out with an embarrassing first-round playoff loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings. Vancouver boasts the healthy Sedin twins -- Henrik finished with 11 goals and 45 points; Daniel with 12 goals and 40 points -- but there is a sense that this club gets soft when push comes to shove and regular-season glide turns to playoff bump and grind. Cory Schneider will be the man in goal if he is healthy. His numbers are fine (17-9-4, 2.11, .927), but he has yet to win a playoff series. Roberto "My Contract Sucks" Luongo finished the season on a bad note, allowing seven goals to Edmonton on April 29, but could be called upon if needed. So, what will Vancouver prove to be -- ultimate underachiever or this year's sleeper?
Which low-seeded team is the most dangerous?
The New York Rangers had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season and nearly skated off with the Presidents' Trophy. They were up two games to one in the conference finals before crumbling against the New Jersey Devils. This season was loaded with optimism on Broadway, but the Rangers badly underperformed. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist wasn't up to his Vezina Trophy performance of 2011-12, touted rookie Chris Kreider fizzled at the start of the season and the club simply didn't appear properly steeled for the defense-first shot-blocking demands of coach John Tortorella's system. Even the seemingly minor offseason loss of free agent forward Brandon Prust sapped some of the team's spirit. But New York was much better in the final third of the schedule after the controversial trade of star forward Marian Gaborik to Columbus. Lundqvist upped his numbers to 24-16-3, 2.05 and .926. The Rangers had just three regulation losses in April and two were by one goal. They also doused the Penguins, Panthers, Sabres and Devils by four goals or more. Whatever ailed them at the start of the year seems to be fading, and they look much more formidable now.