By Darren Eliot
January 28, 2008

As January concludes -- with the big mid-season events of the Winter Classic in Buffalo and All-Star Game in Atlanta behind us -- the "hard hockey" season begins. Action on the ice intensifies and difficult off-ice decisions require resolution as teams vie for the postseason in earnest.

The general consensus amongst most of the players in Atlanta over the weekend is that the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks are the two best teams in the league. The 2-1 win by the Red Wings at Anaheim immediately preceding the All-Star break gave a glimpse as to how those teams match up. For that night, the Wings' puck possession style prevailed and they answered the Ducks' more physical approach by dropping the gloves a couple of times.

The difference come April, however, is that teams are measured by their ability to withstand and thrive in series play -- the capacity to adjust and advance past the same opponent -- rather than having a singular dimension that is good enough in a one-off regular season meeting. The key components usually reside in net, on the blueline, and a healthy balance of grit and gamebreakers.

So, beyond the Wings and Ducks, what questions need answers regarding teams moving from hopeful to healthy; and from lacking to legit?

Is there a true Cup contender in the East?

Someone is going to represent the East and last season's finalist, the Ottawa Senators, seem poised to return. But a couple of things have to happen. First, they must get healthy -- Dany Heatley returning at full strength from his shoulder woes is mandatory as he is vital to their success -- and they need to stabilize in goal. Either Martin Gerber finds his form of the first two months or Ray Emery puts the first two months far behind him and rediscovers the will and focus he exhibited last spring.

The Philadelphia Flyers are interesting when you view them through the prism of series play. They are big and physical, which bodes well for the tougher play usually seen down the stretch and on into the postseason. They have a nice blend of youthful contributors and battle-tested veterans, and their goaltending is very good. Just one season into GM Paul Holmgren's stunning revamping of the roster, his team looks poised to not only make the playoffs but also be Ottawa's toughest out in the east, and quite possibly be the team best suited to take on the bruising archetypes from the West -- Red Wings notwithstanding.

Where do the Pittsburgh Penguins factor in?

With a healthy Sidney Crosby, the Pens are legitimate contenders in the East. It's hard to imagine him being exactly right when he comes back from his high ankle sprain. That type of injury tends to linger and inhibit explosiveness. The other area of debate is in goal where Marc-Andre Fleury is set to return and Ty Conklin has unpredictably shone in his absence. With those dynamics as variables -- game-breaker Crosby's effectiveness upon his return and speculative goaltending -- it's hard to imagine the Pens getting and keeping it together to the degree necessary for playoff viability.

Where will the biggest player moves occur?

Will Peter Forsberg return to Colorado and lead the injury-ravaged Avalanche to the playoff promised land? And what do the Atlanta Thrashers do with Marian Hossa? They're in a heated battle -- cynics may call it a tepid tiff -- to win the Southeast Division, something having Hossa on board for is seemingly a must. Yet it is becoming increasing clear that he will opt for unrestricted free agency at season's end. What a dilemma. It's one that needs resolution soon with the trade deadline a month away.

We could go on and on: Does goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov continue to backstop a game Phoenix Coyotes squad all the way to an improbable playoff berth? Does Rick Nash's All-Star Game hat trick foreshadow a dominant stretch drive performance that leads the Columbus Blue Jackets to their first-ever post-season appearance?

One thing's for sure: if you like your hockey hard, the season's just beginning.

Speaking of the Coyotes, they set out on the road to tour the Central Division this week. They hit Columbus (Tues.), Detroit (Wed.) and Nashville (Sat.) before heading to the Northwest for a stop in Denver on Monday. The Coyotes have been a tough road opponent all season (15-10-0) and in the Blue Jackets, Predators and Avs, they face teams they are scrambling with to get into the bracket of eight for spring hockey eligibility.

Likewise, the Buffalo Sabres continue on the road this week in the midst of a season long seven-game sojourn. They begin in the Southeast with match-ups with the Tampa Bay Lightning (Tues.), Florida Panthers (Wed.) and Atlanta Thrashers (Fri.). The Sabres are looking to find a way to get back in the playoff picture and they'll have to do it away from the comfort and boisterous support of home.

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