SI.com writers look to the 2009 playoffs by addressing four key questions.
1. Among the streaky teams -- hot or cold -- down the stretch, which gave us the most accurate read on how they'll do in the playoffs?
Michael Farber: The Blues are a fairytale, transforming themselves in the second half from chasing the rights to John Tavares to chasing a Stanley Cup. A 9-1-1 finish to the sixth seed is right out of the Brothers Grimm if not the Brothers Sedin. My trouble: I stopped believing in fairy tales roughly a half century ago.
As much as I admire the way this gritty team battled through injuries to key players such as Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald, any defense that features a banged-up warhorse like Jay McKee,players you've never heard of (Roman Polak) and names Don Cherry can't pronounce (Carlo Colaiacovo) faces an uphill climb. The Blues have been too good to be true, unlike the streaking Penguins, who, if they survive Philadelphia's balanced scoring, can race back to the Cup final. The Canadiens' slog to the playoffs -- five wins in their final 15 games - is representative, which likely will doom them against Boston. With No. 1 defenseman Andrei Markov out with an injury and Carey Price mixing in soft goals with spectacular saves, Boston could wallpaper Montreal unless their power play is lights out.
Darren Eliot: The Penguins' hot finish is more than a surge. It signals a return to top form. They had lost their identity, but new coach Dan Bylsma has them playing a style that suits their personnel. They are skating and forechecking aggressively. The result has removed the tentativeness from their game.
Jim Kelley: Carolina has balanced offense, a fairly steady defense, and a goaltender, Cam Ward, who has returned to his Conn Smythe form. They're a sixth seed, but know the Devils well, beat them at home and earned a split on the road when they met three times in their final 11 games. There's a history here and it favors the Devils, but Paul Maurice has his team believing in itself and that confidence has served it well. The 'Canes looked like also-rans at the All-Star break, but they've played steady, successful hockey and never faltered in their run to the playoffs. They are playing with an inner-confidence that the Devils no longer seem to have.
Conversely, the Flames have been stumbling since the trade deadline when they were supposed to have improved. They ran into problems with injuries, the salary cap and confidence that continued as they blew a double-digit lead and surrendered the Northwest lead to Vancouver. There's no hint of a turnaround (see their uninspired 5-1 loss to rival Edmonton AFTER the Oilers had been closed out of the playoffs). Now they draw Chicago, a team on a mission, rather than playoff virgin Columbus. One can't help thnking their long slide out of a division crown isn't going to be an issue.
Allan Muir: Even if injuries and cap issues hadn't conspired to keep the Flames from icing a full lineup over the last few games, there'd still be a strong scent of flop sweat emanating from their room. This is a team that lost its mojo in the process of blowing that 13-point lead; a team with a power play on an 0-or-42 skid and whose best offensive players have gone ice cold. Listen to them talk. They're saying the right things, but can't hide the emotional exhaustion in their voices. They've spent the last six weeks showing us who they are. No reason to believe that will change against the Hawks.
2. Is there a sleeper team in the field that you think will make a deep run like the Oilers did in 2006?
Michael Farber: There are enough questions at the top -- San Jose's dodgy playoff past; Detroit's goals-allowed per game -- that a sleeper could come from the Western Conference. The best candidate guess for Cinderella is the ex-Disney Ducks, although winning the Cup two years ago might disqualify them from glass-slipper references. In the past few weeks, they've found at least some of the passion that defined them in 2007, which bodes well for a rip-roaring albeit rare all-California series. (Remember that seven-gamer in 1969 between the L.A. Kings and Oakland Seals? Me neither.)
Give credit to Ducks GM Bob Murray, who retooled on the fly, picking up defensemen Ryan Whitney from Pittsburgh and underrated James Wisniewski from Chicago. The caveat: discipline. This team takes a ton of penalties and can't catch a call. (Note to Ducks: the whining hasn't helped.) If they stay out of the box and goalie Jonas Hiller doesn't implode, there's a chance.
In the East, the Rangers are capable of upsetting Washington if it comes down to a battle of goaltending -- Henrik Lundqvist is clearly superior to the Capitals' tandem of José Théodore and Simeon Varlamov -- but the Blueshirts don't look like a threat to string together a three-series win streak.
Darren Eliot: Only if you consider the sixth-seeded Hurricanes a sleeper in the East. They have veteran leadership in the rejuvenated Rod Brind'Amour and two young stars playing high level hockey: Ward and Eric Staal. If the power play remains potent with Joe Corvo and Anton Babchuk bombing away from the blueline, the 'Canes could find themselves facing the Penguins in the conference finals.
Jim Kelley: The Blues have been in playoff mode since mid-January and there are times when that's good for little more than a huge letdown. But they went from hopeless to postseason with a couple of games to spare and climbed past Anaheim and Columbus to the sixth seed. That's like going from a near train wreck to the Little Engine That Could to something akin to high-speed rail. They'll be tested by goalie Roberto Luongo and the Canucks, but if they win that series, they could gain the momentum of a runaway freight.
Allan Muir: The Ducks come in on a roll, but theyll spend half their series on the penalty kill. The Blue Jackets have played the last two weeks like they're happy just to be nominated. The Blues have the best shot in the West, but will be hard-pressed to get past the Canucks, who have remembered to play defense. The East? The Habs are road kill. The Rangers will keep the Caps honest, but can't keep up with their offense. So that leaves Carolina.
I'm not sure I'm ready to pick against the Devils just yet, but the Hurricanes have the look of a team capable of winning a couple of rounds. Ten players remain from the close-knit squad that won the Cup in 2006, so there's plenty of experience. Maurice has them playing a fast, aggressive style that generates a lot of chances. Ward? Arguably the MVP of the second half. If any fifth-to-eighth-seeded team is going deep, its Carolina.
3. Which trade deadline acquisitions do you think will prove to be most valuable this postseason?
Michael Farber: Tis a pity that a fabulous player like Sidney Crosby has yet been able to alchemize ordinary wingers into stars, but as long as GM Ray Shero keeps digging up complementary playmates at the trade deadline, this isn't an issue. As much as the acquisition of Erik Cole was a boost to Staal with dangerous Carolina, acquiring Chris Kunitz from the Ducks and then liberating Bill Guerin from Long Island will prove even more telling (assuming the Penguins can ease past Philadelphia). Kunitz and Guerin aren't as high-end as rent-a-Penguin Marian Hossa was last year, but the pair has developed a quick chemistry with Crosby and they give the Pittsburgh as much five-on-five firepower as any team, including Detroit or the go-go Capitals.
Darren Eliot: Look no further than Kunitz and Guerin. Both have provided depth and scoring up front and allowed Bylsma to balance his lines, properly slotting forwards in comfortable roles. With a Stanley Cup on their resumes, Kunitz and Guerin also give the Penguins much-needed winning-it-all insight. That's an important commodity with an inexperiened coach at the helm.
Jim Kelley: Carolina re-acquiring Cole added scoring off the wing while it revitalizedStaal. Getting Jussi Jokinen from Dallas provided depth for the forward ranks. Anaheim steadied a floundering defense with the acquisition of Wisniewski. Guerin is a huge upgrade for Pittsburgh. He's a scorer, but also has playoff savvy. Adding Kunitz also helped them create a second scoring line.
Allan Muir: I really like what Mark Recchi has brought to the Bruins. He's found a nice chemistry with Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew that has helped morph a solid checking line into one that can also make an offensive impact. He's also added some punch to the second power play unit, and I think his playoff experience will help steady a relatively young Boston team.
4. To the extent that a coach can influence the outcome of a series, which tends to be better off in the playoff pressure-cooker: a first-time team like the Blue Jackets with a veteran Cup-winner like Ken Hitchcock or a more experienced squad like the Penguins with an NHL rookie like Dan Bylsma?
Michael Farber: Obviously coaching matters -- from big picture, pre-series preparations to über-decisions such as whether to throw in a backup goalie or juggle lines or even scratch a star. Some examples:
Detroit's Scotty Bowman flummoxed everybody in 1997 by using puck-moving defense pairing of Larry Murphy and Nick Lidstrom instead of the more physical Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov against the Flyers' Legion of Doom, never allowing Eric Lindros & Co. to establish a forecheck. In 2006, Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette, who started with Martin Gerber in net, knew when to back off rookie (and eventual Conn Smythe-winner) Ward and when to go back, briefly, to the veteran. Last year, Bruins coach Claude Julien had the cojones to scratch Phil Kessel before Game 2 against Montreal. When Kessel returned to the first-round series, he was Boston's best player.
Surely some playoff experience helps. Michel Therrien, a disaster with Montreal in 2002, looked swell last season in Pittsburgh. (Way to have Max Talbot on the ice for the tying goal in Game 5 against Detroit, Mike.) This is a circuitous way of getting to my point: the most significant in-game moves -- getting favorable matchups -- are often the province of assistant coaches. Two to watch in the first round are Jack McIllhargey in Philadelphia, who gets defenseman Kimmo Timonen and Ryan Parent on the ice without killing the flow of the bench, and Detroit's Brad McCrimmon, who is just as deft at employing Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski.
Darren Eliot: Let's look at the 1993 Canadiens, shall we? Was Patrick Roy's goaltending more crucial to their Stanley Cup triumph or was coach Jacques Demers correctly calling for an illegal stick the difference-maker? To me, Roy backstopping 10 wins in overtime trumps a coach making a move, even if it does sway the series' momentum. Roy still had to make saves and no matter how much saavy a coach brings to the mix, players still have to execute. I'll always take talent on the ice over experience behind the bench, especially in the context of a series showdown.
Jim Kelley: Coaching matters, and Bowman is as good an example as one can find, but how many Cups did he win when he had to cover for spotty goaltending? Add up the number of coaches that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has fired during the years that he's had Martin Brodeur between the pipes. Give meRoy at his peak and I like to think I could be the next Bob Hartley or Jean Perron.
Rookie coaches can win the Cup -- sometimes it seems as often as legends. But in a showdown, I'll take the veteran simply because I covered the 1993 Cup final where DemersandRoy were about to go two games down to the Kings of Barry Melrose and Wayne Gretzky. Sure Demers had Roy, but Melrose had no answers for slowing the momentum Montreal got from that call for measuring McSorley's stick. The Habs scored the game-tying goal off the ensuing power play, went on to win the game in overtime, and take the Cup in five. Can't help but think that if Bowman were coaching the Kings, he would have found a way to rebuild his team and at least make a series of it.
Allan Muir: There's a reason why players are paid like movie stars and coaches are paid like accountants. A coach can be integral to a team's success, but I've yet to see one make a key stop or score the game-winner. A former Cup-winner like Hitch knows which buttons to push, but exactly how many buttons does a young, inexperienced team like the Blue Jackets offer him? A guy like Bylsma on the other hand may not have the skins on the wall, but he's going to benefit from a more composed dressing room and players who know how to deal with postseason adversity.