25 Questions Still to Be Answered About the NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Race

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IMarch 22, 2012

25 Questions Still to Be Answered About the NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Race

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    There are many thing of which hockey fans can be certain.

    The St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers are in.

    The Vancouver Canucks haven't clinched, but with that division, they've been in since Christmas.

    And the Central Division has a really good chance (50 percent) of producing the winner of the Western Conference.

    But there are a lot of burning questions that haven't yet been answered. Let's look at 25 of those that need to be addressed before the playoffs begin on April 11.

Are the Bruins Good Enough to Repeat?

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    The question every champion gets asked from the moment the players report for training camp is whether or not the roster they bring back is good enough to do the dance a second straight year.

    No team has repeated since the lockout, and only the Pens and Wings have been to consecutive Finals in that span. We'll see if Boston has the goods to get out of the East again.

Which Trade Deadline Move Will Pay Off?

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    A number of trades were made before or at the deadline, but on paper, so far only two have paid huge dividends.

    Jeff Carter (who we'll discuss more later) has been very good in L.A.

    And Johnny Oduya has been outstanding in Chicago, as the Hawks are 9-1-1 since the acquisition.

Which Trade Deadline Move Will Backfire?

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    While Carter and Oduya have been good for their respective teams, there are some other deals that might raise a few eyebrows and haven't worked out as well.

    The one deal that is worth keeping an eye on down the stretch is Vancouver moving Cody Hodgson to Buffalo for Zack Kassian. Kassian's been pretty good for the Canucks (played very well in Chicago on Wednesday night), but Hodgson provided some crucial secondary scoring for Vancouver.

    We'll see if that deal ultimately works out.

Where Will the Rangers End Up?

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    In case you've missed it, the Penguins have been nearly unbeatable since the beginning of the calendar year and are now close enough in the standings that the Rangers can smell their pads.

    Oh, and the Flyers are right behind them.

    Once thought to be running away with their division, the Rangers will now have to battle to stay above third in their division the rest of the way.

Can the Capitals Get into the Postseason?

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    They fired Bruce Boudreau as the scapegoat for selfish and inconsistent play that was disappointing management and fans for the first couple months of the season, but nothing has changed with a new voice in the room.

    Washington, who has some of the more intriguing free-agent decisions coming this summer, are now battling to stay in the playoff picture with a couple weeks left.

Did Shane Doan Kill the Coyotes' Chances?

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    The Coyotes are on the brink of of either being in or out of the playoffs, and now their captain is suspended for three games for an elbow to the head of Dallas' Jamie Benn.

    Could Doan's suspension ultimately mean the end of hockey in Glendale?

Can Colorado Hang On?

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    Colorado has been as hot as any team in the Western Conference since the deadline, and they're just starting to get healthy.

    Can Semyon Varlamov stay on fire and can the Avs keep scoring in a way that gets them into the postseason?

If San Jose Misses Out, Who Loses Their Job?

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    He may have suffered a concussion during a game this year, but it's hard to put all of the blame on coach Todd McLellan for the implosion in San Jose. They're looking like a long shot to make the playoffs.

    That could lead to more dramatic changes than GM Doug Wilson made last year when he traded Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi out of town to "fix the formula."

Do the Blackhawks Have a No. 1 Goalie?

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    Chicago has bounced back and fourth between Corey Crawford and Ray Emery all year, but last night may have been enough for the net to be Crawford's the rest of the way.

    Since replacing Emery against St. Louis, Crawford has allowed five goals in four-plus games. He has kept 84 of 89 shots out of the net in the last four games (.944 save percentage).

Can the Flames Get In?

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    Calgary might be a case of too little, too late. Certainly they would like the chance to get into the postseason, where anything can happen, but they'll need a lot of help to climb over San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix to get in.

What Are the 4, 5, and 6 Seeds in the Western Conference?

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    When the dust settled on Wednesday night (early Thursday), the Blackhawks and Preds were tied with 92 points and Detroit had 93. Nashville has two games in hand on Chicago, and Detroit has one, but the Hawks are the hottest team in the NHL right now.

    The race for Nos. 4-6 in the West could be as competitive as the battle for the seventh and eighth spots.

Will Daniel Sedin Be Healthy?

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    A very physical game in Chicago on Wednesday night ended without Daniel Sedin on the Vancouver bench. Elbows were flying from both teams, but Duncan Keith's found Daniel in a bad place and he has a confirmed concussion. TSN's Bob McKenzie is reporting that he's flown back to Vancouver to meet with specialists and will not play in Dallas on Thursday night.

    Any prolonged absence from the Canucks' top scorer could dramatically alter their postseason plans.

    With regard to the concussion, Daniel did come out and skate on the power play after the elbow before leaving the game.

How Will a Duncan Keith Suspension Impact the Blackhawks?

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    Regarding the hit on Daniel Sedin, Chicago's Duncan Keith will have a phone conversation with Brendan Shanahan's office on Friday according to Bob McKenzie.

    There were plenty of dirty plays both ways on Wednesday night, including an elbow from Daniel on Keith that TSN highlighted during the game, but Keith's head shot led to an injury.

    He's a first-time offender, and the conversation will be on the phone, so any suspension could/should be minimal (Doan received three games for a similar act and he's a repeat offender).

    How will missing their top defenseman, if Keith is suspended, impact the Hawks' playoff position?

Are the Panthers Legit?

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    The Panthers are running away with the mediocre Southeast Division, but they've spent most of the season under the radar.

    Do the Panthers have the horses to win a first-round series? Are they deep enough to make a run deep into the postseason?

Did Jeff Carter Fix the Kings?

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    The Kings made some dramatic changes last summer, and Dean Lombardi arrived at the All-Star break with the lowest-scoring offense in the NHL. So he traded one of his core defensemen for a superstar forward that could change that.

    Since adding Jeff Carter, the Kings have been dynamite. Is he the missing piece for the Kings to make a run deep into the playoffs?

How Does Alex Radulov Impact the Predators?

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    If you haven't heard of Alex Radulov, you haven't been watching hockey for the last week. He's been a ghost on the Nashville payroll for what seems like forever, but has suddenly reappeared with his name on a Preds sweater and will make his debut for the year against the Penguins on Thursday night.

    Is he the missing top-six forward that Nashville needs to make a run at the Cup?

Will Jonathan Toews Be Healthy?

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    Their record might indicate otherwise, but the Blackhawks desperately need their Hart Trophy candidate back on the ice and healthy if they want to do any serious damage in the postseason.

    They have shown the ability to beat anyone in the NHL without him in the lineup (including Detroit, the NY Rangers, Vancouver and St. Louis), but arguably the best faceoff guy in the league and one of the top two-way forwards in the game needs to be healthy if Chicago wants to make any noise.

Will Nicklas Lidstrom Be Healthy?

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    Perhaps the most important health status in question heading into the postseason is Detroit's captain. Can the future Hall of Famer come back at 100 percent and lead the Red Wings deep into the postseason?

Who's in Net in Vancouver?

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    Roberto Luongo struggled lately, before having a great night (despite ultimately taking the loss) in Chicago. Meanwhile, Cory Schneider has been the more consistent netminder throughout the season.

    But there's a good chance that off-ice business will dictate on-ice playing time in the playoffs.

    With Schneider becoming a restricted free agent this summer and Luongo being locked up long-term, the Canucks might be financially obligated to make a potentially wrong choice between the pipes.

Which Rookie Will Make the Biggest Impact?

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    There are some really dynamic rookies helping their teams make a playoff run.

    Matt Read and Sean Couturier have been fantastic in Philly.

    Gabriel Landeskog in Colorado and New Jersey's Adam Henrique are playing top-six minutes and making major contributions in their teams' respective playoff runs.

    And Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger are playing big roles in Chicago as well.

    Every year it seems a rookie somewhere steps up and plays a huge role in a Cup run. Who will be the magic kid this year?

Who Will Win the Atlantic Division?

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    The Rangers? They've lost five of their last 10 in regulation.

    The Penguins? Can anyone remember the last time they lost in regulation? They're 9-0-1 in their last 10.

    The Flyers? They're the hottest team in the East outside of Pittsburgh, but have actually lost ground on the Pens while going 7-2-1 in their last 10.

    The Atlantic Division might have the best teams in the Conference, and it's going to be a three-horse race to the finish.

Who Will Win the Pacific Division?

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    On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Pacific, both geographically and in quality of play.

    Do the Dallas Stars actually want to win the division, or are they in first place by default? The Kings, Coyotes and Sharks haven't pushed them much in the last couple weeks.

    The "winner" of this division might be the best of the worst.

Are the Blues for Real?

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    They might wind up with the President's Trophy and the Jack Adams, but will they get the Stanley Cup? This has been a fantastic regular season for the Blues, but they have been exposed at times in the last couple weeks as having some legitimate flaws.

    Are they for real? Or is St. Louis just another President's Trophy-winning team that burns out before the ultimate prize?

How Many Playoff Spots Will Be Available on the Season's Final Day?

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    There's a chance that the bottom two playoff spots in each conference could be on the line on the season's final day, and we could see a repeated scenario like the one that got the Flyers into the 2010 playoffs.

    The home-and-home between the Sharks and Kings in the final two games of their seasons could win/lose a playoff spot and cost a few people their jobs.

Can Anyone Beat the Penguins?

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    If there's someone out there, please point them out to the powers that be in the Eastern Conference. The Pens were playing well enough to win the conference before Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby joined the team.

    They're the front-runner this spring, no matter their seed when the tournament begins.

    And this should be one heck of a playoff season!