10 Burning Questions at Start of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs
There is a dream matchup waiting for hockey fans if form holds true throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins were clearly the best teams in the NHL this season, and if they continue to play stellar hockey, it could provide an epic Stanley Cup Final.
However, form doesn't often hold in the NHL. The playoffs are known for upsets and comebacks, and there will almost certainly be a slew of twists and turns in the four rounds that are the Stanley Cup playoffs.
There are plenty of questions and issues going into the postseason.
The way these burning questions are answered will almost certainly determine which team raises Lord Stanley's chalice two months from now.
Sidney Crosby Factor
Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL. He proved it over the first 36 games of the season as he built up a substantial lead in the scoring race and the Penguins went on a 15-game winning streak in March.
However, Crosby's regular season came to an end when he was hit with a deflected slap shot March 30 against the New York Islanders.
The Penguins are so deep and talented—Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang—that they should not have a problem if Crosby can't play in the first round.
However, if he's not back after that, head coach Dan Bylsma will have issues. Trying to win the Stanley Cup without the best player in hockey is a huge obstacle.
Will the Blackhawks' Goaltending Hold Up?
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The Chicago Blackhawks rolled to the Presidents' Trophy this year as all aspects of Joel Quenneville's team functioned at a high level on a consistent basis.
That includes the goaltending. Starter Corey Crawford and backup Ray Emery each had 1.94 goals against averages and were spectacular on occasion.
As the playoffs get underway, Emery is out of action because of a lower-body injury.
Crawford would appear to have more than enough talent to hold the fort, if he plays like he did in the regular season.
However, if he plays the way he did in last year's postseason, the Blackhawks could have a big problem.
Chicago was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Phoenix Coyotes. In that series, three of Phoenix's victories came in overtime. At least two of those overtime goals were of the "soft" variety.
Crawford can't give up soft goals in this year's playoffs. Nothing will take the heart out of a team more than inconsistent play by its goaltenders.
Can Ovechkin Keep His Hot Streak Going?
Alex Ovechkin had a major renaissance in the second half of the year.
After sleepwalking his way through the first half of the season, Ovechkin found his skating legs and his scoring touch once again.
He led the NHL in scoring with 32 goals in the 48-game regular season and played with a flair and an energy that had seemingly been in short supply over the two previous seasons.
Ovechkin is back, but can he keep it up? He scored 22 goals in his last 23 games and has shown he can dominate the game.
If he can continue at that pace, the Capitals may be the team that challenges the Penguins in the Eastern Conference.
Can Canucks Take Advantage of Falling Out of the Spotlight?
The Vancouver Canucks have been where the Chicago Blackhawks are this season.
The Canucks won the Presidents' Trophy two years in a row and were the Stanley Cup favorites both times.
They failed to reach the top of the mountain in either year. They were beaten in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 by the Boston Bruins and were eliminated in the first round last year by the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings.
This season, the Canucks are just another team in the playoffs. They rebuffed a challenge by the Minnesota Wild and won the Northwest Division, snagging the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
They are out of the spotlight, but they still have a talented team. A very good team will have to play substantial hockey to beat the Canucks.
They still have Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and goalie Cory Schneider. They just may be ready for the Stanley Cup run that they couldn't make as favorites.
Can Carey Price Overcome His Slump?
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The Montreal Canadiens had a magical run this season, going from last place in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12 to the No. 2 seed this year.
The Habs made wholesale changes. Marc Bergevin became the new general manager and many of his moves allowed the Canadiens to become tougher and grittier. Head coach Michel Therrien also brought discipline and accountability to the team.
Montreal played with skill and scored clutch goals. Their defense was active and sharp, and the goaltending of Carey Price was first-rate throughout the majority of the season.
However, Price went into a funk in the final weeks of the season, going 2-6-0 in his last eight games. He gave up three goals or more and his save percentage was beneath 90 percent in six of those games.
If Price can recapture his form, the Canadiens have a chance to write a sensational playoff story. However, if he can't turn things around, it could be a short postseason stay for the Canadiens.
Are the Ducks Being Overlooked?
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Even though the Anaheim Ducks were the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, they are largely overlooked as the playoffs get underway.
They are big, physical and talented. They can score clutch goals and the defense looks good with Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller in the net.
The Ducks made several huge statements during the regular season this year, including going 3-0 against the Blackhawks.
If they can beat the top team in the regular season so consistently, the Ducks are capable of making a long run and possibly capture the Stanley Cup.
What Happened to the Boston Bruins?
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The Boston Bruins started the season with a 17-3-3 record. Not quite Chicago Blackhawks-like, but the Bruins looked like the most complete team in the league early on.
They had great goaltending with Tuukka Rask, clutch scoring and a nasty, hard-hitting defense led by Zdeno Chara. They also have perhaps the best all-around player in the game in Patrice Bergeron.
When it came time for the Bruins to assert themselves in the second half of the season, they struggled.
Goalscoring became an issue, as it seemed the Bruins could not score more than two goals per game. The defense also suffered a bit of downturn. Getting the puck out of their own zone was problematic, and even Chara had problems controlling the action when opponents put the puck at his feet.
Rask and backup Anton Khudobin continued to play well, but they just did not get enough support. The addition of Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr and Swedish import Carl Soderberg did little to help the situation.
The second season gives the Bruins a chance to reassert themselves, but unless they find their scoring and the defense regains its footing, it could be a second consecutive short stay in the playoffs for the Bruins.
Will the Los Angeles Kings Make Another Run?
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The Kings won the Stanley Cup last year by dominating with their timely offense and shutdown defense.
The popular theory is that they "snuck up" on their opponents because they were the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
If the Kings had a surprise in them, it was in the first game of the first series against the Vancouver Canucks. Once they had recorded a 4-2 victory victory, the surprise factor was gone. The Kings simply out-skated, outhit, out-shot and outworked their opponents from that point forward.
Can the Kings do it again?
It's not out of the question. The key issue may be the goaltending of Jonathan Quick. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year, but has been rather ordinary during the regular season.
Quick is going to have to get back to top form and the Kings are also going to have to repeat the timely scoring they got last year to have a chance at repeating.
Are the Maple Leafs Just Happy to Be There?
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The Toronto Maple Leafs are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
The Leafs made it as the fifth seed and they have an unfavorable matchup against the Boston Bruins. Toronto lost nine out of their last 10 games against the Bruins.
So, can the Leafs make a real run during the postseason, or are they merely happy to be playing playoff hockey?
If the confidence level is not high, the Bruins will bounce them out quickly.
However, if Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul and James Reimer truly believe in themselves and play their best game, they could push the Bruins to the limit and possibly steal the series.
Do the Bottom Feeders Have Any Life?
Erik Karlsson's presence on the blue line gives the Ottawa Senators a lift.
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Are any of the seventh or eighth seeds likely to pull off an upset or two and make a run this year?
The Ottawa Senators, who finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, may have the best chance.
The Senators apply tough defense and have great goaltending. They play old-school hockey and are facing a team that's had some recent problems. The Montreal Canadiens slumped at the end of the year and Carey Price struggled badly in goal.
If the Senators can score early, they have the defensive game to hold on to a lead in the third period and win the game.
Ottawa lacks firepower—with the exception of superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson—but it can master the defensive game that is often vital in the playoffs.
They have the best chance of any of the bottom seeds to survive and advance.