Top NHL Storylines to Follow in 1st Round of 2013-14 Stanley Cup Playoffs
It's finally playoff time.
The NHL regular season wrapped up on Sunday, with playoff matchups set and the postseason schedule following hot on the heels of everything being decided. It's always a special time of year, and this season features a wide-open East, two brutal first-round series in the West and no shortage of intrigue.
Read on for some of the stories we're keeping a close eye on.
The Craziest First-Round Series in Forever
So, aside from the fact that the NHL playoff format has never allowed for it, there wouldn't really have been anything wrong with a Chicago-St. Louis Stanley Cup final. St. Louis was the NHL's most dominant team for much of the season, while Chicago is the defending Stanley Cup champion and one of a handful of elite teams in the league.
Now they're going to meet in the first round, thanks to stumbles by both teams as the regular-season finish line neared.
With all due respect to the other series being played (special mention to San Jose-Los Angeles), this should be amazing hockey to watch.
Marc-Andre Fleury and Playoff Ghosts
For four consecutive years, Marc-Andre Fleury has imploded in the postseason.
He's been fine during regular-season play, winning games and putting up numbers behind an always potent Pittsburgh team. But come playoff time, he has struggled year after year to even get to the .900 save-percentage mark.
Last season, the Pens employed a safety net: Tomas Vokoun. The team needed him, too, dumping Fleury after an appalling start to the first round and replacing him with the Czech veteran, who backstopped Pittsburgh to the conference finals. This year, with Vokoun coming off injury and rookie backup Jeff Zatkoff not exactly inspiring confidence, Fleury needs to be exceptional right away.
If he can't, the Penguins may have no choice but to bench the longtime starter and seriously consider jettisoning him in what will be a long offseason. As my colleague Dave Lozo notes, there will be no shortage of options to replace him.
Will Henrik Zetterberg Play?
Detroit has a lot of nice pieces, but it's barely had an opportunity to play together this season because for virtually the entire year, big chunks of the roster have been on injured reserve.
Entering the postseason, the most pivotal piece still missing is Henrik Zetterberg. The Red Wings captain is on an uncertain timeline, but, according to general manager Ken Holland, he could return as early as partway through the first round of the playoffs (via Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press):
He'll need at least a week of skating before we see how he feels. The hope is he can ramp it up every day. Is there a chance he can play in the first round? Yeah. But there's also a chance he won't play. The second round is a more likely scenario, but nothing is certain. First, he has to dip his toe in the water.
It's a vital story for Detroit, since first-round opponent Boston is going to be very difficult to overcome.
Zetterberg's return could change the complexion of the series and possibly even the entire playoffs.
Is This Finally the Year for the San Jose Sharks?
Very few teams have been better in the regular season the last few years than the San Jose Sharks. In the aggregate, few have been as successful in the playoffs, either; the Sharks have won eight playoff series in the last eight years.
But while it has always been in the conversation, never has San Jose's team been good enough to win it all.
San Jose's road to the Cup won't be an easy one, and it starts with an incredibly difficult first-round series against Los Angeles. There are a lot of teams that can't afford a first-round exit, but the Sharks' history makes them one of the clubs with the most on the line, which makes drawing the Kings an even more terrible break than it would have been anyway.
This edition of the Sharks is right up there with the best of its predecessors, though, and it has a chance to finally make that critical breakthrough.
Redemption for Steve Mason?
Steve Mason is one of the NHL's most controversial goaltenders. He's done much this season to distance himself from his foibles in Columbus, and the Philadelphia Flyers have bet heavily that he's the real deal and that he's a very different player than the one he was for the Blue Jackets.
The next step in the rehabilitation of Mason's reputation is a strong playoff showing. He was shelled in his lone previous playoff appearance, going 0-4 with a .878 save percentage behind an overmatched Columbus team in 2009. He has to put not only that behind him but also the demons of goalies past in Philadelphia, where the men guarding the net have all too often failed to get the job done in the postseason.
The Flyers have a beatable first-round opponent in the New York Rangers. Mason could cement his status in Philadelphia by backstopping his team to a win.
Epic Turnaround in Denver
A year ago, Colorado was the second-worst team in the NHL, six points behind Edmonton and nine back of Buffalo in the NHL standings. This year, the Avalanche enter the first round as heavy favourites, having sneaked past both Chicago and St. Louis to take the top spot in the incredibly competitive Central Division.
The Avs have already—by any standard—had an enormously successful season, and they aren't done yet. A first-round win would be the team's first playoff success since 2008.
Can Worthy Veterans Finally Win It All?
There are a lot of old pros with distinguished careers who have a chance to (finally) collect their first Stanley Cup.
Boston's Jarome Iginla is fourth among active players in career points (1,167) and has only been to the finals once, falling short with his Calgary Flames in 2004. One of his first-round opponents will be Daniel Alfredsson (1,157 points), who, like Iginla, has had one trip to the final round but fell short.
Also well worth mentioning is Joe Thornton. Only Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne have more points among active players, but Thornton's never made it beyond the third round in an otherwise exceptional career.
At least one of these players will fall in the first round, and with Thornton and the Sharks starting against Los Angeles, it would be no surprise if two were eliminated right out of the gate.
Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop and All the Questions
In an otherwise incredibly difficult season that saw the Lightning's best player miss much of the year and their leading scorer shipped away at the trade deadline, the play of goalie Ben Bishop has been a constant.
Until late last week, of course, when he left with an "upper-body injury" that cost him the rest of the regular season and may yet keep him out of the playoffs.
Backup goalie Anders Lindback, who has been terrible for his entire stint in Tampa Bay, was forced into play and, incredibly, he found his form. The Canadian Press reports (via CBC Sports) that Lindback was named the NHL's first star of the week on Monday after going 3-0-0 with a .975 save percentage in place of the fallen Bishop.
Nobody knows yet if Bishop will play or how good he will be should he get the chance. And if he doesn't, it's unknown whether Lindback can keep things going or if the backup goalie will revert to his previous form.