NHL Playoffs 2011: 10 Things To Know From a Wild Closing Weekend

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IApril 11, 2011

NHL Playoffs 2011: 10 Things To Know From a Wild Closing Weekend

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    It came right down to the final game of the 2010-11 NHL regular season to figure out the entire playoff picture, but after the wild weekend was over and the mathematics were no longer needed, 16 teams were left standing above the rest. 

    After the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks lost a thriller to the rival Detroit Red Wings, all eyes were on the Dallas Stars to decide the final seed in the Western Conference. Luckily for last year's champs, the Stars lost to the Minnesota Wild, meaning the Blackhawks snuck into the eighth and final postseason spot, setting the table for an incredible first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs

    If the final weekend was any indication, it's going to be difficult for fans to step away from a TV for any significant time over the next two months—about the usual come playoff time then. 

    And the end of the regular season wasn't only important for those teams gearing up for a run to the Cup. It also was important for clubs looking ahead to the offseason, when player and other personnel decisions have either already been made or will need to be made before the beginning of next season. 

    So before the real fun begins on Wednesday, here's a look back at what the past few days meant across the league, as well as what we can expect in the coming weeks, thanks to a Saturday and Sunday to remember. 

The Future of Brad Richards in Dallas

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    The Dallas Stars left the ice on Sunday afternoon with bitter disappointment thanks to a 5-3 loss that ended their season and their chance at a trip to the playoffs. To make it worse for the team from the Lone Star state, it could have also signalled the last time anyone will be seeing franchise player Brad Richards in a Stars uniform. 

    The 30-year-old will be a free agent come July 1, and many believe he will be accepting a deal from a new team, rather than sticking around in Dallas. 

    Richards is one of the league's most dangerous players, coming off a season in which he tallied 27 goals and 75 points in 71 games, and he will be highly sought after by numerous clubs looking to bolster their offense. 

    There isn't a team in the NHL that couldn't use the kind of help at center that Richards would bring, and though he'll be demanding some serious cash, he's the type of player who is worth moving some pieces around for. 

    If Richards really does look towards free agency for a new home, prepare for a fire storm in the summer.  Rumors will fly as to where his final destination will be, while Stars fans look on with memories of a tough ending to his final season.

New Coaches for Senators, Devils and Panthers

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    The Ottawa Senators barely let the ice melt off the players skates before they sent coach Cory Clouston packing. Clouston, in the final year of his deal, was hired in 2009 and took the club to one playoff series in his time there. 

    Clouston had a 95-83-20 record overall with the Sens.

    Questions immediately erupted in Ottawa pertaining to the GM as the club re-signed Bryan Murray to a new deal just days before he fired his third coach during his tenure there. Murray will begin searching for his fourth head coach since 2008. 

    Meanwhile in New Jersey, after the Devils' final game was played, legendary coach Jacques Lemaire announced that he would not be returning next season as the bench boss and that he would be retiring for the second time in as many seasons. 

    But that wasn't the only coaching action around the league this weekend, as the Florida Panthers also fired their coach, saying goodbye to Pete DeBoer after his team once again failed to make the playoffs—for a 10th-straight season. 

    He was the coach of the Panthers since the 2008-09 season. 

    All three teams will be on the hunt for a new coach in the coming weeks, but questions still remain as to what other clubs—if any—will be looking for a change behind the bench. 

Teams Losing in the Clutch, Rangers Taking Control

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    All season we heard how teams hope to be in control of their fate when it comes to getting into the playoffs, but this year we witnessed more than one team prove that talk is cheap. 

    While the New York Rangers won their final game Saturday afternoon—booking their own ticket to the postseason—other teams in the same position failed to take advantage of their opportunity. 

    The Carolina Hurricanes were in a win-and-you're-in scenario against the Tampa Bay Lightning in their last game of the season, but they came out absolutely flat in front of the home fans, losing the game 6-2, ending their impressive push down the stretch with disappointment. 

    Same goes for the Dallas Stars, which had all the opportunity in the world to sneak into the eighth spot in the West after the Chicago Blackhawks lost in their earlier game. But the Stars gave away a 2-1 lead and eventually lost to the spoiler Minnesota Wild.

    Even the defending champs failed to show up in their final test, but they were gifted with a playoff spot anyway after the Stars lost.

    Though it made for some great entertainment, it leaves more than one fanbase questioning the desperation of their club and proving that sometimes a heated race to finish can leave teams with nothing left as they look to cross the line. 

    We'll see how the Rangers fair from here on in, but as the one team that seemed to come through in the clutch late, you can bet the fans will go home much more impressed than their counterparts. 

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Vancouver Canucks Part III

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    It was the first-round matchup that everyone wanted to see, and after the dust settled and the seeds were set, everyone is apparently going to be happy. The Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks will once again meet up in the playoffs—for the third straight season. 

    And the biggest storyline in this now-heated rivalry: Can the Canucks finally beat the Hawks?

    It is a question that fans across the league will be eager to have answered, as for the past two seasons they've watched as the kids from Chicago stomped all over the veterans from Vancouver. And it's a question that opens the door for so many more stories that will be played out during the best-of-seven slugfest.  

    Can Luongo have success now that Dustin Byfuglien is gone? Does the fact that the Canucks are now the favorites play to their advantage or demise?

    Does the experience from their Cup win a season ago help the Hawks win the series for a third straight year?

    All these questions and more will be answered in the next two weeks. And whether you follow hockey or not, you'll know the outcome by keeping an eye on any friends that are Canucks fans. Seriously, you'll know. 

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens: Buckle Your Chinstraps

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    You want history? You got it. You want hatred? You got it. You want one of the most heated rivalries in sports for a seven-game series in the playoffs?

    You got it. 

    The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will open their playoff series Wednesday night, and if there's one thing that's no secret with these two clubs, it's that they do not like each other. Not at all. 

    With the memory of Zdeno Chara's crushing hit on Habs forward Max Pacioretty fresh in their minds, as well as a brawl-filled game that saw Tim Thomas and Carey Price drop the gloves—and, um, blocker—there will be no love lost in this Original Six classic. 

    There's a good chance it will be the most watched series out of the eight first-round matchups, and if recent—or distant, frankly—events are any indication, this is going to be a wild one. 

    The Bruins are all about size, strength and beating the crap out of teams, with a whole lot of great goaltending from Thomas. The Canadiens, on the other hand, are all about skill, speed and a whole lot of Carey Price saving the day. 

    So the keys to this series are no secret, either: Thomas versus Price, Boston's size versus Montreal's speed. That is the series in a nutshell, but you can bet by the end of this one, that nutshell will be beaten, bruised and probably left in pieces. 

    And yes, that nutshell is probably a metaphor for the Canadiens players. 

Goaltending the Key in Sabres, Flyers Series

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    The seventh-seeded Buffalo Sabres will open up their series against the second-seeded Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night, and the key for both these clubs in this series may well come down to the men between the pipes. 

    For the Flyers, they'll be rolling with rookie netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, who went an impressive 28-13-8 this season (2.59 goals-against average, .915 save percentage) but will be playing in his first-ever postseason series. For the Sabres, on the other hand, they'll be relying on the steady hand of Ryan Miller, who is battle tested and one of the best goalies on earth—if he's healthy. 

    And that could be a big if for the Sabres. 

    Miller was out for over a week down the stretch drive, and though he played in the team's final two games and the Sabres say he's healthy, questions still remain. Backup goalie Jhonas Enroth held down the fort admirably, going 3-0-1 in Miller's absence, but you can bet they'd be much more confident over a grueling series with the experience of Miller in the crease. 

    If Bobrovsky doesn't get the job done for the Flyers, they'll be forced to lean on Brian Boucher to try and get them back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second-straight season. 

    Consider goaltending to be the story in this matchup.

    Well, that and Chris Pronger—whose been a story in every playoff series he's ever played in. 

Red Wings Could Be without Zetterberg

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    The Detroit Red Wings will see themselves with a repeat first-round matchup against the Phoenix Coyotes this season, but don't go assuming they'll come out on top just as they did a year ago. The Coyotes are for real, and the Wings might not be as powerful as you think. 

    It all starts with Henrik Zetterberg, who has been out of the lineup since leaving a game last week with a lower body injury. The Wings have said they expect to start the series without Zetterberg, but they were not able to say definitively when the star would be returning to the ice. 

    If he's out for extended time, it certainly won't help the aging Wings attack. 

    This isn't to say that the Detroit will be completely shut down offensively without the services of arguably their most dangerous player, but having him out of the lineup means Phoenix can focus more on Pavel Datsyuk and have to worry less about them both patrolling the ice—at the same time, even. 

    That is an interesting wrinkle to what was one of the most entertaining series last season. 

All Eyes on Sidney Crosby

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    The question is a simple one: When is Sidney Crosby returning to the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins?

    It's a question that Penguins fans have been asking for months now, and though their team has been playing some seriously good hockey without the NHL's best player, there is no doubt that they're a better team with Sid the Kid. 

    And with the big game experience Crosby has amassed in his short time in the league, you can bet his teammates are itching to have their captain back on the ice. 

    Opinions are flying by the day as to whether Pittsburgh should dare let him back on the ice this year, but the common theme out of it all is that no one really knows what's going on. Not even Sid, probably. 

    His concussion still keeps him skating only, with no contact, and the team has repeatedly said there's no way he'll be ready for opening night of the playoffs. But in saying that, they seem to have opened up a door that may not have been there before. 

    Essentially, they've opened up the so-you're-saying-there's-a-chance door. 

    Yes, that one. 

    And until the Penguins are out of the playoffs, or the team officially shuts down No. 87 for the season, you can bet the Crosby talk will not end. 

Can the Champs Repeat?

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    They may have booked their ticket back to the dance once again this season, but don't be fooled. This is not the same Chicago Blackhawks team that won the Stanley Cup last season. They may have many of the same key pieces like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith leading the way, but the supporting cast is much different, and they're starting at the bottom this time around, not the top. 

    One huge difference is in net, where Antti Niemi is no longer there, and in his place is rookie goalie Corey Crawford, who, just like Niemi last season, will be making his playoff debut. 

    Crawford had a fantastic regular season after stealing the job from Marty Turco and he has started every game since Feb. 11. But it remains to be seen whether he can withstand the pressure of the playoffs, as well as an opening round against the Sedin twins and company. 

    Another key missing piece for the Blackhawks is Dustin Byfuglien, who was Roberto Luongo's nemesis in the crease and caused some serious havoc everywhere else. He got under the opponent's skin in every series, and without him in front of the net this year, they'll have to find their scoring elsewhere. 

    The main parts are still there, though, and with the talent that they have, it would be a surprise to no one to see the Blackhawks once again make noise in the playoffs. 

    Can this club make it back to Stanley Cup Finals after stumbling into the postseason this time around?

    That is a question that we'll start to see an answer to in the coming days.  

And One Last Thing...

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    And what is the final thing you need to know from the wild weekend that ended the 2010-11 NHL regular season?

    It's finally playoff time, baby. Get ready for beards, waving towels and triple-overtime, I-can't-believe-I'm-still-awake thrillers. 

    It's the most wonderful time of the year, so plan accordingly, and prepare to lose sleep, general hygiene awareness and probably a few close friends—and/or loved ones—due to your non-stop hockey watching.

    But we all know...it's worth it.