NHL

Pick 6: NHL playoffs full of intriguing storylines

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(Eds: With AP Photos.)By LARRY LAGEAP Hockey Writer

The NHL's sprint of a season is over, ending a three-plus-month run that crammed 48 games into each team's schedule.

Hockey's grueling postseason, which begins with three games Tuesday night and ends as late as June 28, has a slew of storylines spilling off the ice.

Here's a pick six to follow when the puck drops.

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CROSBY'S COMEBACK? Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby was healthy and productive for most of the season, getting 56 points in 36 games, after missing much of the last two years with concussion-like symptoms. A broken jaw, though, has kept him out since March 30 and he's waiting to be cleared by doctors to play in the postseason. Crosby's status for Game 1 at home Wednesday night against the New York Islanders is unclear, but he's expected to be back in the lineup at some point in the seven-game series. After consecutive first-round exits, the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference is poised to make a run with a deep roster improved before the trading deadline. If Crosby can play, the Penguins might hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009.

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CAN CHICAGO CLOSE STRONG, TOO? The Blackhawks began the season with a point in their first 24 games - half of the lockout-shortened season - to surpass an NHL record by eight games. They finished well enough to lead the league in points and are hoping that translates into postseason success, unlike the franchise's only other Presidents' Trophy season. Chicago led the NHL in points during the 1990-91 season, but got eliminated by the Minnesota North Stars in the opening round. The Blackhawks will match up with the same city - against a team now known as the Wild - in the first round. Minnesota lost 10 of its last 16 games, but free agent stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have an opportunity to provide a quick return on the $98 million the franchise invested in them last summer.

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RED-HOT CAPITALS: The Washington Capitals closed the season strong, winning 11 of their last 13 games to surge from toward the bottom of the East to the top of the Southeast Division, earning the No. 3 seed to set up a first-round matchup with the New York Rangers. Alex Ovechkin was at his best down the stretch with 22 points in the last 13 games after averaging less than a point in his first 35 games. He finished with an NHL-high 32 goals, lighting the lamp more than any other player in the league for the third time. Even though Ovechkin has jaw-dropping talent, he hasn't gotten past the second round of the playoffs in the first seven seasons of his career and he's playing for a franchise that hasn't advanced further than that since getting swept by Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.

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KINGS' QUEST TO REPEAT: The Los Angeles Kings became the first eighth-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup, finishing off the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils in Game 6, and can become the first team to repeat in the salary-cap era that began in the 2005-06 season and the first since Detroit won consecutive times in 1997 and 1998. Compared to last season, when the Kings had to rally just to get in the playoffs, they cruised after clinching a spot in the West and will start the postseason on the road as a fifth-seeded team against the fourth-seeded St. Louis Blues.

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ORIGINAL SIX STILL SKATING: For the first time since 1996, each of the NHL's Original Six teams is in the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs had a lot to do with ending the drought. The storied franchise in a hockey-crazed city and country has advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2004. In the Eastern Conference, the fifth-seeded Maple Leafs will match up with fourth-seeded Boston, another Original Six team, second-seeded Montreal will face seventh-seeded Ottawa, and the sixth-seeded New York Rangers will match up with third-seeded Washington. In the West, Detroit extended its franchise record postseason streak to 22, the fifth longest in league history, and closed well enough to avoid a first-round matchup with fellow Original Six member Chicago to move into a winnable series against second-seeded Anaheim. The top-seeded Blackhawks will open against the Wild.

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK: The New York Islanders are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and for just the second time in two decades they're in the postseason at the same time as the New York Rangers. Both teams will have a tough time getting out of the first round. The eighth-seeded Islanders are matched up with Pittsburgh, a powerhouse that earned 17 more points in the condensed season. The sixth-seeded Rangers will face perhaps the hottest team in the league, third-seeded Washington.

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Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/larrylage

Tagged: Blackhawks, Kings, Islanders, Rangers, Penguins, Capitals, Wild, Sidney Crosby

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