It's that time of the year again. The weather is getting warmer, but it won't be easy to get outside to enjoy it too much. It's much nicer staying cool inside an NHL rink in the spring, or at least in front of a TV following all the action of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The playoffs provide action unparalleled in all of sports. The intensity of four grueling rounds of seven-game series, the excitement of sudden-death playoffs and the traditions of playoff beards and flying octopi. What more could a fan ask for? Well, even within the glory that is the Stanley Cup playoffs, there are some things that provide even more drama. So while the NHL gets set to open its playoff spectacle today, we've been working on the top 10 storylines of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. -- NESN
Why does anyone want Presidents’ Trophy?
Finishing with the most points in the regular season is nice and all, but winning the final game of the year and hoisting the Cup sure is a lot sweeter. Of course, there’s no rule you can’t do both. It just seems to work out that way most years. Detroit managed both feats back in 2008 and 2002, but no other team has pulled it off in the last decade. The Canucks came close last year before losing Game 7 at home to the Bruins, and they’ll get another chance this spring. But it won’t get any easier this time around, right from the start. They open against the Kings, and superlative goaltender Jonathan Quick (1.95 GAA, .929 save percentage, 10 shutouts) might just be enough to make quick work of the Canucks.
Will Blues' goalies destroy competition?
Can you really have too much of a good thing? St. Louis may find out this spring. The Blues have two of the best goaltenders in the league, but only one can play at a time. Will they go with Brian Elliott, who led the NHL with a 1.59 GAA and .940 save percentage, both modern league records? Or will they go with Jaroslav Halak, who was pretty good himself with a 1.97 GAA and a .926 save percentage while playing eight more games? Halak also has some playoff history, leading Montreal to upset wins over Washington and Pittsburgh in 2010. That same year Elliott had a 4.14 GAA and .853 save percentage in four games for Ottawa in his only playoff experience. Will Ken Hitchcock choose correctly or vacillate between the two and risk having the Blues’ greatest strength become a weakness when it matters most?
Last call for Coyotes?
It’s been said many times over the last few years, but this really does seem like it could finally be the end of the NHL’s failed experiment to grow hockey in the desert. The city of Glendale is sick of underwriting the team’s mounting losses, and there’s no shortage of cities in strong hockey markets (Hey Quebec, haven’t we met before?) to take it off their hands. The Coyotes have never won a playoff series since moving to Phoenix, and that record may remain intact as they’ve drawn a tough Chicago club in the opening round. The Pacific Division winners do have home ice, so the folks in Phoenix may get one extra game, and the folks in some other lucky city might get a division banner to raise if they don’t choose to start fresh and forget these miserable years of exile in the desert ever happened.
Can Joe finally come up big?
Joe Thornton has become an easy target for postseason ridicule. Some of the criticism over the years has been warranted, but much has been overblown. Thornton has put up solid numbers with 64 points in 74 playoff games with San Jose, and the Sharks have won more playoffs series (7) since his arrival than they’ve lost (6). They haven’t won the big one though, losing in the conference finals each of the last two years. Their window of opportunity is closing fast too, and their road to the Cup is tougher than ever this season with St. Louis waiting in the opening round. There’s no shame in losing to a Blues team that racked up 109 points this season, but there will be plenty of blame, and fair or not, much if it will be placed on the shoulders of the captain once again if the Sharks don’t go deep.
Officially a concern?
The state of NHL officiating, both in terms of in-game calls and supplemental discipline judgments, has raised concerns all season, and that is unlikely to change with the stakes raised in the playoffs. There were complaints last spring that too much was let go during the Bruins’ run to the Cup, and often this season there appeared to be overcompensation with marginal calls. But the biggest problem has been the lack of consistency, and that extends to the work of Brendan Shanahan in his first year in charge of supplemental discipline. If anything can spoil the spectacle that is the NHL playoffs, it’s the shoddy and inconsistent officiating that has plagued the game for too long.
Comebacks from concussions?
It’s been the Year of the Concussion in the NHL, so it should be no surprise that a number of stars returning from concussions, or not likely to return, will be one of the major storylines of the postseason as well. Pittsburgh has become a Cup favorite since Sidney Crosby returned from his concussion and picked up where he left off as arguably the best player in the world (37 points in 22 games). Now Vancouver expects to get Daniel Sedin back after missing the final nine games of the regular season, while Chicago hopes to have captain Jonathan Toews returning for the start of the playoffs. Both are capable of making a similar impact for their respective clubs. Unfortunately for the Bruins, Nathan Horton’s chances of a return this postseason were termed “a long shot” by general manager Peter Chiarelli on Sunday.
Who will take Central showdown?
It wouldn’t be a shock to see either Nashville or Detroit in the Cup Final. The Predators loaded up for a run before Shea Weber and Ryan Suter can hit free agency by bringing Alexander Radulov back from Russia and adding Paul Gaustad, Andrei Kostitsyn and Hal Gill before the trade deadline. The Red Wings are always a threat with their loaded lineup and experience. And yet, one of these teams will be headed home after the first round as the Central Division powers draw each other as a 4-5 matchup out West. It should be an amazing series and may go the distance, but even seven games will be far too short a stay for one of these clubs.
Who will be in crease for Canucks?
After last year’s Final, we all know that Roberto Luongo doesn’t like to venture out of the blue paint like certain other netminders. But that Final also showed that Luongo isn’t necessarily at his most comfortable on the biggest stage, either. He may have no choice but to leave the crease if his struggles continue, especially with the way backup Cory Schneider (20-8-1, 1.96 GAA, .937 save percentage) played this year. Vancouver fans were cheering late this season when Luongo was pulled in favor of Schneider, and they may get to cheer that move again in the postseason. That may be for the best too, since we also know what happens when Vancouver fans don’t get what they want.
Who will win battle of Pennsylvania?
The most anticipated first-round matchup will take place entirely within the confines of a single state. The Penguins and Flyers have a long and bitter history, but the fires were stoked even more in the final days of the regular season with their 4-5 matchup in the East all but a certainty. Things turned nasty with a hard, but clean, hit from Pittsburgh’s Joe Vitale knocking out Danny Briere in the closing minutes last Sunday. The rematch Saturday wasn’t the bloodbath some expected after a weeklong war of words in the media, but the seven-game series will have much more at stake and the intensity should be palpable. The biggest question is whether whoever wins will be celebrating a Pyrrhic victory as the series may take so much out of both teams that a deep run may prove difficult.
Will there be a repeat champion?
No one has successfully defended the Cup since Detroit won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998, and only the Red Wings have even threatened to do it in the last decade. Detroit won in 2008 and reached the Final in 2009, but fell short against the Penguins. Other than that Red Wings run, only one other defending champion has even gotten out of the first round, with Pittsburgh losing in the second round in 2010. The Bruins are better positioned than most recent champs with the bulk of their team back from last year and they’ll have home ice at least through the first two rounds if they can advance, but surviving a four-round gauntlet two straight springs is no easy feat. Get more coverage from NESN.com