Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Goalie doubts, playoff droughts, Ovi-Sid
By Pierre LeBrun
As the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs get under way Wednesday night, here are 10 storylines we'll be watching this postseason:
1. Beware betting against those Coyotes
By now, you've likely seen almost every hockey pundit (including me) pick the red-hot veteran Red Wings to beat upstart Phoenix in the first round. But wouldn't it just be like the Coyotes to once again prove us all wrong? All season long, people have been waiting for them to fall apart. Hasn't happened. Not even close. Now, they're given little chance against hockey's model franchise. Could there be another great story out of the desert?
2. League discipline/head shots
Under the newly approved fast-tracked rule, NHL senior vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell has the power to suspend players for blind-side hits to the head. The postseason rule of thumb has always been that one playoff game was worth four or five in the regular season when it comes to suspensions. How will Campbell react to the first blind-side head shot incident?
Well, of course this is going to be a story line, right? And it continues to be a compelling one. So, Sid already has his Cup ring, his Olympic team embarrassed Ovechkin's en route to a gold medal in February, and now comes another playoffs and possible showdown in the second or third round. Does Ovi finally get the upper hand on Sid? His team is certainly the class of the East. We'll see.
4. Contenders, and goalie questions
Rarely do we remember having so many question marks surrounding goalies on legitimate powerhouse teams. Is Antti Niemi going to hold the fort in Chicago? Will Evgeni Nabokov put his Olympic meltdown behind him in San Jose? Is Roberto Luongo OK in Vancouver? Will it be Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamov in Washington and, either way, is it good enough? Overall, seven of the 16 playoff teams have starting goalies with zero playoff experience (Boston's Tuukka Rask, Chicago's Niemi, Colorado's Craig Anderson, Detroit's Jimmy Howard, Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick, Nashville's Pekka Rinne, Ottawa's Brian Elliott and Pascal Leclaire).
5. Lucky 7?
For nine straight playoffs between 1997 and 2006, at least one seventh seed upset a No. 2 seed in the opening round. But in the past three playoffs, both No. 2 seeds avoided the upset. Can Philadelphia or Nashville bring back the seventh-seed upset magic?
6. The Sharks and the playoffs
Is this finally the year? San Jose is again the top seed, but can it overcome its playoff foibles? Patrick Marleau and Nabokov are unrestricted free agents July 1. Their futures in San Jose likely depend on this spring. The Sharks went 8-1-1 in their final 10 games of the regular season to head into the playoffs on a roll. San Jose was the top seed last season and lost to eighth-seeded Anaheim. Will Colorado duplicate the shocker in the first round?
7. Bruins offense
Boston was 30th overall in goals scored this season but made the playoffs thanks to a great defensive effort. The Bruins are the third team since the playoff format expanded to 16 teams in 1979-80 to qualify despite scoring the fewest goals during the regular season. Being offensively challenged and drawing likely Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller (Buffalo) in the first round can't be a great mix.
8. Another party in Vancouver?
How neat would be if Vancouver became the first city to host both the Olympics and the Stanley Cup finals in the same year? How pumped would Luongo be to win Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup in his home rink? The Canucks were a powerhouse in the second half of the NHL season, tying Phoenix and San Jose for the third-best record in the league at 25-12-4.
9. Threepeat final?
Can the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings make it three Cup finals in a row? That hasn't happened since 1954-56, when Detroit and Montreal met up three years in a row in the Cup finals.
10. Will a long Cup drought come to an end?
The Blackhawks have the longest Cup drought at 49 years. The Canucks and Sabres have never won it all since coming into the league together in 1970. Ditto for the Sharks since entering the fray in 1991. The Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals have been shut out since coming into the league in 1974. The Phoenix/Winnipeg franchise has never lifted the Stanley Cup in its 30-year history. The Kings have been NHL participants since 1967 and have never won. The Bruins haven't won since Pierre LeBrun was born in 1972. Will one of these droughts end this spring?
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.