Sunday, April 8, 2012 Updated: April 11, 1:32 PM ET
Five storylines to watch
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
1. Will Shanahan Bring the Iron Fist?
How will the games be called and what kind of hammer will Lord of Discipline Brendan Shanahan wield should supplementary discipline be required in the playoffs? There were rumblings at the GMs' meetings in Florida in March that GMs were unhappy that officials had let too much go in terms of obstruction fouls and the expectation was there would be more calls down the stretch. Indeed, we've seen evidence of more calls being made, much to the chagrin of the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers, who have been vocal about recent officiating. But will that continue into the postseason? Hope so. The standard should always be the standard, regardless of the stakes. The same can't be said for suspensions, and we get that. As Shanahan noted in March, each series is like a seven-game season, so there has to be some sort of economy of scale. But here's hoping if players are trying to take opponents' heads off that Shanahan doesn't back off but holds firm on sending players who can't learn their lesson to the sidelines no matter the stakes.
The inequity of the playoff system that sees weaker sisters atop the Pacific and Southeast divisions enjoying home-ice advantage in the first round means that the most compelling series will feature Central Division foes Detroit and Nashville and Atlantic Division rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Both series should make for must-see hockey and indeed the emotion surrounding the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series is at a fever pitch. But it's a shame two of those four teams will be done before the end of April while lesser teams will continue their quest, all in the name of creating artificial drama down the stretch with the current six-division format.
3. The Penguins Will Go On The Attack
The band's all together in Pittsburgh just in time for the playoffs, with Evgeni Malkin fresh off his second scoring title and likely his first Hart Trophy as MVP, and Sidney Crosby lighting it up in his second comeback effort after missing most of a season with concussion issues. With 40-goal man James Neal joining the fray and Kris Letang healthy on the back end, this is as dynamic an offense as there is in the playoffs and represents a deeper, more complete team than the one that won the Cup in 2009. Will that translate into another celebration in Pittsburgh or is there a team out there that will have an answer to the Pens? We're going to find out pretty early, as the Pens will tangle in the opening round with a Philadelphia team that had their number during the regular season. Still, one thing most hockey fans can agree upon is that the return of Crosby, the game's best player, from his long battle is a good thing, regardless of how long the Pens' playoff run lasts.
4. The Blues Will Feel The Heat
Can the St. Louis Blues turn an astounding, unexpected regular season into the team's first run to a Cup final since the late 1960s? The Blues haven't advanced beyond the second round since 2002 and have missed the postseason five of the six years since the lockout. They continue to wait for new ownership to formally take over after current owners ran into financial problems. Through all that, GM Doug Armstrong and head coach Ken Hitchcock, odds-on favorite to win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, have worked diligently to introduce a winning atmosphere and reconnect with one of the best fan bases in the NHL. There are some questions about the team's lack of playoff experience, but given that the Blues have played a playoff style of hockey for most of the season, we're guessing that won't be a factor and that playoff fever will once again take hold in Missouri.
5. An Upset Will Happen
Which top seed will take an unexpected tumble in the first round this year? The beauty of the Stanley Cup playoffs is that there is no such thing as a sure bet. Sure, the New York Rangers look like a lock to dispose of 8th-seed Ottawa, and maybe they will. But let's do a quick refresher course. Since the lockout, eighth-seeded Edmonton knocked off Presidents' Trophy-winning Detroit in '06 en route to the Cup finals; San Jose won the Presidents' Trophy in 2009 and was dumped by Anaheim in the first round; Washington suffered the same fate in 2010, losing to eighth-seed Montreal after setting franchise records as a Presidents' Trophy winner during the regular season; Philadelphia, a seventh seed in 2010, got into the playoffs on a last-day shootout win and then easily handled second-seed New Jersey en route to a berth in the final; and the No. 2 seed Dallas Stars were upended by Colorado in '06. In short, it's not so much whether the upset will happen but where.