Ten burning questions heading into NHL playoffs
Marc-Andre Fleury (PIERRE-PAUL POULIN/QMI Agency)
Who will put the wild in wild card?
Four times in 16 tries in the salary cap era, an eighth seed has taken down the top seed in a conference (Edmonton over Detroit in 2006, Anaheim over San Jose in 2009, Montreal over Washington in 2010 and Los Angeles over Vancouver in 2012). Since 2005, the Kings are the only eighth seed to go on and win the Stanley Cup. It’s a division-based playoff format now, but with the wild-card component, there’s still an element of conference play involved.
Of the top point earners in each conference, I’d say the Anaheim Ducks look like a team vulnerable to that kind of upset. They haven’t been great down the stretch (winning only 10 of 19 games since March 1) and goaltender Jonas Hiller has yet to show a playoff pedigree (he owns a 10-10 post-season record, though he does have a .935 playoff save percentage). The Colorado Avalanche is young and inexperienced in the playoffs and could find playing as a top seeding difficult, so this year’s field could be ripe for what would be considered an upset.
What’s with the Penguins?
There isn’t a bigger mystery in the NHL the last few years than the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite finishing eighth, third, fourth and second in the league in the regular reason, the Penguins have won just three playoff rounds since winning the Cup in 2009. Two of those wins came last year when they advanced to the Eastern Conference final against the Boston Bruins, where they were swept, scoring just two goals in the process.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has won a mere 14 playoff games since 2009 and just four the last two years. He got yanked in the first round last spring against the New York Islanders and the Pens rode Tomas Vokoun. After last year’s ouster, the Penguins brought in Jacques Martin to help head coach Dan Bylsma and shuffled goaltending coach Gilles Meloche out for Mike Bales. Fleury is second in wins this season, 13th in goals-against average and 22nd in save percentage (.917). Fair or not, the Penguins’ — and Fleury’s — season will be judged by their playoff performance.
Are the Boston Bruins as close to the perfect playoff team as there is?
The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and went to the final in 2013, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Bruins have 50 playoff wins in the salary cap era, second only to the Detroit Red Wings.
They have won in the playoffs despite not having much in the way of a power play. They have great goaltending, a dominant defenceman in Zdeno Chara and a pretty deep and balanced bunch of forward lines. They’ve had a little turnover the past few years, but have managed to keep their experienced core together. Veteran Jarome Iginla has proven to be a good replacement for Nathan Horton on the club’s top line and goaltender Tuukka Rask has picked up where 2011 Vezina/Cup/Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas left off. The Bruins play playoff hockey all year long. Tough to beat.
Can Bruce Boudreau find a way to keep the Ducks afloat?
One of the intriguing coaching stories belongs to Boudreau. He has had some outstanding regular-season success (310-143-62 between the Washington Capitals and the Ducks), but just a 20-24 record in the post-season. His playoffs have included some big upsets, such as in 2010 when his No. 1-seeded Caps lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens and last year, when the second-seeded Ducks lost to the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings. As NHL people like to say: You make your living during the regular season and you make your reputation in the playoffs.
Can the San Jose Sharks answer the final question?
The Sharks are one of those teams that have teased and tortured their fans for a decade. A pre-season pick by many to win the Cup for the past few years, the Sharks have repeatedly found ways to disappoint and have never reached the Stanley Cup final. They got to the Western Conference final in 2010 and 2011 and couldn’t get over the hump. Since then, they lost in the first round in 2012 and in the second round last year.
The core group from the 2010 team is still intact: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but pretty much the rest of the team has been turned over. How many chances do these guys get? Apparently, as many as they want, with all of them signed long-term. The Sharks have had another fine regular season, but the skepticism has been building over their ability to get it done in the playoffs.
Is this a year somebody beats the curse of No. 1?
In the eight years of the salary cap era, the top team in each conference in the regular season has made it to the Stanley Cup final just three times (that’s out of 16 attempts). Only two No. 1 seeds have been able to win the Cup in that time, the 2008 Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks last year. There have also been three No. 2 seeds to win the Cup, as well as a No. 3, a No. 4 and a No. 8. Being a high seed doesn’t guarantee you anything, but the odds move in your favour: Six of eight Cups have been won by a third seed or better.
Is this the year the St. Louis Blues figure out the playoff thing?
Since they started to get good a couple of years ago, the Blues haven’t had much in the way of playoff success. They play a grinding, intense style for most of the 82 regular-season games, but appear to have trouble finding another level when things crank up in the post-season. They were the fourth seed last year and had a two-game lead on the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Kings before they lost the next four games. They won a round in 2012 as the second seed, taking out the San Jose Sharks, before being swept in the second round by the Kings. Hmmm. Maybe the key for the Blues is to not play the Kings.
Are they Avs or have-nots?
The Colorado Avalanche battled right down the stretch, chasing both the St. Louis Blues and a number of franchise records. It has been a remarkable turnaround for a team that had 39 points in 48 games last year (which projects to a 67-point season over a full 82 games) to 111 points this season under rookie coach Patrick Roy. Now the trick for the Avs is to not be satisfied with just that big step, but to find a way to have post-season success. They have young players in key positions up front, there’s a question about the health of offensive dynamo Matt Duchene and the blue line lacks depth.
But the Avs’ slogan this season has been “Why not us?” and it’s hard not to ask that question. They’ve done it all season long, why not in the playoffs?
Where’s the call?
There are more than a few observers who think the standard of officiating in the NHL has slipped over the course of this season.
“Too many of the calls are reactionary, rather than being on top of things,” said one pro scout. “I think a lot is missed due to an emphasis on calling little stick checks.”
A team such as the Boston Bruins, which is great 5-on-5 in the playoffs and usually struggles on the power play, could benefit from fewer penalties being called. It will be interesting to see what the standard is for the beginning of the playoffs, because if it has slipped at this point, they might not be calling anything by the time the final rolls around.
Who’s going to win the Stanley Cup?
There hasn’t been a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. In the salary cap era, keeping teams together has become more difficult — as witnessed by the Chicago Blackhawks’ dismantling after their 2010 victory — and the grind of the regular season and the playoffs has increased.
But the Hawks are looking good to repeat as champions. What’s not to like? Star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are expected to return from injury and might actually benefit from the rest after playing in the Winter Olympics in Sochi. With Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, they’ve got a dynamic core up front supplemented by a strong supporting cast with the likes of Michal Handzus, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger and Kris Versteeg. They’ve got a Norris Trophy contender in Duncan Keith to lead a strong blueline and a goalie in Corey Crawford who knows what it takes to win the Cup. And they boast one of the best coaches in Joel Quenneville. It all adds up to a team with the best chance to repeat in years.