Get your armchairs ready. These will be the biggest talking points of the spring as the real season gets underway.
CAN TAMPA BAY BREAK THE RUNNER-UP CURSE? Not since 2009, when Pittsburgh got revenge on Detroit, has a Stanley Cup runner-up managed to get back to the final the following year. Tampa Bay has a chance to do it this year but they'll now have to likely do it without Steven Stamkos. But with a sturdy core of Victor Hedman, Ben Bishop and The Triplets, this is definitely the time for the Bolts to strike. It won’t be easy with Washington rising in the East, but Tampa Bay wouldn’t have to face the Caps until the conference final.
CAN WASHINGTON SOLVE THE GAME 7 CONUNDRUM? The Capitals have been the class of the NHL, but they’re going to be in “prove it” mode until Alex Ovechkin lifts the Cup over his head in June. Even when Washington had been vying for Presidents’ Trophies in recent years, the Caps haven’t fared well in Game 7 situations (with the Rangers often playing nemesis). As if to make sure nothing was left to chance, Washington went out and signed Justin Williams in the summer. The veteran right winger is a three-time Stanley Cup winner who comes with the accurate nickname ‘Mr. Game 7.’ Whether or not Williams actually pulls the trigger on a series-ending score, the mental edge he brings to the dressing room may just be enough to see that Cup cross the Potomac.
CAN DALLAS SCORE ITS WAY TO SUCCESS?
The Stars have been an offensive juggernaut, with the likes of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza and John Klingberg. Dallas boasts an attack that’s put up the most goals in the NHL by a wide margin. But there’s a fly in the ointment: the Stars are also a bottom-10 team in goals against. GM Jim Nill composed an unorthodox double-No. 1 goalie tandem in the summer by adding Antti Niemi to the position already filled by Kari Lehtonen as an antidote to what Nill saw as a tough travel schedule. But neither has played well. Niemi did win a Cup with Chicago in 2010. Can he recapture that magic?
IS THIS IT FOR THE BLUES’ CORE? St. Louis has been one of the best regular season teams in the NHL the past four years, ranking second, third, fourth and second in the West. And what do the Blues have to show for it? Three first-round exits and one second-round fail. While GM Doug Armstrong has begun to transition from the core that once ruled the town (goodbye, T.J. Oshie and Barret Jackman), St. Louis is still driven by many of the same talents. But should the Blues fall in the first round again, there has to be a blow-up, no? The ascent of Vladimir Tarasenko, Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko will help, but captain David Backes is the real linchpin. Should the Blues lose early and then let the veteran go in free agency, we’ll know they’re truly serious about switching things up.
CAN JOHN TAVARES FINALLY WIN A PLAYOFF ROUND? The captain of the Islanders is now in his seventh NHL season. He has been a first-team all-star, a Hart Trophy runner-up and a gold medallist at the Winter Olympics. But team success in the NHL has eluded him. Tavares has just two first-round exits on his resume, and his Islanders will once again draw a tough squad in their first series. To compound the pressure, starting goalie Jaroslav Halak will miss the start of the post-season due to injury, putting the onus on backup Thomas Greiss. Tavares has been nearly a point-per-game performer in the playoffs in limited action, but can he and his team finally break through?
CAN THE EAST FINALLY DETHRONE THE WEST? It’s been five seasons since the Boston Bruins knocked off Vancouver in a crazy seven-game final, and the Western Conference has come out on top ever since. Chicago and Los Angeles have alternated reigns, but is this the year the Eastern Conference gets its groove back? The potential is there thanks to Washington, which had one of the East’s best records against the West in the regular season, including statement wins over Anaheim, Los Angeles and Chicago. Tampa Bay has also fared well against the Western Conference and beaten its top Cup contenders. Of course, the Bolts had a winning inter-conference record last season as well, but it didn’t matter in the final. One of these years, an Eastern team will win it all.
WHO WILL BE THIS YEAR’S SURPRISE HERO? The past two playoffs have provided great platforms for up-and-coming players, with Brandon Saad, Tyler Toffoli and Alex Killorn all turning in stellar performances for their respective squads. And hey, where would Chicago have been last year without Teuvo Teravainen, who had more points in the playoffs than he did in the regular season? But who will step up to the fore this time? The Capitals have some pretty good youngsters, and though Evgeny Kuznetsov won’t be sneaking up on anybody, Andre Burakovsky might. In Anaheim, Rickard Rakell has taken his game to the next level, and since the Ducks have to push through the Pacific, and maybe Chicago just to get to the final, they’ll need all hands on deck.
WILL THE DUCKS DIE IN CHICAGO AGAIN? No team gave the Blackhawks as much of a hassle as the Ducks did last year, but Chicago still won the West en route to its third Cup in six years. It was truly a heartbreaker for Anaheim, having been up 3-2 in the series. But the team came undone after that, ceding 10 goals in two straight losses. The Hawks have been the White Whale for many Ahabs in the NHL lately, though let’s not forget they were once the team with the harpoon. Chicago didn’t have to beat Detroit (then a league powerhouse) in 2010 to get their first Cup – the Red Wings had already been eliminated – so maybe Anaheim just needs to survive longer than Chicago. But based on how nasty the top end of the Pacific is, with the Kings and Sharks, the Ducks cannot afford to look ahead.
WILL CORSI RULE THE ROOST AGAIN? It’s time that the jocks finally admit defeat at the hands of the nerds. For the past five seasons, you could look back at the league possession stats and find the Cup winner firmly ensconced at or near the top of the pile. Looking at the metrics again, we find Los Angeles, Dallas and Anaheim ruling the roost. If you’re a fan of the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh would be your safest bets. As for a dark horse, how about Nashville? Pekka Rinne is out of his funk, and the Predators rank among the league leaders in Corsi.
COULD THE PENGUINS BE A THREAT? Ever since Pittsburgh took the Cup in 2009, we’ve been expecting multiple returns from Sidney Crosby and the boys. It hasn’t happened. This year, the Pens scuffled early and had to fire coach Mike Johnston to get things going. Now under Mike Sullivan, these birds were looking predatory, even with Evgeni Malkin hurt. The Penguins had the best possession numbers in the East, and that has been a great metric for playoff success lately. So who shows up this year, the disaster squads of seasons’ past or a crew ready to quietly do damage while everyone is watching Washington?
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Playoff Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.