After a long 82-game prelude, the NHL really gets down to business tonight when the puck drops at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh and the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs get under way. For hockey fans (except the sad folks who root for the Toronto Maple Leafs) this is the greatest time of the year, because no other sport has anything that can compete with the intensity and excitement of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Today, in celebration of the 2012 Quest for the Cup, we present you 9 storylines to watch in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you followed the NHL all season, this will just be a refresher to get you pumped up and ready to go. If you didn’t follow the the NHL all season, this will serve as a primer to get you up to speed. Either way, you should check it out. So let’s get started.
The Capitals get the defending champs in the opening round. That's a tough matchup for any team, but it's especially tough for this lame bunch. After four straight years of regular season success followed by playoff disappointment (two 1st round exits, two 2nd round exits), Ovechkin and the Capitals just didn't seem to give a crap this season. Ovechkin alone has gone from 65 goals, 112 points, and a +28 in '07-'08 to 38 goals, 65 points, and a -8 this season.
A couple weeks ago, playing the Buffalo Sabres at home with a chance to take over first place in the putrid Southeast Division, the Caps were obliterated 5-1. This just isn't a team with a drive to win. So we know they'll mail it in this postseason. The only question is whether they'll go with standard shipping (and lose in 6 games) or mail it overnight (a 4 game sweep).
9. Standard shipping, or overnight?
Almost every single year, there's at least one goalie who plays out of his mind and raises his team to heights it couldn't have otherwise achieved. Think J.S. Giguère with the Ducks in 2003 or Jaroslav Halak with the Canadiens in 2010.
So, who's it going to be this year? Could Jose Theodore enter "the zone" and help the Panthers go on a surprise run? Could Thomas Vokoun actually make the half-hearted Capitals a dangerous team? Could Jonathan Quick treat the Kings to an upset over the mighty Vancouver Canucks? Or could Pekka Rinne help bring the Cup to Nashville?
8. This year's surprise goalie?
Speaking of Nashville, every single year this team plays beyond their talent level thanks to their brilliant coach, Barry Trotz. (I actually think Trotz is the best coach in the NHL.) But this year, Nashville's talent level is pretty damn high. They've got a stud between the pipes in Pekka Rinne, two of the league's best defensemen in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, and an extremely deep corps of two-way forwards led by Martin Erat, David Legwand, Mike Fisher, and Patric Horqvist. Then they added even more depth by acquiring veteran defenseman Hal Gil from Montreal and convincing the league to allow the return of super-talented Alexander Radulov from the KHL.
With both Suter and Weber set to become free-agents after this season, and with Radulov pretty much a loose cannon who goes wherever the money is, this may be the last chance for the Predators to make a deep post-season run for quite some time. Then again, if the Preds do go deep, that would only increase the likelihood that they're able to sign their pending free agents and do it all again next year.
7. Can Nashville take the next step?
Bruins goalie Tim Thomas caused quite the commotion this year by making some pretty big political statements. First came his decision not to go with his Stanely Cup Champion teammates when they were invited to the White House to meet the President, for which he issued a public explanation decrying big government, the loss of personal liberty, and other Tea Party type stuff. Then he decided to use Facebook to weigh in on the birth control mandate that was part of the Obama Administration's healthcare plan.
Now, I've certainly got no problems with Thomas' political opinions, and as an American citizen he has every right to voice them however he sees fit. Still, all that stuff had to be a little bit of a distraction for the Bruins. So you have to wonder whether Thomas will be able to put all that behind him and just focus on playing hockey, or if members of the press will be able to get him riled up and talking politics again.
I'm sure everyone in Boston, regardless of their political affiliation, is hoping he just shuts up and keeps pucks from hitting the twine.
6. Will Tim Thomas just keep his mouth shut?
The St. Louis Blues were the surprise of the NHL this season. After getting off to a 6-7 start and firing coach Davis Payne, the Blues hired former Cup-winning coach Ken Hitchcock. After that, the team went 42-14-10, ended up winning the tough Central Division, had the best home record in the NHL, and allowed the fewest number of goals (a ridiculous 165) by any team since the league expanded in 1967.
But the Blues are young and inexperienced when it comes to the playoffs. And as every pundit everywhere is always reminding us, the playoffs are not like the regular season. The additions of playoff vets and Stanley Cup champs Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnot should help on this front. But these two alone have played in more playoff games (252) than the rest of the team combined (220). So it remains to be seen whether the Blues can take their game to the next level.
5. Are they for real?
Jonathan Toews and Daniel Sedin are still trying to make it back from concussions in time for the first round, and everyone in Pittsburgh is praying Sidney Crosby doesn't get his bell rung and experience a recurrence of the symptoms that kept him out of the lineup for a whopping 101 games. And beyond the superstars, there are other impact players (like David Perron, Alex Steen, Matt D'Agostini and Andy MacDonald—all in St. Louis) who missed significant time this season thanks to concussions and who might just be one hit away from returning to the DL.
In short, post-concussion syndrome could have a serious impact on the outcome of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. And this brings us to our next playoff storyline to watch...
4. Concussed superstars
Since Brendan Shanahan took over as the NHL's top disciplinarian, he's been handing out multigame suspensions like they're going out of style. However, as you may have noticed, the suspensions have gotten shorter as the year has gone on—which suggests that while the league may be serious about curbing head shots, it's also serious about not affecting playoff races by suspending key players. There were 11 suspensions of 5 games or more through January, including one 12-game suspension, one 10-game suspension, two 8-game suspensions, and two 7-game suspensions. Since the start of February, only one player (Chicago's Duncan Keith) has received a 5-game suspension.
So what is Shanny doing to do when someone gets a little carried away in the playoffs? Will he go back to his early-season ways and throw the book at him? Or will he be more conservative and dole out 1 and 2-game suspensions?
3. What Will Shanny Do?
Can the Canucks once again make it through the Western Conference gauntlet and get back to the Stanley Cup Finals? More importantly, if they do make it back, can they actually win this year, avoiding the kind of epic loss that spurred drunken rioting last year in Vancouver?
(Yeah, yeah, I know—that wasn't the "real" Vancouver, and those weren't the "real" Canucks fans. But still, that riot did happen, right? I didn't just imagine it?)
It's a touch call. The Canucks won the Presidents' Trophy again this year, but it's not like that's a good indicator of Stanley Cup success. Since 2002, more Presidents' Trophy winners have lost in the first round (3) than won the cup (1).
Plus, while the Canucks added some grit (like Zack Kassian and Dale Weiss) and depth (like David Booth and Samuel Pahlsson) in the offseason, some of the biggest questions remain:
-Can Roberto Luongo go more than two games without having a total meltdown and giving up 6 goals?
-Have the Sedin twins learned that, in the playoffs, you can't just fall to the ice and writhe around in pain every time someone bumps in to you?
-Has Alex Burrows gotten his biting problem in check?
2. Will Vancouver riot again?
Thanks to the screwy seeding system that guarantees a top-3 slot to the winner of each division, the extremely mediocre Florida Panthers (only 38 wins and 18 overtime losses) finished ahead of two excellent hockey teams: the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This sucks for the Penguins and Flyers—bitter rivals who have to face each other in the first round of the playoffs—but it's great for hockey fans, because we're guaranteed at least one nasty dogfight right off the bat.
The last time these two teams played each other—April 1, on national television—things got a little heated. Late in the game, Sidney Crosby received a crosscheck from behind that knocked him to the ice. So Pittsburgh sent out it's 4th line to remind the Flyers that they wouldn't just take that kind of stuff lying down. Next thing you know, there's a 10 minute brawl, and both coaches are standing up on the boards and screaming at each other.
It was awesome. So this series could be epic.
1. Battle of Pennsylvania
Boston Bruins, concussion, NHL, sidney crosby, Stanley Cup Playoffs, Vancouver Canucks,