Here are 10 storylines to watch in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs:
1. The format
This is the first year of a new divisional playoff format, which means no more re-seeding and defined opponents for teams in the next round. In each of the four divisions (the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific), the second- and third-place teams face each other. In each conference (Eastern and Western), the division champion with the most points plays the second wild-card, while the other plays the first. There has already been plenty of debate and criticism about the St. Louis Blues meeting the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks meeting the Los Angeles Kings in the first round because it means two Stanley Cup contenders will be out early.
2. All the Presidents' Bruins
The Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins have been the best, most consistent team in the NHL this season and have to be considered Cup favourites. Led by Canadian Olympian Patrice Bergeron and goaltender Tuukka Rask, the Bruins have thrived on the game's biggest stage before and easily could have won it all a year ago against the Chicago Blackhawks. Trying to duplicate their 2011 title won't come with an easy road, however, as the Detroit Red Wings and either the rival Montreal Canadiens or surprising Tampa Bay Lightning stand in Boston's way of reaching even the Eastern Conference final.
3. Habs are Canada's only hope
For the first time since 1972-73, Canada has just one team in the playoffs. Goaltender Carey Price, defenceman P.K. Subban and the Canadiens are that one and only hope of ending Canada's Stanley Cup drought that has lasted since Montreal won it in 1993. Even if the idea of the whole country rooting for the final Canadian team left isn't realistic, the Habs are embracing making it where Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary did not. They'd also like to make history repeat itself, as the 1973 Canadiens won the Cup.
4. St. Patrick's Days
Patrick Roy's first season as coach of the Colorado Avalanche has been much more successful than anyone outside of the organization could have imagined. The Avalanche capitalized on the Blues' late-season slide to win the Central Division and set up a matchup with the wild-card Minnesota Wild. Semyon Varlamov has been the biggest reason for Colorado's success. If the Avs are to make any kind of run, they'll need Varlamov to keep that up and maybe channel a little of what his coach did to capture four Cups.
5. Crosby's next stand
Sidney Crosby is only 26 and he has two Olympic gold medals and a Stanley Cup ring. But the Penguins captain won his NHL title almost five full years ago. Pittsburgh would love to see Crosby continue at over a point-a-game pace like he did during the regular season. If he can, perhaps it'll ease some pressure on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, whose recent playoff implosions have given him a bad reputation despite winning a Cup ring in 2009.
6. Another chance for Boudreau
Bruce Boudreau has been branded a great regular-season coach, and the Ducks' first-round playoff loss last year to the Detroit Red Wings did nothing to get rid of that. But Anaheim is again a division champion, thanks to Ryan Getzlaf's MVP-calibre season and another big year by Canadian Olympic teammate Corey Perry. The Ducks should get past the wild-card Dallas Stars to set up a showdown with either the Kings or Sharks, but if they don't it'll be another disappointment for Boudreau, the former Jack Adams Award-winner.
7. Sharks see opportunity
Like Boudreau, the Sharks have—fairly or unfairly—held the stigma of a team that can't get the job done in the playoffs. With the goal of winning a Cup in mind, general manager Doug Wilson at the 2013 trade deadline put the organization into a "reset, refresh" mode to make San Jose faster and harder to play against. From Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Tomas Hertl, the Sharks are about as deep as they come. Facing the Kings will be a rugged challenge to start, and even if they survive the Sharks could get beaten up and softened along the way.
8. More adversity for Lightning
The Lightning managed to make the playoffs despite Steven Stamkos missing 45 games with a broken leg and Martin St. Louis asking for a trade and getting dealt out of Tampa. Coach Jon Cooper and goalie Ben Bishop guided the team through those storms, but then a couple of more arose in the past week. First and most seriously, Bishop suffered an upper-body injury that will force Anders Lindback to at least start the series against Montreal. And second, forward Ryan Malone was arrested for DUI and cocaine possession. Lindback starred in his appearances since Bishop went down, and Cooper insisted Malone's situation won't be a distraction for his team.
9. Toews, Kane and Blackhawks go for repeat
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane missed the end of the regular season with injuries, and though the Blackhawks said repeatedly they'd be 100 per cent for Game 1, what they'll be able to provide is an unknown. If it takes time for the two-time Cup champions to get back into game form, it'll be up to Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith to take over early on against Ryan Miller and the Blues. Integrating those players back in and shifting younger players down into different roles is just one challenge for Chicago, which is trying to become the first team to repeat as Cup champion since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
10. Crease questions
Three playoff teams could see two different goalies in action regardless of injury. In Anaheim, there's controversy around the three-headed monster of Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, and Boudreau isn't afraid to pull the plug and make changes in goal. In Minnesota, Ilya Bryzgalov is hot, but there's no certainty given his playoff history that the Wild won't turn to John Curry at some point. And in San Jose, coach Todd McLellan refused to divulge his Game 1 starter even though Antti Niemi figured to get the call. If he believes backup Alex Stalock gives San Jose a better chance to win, it's a decision that could be second-guessed for a long time.
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