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From the Tampa Bay Lightning dominating the regular season to the wild-card races going right down to the final days, the six-month prelude to the Stanley Cup playoffs offered plenty of intrigue and excitement. But now the post-season is here and with it comes a slew of questions that, no matter what happened over the previous 82 games, can be answered only in the weeks ahead.
1. Can anyone beat the Tampa Bay Lightning?
It doesn’t look like it. While the Presidents’ Trophy has been a bit of a curse in the past — both the top-seeded Sharks in 2009 and the Capitals in 2010 lost in the first round — the Lightning is not like other No. 1 seeds. For one, the Bolts dominated the NHL like no other before them, becoming just the third team in history to win more than 60 games this season. Plus, this is the same core group of players that went to the Stanley Cup final in 2015. That being said, their road to another final isn’t going to be as easy as it probably should be. Despite finishing with the best record, Tampa Bay has to play either the third-ranked Bruins or the fifth-ranked Maple Leafs in the second round. Either team could be a challenge, especially if Victor Hedman isn’t 100% healthy.
2. Could there be a repeat Cup champion?
Maybe. While it’s really hard to win back-to-back Cups, the Capitals are heading into this year’s playoffs in a similar position to a year ago. With one big exception: They now have confidence that they can go all the way and win. That’s a big thing for a team that continually failed to get over the hump. Now that Alex Ovechkin has a Cup and finally lifted that weight off his shoulders, don’t be surprised if the 51-goal scorer is even better this time around. If so, we could be in store for another summer of keg stands and fountain dives.
3. Will the Leafs get past the first round?
It sure doesn’t look like it. After all, the Bruins are the third-best team in the league. And they have had Toronto’s number for, well, 60 years. The last time the Leafs beat the Bruins in the playoffs was way back in 1959. Eventually, the nightmare has to end. And this year it could if the Leafs’ top guns start firing. Toronto has invested a lot of money in John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Patrick Marleau. Now, it’s time for those players, along with Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri and Frederik Andersen, to step up and show what they’re worth. If they do that, who knows, it could have the same effect as when Washington got over the hump last year and finally beat Pittsburgh en route to winning a Cup.
4. Can a Canadian team win the Stanley Cup?
It’s been 26 years since a Canadian team brought the Stanley Cup north of the border. But don’t be surprised if the drought ends this year. On paper, Calgary has the best opportunity to win it all, having finished first in the West. But the Flames goaltending is a bit concerning. In Toronto, the Leafs have all the talent in the world. But they also have a roadblock in the form of the Bruins in the first round and likely the Lightning in the second round. So that leaves the Jets, who went to the conference final a year ago and have the size, skill and experience to go potentially all the way. That is, as long as Patrik Laine regains his touch and Josh Morrissey gets healthy.
5. What coach is on the hot seat?
It might sound silly to talk about a coach being fired after getting his team into the playoffs. But keep in mind that the Capitals were reportedly going to fire Barry Trotz if he lost in the first round to the Jackets a year ago. Even after he won the Cup, Trotz ended up out of Washington. This year, the coach to watch is Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice. While he’s not necessarily on the hot seat, the expectations around the Jets have increased since reaching the conference final last year. If the Jets go out in the first round, it wouldn’t be surprising if a coaching change were made. The same might be true of Mike Babcock if he is unable to get the Leafs into the second round. Sure, he is only halfway through an eight-year contract. But keep in mind that most of that $50-million has already been paid out.
6. Will Sidney Crosby add to his legacy?
This hasn’t been a great season for the Penguins, who were battling until the last week of the season to get into the playoffs. But despite the team’s struggles — Evgeni Malkin has been just plain awful — it’s been one of the best seasons of Sidney Crosby’s career. With 95 points, he might be a finalist for the Hart Trophy. At the very least, he should probably win the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward. Crosby won back-to-back playoff MVPs in 2016 and 2017, but was arguably even better last year when he scored nine goals and 21 points in 12 games. In other words, we could be seeing a lot of Sid the Kid’s scraggly playoff beard.
7. Will there be a Cinderella story?
If there’s a team that could do what Vegas did a year ago and buck the odds, it’s the Islanders. This is a team that finished in 11th place last season, but despite losing John Tavares to free agency, somehow managed to get better this year. Coaching is a big part of New York’s success. There’s nothing flashy with this team that didn’t have a player ranked among the top 60 in scoring. But what the Islanders lack offensively, they make up for on defence, where Barry Trotz’s system resulted in the fewest goals allowed and the fifth-fewest penalties taken. It’s boring hockey. But in the playoffs, boring often leads to deep runs.
8. Which team will break our hearts?
The Sharks were a pre-season favourite after adding Erik Karlsson in the summer. But it hasn’t exactly worked out the way we thought it would. Sure, San Jose has one of the best records in the West. But whether it’s Karlsson not quite looking comfortable or that goalie Martin Jones is having the worst season of his career, the Sharks don’t seem like a team that is poised to win the Cup. With Vegas waiting in the first round, don’t be surprised if San Jose once again falls significantly short.
9. Which player has the most to prove?
William Nylander missed the first two months of the season because of a contract stalemate. Based on his play, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was still holding out. With six goals and 26 points in 52 games, he’s far from deserving of the $10.2-million he’s actually being paid this season. But all that can change in the playoffs, an area where Nylander hasn’t exactly shined in the past. Last year, he had just one goal and three assists in seven games against the Bruins. As a rookie, he had identical numbers against the Capitals. But if the Leafs are going to get out of the first round, Nylander will have to be a big part of the equation.
10. Which trade add offers the most impact?
Mark Stone was the biggest name available at the trade deadline. With four goals and 10 points in 17 games since joining the Golden Knights, he hasn’t exactly lived up to the offensive expectations of a player who had 62 points in 59 games with Ottawa. But don’t expect him to stay quiet for long. Playing alongside Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny — two players who have had quiet seasons since coming to Vegas — Stone will have ample opportunity to produce when the games matter. He’d better. After all, the Golden Knights just signed him to an eight-year extension with a $9.5-million cap hit.
11. Which Game 1 starter will be replaced?
Flames head coach Bill Peters said he would not know until the start of the playoffs whether Mike Smith or David Rittich will be in net for Game 1. But here’s what we know: Whoever is in net probably won’t play every game. And the Flames aren’t alone in that regard. The Islanders also relied on the tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss to much success this season, while the improved play of Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer, Dallas’ Anton Khudobin and Nashville’s Jussi Saros could have those teams turning to their backups at the first sign of danger. Not that it’s a bad thing. Braden Holtby was on the bench for Game 1 last year before taking the reins.
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