The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin on Wednesday evening, and there are plenty of plotlines to keep an eye on during the coming weeks. Here are 10 of the best:
1. It's been 14 years since someone's done it. Can Boston go back-to-back?
The Bruins played 107 games last season. That's a lot of hockey. With a short summer and another 82-game grind behind them, what's left in their tank? There's a reason why the Stanley Cup is so hard to win. There are even more reasons why it's so tough to win twice in a row. Everything that may have gone right for the Bruins a year ago may not fall into place this spring. Tim Thomas had the playoffs of his life in 2011. Can he repeat that? David Krejci led the Bruins in goals en route to the Cup. Can he step up again? How much will Nathan Horton's absence affect Boston? Is Brian Rolston 2012's version of Mark Recchi? The further the Bruins go, the more questions will be answered.
2. Are the No. 1-seeded New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks safe in the first round?
Since the NHL went to the 1-8 conference format, a No. 8 seed had upset a No. 1 nine times. The last coming in 2010 when the Montreal Canadiens beat the Washington Capitals in seven games. That's nine times out 36 series. That's a decent amount of upsets for what should be an "easier" matchup for the top seeds. But in the playoffs, anything can happen and one hot goaltender or the stepping up of several key players on an underdog can result in an upset.
The Rangers face an Ottawa team they went 1-3 against in the regular season. Those numbers get wiped out of the minds of Rangers' players, but the Senators will likely use that success as extra motivation, and the knowledge that despite all their success, they've proven they can hang with New York and Henrik Lundqvist. Vancouver outscored Los Angeles by 54 goals during the regular season, but allowed 19 more. The Canucks' offensive talent could easily be slowed by likely Vezina and potential Hart Trophy candidate Jonathan Quick.
3. How much will be taken out of the winner of Pittsburgh/Philadelphia heading into Round 2?
No one needs to be reminded of the hate between these two franchises that's existed for decades. Just in recent history, this will be the third meeting in the last six postseasons between the two. Last weekend's shenanigans may have "set a tone" or "sent a message" to the other side, but everyone involved understands the ramifications of exacting revenge or doing something stupid on the ice.
On paper, this matchup is expected to be highly physical and tight. Knowing that, what kind of shape will the winning side be in once the series is over? Whoever wins the series might come out of it limping and potentially hinder them earlier on in Round 2.
4. How long is the leash on Roberto Luongo?
He came within a win of delivering Vancouver their first Stanley Cup, but the spectre of Cory Schneider has loomed large over Luongo. We saw in Round 1 against Chicago last year when Schneider started Game 6 after Luongo had been pulled in the previous two games. Head coach Alain Vigneault has already said Luongo will be his Game 1 starter versus Los Angeles, but knowing that after coming so close to the Cup a year ago and winning the Presidents' Trophy for a second straight year, the expectations in Vancouver are even higher.
A series can turn on a dime and Vigneault knowing he has Schneider available on the bench, a couple missteps by Luongo and his control of the crease may be out of his grasp.
5. Who is this year's hot goaltender?
Last spring, it was Dwayne Roloson. The year, before it was Antti Niemi and Jaroslav Halak. At some point during these playoffs a goaltender will strap his team on his back and vault them into a long playoff run and, in some cases, a championship.
Mike Smith and Quick are the top two contenders in this category. While there are the Marc-Andre Fleurys, Tim Thomas's and Lundqvists involved, they either play on Cup favorites or have been that "hot" goaltender before. Phoenix and Los Angeles likely aren't many pundits' contenders lists, but if you're picking sleeper teams to go deep or at least provide an upset or two, then Smith and Quick are your go-to guys.
6. What does the future hold for Phoenix, on and off the ice?
Another year, the same old story for the Coyotes. Back in the playoffs and finally not facing the Red Wings in the opening round. With their future still undecided, the overhanging story each time they face elimination will be whether or not it's their final game as the Coyotes. The ownership situation doesn't appear to be close to being settled and if you're the NHL, you'd like for any potential bad news to wait until Phoenix's season comes to an end. But should the Coyotes make a run to the Stanley Cup Final, is it possible that relocation news could be kept under wraps that long?
Likely not. If a local buyer is found and the team is staying in Phoenix, that'd just be a shot in the arm for the fan base and players and be the best kind of distraction. Whatever the case, the Coyotes have managed to keep any and all distractions like that out of the room and worry about their play on the ice and it's shown.
7. Will David Poile's trade deadline moves (and Alex Radulov) pay off?
After taking that next step and moving on to Round 2 last year, the Nashville Predators didn't stand pat and acquired Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn at the trade deadline then welcomed back Alex Radulov after a four-season defection to the KHL. The additions weren't blockbusters, just beefing up an already talented roster with some size and skill. Poile faces the prospect of losing defenseman Ryan Suter this off-season to free agency, and captain Shea Weber is an RFA next summer. There's no answer as to whether one or both of them will stay, so why not go for it now? This is Poile pushing his chips all in telling the Western Conference is serious and no longer just a feel-good story.
8. What becomes of an early exit by the San Jose Sharks?
After five straight 100-plus point seasons, the Sharks managed a disappointing 96 and teetered on the brink of not making the playoffs until settling into the No. 7 spot after a fight for the Pacific Division title. Disappointing because many had expected the Sharks to be better than they performed. Some (this guy) even predicted them to win the Cup. Now, with the prospect of taking on the St. Louis Blues who swept the seasons series 4-0, it's possible the Sharks don't make it out of Round 1 for just the second time since 1999.
If summer comes early in San Jose, what does that mean going forward. Is head coach Todd McLellan safe? Does GM Doug Wilson get desperate and move out some big names or does just make small adjustments and go for it one last time?
9. What will playoff supplemental discipline be like under Brendan Shanahan?
Colin Campbell would send out a press release in the past. Brendan Shanahan produces a video explanation. This is the new system we're under in regards to what Shanahan calls "changing player behavior" and not punishing. Shanahan has spent this season visiting all 30 teams and speaking to the general managers to educate them on what his standards are and how he and the Department of Player Safety plan to enforce them. Shanahan told Y!'s Nick Cotsonika that suspensions in the playoffs will shorter because each game has so much weight to it. One game in the playoffs could hurt a team more than three or four in the regular season.
In the playoffs, emotions get high and every game is more valuable than the next. As a former player, Shanahan understands what it could potentially mean to a player to miss a playoff game. We'll see how much of his message to the current players has sunk in.
10. Playoff hockey on American television in a whole new way.
When the NHL and NBC announced their 10-year television agreement, fans were curious how the Peacock would treat hockey now that they'd actually be paying for the broadcast rights. Aside from pre- and post-game shows, between NBC and Versus/NBC Sports Network, over 100 regular season games were shown and beginning with these playoffs, every single matchup will be broadcast on the NBC family of networks and NHL Network. There's not much more an American viewer could ask for.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy