1. Where does the dark horse come from?
By now we know it's not a question of if but who or how many teams will rise up from the depths and make a run. The Los Angeles Kings became the first 8-seed to win the Stanley Cup last June, but every year it seems one or two teams defy critics and make life miserable for teams with higher expectations. Think back to 2010, when the seventh and eighth seeds (Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens) met in the Eastern Conference finals after dispatching the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins. Who has it in them this spring? Well, take a good look at the New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild, and never count out the Detroit Red Wings, who looked for a while like they might miss out but finished with a strong Detroit-like push.
2. At the risk of overstating the obvious, staying healthy is key
The Kings a year ago managed to avoid injury to key personnel, whereas other teams weren't as fortunate. The Vancouver Canucks started the playoffs without Daniel Sedin. Marian Hossa was taken out by Raffi Torres' dangerous head shot, and the Chicago Blackhawks were gone in the first round. The Flyers were walking wounded by the end of their second-round loss to the New Jersey Devils. The same will hold true this spring, and a number of teams will start the playoffs with significant injury question marks. What of the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Paul Martin, all of whom will likely be in the lineup during the playoffs but are coming off serious injuries of various shapes and sizes? What kind of shape will Nathan Horton be in for the Bruins, if he's in any shape at all? The Wild lost deadline acquisition Jason Pominville late in the regular season thanks to a Dustin Brown hit that cost Brown a two-game suspension, and Pominville's absence could prove critical. Will T.J. Oshie be able to contribute for the St. Louis Blues after missing time because of a wonky ankle? Patrick Sharp is getting back into a groove for Chicago, but what of Ray Emery, who has been such a nice counterpoint to Corey Crawford for the Presidents' Trophy winners but missed time down the stretch with injury? Erik Karlsson was thought to be lost for the season, but he appeared in the surprising Ottawa Senators' lineup late in the going, changing Ottawa's dynamic dramatically. Bottom line, as always: Stay out of the infirmary and your chances of staying in the hunt rise exponentially.
3. Pens, Hawks were the well-defined crème de la crème of the season
But everyone understands that as good as those teams are, to suggest they are locks to meet in the Stanley Cup finals, as tantalizing a prospect as that might be, is foolhardy. That said, tracking the playoff journey of these two elites, teams that eclipsed the competition in their respective conferences in dramatic fashion, will be an ongoing storyline, or at least as ongoing as they are. The Blackhawks have a decidedly more difficult path to negotiate to get to the finals than Pittsburgh, given the preponderance of top-end, hard-checking, high-skill teams in the Western Conference. That's the reality. It doesn't mean the Pens will cakewalk to the finals -- they might or might not get knocked down in the first round, as was the case a year ago -- but logic tells you the NHL's two top teams are going to meet in a mighty contest of titans in the final round. The focus will be on these two Goliaths and the Davids who will try to knock them from the tournament.
4. This has been a trying season for on-ice officials
Players, coaches and GMs seemed testier than usual when it came to the level of officiating, and there were a number of embarrassing situations where calls were missed on the ice that led to supplemental discipline or, conversely, where major penalties were called that were later rescinded. In the first game of the first round of the playoffs last year, Daniel Briere scored on a play that was offside by about three feet, helping Philadelphia erase an early Pittsburgh lead and change the complexion of a series ultimately won by the Flyers in six games. That hundreds of other calls were made correctly does little to change the notion that at times the officials are more the story come the playoffs than they or anyone else want them to be. There's no tougher job in pro sports, and here's hoping that the officials aren't a story this spring. Further, here's hoping there's a clear mandate from the league about how these games will be called and that the mandate is "be consistent." There will always be complaints that as playoff games proceed there are fewer calls, and that as the playoffs progress it takes more and more to earn a penalty. It's human nature perhaps to want to see fewer calls as the games mean more, but it's also inherently wrong. A penalty in the first period of Game 1 of the first round is the same penalty that should be -- nay, has to be -- called in overtime of Game 7 of the finals. Let it be so, and let us not hear a whisper of carping when that's what happens.
5. Who are the heroes-in-waiting?
Crosby. Alex Ovechkin. Jonathan Toews. Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Henrik Lundqvist. These are guys who can single-handedly change a series. But every year there are the other heroes, guys who step from the shadows to make a difference not just in a game but in a series or over the course of two or three series. Last spring, the Devils received unexpected production from a hardworking forward trio made up of Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier (at least until Bernier destroyed Rob Scuderi in the first period of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, but that's another story) en route to an unexpected trip to the finals. Remember Max Talbot's virtuoso performance in the 2009 playoffs, capped off by a two-goal performance in Game 7 against the Red Wings? This spring, we're curious to see how Brandon Saad, the talented Chicago rookie, fares in his first playoff experience. What about Gregory Campbell, who has quietly played a significant role for the Bruins? Or hard-nosed Vladimir Sobotka in St. Louis, who has the tools to make a difference in a close series for a team that will need all hands on deck to make a long run?