Sixteen teams, eight series, one dream and a thousand story lines. Welcome to the most compelling postseason tournament in sports. Here's a look at 10 story lines to follow once the pucks drop Wednesday.
The long arm of the law
Last season, Anaheim's Chris Pronger was suspended twice in consecutive playoff rounds after crunching Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom and Ottawa's Dean McAmmond. He got a game apiece. This season, the NHL has absorbed a number of body blows for its handling of disciplinary matters, ranging from Pronger's eight-game suspension for stomping on Ryan Kesler to Georges Laraque's three-game suspension for tossing an elbow at an unsuspecting Nathan Paetsch to Mattias Ohlund's two-hander that broke Mikko Koivu's leg and netted him just four games. The spotlight on discipline will be even greater in the playoffs, where the magnitude of both the potential acts and suspensions take on greater importance. Already plagued by inconsistency, here's hoping the NHL gets it right.
On a related matter, there were a number of complaints that Anaheim dragged the game backward last spring by hooking and holding its way to a Cup championship. We don't buy that, but it's worth repeating the need for the NHL's officials to keep calling the standard when it comes to obstruction, hooking and holding, regardless of whether it's in overtime or not.
The M.A.S.H. factor
Sometimes, it can be a galvanizing force; other times, it can be a crippling blow. But rest assured, injuries will at some point play a significant role in shaping the story lines that will unfold in the coming weeks. Last season, the Red Wings, already without Niklas Kronwall for the entire playoffs, lost Mathieu Schneider for the Western Conference finals. In a close series, who's to say that wasn't the difference? All teams will suffer through bumps and bruises, and sometimes players will blossom in unexpected roles; but just as often, teams will find their Stanley Cup dreams dashed when a key player or two is taken out of the mix. Look at the Buffalo Sabres in 2006. By the end of the Eastern Conference finals, they had lost four regular defensemen and were narrowly defeated by the Hurricanes. In the Cup finals that year, Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson was injured in Game 1. The Oilers hung around for seven games, but maybe that was the difference.
Injuries are already shaping how series will unfold. Chris Kelly, Mike Fisher and captain Daniel Alfredsson are all out for the Senators, who face the talented Penguins in the first round. Sergei Zubov isn't likely to play in the first round for Dallas, and Corey Perry won't rejoin the Ducks until late in the first round or later.
"Heidi" or not
The NHL suffered embarrassment during last season's Eastern Conference finals after NBC bailed on overtime coverage in what was an elimination game to go to a set-up show for The Preakness (that's a horse race, apparently). If ever there was proof the NHL is the Little Orphan Annie of pro sports in America, this was it. There were also, for the second season in a row, issues with the availability of Versus telecasts in some of the country's biggest markets, namely Los Angeles and New York. NHL sources say there are no guarantees that there won't be a repeat of last season's snafu, when NBC handed over its broadcast to Versus without adequately informing audiences of where to find the game. The NHL may opt for earlier start times on days when there could be a conflict (this generally happens twice during the postseason). Other than that, it's hope and pray for games to end in regulation. Also, Versus' numbers have shown a dramatic improvement in terms of ratings (up 24 percent) and viewers (up 32 percent).
By the time the Stanley Cup finals were winding down in June 2007, Anaheim uberchecker Samuel Pahlsson received serious consideration for Conn Smythe Trophy honors as playoff MVP. He would have provided full value for the honor given his defensive play and penchant for big goals (two of his three postseason goals were game-winners). From Steve Penney to Chris Kontos to Cam Ward, every spring provides surprise heroes. What other dark horse heroes might surface this spring? What about Brooks Laich in Washington? Or rookie David Krejci in Boston? Or Daniel Cleary in Detroit? Or Braydon Coburn in Philadelphia? Stay tuned.
The aged one
We know age is relative, but relatively speaking, Dominik Hasek is an ancient being by hockey standards. At 43, Hasek is trying to become the oldest goalie to win a Stanley Cup, surpassing Johnny Bower, who won at 42 years, 168 days with Toronto in 1967. If Hasek plays like he did last postseason, when he guided the Red Wings to the Western Conference finals with a 1.79 GAA and .923 save percentage in 18 games, then he may achieve that goal. But if he cannot find that level of play or (and this is more likely) if he starts to break down as the playoffs progress, then the dream will die, no matter how good the Red Wings are. With all due respect to Chris Osgood, who played himself into an All-Star Game at 35, the Wings' goaltending hopes ride squarely on the mossy shoulders of Mr. Hasek.
The 40-year-old virgins
OK, this really doesn't have much to do with the Steve Carell movie, but there are a number of late bloomers who will enjoy their first tastes of playoff action. Much will be made of youngsters Alexander Ovechkin, Carey Price, Phil Kessel and Nicklas Backstrom stepping into their first playoff games, but what about Martin Biron, 30, and Marc Savard, 30, and Tim Thomas, who will turn 34 during the Bruins' first-round series against Montreal? And then there's Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, who, at 53, will fill out an NHL playoff lineup for the first time when the Caps and Flyers tangle this week. Waiting that long for a whirl at the big dance sometimes adds extra incentive.
The cars are in the race, but the gas is gone
Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Nashville and, to a lesser degree, Calgary and Colorado have all been running in playoff mode for weeks now. Two trains of thought on this. One, teams that surged into the playoffs, like Washington, simply keep rolling. The idea of having to raise their level of play is moot because they've already achieved that by overcoming long odds to make the playoffs.
"Teams that have fought through adversity come in with a mind-set. They're used to always playing on the edge," former New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith said. "They've got nothing to lose."
Then there's the other side of the argument, suggesting the Flyers, Caps, Preds, et al, will find themselves in a natural let-down state after making the playoffs. It's not so much that players are satisfied, but rather a normal human condition to exhale after a long, emotional struggle. Getting their breath back may be difficult. Boston and Philadelphia may fall into this category; Smith believed both teams looked "beaten up" and "exhausted."
Brain versus brawn
In the first post-lockout season, we saw how speed and skill eclipsed slow-footed, bruising hockey as the Sabres ousted Philadelphia in the first round, while Carolina used three speedy, talented lines to win its first Stanley Cup. Last season, Brian Burke took a skilled base and added a healthy dose of shoulders, fists and hips as the Ducks knocked off skilled Detroit in the conference finals and the speedy Sens in the Cup finals. This spring? We've already seen skilled Minnesota beef up with the addition of Sean Hill, Todd Fedoruk and Chris Simon to go along with the hulking Derek Boogaard. Can the physical Flyers best high-flying Alexander Ovechkin and the surprising Caps? Will the Ducks, who once again led the NHL in penalties, defend with their physical style or will Detroit or San Jose or Montreal prevail and set the NHL on another course where speed and skill are the dominant factors?
It's not just hyperbole to suggest that any team in the playoffs can win it all. The Carolina Hurricanes, predicted by most to miss the playoffs entirely in 2005-06, won the Cup after beating Edmonton, the eighth seed that ousted regular-season champ Detroit to get there. From 1997-2006, a seventh seed knocked off a second seed every season. This year? It would be a monster upset if Ottawa and/or Boston knocked off Pittsburgh or Montreal, and an even bigger upset if either San Jose or Detroit lost to Calgary or Nashville, respectively. But Smith said that playing the same team every other night for two weeks allows for coaches -- good coaches -- to exploit weaknesses or hide their own. That's why it doesn't matter how teams fared against one another during the regular season (Boston has lost 11 straight vs. Montreal). It also explains why and how upsets happen.
Nothing like a playoff run to get the blood flowing, even in cities where it looked like the patient barely had a pulse. Witness the scenes in Washington, where the normally sparse Verizon Center has been a veritable sea of red for weeks now as the Capitals have been reborn under Boudreau and Ovechkin. The Caps sold out seven of their last 11 home dates and eight all season after selling out just seven games over the past three years combined. Over in Nashville, the Preds announced seven sellouts in their last 11 games. Fans also gave the players a long standing ovation during their last home game. Fans have also returned to Boston, where the Bruins are in the postseason for the first time since 2004. But teams can't take for granted that fans will turn out just because it's the playoffs, which is why smart teams use these occasions to further relations with fans and not simply count the receipts. Last season, the Red Wings, who have used the moniker Hockeytown for years, were embarrassed when they regularly failed to sell out Joe Louis Arena even though they advanced to the Western Conference finals. Detroit's new ad campaign aimed at attracting postseason fans asks the question, "Are you in?" Red Wings officials told ESPN.com on Monday that the team hasn't sold out any first-round games as of yet.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.