Upsets, goalies and playoff beards
With the Stanley Cup playoffs kicking off Wednesday, our experts took some time to ponder what lies ahead. ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun and ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek answer these 10 burning questions:
1. Which player will surprise everyone in the playoffs?Scott Burnside: Boston Bruins winger Michael Ryder. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli took a significant gamble when he gave Ryder a three-year deal worth $12 million in the offseason. It's paid off with Ryder bouncing back after a disastrous season in Montreal (he has 27 goals, including seven game winners). Watch for Ryder to score some big power-play goals as the Bruins aim for their first conference final since 1992.
E.J. Hradek: That would have to be Detroit goalie Chris Osgood, right? The three-time Cup winner has struggled mightily this season. At one point, the club sent him home for a little downtime. There are many who are ready to count him out. While there's no doubt he'll be on a short leash (especially during the first round), Osgood has proved us wrong before. I get the feeling he's going to do it again.
Pierre LeBrun: Brooks Laich. People in my media pool laughed when I picked him, but he flies under the radar. He's a power-play contributor and produced a career-high 53 points (23-30) this season, including eight (4-4) in his final five regular-season games. He plays on the team's second line with Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin and makes the trio successful with his willingness to pay the price in the corners and in front of the net. If the Caps have a long playoff run, you will know of Brooks Laich by the end of it.
2. Which team is most likely to pull off the first-round upset?Burnside: I think there are two, and both come out of the sixth seed. St. Louis is being given little chance of beating Vancouver by most prognosticators, but the Blues had the best record in the second half of the season and may get Paul Kariya back early in the first round. They have a solid defense -- one that is as good if not better than Vancouver's -- and are better up front. The Hurricanes are also on fire, and with Cam Ward looking like he did when he was playoff MVP in 2006 and Eric Staal virtually unstoppable, watch for the Canes to dispose of the Devils for the second time since the end of the lockout.
Hradek: Anaheim. The Ducks finished the season strong, going 10-2-1 in their last 13 games. They still have star defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger leading a suddenly deeper group of blueliners that will buoyed by the return of Francois Beauchemin, who had been out since undergoing knee surgery in November. Up front, the emergence of rookies Bobby Ryan and Andrew Ebbett has provided more offensive balance to a team that already has young studs Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, as well as veteran sniper Teemu Selanne. Playoff novice Jonas Hiller figures to start in goal, but Anaheim can always turn to Cup winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere, if needed. The Sharks will have their hands full.
LeBrun: Anaheim. I still picked the San Jose Sharks to beat them in a difficult, drag-them-out seven games, but it wouldn't shock me if the Ducks won. They've still got a core of guys like Pronger, Niedermayer, Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Selanne that won the Cup in 2007 and know what it takes to succeed in the playoffs. The Ducks finished the season on the hottest roll in the NHL (10-2-1) and look as good as they have since winning that NHL championship.
3. Which player is your early Conn Smythe Trophy pick?
Burnside: Well, since I picked the Penguins to win the Cup, I will go with the easy one, Sidney Crosby. He finished tied for the lead in playoff scoring a year ago, and no reason to knock a good thing after he finished third in NHL scoring during the regular season.
Hradek: Pavel Datsyuk. He's the best player whom no one talks about. Datsyuk is a dynamic offensive force who can beat you with his skill and smarts in all three zones. Let's start with him and see where things go.
LeBrun: Joe Thornton, San Jose. If the Sharks can avoid the Ducks upset, I think they're in for the long haul and the much-maligned star center for San Jose is going to once and for all quiet his critics with a monster postseason. Thornton has a better supporting cast around him now, on and off the ice, where leaders like Rob Blake, Brad Lukowich and Travis Moen will take on important roles. This could be Thornton's year.
4. Which goaltender will still be in net at the end of the first round -- Chris Osgood, Jose Theodore or Carey Price?
Burnside: Jose Theodore, because he always plays well in the first round before imploding. Ask this question 15 minutes into the second round, and we may come up with a different answer.
Hradek: What is Bruce Boudreau's other option? Would the Capitals coach dare turn to rookie Simeon Varlamov in a big spot? The Magic 8-Ball says "very doubtful."
LeBrun: Jose Theodore. He's a perfect 4-0 in first-round series, winning a pair with Montreal in 2002 and 2004 and with Colorado in 2006 and 2008. That shows me a comfort level with this time of year, and I think he'll do it again with the Washington Capitals.
5. Who is going to have the best crowd in their team's playoff return/debut -- Chicago, Columbus or St. Louis?
Burnside: Great question as all three places are going to rock, but you've got to go with Chicago. They've been warming up for this moment all season. Pack your ear plugs if you're going to United Center anytime soon.
Hradek: Chicago. They can fit more people into the United Center. You know what they say about strength in numbers. I'd be thrilled to have a seat in any of those three buildings. There are some hard-core fans in those cities. Welcome back to the party, everybody!
LeBrun: With all due respect to a pair of wonderful markets in St. Louis and Columbus, when the national anthem is sung at the United Center on Thursday night, the roof might collapse. This is an Original Six market that got mistreated for a long time. Hawks fans will unleash their passion in this year's playoffs and it'll be unmatched in any NHL rink this spring.
6. Which of the big three -- Crosby, Malkin or Ovechkin -- faces the most pressure in these playoffs?
Burnside: I think it's Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin held off Ovechkin for the scoring title and Crosby has already taken his team to the Stanley Cup finals, not to mention winning a scoring title. In the grand scheme of things, Ovechkin is far behind his two rivals given that the Caps haven't won a playoff series since they went to the 1998 Cup finals.
Hradek: Ovechkin. His team isn't the feisty underdog this time. They're expected to cruise through their first-round series against the Rangers and challenge for the conference crown. The weight of those lofty expectations will fall squarely on A.O.'s broad shoulders.
LeBrun: Ovechkin. He's got a ton of individual accolades already in his young career, including a Hart Trophy and possibly a second in June. But what he doesn't have is much of a playoff résumé. He has played seven games in total and his team lost last season to Philadelphia. Malkin and Crosby have gone to a Cup finals. I think there's tremendous pressure on Ovechkin to get his team past the first round and beyond; otherwise, questions will be asked about the character of his team. And that starts with him.
7. Which series is likely to go seven games?
Burnside: I think there are a couple of candidates. St. Louis and Vancouver, given the fact both teams are playing so well and have good, solid defenses and goaltenders playing exceptionally well. I also think Henrik Lundqvist in New York has the potential to keep the Rangers in their series against Washington.
Hradek: I think there's a good chance the Sharks-Ducks series could go the distance. These are two heavyweights going skate-to-skate. I expect there will be some knockdowns along the way, but I expect both teams to get up off the ice and come back for a little more. In an all-California matchup, I'll steal a movie title to describe it: "There Will Be Blood."
LeBrun: Carolina-New Jersey. Both teams had excellent second halves, although the Devils faltered late. But with Martin Brodeur and Cam Ward facing off in goal and comparable offensive depth on each side, this one could go the distance. There's not much to choose from between these two teams.
8. Will Sean Avery be a help or detriment for the Rangers?
Burnside: No question he's a positive element for the Rangers. Always has been. Won't stop now. Go figure.
Hradek: I think Avery will be important for the Rangers. If he is successful in getting the Caps to focus on him, he will have done his job. The Rangers are an underdog in this series, so I don't see too much downside for New York's king of chaos.
LeBrun: If he stays away from doing anything foolish, he'll be a help. The incident with Tim Thomas once again shadowed the fact he had put together a decent string of games for the Rangers. I think if he plays a hard-nosed game in the Caps' zone, the offensively challenged Rangers might benefit from his forecheck.
9. What is one dream hockey scenario you want to see from the first round?
Burnside: Mats Sundin draws a hooking penalty in the offensive zone with less than a minute to play in regulation in Game 7 in a 3-3 game, setting up the series-clinching goal by former teammate Alexander Steen with an assist from former teammate Carlo Colaiacovo.
Hradek: That's an easy one for me. Game 7 overtime between the Ducks and Sharks. A California showdown comes down to one last goal.
LeBrun: Montreal surprises all of us and forces its series to seven games with heavily favored Boston. Can you just imagine all the nervous souls in Beantown given their sad playoff history with the Habs? Would be funny to see.
10. Which player will be least successful at growing the traditional playoff beard?
Burnside: Jonathan Toews. What the Blackhawks captain will put up is an insult to peaches everywhere.
Hradek: Zach Parise. He doesn't seem like a beard guy to me. I don't think that will stop him from being a dynamic force for the Devils, though.
LeBrun: Patrick Kane. I mean, is the guy even 18 yet? I sure hope he's not allowed in Chicago bars. I love this one story from his rookie season. Kane scored a shootout goal on Dominik Hasek. Afterward, Kane, a big Sabres fan while growing up in Buffalo, went over to see Hasek and asked to take a picture with him. At first, I believe Hasek thought Kane was some kid wanting an autograph.
2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
The Stanley Cup playoffs kick off Wednesday. Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and the rest of our NHL team preview the first round: