As the regular season trudges on, as teams compete for division supremacy, as the standings continue to change constantly with teams rising and sinking, with each game becoming just as significant and vital as the previous one, the playoffs inch closer and closer as each day passes, which makes the constant playoff race tighter and more tense. This will go on until every team plays all 82 games, and the top eight in each conference are set in stone. Only then, will a new set of eliminations begin, until the final sixteen playoff teams are trimmed down to the final pair, only one of which will emerge as the 2009 Stanley Cup Champions. Having said that, this season, just like any other season, possesses its own unique qualities, stories, and of course teams that make this season that more interesting to watch. These qualities to each season brew up enticing questions that are asked, and I have three big questions that I would love to hear answers for.
Will playoff history repeat itself for the Bruins and Sharks?
Starting when the Boston Bruins won the Eastern Conference in the 2001-2002 season, they have failed to make it past the first round whenever they appeared in the playoffs. The San Jose Sharks had some strong seasons, but have never been a potent playoff team, usually getting eliminated in the first or second round. A casual observer would have the Bruins and Sharks juke it out in the Stanley Cup Finals in six or seven exciting and intense games, but if you knew your playoff history, you would know the difficulties these teams have endured in the postseason. Right now, the Sharks and the Bruins are mastering their respective conferences, and have shared the top of the league throughout the season. One would argue that things are different for both teams. In Boston, their success has been based around the likes of Marc Savard, Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas, and a core of young players such as Blake Wheeler, Phil Kessel, and Milan Lucic. Joe Thornton and Brian Murray, the two old faces of the Bruins are long gone, Thornton ironically baring the flag in San Jose. Boston leads the league in goals scored, goals against in the Eastern Conference, and have tremendous numbers on the power play and penalty kill. Everything seems to be in full throttle in San Jose. The entire Sharks roster is giving a 110% effort, as they are getting scoring from almost everyone, including their defense, and have solid goaltending by Evengei Nabokov to top it all off. Dan Boyle and Rob Blake have a combined 20 goals so far this season, while the top seven scorers on the Sharks combine for 108 goals. Pretty impressive numbers this far into the season, eh? As said, things are different for both teams. The Sharks are an all around killing machine that has weapons up front, on defense, and on their special teams. The Bruins have a dynamic offense, arguably the best in the league, and is a team budding with young stars that will only get better with more experience. Respectively, these are two of the best teams that the Sharks and Bruins may have ever seen in the history of their franchises, which boost up the hope for both teams to go far into the playoffs this year. Consider the negative possibilities as well. Thornton's playoff impacts on San Jose have been indifferent than when he was with Boston; maybe he has more support on San Jose. Zdeno Chara, Boston's captain, has been known to choke or disappear in the playoffs. Both Chara and Thornton are essentials to their teams and have been vital to their success this season. We also do not know what the Bruins and the Sharks will do at the trade deadline, whether they will improve or leave their rosters untouched. Will the Bruins and Sharks go deep into the playoffs this year? Will they choke and not make it past the second round? We will find out in two more months, and can only speculate until then.
Will the Panthers, Blue Jackets, and Coyotes make the playoffs?
While the races have been tight in both conferences, the battle for a playoff spot in the Western Conference has been the tightest, especially for the 5th-11th spots, which currently has a point differential of four. The last of these teams to make the playoffs was the Phoenix Coyotes in 2002. All three teams have been bottom dwellers since then, the Blue Jackets yet to make a playoff appearance. So far, the Panthers and Coyotes in particular have surprised a lot of people this season, considering the fact that both teams were predicted to finish in the bottom three of their respective conferences. Despite several changes and additions this past off season, the Blue Jackets put together a solid team, but many thought it would take at least a season or two of mulching and learning one another, before Columbus could take a serious run. The Panthers have been suspended in the standings these past few weeks, dwelling anywhere from 7th-10th in the conference. The Coyotes have been anywhere from 5th-9th for the better part of the past month or so, while the solid goaltending of rookie Steve Mason, has given Columbus tremendous amounts of hope that along with solid team play, the team could continue to ascend through the standings and finish the season in the conference's top eight for the first time in franchise history. In my opinion, all three teams have what it takes to get into the playoffs. In order to see these three playoff natives partake, it's a matter of interior and exterior forces convening. All three teams need everyone on their team, even those who are already playing fantastic hockey to step up and give a fuller effort. The offense, defense, goaltending, and special teams have to be consistent, keep mistakes and their outcomes minimal, and maintain whatever chemistry they have amongst players. Exterior forces have to be convenient. Any major injuries, such as if the Jackets lose Steve Mason, or if the Panthers lose Bouwmeester or Horton long term, can kill momentum and disrupt chemistry. The performance of division and conference rivals should also he watched, especially for the Coyotes and Blue Jackets. All three teams have to put up nothing less than playoff efforts for division games, and games against teams competing for playoff spots. Whether or not these teams can become playoff worthy is both within their control, and out of their control, but their fates can ultimately be decided based on how they handle what they can control, and how they adapt to what they cannot.
Can the Detroit Red Wings repeat?
The last team to win consecutive Stanley Cups was the Detroit Wings in 1997 and 1998. Over the summer, the Red Wings only gained, adding Marian Hossa onto their squad. This season, they are continuing their annual dominance, and remain atop the Western Conference. With no major losses this past summer, and adding the likes of Marian Hossa onto their roster, the Red Wings are an improved version of the team that won the Stanley Cup last year. They continue to be high scoring, defensively potent, solid in net, and have spectacular special teams, much like the Bruins and Sharks. Before the Red Wings won their Stanley Cup last season, many viewed the Red Wings as a team that would continue to dominate the west, only to get knocked out within the first two playoff rounds. After proving doubters totally wrong last year, their performance this season, and high likeliness of remaining where they stand going into the playoffs puts a whole new perspective onto this Red Wings team. Detroit did not change much, as said before, and Hossa, who has been playing his moneys worth, has been fitting in fantastically in the lineup, having one of his best seasons as of late. Detroit continues to be led by other team faces such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nikilas Lindstrom, and newly risen star and playoff hero Johan Franzen. As far as the regular season is concerned, the Red Wings have shown they can handle virtually any opponent, even the San Jose Sharks, who they defeated in a 6-0 contest on their first match. Although they lost their second game against the Sharks, the Red Wings showed they can play with the Sharks and are capable of beating them in a seven game series. With that feat, the casual observer would say any other team would be a breeze, but anything can (and has) happen in the playoffs. Having only gained significantly during the transition from last season to this season, the Red Wings are a dominant team and have what it takes to win back to back championships, unless the old karma from the years in between last year's cup and their 2002 cup kicks back into play.