Thursday, March 22, 2012

Biggest stories heading into the playoffs

"Alexander, how does it feel to replace Carrie Underwood as the face of the Predators?"
 Well, it's been another entertaining season of NHL hockey (except in New Jersey, since by definition, hockey in New Jersey has to be boring.  Even if that means Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise are classified as boring players.), which means the playoffs are just around the corner for the top eight teams from each conference.  We've seen a lot of interesting things this season, so here's a look at the top stories going into the playoffs.

Ottawa doesn't suck - Despite every single 'hockey expert,' plus Damien Cox, predicting the Senators to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference this season, they're a playoff team and might even finish as high as 2nd in the conference.  Yet management claims that their success this season has nothing to do with the fact that they threatened to trade the team's worst player to Edmonton at the end of the season.  Weird.

Radulov's back - After completing his fourth straight season in Russia's KHL, Alexander Radulov decided it was time to return to the NHL and the Nashville Predators.  This fulfills Caps' general manager George McPhee's bold prediction that 'Alexander will definitely be ready for the playoffs by the end of March.'

Florida Panthers are back in the playoffs - They haven't officially clinched a playoff berth yet, but barring a historic collapse, the Panthers will be a part of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in...umm, a very long time.  It's been so long, in fact, that Sean Avery hadn't pissed off anyone in the NHL yet.

Sharks on the playoff bubble - Since the lockout, hockey fans can be assured of two things: the Toronto Maple Leafs will miss the playoffs and the San Jose Sharks will collapse in the playoffs.  This season, the latter won't happen if the Sharks actually miss the playoffs.  This year's Sharks are so bad, in fact, that Martin Havlat is averaging fewer points per game than during his Minnesota days.  Think about that.

Glen Sather has put together a good team - When people think of Glen Sather nowadays, they think of high draft pick busts, overpaid players and washed up superstars playing at Madison Square Garden.  This season, however, everything has gone right for the Rangers.  Unfortunately for the Rangers, hockey doesn't have a fourth quarter, so Tim Tebow coming to New York does them absolutely no good.

Red Wings slowing down - Earlier in the season, Detroit put together the longest home winning streak in NHL history.  Despite their dominance at home, the Wings have struggled on the road this season, and lately, they've been dealing with a ridiculous number of injuries (there's no reports of Rick DiPietro visiting Detroit, either).  They might have a tough time in the playoffs this season, as the Phoenix Coyotes could miss the playoffs, so their chances at 7 home games in one series aren't very likely.

Sidney Crosby - Yes, the NHL's "Golden Boy" is back.  The Penguins' captain will play just his 13th game of the season Thursday night, but that's been enough to overshadow Evgeni Malkin's career year and in all reality, the NHL's best team.  In a bizarre turn of events, Gary Bettman is pushing hard to give the top seed in the Eastern Conference a first, second and third round bye to assure that the top team reaches the Stanley Cup Finals.  This rule only applies if the Penguins are the top seed.

The downfall of the Caps - Most NHL fans have gotten used to the fact that your favorite team would never be as good as the Washington Capitals from October through March.  This season, despite playing in the NHL's worst division, the Caps are clinging on to a playoff spot and have gotten very little production out of Alexander Oveckin, Semin and Mike Green.  They've also fired Bruce Boudreau, but to prove it is still the coach's fault, consider that Dale Hunter keeps telling his team to treat every game like a playoff elimination game.

Defending champs' interesting season - After a poor start to the season, the Boston Bruins decided to dominate the NHL and make teams genuinly afraid to play against them.  Then, they had their trip to the White House, minus Tim Thomas, and everything has fallen apart since.  Thomas, meanwhile, won't admit it, but using Tyler Seguin's alarm clock on the day of the White House visit might have been his biggest mistake of the season.

After searching the universe, the Flyers find a goalie - It took a decade and a half, several brawls in the stands and even more tumbles by Scott Hartnell, but the Philadelphia Flyers finally found a goaltender who isn't terrible, although you'd never have guessed it in January.  Yes, Ilya Bryzgalov has solved the Flyers' goaltending problem.  That is, until he gets lost again.  Stay tuned...