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Gans: Storylines abound in NHL Playoffs (April 30)

Sam Gans | Tuesday, April 30, 2013

After a shortened season due to the lockout that made each regular-season game hold even more importance than in normal years, the NHL playoffs begin tonight to make for two of the most exciting months in sports.

Sadly, North America’s favorite underdog, the Columbus Blue Jackets, came up just short of reaching the playoffs. Despite a 19-5-5 finish to the season, a horrific start led to a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and unfortunately, Columbus lost the tiebreaker to Minnesota. Lucky you, Chicago.

With the playoffs now upon us, here are five storylines to keep an eye on:

1. The Return of Sidney Crosby
Love him or hate him, there is no denying Crosby is the best player on the planet. Despite missing the final 12 games of the Penguins’ regular season with a broken jaw, Crosby still finished tied for third in the NHL in points.

He is practicing now, though it’s uncertain if he will play in Wednesday’s series opener against the New York Islanders or in the series at all. However, if No. 1-seed Pittsburgh advances to the next round – which is likely, even in his absence – Crosby will probably be back. That, similarly to LeBron in the NBA, is a good thing for the NHL because of his polarizing nature that draws fans, whether rooting for or against him.

2.  Can Los Angeles repeat?
The Kings completed the Cinderella run a year ago when they marched all the way from the eighth seed in the West to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup. This year, they will have a target on their back, not only as the defending champs, but also no longer as the last team in the field. Most of last year’s Stanley Cup-winning roster has returned, including standouts Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter, and has the Kings looking to become the first repeat champions since Detroit in 1998.

3. Will a No. 8 seed make a deep run again?
As I just mentioned, the Kings won it all from the No. 8 slot last season. This year, the two No. 8 seeds are Minnesota in the West and the Islanders in the East.  

It’s hard to tell what type of momentum they have entering the postseason. The Islanders lost only once in regulation in their last 13 games but enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak – with two shootouts and a regulation loss in their last three games. Meanwhile, the Wild struggled down the stretch, going under .500 in their last 10 games, but won in a must-win regular-season finale to make the playoffs.

If either of them is going to make a run, it will be tough sledding early, as New York and Minnesota play No. 1-seeds Pittsburgh and Chicago, respectively. Speaking of the Blackhawks…

4. Can Chicago turn regular-season dominance into playoff success?
The Blackhawks tore through the NHL in the opening months, earning a point in their first 24 games, an NHL record to start a season. The Blackhawks didn’t falter much down the stretch, either, and managed to win the Presidents’ Trophy with the best regular-season record in the NHL. But unlike Minnesota, which had to win its final game to sneak into the playoffs, Chicago hasn’t faced much pressure this year due to its hot start. And three of the last four Presidents’ Trophy winners were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

5. Toronto is back in the playoffs
The Maple Leafs were the only franchise in the entire NHL not to make the playoffs since the 2004-2005 lockout until they broke through this season, earning the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. Now, the hockey-crazed citizens of Toronto can go nuts once again to see their team back in the postseason.

The Leafs’ first-round series should be quite a treat, as No. 4 vs. No. 5 series often are. Adding to the excitement is their opponent: the Boston Bruins. Original Six matchups are always fun to watch and the atmosphere will only be revved up more in the playoffs.

So, there you have it. Sit back, relax and get ready for an intense May and June on the ice.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.