The All-Star weekend has come and gone and now teams return Tuesday night for the second half. Scott Burnside and E.J. Hradek answer these 10 Burning Questions as we count down to the playoffs:
1. Last season, Washington and Nashville snuck into the playoffs after being out of the postseason picture at the All-Star break. Which teams will sneak in this season?
Scott Burnside: I like the Pittsburgh Penguins to jump back into the playoff bracket even though they were 10th in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break. Bottom line, they're just one point out as of Tuesday morning and will get defenseman Sergei Gonchar back in the next month. I think the addition of Mathieu Garon will push netminder Marc-Andre Fleury a bit, and any team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin shouldn't miss the playoffs. Who falls out? Sadly, I think it'll be three in a row, as in three straight non-playoff seasons for the Carolina Hurricanes.
In the West, I think there will be two teams that will jump back into the playoff picture. I think Minnesota is just too good defensively and has such good goaltending, it will get back on track. GM Doug Risebrough may need to try to add some offensive depth, but the Wild will sneak in. And not just because I picked Dallas to win the Stanley Cup during the preseason (OK, largely because of that), but I think the Stars will make up the four points to make the eighth spot. Yes, they have injuries galore, but they're battle-tested and good enough to get in the door given their games in hand. Who's out? The Vancouver Canucks' freefall will continue (thanks for coming out, Mats) and the Anaheim Ducks, a team that cannot score and now struggles to keep pucks out of its own goal, will miss the playoffs just two seasons after winning the Stanley Cup.
E.J. Hradek: In the East, I think we're looking at a four-team race -- the Sabres, Hurricanes, Panthers and Penguins -- for the final two playoff spots. At the All-Star break, the Penguins would be out. They are not setting the world on fire; but I still see the Crosby-Malkin duo finding a way to get back into the postseason. On the other side, I'll take my chances with hotshot rookie goalie Steve Mason and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Western stretch drive is going to be crazy fun to watch.
2. Who is your front-runner for MVP?
Burnside: Despite Alex Ovechkin's dynamic play and place near the top of the NHL scoring race, I still don't know how you ignore what Malkin is doing in Pittsburgh. He's got a 10-point bulge in the scoring race. And don't give me the "Well, he's got Sidney Crosby" line. Ovechkin has Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. It doesn't diminish what kind of player Ovechkin is, and having Crosby as a teammate (and sometimes linemate) doesn't diminish Malkin's status. Malkin has rebounded after a grisly Cup finals series against Detroit to prove he is a bona fide superstar.
3. Will Vincent Lecavalier be traded before the March 4 trade deadline?
Burnside: No. As much fun as it might be to see Lecavalier in the bleu, blanc et rouge in Montreal, I think cooler heads will prevail in Tampa Bay. The long-term damage to the team's already crumbling credibility would be too great, even if they're having buyers' remorse over giving Lecavalier the big, 11-year, $85 million contract this past offseason.
Hradek: I don't think so. There are just a handful of teams (at best) that could take on Lecavalier's monster contract, which begins next season. At present, the Bolts' management team is reportedly torn about dealing its captain. If it opts to pull the trigger, it'll want a significant package in return. I just don't think it makes sense for any team -- even the Canadiens -- to trade away a number of assets and take on Lecavalier's massive new deal.
4. What's the one move one team needs to make before March 4?
Burnside: Montreal GM Bob Gainey may have inadvertently ended up with two untested netminders last season after a potential deal with Atlanta fell apart at the trade deadline, but there are no excuses this time around. And don't tell me, "Well, he's got Marc Denis in the AHL." Marc Denis? Are you kidding me? The guy got ridden out of Tampa on a rail and you think he'll support the Habs en route to a Cup? Nice try. It says here if Gainey does not upgrade the team's goaltending depth, the Habs will celebrate their centennial season with a second straight embarrassing second-round exit.
Hradek: If the Blue Jackets want to help support their rookie goalie and earn their first playoff berth, they'd be wise to add a veteran scorer to boost their attack. Maybe they could grab a guy like Blues winger/center Keith Tkachuk?
5. Martin Brodeur is set to return from injury in late February/early March. Will he break Patrick Roy's all-time wins record this season?
Burnside: No, not quite. Brodeur needs eight victories to surpass Patrick Roy and establish a new record for wins. But let's look at the numbers. No one knows for sure exactly when Brodeur will be able to return after surgery to correct an elbow injury. With the way Scott Clemmensen has played in relief, there is no urgency to get him back with regard to making the playoffs.
So, let's say he makes his return on March 10 at home against Calgary. There would be 17 games left for the Devils. There are three sets of back-to-back games in there, and I think Devils coach Brent Sutter will be careful about easing Brodeur back in and not upsetting the chemistry, which means showing respect to Clemmensen. Even if Brodeur ends up playing 12 games, getting eight wins is a bit much to ask. How about during the first week of the 2009-10 regular season?
Hradek: I don't think too many of us got rich betting against Martin Brodeur. If I have to take a stand, I'll stand with No. 30. Plus, the Devils are playing better hockey now than they were earlier in the season.
6. The fighting issue is expected to be discussed again at the GMs meetings in March. What outcome should fans expect?
Burnside: Fans can expect this when it comes to the debate over fighting: a lot of table-pounding on both sides of the argument, a lot of terms like "integral" and "justice" and "ticket sales" and to-ing and fro-ing and boo-hooing and hemming and hawing. In the end, I think the NHL will actually impose some rules to try to make the sport of fighting (or is it just a spectacle?) safer starting next season. Don't ask me what those rules might be, though.
Hradek: Hockey fans can expect that the fighting debate (or lack thereof) will continue for the foreseeable future, unless, or until, an NHL player is seriously hurt or killed as the result of a fight.
7. Which underachieving player needs to step it up in the second half to help his team?
Burnside: Scott Gomez is on pace for about 60 points this season, a 10-point drop from 2007-08 and 24 fewer than he collected in 2005-06. Gomez, who is also minus-9, has yet to find the trigger man for his playmaking skills, but he needs to find a way to produce more. Otherwise, the Rangers will be one-and-done come playoff time.
Hradek: Stars stopper Marty Turco has suffered through a terrible first half, posting a dismal .885 save percentage. And yet, somehow, Dallas is just four points out of a playoff spot. If the Stars are to have any chance of getting into the playoffs, Turco will have to be his old, consistent self. Anything less just won't be good enough.
8. Which coach is on the hot seat?
Burnside: Most people will say Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh. I will say (again) that will be the ultimate in gutlessness if Mario Lemieux et al pull the plug on Therrien. But that wasn't the question. I think Alain Vigneault in Vancouver had better beware. He's not GM Mike Gillis' guy, and he now has his starting goalie back and Mats Sundin in the fold. So far, the team hasn't responded, and if they miss the playoffs, Vigneault can start packing.
Hradek: I would think Alain Vigneault's seat is getting warm in Vancouver. The Canucks didn't spend big bucks on Mats Sundin to miss the playoffs. Plus, the club's current management team didn't hire Vigneault. If the Canucks don't quickly rebound from their current 2-4-4 skid, the coach's seat is going to get a lot hotter.
9. Your East and West champs at the midway point?
Burnside: At this very moment, I have to go with San Jose (boy, aren't I the wild child?). Love the idea of Detroit and San Jose in the conference finals, but I think the Sharks have too much of everything and the Wings' defense/goaltending just doesn't quite measure up. Not right now. In the East, Boston is just built for the long haul right now. The Bruins' goaltending is better and deeper than Washington's and Philadelphia's, and they can play it any way -- tough, speed, up and down.
Hradek: In the East, I have to take the Bruins. I mean, what's not to like? In the conference, they've scored the most goals and allowed the fewest. They've lost just eight games in regulation. They're the best 5-on-5 team in the league and their special teams are very strong. Plus, they have two goalies who have played very well. When healthy, they have great balance and are well-coached. In the West, I'll take the Wings over the Sharks. The gap between the two clubs has tightened. The Wings' edge remains their championship experience.
10. What first-round playoff matchup would you like to see the most?
Burnside: This is a no-brainer. Washington and Pittsburgh.
Hradek: Oh, that's easy. Don't we all want to see a first-round matchup between the Caps and Pens? I know I do.