- Scott Burnside, NHL
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As the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs get under way Wednesday night, here are 10 players we will be keeping on our radar this spring:
The Sharks' playoff woes are well documented. If this is the spring they get over the hump and advance to the Western Conference finals or beyond, they will need to get a lot more out of No. 1 netminder Nabokov than they have in the past. He will be reminded of those past misdeeds and his soft play at the Olympics in February, so it will be interesting to see whether he can stand tall in the face of what undoubtedly will be healthy skepticism as the playoffs move along. This is a defining spring for Nabokov, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in July.
The skilled winger quietly delivered 50 points in 56 games after returning from offseason shoulder surgery and was a plus-24. For the third straight season, he also finds himself on a Cup-hopeful team. Does Hossa help the Hawks get over their own curse (the last time they won the Cup was in 1961, the longest drought in the NHL), or does his own private curse continue after he was on the wrong end of the past two Cup finals with Pittsburgh and Detroit?
The hard-luck Preds are still looking for their first playoff series win, and it won't be an easy task as they face second-seeded Chicago. If the Predators are to advance, it will be because their captain and top center, Arnott, is doing his thing, creating havoc in the Blackhawks' zone. Arnott has been troubled by injury again this season and played in just 63 games. He returned for the last two regular-season games after missing time with a concussion and seemed to be OK. He'll need to be more than OK for the Preds to pull an upset.
The Coyotes' sturdy captain hasn't played in an NHL postseason game since 2002 and has just 12 points in 32 career playoff games, so he'll need to up the ante if the Coyotes are going to have a chance against the red-hot Detroit Red Wings. Doan scored just once in his last 26 regular-season games. Ouch. That kind of production, or lack thereof, won't cut it in the postseason, but Doan is a character guy, so this will be the perfect time for him to shine.
Not many people give the Kings much of a chance of knocking off the Vancouver Canucks, but any possibility of an upset will begin and end with the Kings' top talent. Kopitar, who will be playing in his first NHL playoff games, last played in a playoff-type contest in 2005, when he was a teenager in the Swedish Elite League.
We all know what Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby is capable of, but the team's chances of a third straight deep playoff run will depend largely on whether Malkin can get back to the form that saw him win the Art Ross and Conn Smythe trophies last season. Malkin was limited to 67 games this season because of injury and illness, but he finished with a four-point night against the New York Islanders. If that's a sign of things to come, look out.
When was the last time a defenseman led all defenders in scoring two straight seasons yet was so disrespected? Probably never. No question this spring is a watershed time for Green, who endured a miserable playoffs last spring, especially in the second round against Pittsburgh when his conditioning and focus was questioned. Green has played much better defense this season and will be on the Norris Trophy ballot again; but for him to get the respect he likely deserves, the Caps will have to march deep into the playoffs.
We admit to being among those who piled on Boucher when he struggled after inheriting the starting job because of injuries to Ray Emery and Michael Leighton. But Boucher has started down the long road to stuffing it in critics' faces by stoning the New York Rangers in a shootout on the last day of the regular season and hoisting the Flyers into the seventh seed. Boucher will have to keep it up if the Flyers are to upset the Devils in the first round, but repeatedly being told you're no good is a powerful motivator.
Everyone knows the Sabres will hit the postseason with one of the top goaltenders in the league in Ryan Miller. But the questions about the team's ability to make a long run after missing the playoffs the past two seasons center on offense and leadership. Vanek will be counted on for both, even though he is coming off a groin injury and a season that saw him collect just 53 points in 71 games. Vanek did collect eight points in his past six games, including a four-point effort against Ottawa. Still, he'll need to deliver more of what he did three years ago, when he had six goals and four assists in 16 games in a supporting role when the Sabres went to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Russian sniper appears to have found his groove in New Jersey, collecting 15 points in his past 11 games as the Devils held off Pittsburgh and Buffalo to end up with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. But Kovalchuk has played in just four career playoff games and will need to deliver the goods if the Devils are to get over the playoff hump and beyond the second round for the first time since 2003. Big picture, Kovalchuk's market value will be tied directly to his playoff performance as he heads toward free agency on July 1.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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