With the Stanley Cup playoffs kicking off Wednesday, our experts took some time to ponder what lies ahead. Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and Barry Melrose answer these 10 burning questions:
1. Which player will surprise everyone in the playoffs?
Barry Melrose: Goalie Jimmy Howard. When I was in Detroit for the Frozen Four, the talk around the town was "Howard hasn't played a playoff game yet" and people think he's a question mark. But I think he'll surprise a lot of people.
2. Which team is most likely to pull off a first-round upset?
Burnside: The Los Angeles Kings, mostly because Pierre LeBrun dubbed Ryan Smyth "Captain Canada" and ensured his immortality north of the border. Plus, Smyth still wears a mullet like he's a 16-year-old kid on the pond.
LeBrun: Philadelphia. They won five of six against second-seeded New Jersey in the regular season.
Melrose: Colorado Avalanche. I think they have a shot against the San Jose Sharks.
3. Which player is your early Conn Smythe Trophy pick?
Burnside: Evgeni Malkin. I think he's going to light it up.
4. What is your early Stanley Cup finals matchup and winner?
Burnside: Pittsburgh and Chicago. Repeat win for the Pens.
LeBrun: Washington and Vancouver with the Capitals winning it all. I wouldn't be surprised if Detroit actually got the finals, but I'm looking for fresh blood and the Canucks have been terrific in the second half.
Melrose: Chicago versus Washington, Chicago wins. The greatest jerseys in all of sports, carrying the Cup around. I like it.
5. Which team faces the most pressure to succeed in the playoffs: Chicago, Washington, San Jose or Phoenix?
Burnside: San Jose, followed closely by Washington.
LeBrun: The Caps. The rival Penguins raised the bar last season, and anything short of at least a Cup finals berth would be a huge disappointment in Washington.
Melrose: San Jose. The Sharks have all the pressure of the world on them, especially if they lose one of those first two games at home against the Avs.
6. Which first-round series will likely go seven games?
Burnside: Vancouver-Los Angeles and New Jersey-Philadelphia.
LeBrun: Buffalo-Boston and New Jersey-Philadelphia are my two picks for long, seven-game series. The higher seed lost the season series to the underdog, so that could be a factor.
Melrose: Phoenix versus Detroit and New Jersey versus Philly.
7. How do you see the goaltending situation playing out in Chicago?
Burnside: I wouldn't be surprised to see Hawks coach Joel Quenneville employ both Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet, and maybe even Glenn Hall and Darren Pang and that kid who sells the lottery tickets on the concourse.
LeBrun: I think Niemi will carry the load throughout. I don't think Quenneville trusts putting Huet back in since he played him in only six games since the Olympic break.
Melrose: Niemi had a good year and his numbers are great. I think Niemi will be fine; he's behind a good hockey club. He doesn't see a lot of the shots other teams' netminders do.
8. What is one dream scenario you want to see in the first round?
LeBrun: I would love to see the Montreal Canadiens give the Caps a scare and get the best fans in hockey at the Bell Centre involved, at least for a bit. That's a crazy rink, and if Montreal could somehow come back with a road split, the Bell Centre might implode before Game 3.
Melrose: I would love to see a San Jose-Colorado Game 7. Knowing the pressure San Jose would be under, the energy in the building, it would be unbelievable.
9. Which first-round matchup are you most intrigued by?
Burnside: Vancouver-Los Angeles. mostly because I picked Los Angeles. But I am surprised at how universally the Kings are being dismissed and how universally the defense-thin Canucks are being lauded as Cup contenders. Of course, I also picked St. Louis to beat Vancouver in the first round last spring and they didn't win a game.
LeBrun: I can't imagine there's any other answer to that question than Phoenix-Detroit. The franchise owned by the NHL versus the NHL's model franchise. The Coyotes are a wonderful Cinderella story. The savvy Wings have turned it on big time after the Olympics. Should be a doozy.
Melrose: Phoenix versus Detroit. Let's see how both teams react.
10. Playoff beard or mullet?
Burnside: On me? Mullet for sure.
LeBrun: I'm a goatee man myself.
Melrose: I know I have a mullet; but if I can't go with a combo, then I have to say playoff beard.