With the Stanley Cup playoffs kicking off Wednesday, our experts took some time to ponder what lies ahead. Scott Burnside, E.J. Hradek and Pierre LeBrun answer these 10 burning questions:
1. Which team will most likely pull off the first-round upset?
Scott Burnside: Chicago. Hey, I love the jubilation that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville showed when the defending Cup champs sneaked in the back door, and I think they'll play as though their hair is on fire against the top-seeded, Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, prompting that familiar anthem, O, too bad, Canada.
E.J. Hradek: Buffalo. Since new owner Terry Pegula took over the club on Feb. 23, the Sabres are 16-4-4. That record includes a pair of wins over the Flyers, who finished the season by going a very ordinary 7-7-6 in their last 20 games. Can the Flyers turn it on? Will Philly get good goaltending? Is Chris Pronger coming back? And, is he close to 100 percent? Those are a lot of questions. The Sabres are positioned to shock.
Pierre LeBrun: Buffalo. The Sabres are on fire entering the postseason, going 28-11-6 since Jan. 1. They're firing on all cylinders and got Ryan Miller back over the weekend, and he's all ready to go. As hot as the Sabres are, the Flyers are just as cold. Philly dropped 16 of its final 25 games (9-9-7) and five of its last six (1-3-2) to enter the playoffs with an uneasy feeling. Still a ton of talent on the Flyers, and if they got on a roll no one would be surprised, but the Sabres are my first-round upset pick.
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller recently missed time with an upper-body injury, but he is expected to start in the playoffs.
2. Which player is your early Conn Smythe Trophy pick?
Burnside: Alexander Semin. OK, just kidding. But watch for Alexander Ovechkin to have a dynamite spring.
Hradek: I'll go off the board and take Antti Niemi. The defending Stanley Cup-winning goalie has been a big part of the Sharks' second-half turnaround. I like the Sharks' chances to have a big spring. If Niemi can win a second Cup in as many years with a different team, he'll have to get consideration.
LeBrun: How about Ryan Kesler in Vancouver? He's taken huge strides in his game, and I think the 2011 playoffs are going to be his playground. The Team USA Olympic star will be counted on heavily on both sides of the puck, especially with Manny Malhotra out. I look for Kesler to produce some clutch goals in these playoffs and some big faceoff wins.
Vancouver forward Ryan Kesler's season could make him a nominee for the Hart and Selke trophies.
3. Which is your early Stanley Cup finals matchup and winner? Why?
Burnside: My grid bears a striking resemblance to my preseason picks (and it's not just because I am stubborn -- well, not completely). Pittsburgh over Chicago, because I think at some point in the second round Sidney Crosby will return, and I think the Blackhawks will knock off Vancouver, then San Jose -- two teams still learning how to get it done.
Hradek: San Jose over Washington. Why? Why not! I like the way they're both playing. The Caps have the tougher first-round foe, though.
LeBrun: Well, I picked Washington-San Jose in September, with the Sharks winning it all, so it would be kind of disloyal to back off that pick seven months later. The Caps and the Sharks both had a terrific second half and enter the postseason as high seeds. Both teams have checkered playoff pasts, but I believe that San Jose took important strides last spring in reaching the Western Conference finals. I also think the Caps' defensive transformation was integral to their chances of success this playoff year.
Veteran Joe Thornton has yet to reach the Stanley Cup finals with the San Jose Sharks.
4. Which first-round series will go seven games?
Burnside: Anaheim-Nashville, Vancouver-Chicago, Boston-Montreal, Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay.
Hradek: It might be easier to pick which won't. These are some very close matchups. Detroit and Phoenix will go seven, again!
LeBrun: Pittsburgh-Tampa. This is a very equal matchup in mind, especially with the Penguins sans No. 87. I see this one being a long grind of a series with lots of momentum shifts. I also see potential for Boston-Montreal, Anaheim-Nashville, Philadelphia-Buffalo and Detroit-Phoenix to go seven.
The Bruins and Canadiens meet in the playoffs for the third time in four postseasons.
5. How will the goalie situation play out in Washington?
Burnside: I think Michal Neuvirth will get his playoff legs under him quickly and you won't see the annual Bruce Boudreau goalie hook.
Hradek: If I knew the answer to that question, Ted Leonsis would buy me a large home in the D.C. area. I think Michal Neuvirth will get the first kick at the crease. After that I still think Braden Holtby is the best of the three guys.
LeBrun: The Caps will just ride the hot hand. As the cliché says: It'll be one game at a time. I figure they start with Michal Neuvirth, but he'll be on a short leash.
Michal Neuvirth had a 27-12-4 record and .914 GAA for the Capitals this season.
6. Which coach faces the most pressure to advance beyond the first round?
Burnside: Did we mention Bruce Boudreau and the Caps? Alain Vigneault will feel the heat if the Canucks are one-and-done. And they won't be happy with Claude Julien in Boston if the Bruins lose to the hated Habs.
Hradek: One name: Bruce Boudreau. It's a shame, too. He's a good guy, and he's done a great job changing the approach while in progress during the season. Still, Leonsis will be carrying a noose to playoff games. If Boudreau doesn't get out of Round 1, he's gone.
LeBrun: Bruce Boudreau, Washington. Pretty obvious answer I think given last spring's meltdown to Montreal after winning the Presidents' Trophy. Honorable mention to Claude Julien in Boston. If the Bruins lose to rival Montreal, he might be under fire in Beantown.
Since Bruce Boudreau took over as coach in 2007-08, the Caps haven't made it past the second round.
7. Which California team has the best chance to survive the first round, and why?
Hradek: San Jose. The Sharks are playing some terrific hockey. And, their opening-round opponent, the Kings, is compromised by the loss of top center Anze Kopitar.
LeBrun: I think it's a given that everyone is going to say San Jose, and so will I. I think the better question is, which California team has the better chance to win the Cup? I can't back off San Jose, but I bet lots of people believe the Ducks have the best Cup chances in California. Sure hoping for a Sharks-Ducks matchup later in the playoffs.
This postseason is the first time in NHL history all three California-based teams have earned a playoff berth.
8. Which player is your dark-horse pick to be the overtime hero in the first round?
Burnside: Michael Frolik, Chicago.
Hradek: How about rugged Rangers winger Brandon Prust? The guy is real. He plays hard. I could see him finding a rebound around the net. That's a dark horse. If somebody else picks Corey Perry or Alex Ovechkin, I'm crying foul!
Fifteen Stanley Cup playoff games went to overtime last season.
9. Which player will score more goals in the first round: Steven Stamkos or Vincent Lecavalier?
Burnside: Great question. I say Vincent Lecavalier, but neither will be pouring them in against a tough Pittsburgh defense.
Hradek: It depends who gets to play on a line with Marty St. Louis. I'll take Lecavalier. I'll cast a vote for experience.
LeBrun: Martin St. Louis. Oh wait, that's not an option. I'll go with Stamkos. He's the natural sharpshooter of the two, and I think he's going to embrace his first NHL playoffs.
Vincent Lecavalier missed games this season with hand and eye injuries.
10. Which player is most capable of growing a Brian Wilson-type beard?
Hradek: Nobody is capable of that! I'd say Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis has the best chance.
LeBrun: I believe Paul Mara of the Canadiens is already there, having seen him this past weekend. You can already hide a wallet in that beard.
The playoff beard ... an NHL tradition!