ESPN The Magazine: Hradek's story lines
In Eric Adelson's "March of the Penguins" story (ESPN The Magazine, April 23), he tried to uncover the secret of postseason success by examining the unique combination of playoff innocence and experience in the Pittsburgh locker room. He looked at a teen (Sidney Crosby), a twentysomething (Marc-Andre Fleury), a thirtysomething who had lost in his only trip to the finals (Sergei Gonchar) and a 40-year-old late addition to the team (Gary Roberts) who won a Cup when Sid the Kid was in diapers.
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But the Pens don't have a monopoly on good back stories as these playoffs begin. Here's what you need to know for the rest of this season's playoff teams.
Last spring, the Sabres' Cup dream turned into a nightmare when injuries decimated their blue line. As Presidents' Trophy winners, they come into this postseason as the favorite in the East. That shouldn't spook this bunch. Their own high expectations outweigh those thrust upon them by fans and media. They believe they should have beaten the Hurricanes in last year's conference finals, and they won't be looking past their first round opponent. Not with ex-Sabres coach Ted Nolan standing behind the opposing bench.
New Jersey Devils
After firing coach Claude Julien with just three games remaining in the regular season -- despite their first-in-the-Atlantic status -- CEO/President/GM Lou Lamoriello is back behind the bench for a second straight spring. As if playoff pressure isn't bad enough, these Devils will do anything to make their boss look good. And, they feed off the great goaltending of Martin Brodeur, who gives them a huge advantage over the Tampa tandem (Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis).
GM Don Waddell's deadline deals to acquire power forward Keith Tkachuk and savvy puckmoving defender Alexei Zhitnik probably saved the season for the Thrashers, who are making their first appearance. Young goalie Kari Lehtonen is talented enough to backstop a playoff run. If he stumbles, Cup-winning coach Bob Hartley could turn to veteran Johan "Moose" Hedberg. Either way, the Thrashers will need improved production from their power play (23rd in the league) to beat the Rangers.
The perennial playoff favorites/flops enter this postseason with less fanfare. That might be a good thing. G Ray Emery, who won the starting job early in the season from big-money free-agent pickup Martin Gerber, can draw on last year's playoff experience. That should help. The Senators' top forwards -- C Jason Spezza, LW Dany Heatley and RW Daniel Alfredsson -- must produce. They didn't in their second-round loss to the Sabres last year. If they don't, the upstart Pens will march right past them.
New York Rangers
After a seven-season playoff absence, the Rangers have qualified for the second straight year. After being swept by the Devils in 2006, they'd like to win a game this time. This group seems more equipped for the postseason battle. The late-season additions of gritty little wingers Sean Avery and Ryan Callahan have brought some needed edge to this lineup. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who battled various health issues last spring, is healthy and playing at the top of his game. Ditto for Jaromir Jagr. The Thrashers talented forwards will test the Rangers' very average core of defenders. That matchup could determine whether it's a long or short hockey spring in the Big Apple.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Top-heavy Tampa relies on its fearsome foursome -- C Vincent Lecavalier, RW Martin St. Louis, C Brad Richards and D Dan Boyle. Those guys are real good! But their goaltending situation? Not so much. Coach John Tortorella will start with Johan Holmqvist. If he falters, the Bolts are burnt. If the Tampa wants to knock off the Devils, it'll need to get the first goal. If the Bolts fall behind, they'll be forced to take too many chances, exposing their weakness between the pipes. It won't be pretty.
New York Islanders
To quote that old hockey philosopher Jaromir Jagr, "Dubie ... Dubie ... Dubie." Jagr knows a good story where he sees one. After a concussion KO'd starting stopper Rick DiPietro, little-known Wade Dubielewicz keyed a stretch run that propelled the Isles into the postseason. Dubie will hold down the crease until DiPietro's head clears. Can Isles coach Ted Nolan shock his former team? The smart money says no, but a repeat of Ryan Smyth's last-season heroics in Edmonton would help. If they are to have any chance, they'll have to gain at least a split in the first two games in Buffalo. If not, they'll be shuffled out in a short series.
Detroit Red Wings
Recent playoff disappointments, combined with competition from the Pistons and the Tigers, have created some apathy in Hockeytown. In fact, good tickets remain available for the first round. The Wings can stir their fans with a strong showing against the Flames. There are many questions, though. Will 41-year-old goalie Dominik Hasek hold up? How much will they miss injured defenseman Niklas Kronwall? Will dinged Wings Nicklas Lidstrom (back), Henrik Zetterberg (back) and Todd Bertuzzi (concussion) be at full strength? Negative answers to these questions will leave Wings fans will the time (and money) to focus on the other sports.
Name change be damned, the Ducks were mighty in the first third of the season. They had just two regulation losses in the first two months before several key injuries muffled their quack. While they managed to win their division, they never really reestablished that early-season dominance. Can they do it now? They'll have to be sharp to get past the Wild, who suffered just five regulation losses in their final 30 games. In the final weeks of the season, Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been rightfully distracted by a medical problem with his first-born child. On the ice, the Ducks can fall back on last year's playoff hero, Ilya Bryzgalov, if necessary.
After a sensational first season in Vancouver, goalie Roberto Luongo finally gets to taste the postseason. If he carries his rock-solid puckstopping into the playoffs, the Canucks have a chance to ride deep into the spring. Until he does, fans and pundits will wonder if he can do it. That's why the first-round series against the Stars is so important. He can silence the critics and embolden his teammates with a strong first round. If he struggles early, the noise around him will get louder by the minute.
After acquiring Peter Forsberg in February, the Predators were tabbed as Cup favorites by many around the league. Since then, they've been slowed by several injuries, including another mysterious one to Forsberg, who returned to action after missing six games in March. Undermanned, the Preds struggled down the stretch, falling to the fourth seed. That means a grueling first-round match against the Sharks. Fortunately, they're close to full strength for the series. Goalie Tomas Vokoun starts the series; if he stumbles, the Preds will turn to steady Chris Mason. Either way, the key for the Preds is simple: they must stop the Sharks' dangerous power-play unit (ranked second). Failure to do so will mean another early playoff exit.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks chewed up their opposition down the stretch, going 13-1-3 in their last 17 games. Looking at that run, an optimist would point to important wins over the Ducks, Stars and Wild. A pessimist, on the other hand, might mention the fact that nine of those 17 games were played against non-playoff teams. They certainly won't get a free pass in the first round against the Predators. Red-hot Joe Thornton again will be looking to silence any remaining critics. He made another strong push down the stretch, nearly stealing the scoring title from Crosby. To beat Nashville, the Sharks will need to be consistently good during 5-on-5 play. While their PP unit is excellent, they don't want to rely solely on their special teams for offense.
After a year of answering questions about his playoff failures (10-17, .892 SP), Stars goalie Marty Turco gets an opportunity to answer his critics on the ice. Honestly, Turco was terrible in his club's first-round loss to the Avs last spring. He simply must be better. He'll likely have little room for error in a low-scoring series against Luongo's Canucks. Coach Dave Tippett will be under the gun, too. If Turco struggles early, Tippett can't be shy about turning to young backup Mike Smith.
When the season started, few, if any, knew anything about 29-year-old Finn Niklas Backstrom, who signed with the Wild after several seasons in the Finnish Elite League. Now they know he's their No. 1. The rookie goaltender (too old to be eligible for the Calder Trophy) has made a name for himself with his strong, steady play. He grabbed the crease when Manny Fernandez went down with injury. In 41 games, his .929 SP and 1.97 GAA led the league. Now, in the playoffs, we'll find out if he's the real deal. Offensively, the Wild power play finished sixth in the league. However, they were poor on the road (27th) and not very effective against the Ducks (3-for-24). They'll need to do better than that to survive the first round.
Which Flames are entering the playoffs? Is it the team that won six straight games, including four on the road, in late March, or the squad that went 0-for-4 in April? The Flames hope the playoffs will bring out their better side. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is among the best in the business. He's already proven he can take a team deep into June. If Kippy & Co. can manage a split or better in the first two games in Hockeytown, they'll have a great chance to take the series. The Flames seem to have another gear on home ice, where they posted a league-high 30 wins.