PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (2nd Atlantic Division, 4th Eastern Conference)
The defending Stanley Cup champions qualified for the playoffs for the fourth straight season after having missed the postseason the previous four. This season was the fourth in a row in which the Penguins won at least 45 games and compiled at least 99 points. Pittsburgh is seeking to become the first repeat Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings
in 1997 and 1998 and the first team to reach three straight Finals since the Edmonton Oilers
did so in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
Having already won an Art Ross
Trophy and a Hart Memorial Trophy (both in 2007), captain Sidney Crosby
developed another dimension of his game this season, scoring 51 goals to tie Steven Stamkos
for the Rocket Richard Trophy. Crosby had never scored more than 39 goals in his previous four NHL seasons. He also has flourished in the face-off circle, winning 55.9 percent of his draws (11th best in the League) -- his previous career-best was 51.4 percent.
The Pens were without half of their dynamic duo, C Evgeni Malkin
, for 14 games and without their No. 1 defenseman and power-play quarterback, Sergei Gonchar
, for 19 games due to injuries and illness. And winger Chris Kunitz
missed 30 games. All returned to the lineup for April games but the full Pittsburgh lineup hasn't had much time to gel.
Taking A Toll:
While making runs to the Stanley Cup Final in each of the previous two seasons, the Penguins have played a lot of hockey -- 164 regular season games and 44 playoff games. Throw in this regular season's 82 games and that's 290 meaningful games (not counting high-pressure Olympic contests for the likes of Crosby and Malkin) since October 2008. Will that exact a physical price that makes repeating as champs impossible?
Hunters To Hunted:
With dizzying speed, the Pens have gone from talented up-and-comers to young Cup finalists to champs. They enter these playoffs for the first time as the team everybody else wants to knock off. That is yet another challenge for Crosby, Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury
and Co. to prove they can handle it.
Son Of Fog:
Despite presiding over a team that possesses several highly-paid stars, GM Ray Shero
has deftly managed the salary cap in order to make key late-season deals that have positioned the Pens for playoff success. Will his acquisitions of F Alex Ponikarovsky and D Jordan Leopold
before this year's trade deadline pay off the way acquiring Marian Hossa
at the deadline in 2009 and picking up Bill Guerin
and Kunitz last March did?
Steady At The Wheel:
Though just 39 years old and with only one full season of NHL coaching under his belt, Dan Bylsma
already has established himself as a gifted handler of top-tier talent. He pulled together a disjointed Penguins team upon taking over as head coach on Feb. 15, 2009. And he kept the Pens on task through a 2009-10 season that was full of potential distractions -- from the fanfare that comes with being a defending champ, to injuries to key players, to the Olympic Break.
enters the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs looking to become just the second coach in NHL history to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in his first two NHL seasons. Montreal Canadiens
' coach Toe Blake
won Cups in each of his first five seasons in the League (1956-60).
OTTAWA SENATORS (2nd Northeast, 5th Eastern Conference)
The Senators return to the playoffs for the 12 th time in the past 13 seasons and are just three seasons removed from an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
In addition to being the Senators' top scorer this season -- and their all-time leader in seasons, games, goals, assists and points -- 14-year veteran Daniel Alfredsson
is wrapping up his 10 th season as team captain, the longest current such tenure in the NHL.
Volchenkov To Block:
The Senators, who boast the League's pre-eminent shot blocker in Anton Volchenkov
, blocked 1,193 shots this season. The only playoff-bound teams to have blocked more: Colorado (1,226), Philadelphia (1,254) and Montreal (1,344). Volchenkov, in his seventh season with the Senators, recorded the 1,000 th block of his career March 11 at Calgary. It was one of 11 blocks he recorded in the game. Volchenkov blocked 172 shots to rank eighth in the NHL this season but played in only 64 games due to injury -- at least 18 fewer than any of the seven players who blocked more shots in 2009-10.
No Shortage On Defense:
When the Senators played the Tampa Bay Lightning
April 8, their defense included Andy Sutton
(6-6, 245), Jared Cowen
(6-5. 220), Matt Carkner
(6-4, 231) and Chris Phillips
(6-3, 216). Missing that game due to back surgery was Filip Kuba
Making It Count:
While the Senators scored just 49 power-play goals this season, 18 of those goals gave the Senators the lead, 13 others wiped out a one-goal deficit and 11 proved to be game-winners. Jason Spezza
(11) and Mike Fisher
(10) were the team leaders in power-play goals.
Who Has Been Out:
In addition to missing Kuba, the Senators have been without LW Milan Michalek
(leg), Kuba's teammate on the Czech Republic Olympic team.
Walk In The Park:
Coming off a 6-1 thrashing in Atlanta, the Senators lightened the mood by spending Jan. 13 in New York's Central Park, playing dodgeball on Lasker Rink. They shut out the Rangers the next night to begin an 11-game winning streak that righted their season.
Offense By Committee:
Long dependent upon a handful of stars, the Senators spread the responsibility around this season. RW Daniel Alfredsson
led the team with just 71 points. But 13 different Senators had at least 22 points, making them a more difficult team to gameplan for and check and in the playoffs.