Is this the year?
That is the question a popular NHL commercial has asked all season. The league ad focused on the potential of players to break scoring and goaltending records, which of the three Staal brothers might emerge as the favorite son at home, and other musings.
One area it didn't address was whether this season could be the one in which the San Jose Sharks live up to the hype and make some real noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The way they've been rolling recently, it's hard to imagine that they won't. But we've heard that story many times before.
San Jose entered this weekend on a franchise-record, 10-game winning streak, a run that vaulted the Sharks to first place over the Dallas Stars and the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.
"Our confidence level is as high as it possibly could be right now," forward Joe Thornton said. "We don't have necessarily one thing that's going incredibly well. We're just playing every game real solid."
The Sharks won 51 games last season and 44 the season before, good enough for second-place finishes in the Pacific but not enough to get them out of the second round in the Western Conference playoffs.
San Jose made its longest postseason run in 2004, getting to the conference finals before falling to upstart Calgary.
Thornton arrived from Boston the next season to help the Sharks get over the top. He won the scoring title and the MVP award that year, proving to be a key addition. Now San Jose hopes a trade deadline acquisition, All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell, will be as important and lead to playoff success.
"I love our team," Thornton said. "With getting Brian Campbell, we added something that I think we all thought we needed, a puck-moving defenseman. He can play a lot of minutes, plays good defensively, plays the power play. But I really do like the makeup of this team."
They've already shown they can win in hostile situations, posting the NHL's best road mark of 25-8-3.
"We can play any style, and that's what we're going to have to do in this year's playoffs," Thornton said. "We've got to beat a lot of good teams, but I think we got the makeup to do that this year."
EUROPEAN VACATION: It's not totally official yet, but season-opening NHL games in Europe are closer to becoming reality.
Work still needs to be done to finalize the plans that will make it possible for the league to stage two games in the Czech Republic and two in Sweden.
After commissioner Gary Bettman announced the games during All-Star weekend in Atlanta in January, new union director Paul Kelly suggested that such a proclamation was a bit premature because all the details hadn't been worked out.
More announcements about the games were held this week in Europe, yet there are still issues to be resolved before it's a full go. It is safe, however, to assume that the games will take place as scheduled.
"The NHLPA and NHL continue to work to reach agreement regarding the European Premiere games," union spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said.
As part of "NHL Premiere 2008," the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning will open the 2008-09 regular season with games on Oct. 4-5 in the Czech Republic. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will begin their campaigns with matchups on the same days in Stockholm, Sweden.
"I am pleased to announce that our ice hockey dreams will come true," Prague Mayor Pavel Bem said. "The Czech Republic is a very important hockey country and Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We are looking forward to high-quality hockey games."
Joining the mayor were Rangers general manager Glen Sather and Lightning president Ron Campbell.
Sather faced questions about Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr, the biggest potential drawing card for fans who want to see their native son return home to play. Jagr will likely be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and there is no guarantee he will still be with New York next season.
"At the end of the season we will have enough opportunities to negotiate the contract with Jaromir," Sather said. "The contract could be automatically extended if one of the stipulations is fulfilled. We hope we will come to an agreement."
It will be the second straight year that the NHL opens its season in Europe. The Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks took on the Los Angeles Kings in a two-game series at London. The games were staged before sold-out crowds.
Czech Republic prime minister Mirek Topolanek didn't attend the news conference because he was on a trip to Israel, but he weighed in on how he will approach the series in his country. Each side will get a feel for his allegiance.
"The NHL, with many Czech players, is the most prestigious ice hockey league in the world," he said in a video message. "I will personally cheer for the New York Rangers during the first match and for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second."
NIITTY'S SILVER: The 2006 Turin Olympics are a distant memory for Philadelphia Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki, and apparently not one the Finnish native cares to rehash.
Throw in a rematch with New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who helped Sweden capture the gold medal two years ago against Niittymaki and Finland, and the fourth-year NHL goalie really gets on edge.
Neither guy was on his game earlier this month at Madison Square Garden when the Rangers knocked off the Flyers 5-4 in a shootout.
Lundqvist was gone after 20 minutes, following a period in which he allowed three goals on eight shots. Niittymaki lasted 1:51 into the second period, and was chased when the Rangers scored their fourth goal on shot No. 14.
It looked nothing like that gold medal matchup from 2006 when Lundqvist edged Niittymaki 3-2. Even though he lost that final game, Niittymaki was chosen as the top goalie and tournament MVP. He went 5-1 with three shutouts in six games and posted a stellar 1.34 goals-against average.
Still, when asked about his rivalry with Lundqvist after their latest meeting, Niittymaki turned a little sour.
"It feels like 10 years ago, those Olympics," the agitated goalie said. "It was an NHL game, it wasn't the Olympics. It's been two years since the Olympics, so whatever matchup you want to create ... there's no matchup."
Maybe so, but these two goalies will be forever linked because of that day in Italy.
Perhaps Niittymaki was having bad flashbacks of that time as two of the four Rangers goals he allowed in the most recent matchup were scored by Fredrik Sjostrom and Christian Backman.
Yup - a pair of Swedes.
MVP GENO? With Sidney Crosby out again because of a high ankle sprain, emerging star Evgeni Malkin can further improve his MVP-worthy resume.
"He has potential," said Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Sergei Gonchar, who served as Malkin's interpreter during a recent conference call. "If you look at him, the way he's playing, he's not only playing well by himself and scoring those points, making those points, but he's making people around him better. He's leading the team.
"He definitely has a chance. I don't know if it's going to be this year or next year, but I'm sure in some point of his career, he'll be very close to it or might win it."
Malkin thinks he has a shot this year.
"I'll do my best to make sure," he said through Gonchar. "Our team is winning and we're making the playoffs. So I will do my best to play as good as I can."
And if he captures the Hart Trophy as MVP, will he bring Gonchar on stage with him to accept it at the NHL awards ceremony?
"You know, if I going to win it, I'm going there without Sergei," he said.