The 10 Things To Focus On In The 2013 NHL Playoffs (Hint: One Of Them Is Beards)

Well that felt shorter than usual, didn’t it? After just 48 games, we’re about to embark on the perilous journey we call the Stanley Cup Playoffs. You may be fully immersed in the NBA at the moment, and really I can’t blame you, but the NHL playoffs offer the most exciting playoffs in sports. Stars shine, underdogs win it all, cities riot whether they win or lose, and players honor tradition by growing ridiculous amounts of facial hair. Then there’s sudden death overtime where immortality always waits in the balance.

There was a moment in mid-winter where I feared this day may never come. I’m glad it finally has. With that, I offer 10 story lines to watch for in the Stanley Cup playoffs in no particular order. As anyone will tell you, the rankings tend not to matter in the NHL.

1. Pavel Datsyuk: The Magician's Last Show?

In a 2012 player poll, the Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk claimed a remarkable 6 out of 14 individual skater categories including smartest player and toughest forward to play against. For years he was the most underappreciated player in the league. Obviously, that is no longer the case. NHL fans know Datsyuk, but the Russian has yet to introduce himself fully to the sporting public. That needs to change. Here’s a 12-minute primer on what Datsyuk can do.

Datsyuk has one year left on his contract and has hinted that he would go home to Russia rather than re-sign in the NHL. In other words, cherish every moment you get to watch this slick, stick-handling magician in the playoffs.

2. Can Alex Ovechkin Carry The Caps?

Speaking of Russians, why don’t we discuss Alex Ovechkin? I wondered what was wrong with him in February, and Jason Clinkscales marveled at his return to form in April. Indeed, Ovechkin has been on a tear of late, capturing the Rocket Richard trophy with a league-high 32 goals. His Capitals stormed back with him as they climbed from well out of the playoffs in early March to the number three seed in the East. The question is, can Alex Ovechkin continue his hot streak into the late spring? In his five previous postseasons, Ovie's Capitals have failed to advance past the conference semifinals. This year they'll face a formidable New York Rangers team in the 3 vs. 6 first-round match-up. An Ovechkin-led Washington win would emphatically announce the sniper's return and quell all his critics ... for awhile.

3. Who Matches The Kings?

Last season the Los Angeles Kings put together one of the more dominating postseason runs in history. The eighth seed dispatched Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix, and New Jersey with a stunning 16-4 record that left even the estimable Doc Emrick grasping for words. "The Kings ... are the Kings," Doc plainly stated as the clock wound down last June. What low seed could shock the world this year? Look no further than the New York Rangers. Like the 2012 Kings, the Broadway Blueshirts underachieved in what should have been a banner year. Now the team is rolling thanks to some trade-deadline additions and the resurgence of Brad Richards. With a deep roster and the world's best, and best dressed, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have the best chance at winning the Cup out of the lower seeds.

4. CBC's Farewell To The Playoffs

“One Shining Moment” it is not, but CBC’s annual farewell to the playoffs is arguably the next best championship montage in sports. Instead of blending highlights with a transcendent song, the producers attempt to match adult alt rock classics with a theme of the playoffs. It comes off as either cheesy or awesome depending on your musical tastes. I think it’s the latter. Here’s the 2010 playoffs to “Tonight, Tonight” by The Smashing Pumpkins.

5. Playoff Beards

Put the Barbasol away, fellas. The playoff beard ensures that players who would normally go unrecognized will continue to go unrecognized. Some do it better than others. Here's Big Z with a viking-inspired "I just conquered a country" look.

6. The Original 6

For the first time in recent memory, the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings will all compete for the Stanley Cup. Although "Original Six" is a bit of a misnomer - these teams in fact are the ones that survived the Great Depression and World War II - the term still carries reverence in the sports world. And why not? The clubs have combined to win 61 Stanley Cups in the NHL era. They each sport an iconic sweater and logo that will never go out of style. The great cities of the North will be rocking all spring in pursuit of number 62.

7. The Riot Cities

I don’t think people (see: Americans) quite understood what hockey meant to Canada until Vancouver destroyed itself following the 2011 Stanley Cup loss to Boston. If that’s how they deal with loss, imagine what they’d do if they won? So now you’re cheering for Vancouver, but don’t forget that Montreal made rioting cool in the first place. In 1955, the residents of Montreal burned, looted and damn near sacked their city in protest of a suspension handed out to Maurice “Rocket” Richard, who had punched an official during a fight. They took to the streets again in 1993  to celebrate their 24th Stanley Cup win. Nowadays every minor playoff victory seems to cause widespread bedlam in French Canada. We’re all for it with one caveat: Please riot responsibly.

8. All Hail The Chicago Blackhawks?

They ran up a ridiculous regulation undefeated streak that had ESPN and others comparing the Hawks to the NBA’s Miami Heat. But unlike Miami, Chicago will face stiff competition in every round of the playoffs. They could run in to a hot goaltender or a buzz saw like the Kings became last year. The Hawks enter the postseason as the clear favorites, but that usually produces unsatisfying results. Lose and you’re overrated; win and it’s business as usual. Chicago has been so good this year that anything less than a convincing Stanley Cup win could be seen as a disappointment. My prediction: You’ll be hearing a lot of “Chelsea Dagger.”

9. The Islanders' Last Stand

Much to the chagrin of their beleaguered fan base, the New York Islanders will relocate to Brooklyn starting next season. The Isles captured four Stanley Cups in a row from 1980-1983 and became an iconic franchise in the process. Thirty years on, New York’s second team has turned in to a laughingstock. But at least John Tavares and the boys can give the Island one more go through in the playoffs. Granted, it’ll be short as they play the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round (remember ‘93!), but it will serve as a celebration of one of America’s forgotten dynasties. RIP.

10. Overtime

NHL playoff hockey is like "Game of Thrones." It has plots and subplots; just and unjust punishments; and copious amounts of blood, sweat and battle scars. Above all else, the best episodes, or games, end in sudden death.


Enjoy the playoffs, friends.

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