With the Vancouver Canucks having secured their fourth straight Northwest Division title in late March -- an accomplished feat given how close the rest of the playoff races where -- there was little question as to if the franchise would get a chance to defend its Western Conference crown.
But now that the playoffs are here, the inquires have begun.
One of the biggest questions is how a late-season concussion will effect winger Daniel Sedin.
Henrik Sedin's twin hasn't played since March 21 after he took an elbow to the head from Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, a cheap shot that earned the blueliner a five-game suspension. The good news is that Daniel was able to return to practice on Monday for the first time since the blow and could even be ready for Game 1 on Wednesday, however, he was unable to take to the ice the following day.
If Sedin can return, it will completely shuffle the Canucks' lines. He should return to a line centered by Henrik that also includes Alexandre Burrows, a unit that represents Vancouver's top scoring threat. Even with the missed time Daniel Sedin was tops in the club with 30 goals and second with 67 points, while Burrows' 28 tallies were second on the club. Henrik Sedin, meanwhile, led the NHL with 67 assists and the former Hart Trophy winner was among the league leaders with 81 points to go along with a plus-23 rating.
The pressure will be on the Sedin twins following Vancouver's second straight Presidents' Trophy. The Canucks rode the league's highest point total last season all the way to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, but that run came to an end with a seven-game loss to the Bruins. Henrik was held to just one goal in the series, while Daniel scored twice and had four points in the series.
Once Daniel Sedin returns to action, his replacement on the top line, Maxim Lapierre would likely drop back to one of the lower lines, with the second unit of center Ryan Kesler and wingers Mason Raymond and David Booth remaining intact. Kesler regressed from 44 goals a season ago to just 22 this season, while Booth had 16 goals and 29 points in 56 games with Vancouver after being acquired from Florida.
Vancouver's shutdown line will be centered by in-season pickup Samuel Pahlsson (acquired from Columbus) and will also feature forward Dale Weise and possibly Lapierre at some point.
The other big question facing the Canucks is just how long of a leash goaltender Roberto Luongo will be on.
Luongo would likely be an undisputed No. 1 on a lot of teams, but the solid play of backup Cory Schneider has made him a fan favorite in Vancouver. Schneider, who went 20-8-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average in 33 games this campaign, even made one start in last year's postseason during Vancouver's opening round with Chicago, but didn't finish the game due to cramping. He then relieved Luongo twice in the finals against Boston.
A veteran of 59 NHL playoff games, Luongo certainly had his struggles during the 2011 postseason. He went 15-10 with a 2.56 GAA and .914 save percentage and holds a career playoff GAA of 2.50. He hasn't helped his case this regular season either, going 31-14-8 with a 2.41 GAA and .919 save percentage in 55 games after winning 38 games with a 2.11 GAA and .928 save percentage the previous season.
Luongo gave up at least four goals in a game six times in last season's playoffs, including eight in one game versus the Bruins, and a few outings like that early on could lead to Schneider taking over.
Vancouver could take a lot of pressure of Luongo if its fourth-ranked power play (19.8 percent) gets hot versus the Kings. Getting Daniel Sedin back would certainly help, but Vancouver also gets a lot of points from its blue line.
Alexander Edler was the top threat with 11 goals and 38 assists in 82 games, while Kevin Bieksa (44 points) and heavy-hitter Dan Hamhuis (37 points) are also dangerous in the opposing zone.
Sami Salo rounds out Vancouver's top four at defense and the club could also get Keith Ballard back from a concussion during this series that has held him out of action since Feb. 7.
The Canucks also ranked sixth in the league on the penalty kill at 86.0 percent while scoring seven short-handed goals from six different skaters.
LOS ANGELES KINGS (8th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 40-27-15
2011 PLAYOFFS: Lost to San Jose 4-2 in conference quarterfinals
(Sports Network) - The Los Angeles Kings are back in the postseason for a third straight season, but are still looking for their first playoff series victory in 11 years. If they are to finally advance, it will likely be because of goaltender Jonathan Quick.
The fact that the Kings are even in the postseason is a testament to Quick's outstanding season that should make him a Vezina Trophy candidate. Los Angeles was able to grab the eighth seed in the West despite finishing 29th out of 30 NHL teams with just 188 goals as Quick won 35 games and led the NHL with 10 shutouts.
Quick ranked fifth in the league in wins, but in fact could have ran away with the category. Twenty-three of his 33 losses this season were by one goal and he went 18-5-4 in games in which he allowed one goal or less. Still, he managed to become the first goaltender in Kings history to reach 30 wins in three straight seasons and only the 30th goaltender in league annuals to record 10 shutouts in a season.
Quick certainly has the ability to steal some games in the postseason, but he'll still need help.
The Kings tried to get him some when they traded for high-scoring forward Jeff Carter, getting him from Columbus prior to the trade deadline. The move seemed to work as Los Angeles went 13-5-3 after the deal and saw a bump in scoring. For his part, Carter had six goals and nine points in 16 games after the trade before sitting out the final five regular season games due to an ankle injury. He is likely to be ready for Game 1.
Getting Carter wasn't the only big move the Kings made during the season as they fired head coach Terry Murray and eventually replaced him with Darryl Sutter. Los Angeles went 25-13-11 under Sutter.
Carter does have playoff experience as well after helping get the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, though the former 40-goal scorer in the regular season has been limited only to 13 goals in 47 postseason appearances.
Carter was a teammate of Mike Richards in Philadelphia and Los Angeles paid a big price to bring the former Flyers' captain to the West Coast before the start of the season. The move paid off at times, with Richards notching 44 points in 74 games, but he also missed eight games due to an upper-body injury in December and was slow to return to form.
Richards is an excellent two-way center and should see plenty of time on Los Angeles' fourth-ranked penalty kill (87.0 percent). Four of Richards' 18 goals this campaign came while shorthanded and he has potted more shorties (27) in his career than game-winning goals (22).
The addition of Carter added much-needed scoring depth behind the usual trio of center Anze Kopitar and wingers Justin Williams and Dustin Brown. All three were able to play in all 82 games and Kopitar led the Kings across the board with 25 goals, 51 assists and 76 points. Brown used a strong second half to finish alongside Williams with 22 goals, while the latter was second on the club with 59 points.
Los Angeles will need some secondary scoring to step up if it wants to keep pace with the Canucks. That means more goals from the likes of Jarret Stoll (6), Dustin Penner (7) and Trevor Lewis (3).
Kopitar should be itching to get these playoffs underway after missing last year's tournament due to a season-ending ankle injury suffered in late March. He has just five points in six career playoff games, while Richards has the most experience behind the injured Simon Gagne with 50 points in 63 playoff contests.
Los Angeles sacrificed some of its depth on the blue line by including Jack Johnson in the Carter deal, but rookie Slava Voynov has formed a solid partnership with shut-down defender Willie Mitchell. Veteran Rob Scuderi, whose 61 playoff games rank third on the club, will partner with former Norris Trophy nominee Drew Doughty, who had a down season with just 10 goals and 36 points in 77 games. However, the defender has had past success in the postseason, logging five goals and 11 points in 12 games.
Matt Greene and Alec Martinez round out Los Angeles' defense.
Los Angeles and Vancouver have met four times previously in the postseason, with the Canucks winning the previous encounter in six games during the 2010 conference quarterfinals.
The Kings had won the previous two series (1991 and 1993) after the Canucks began this matchup's history with a five-game victory in a 1982 meeting.
The clubs also battled to a split in the 2011-12 season series, with the Canucks getting an extra point off a 2-1-1 mark that included a shootout loss. Luongo and Quick started the four games for their respective clubs and put up solid numbers. Luongo had a 1.95 GAA and a shutout, while Quick actually gave up one fewer goal for a 1.72 GAA in a series in which three of the four games were decided by one goal.
That was nothing new for Vancouver, which was one of the best in the league in close games with 27 one-goal victories.
Vancouver got goals from seven different skaters in the season series and were led by Daniel Sedin's four points, while Edler was second on the team with three points off a trio of assists.
Williams was the only skater on the Kings to log multiple goals in the season series versus the Canucks, while Kopitar led the team with four points on a goal and three assists. Doughty also had three points in the four meetings and has registered seven points in six career playoff games versus Vancouver.
The trio of the Sedin brothers and Ryan Kesler have combined for six goals and 24 points in six playoff meetings with the Kings.
The Kings have to like their chances with Quick in net as he should give the club a chance to win every single game, but will that be enough? Los Angeles would be primed to pull off the upset, but winning close games is something Vancouver excels at.
How much time Daniel Sedin misses will be the unknown X-factor and could allow the Kings to push the Canucks to the brink, but Vancouver's offense is still better than the one it will be facing even without Daniel. A lengthy absence by the twin will certainly hinder Vancouver in repeating as Western Conference champions, but it should be able to overcome the loss in this round.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Canucks in 7