TRAIKOS: 10 burning questions heading into the post-season

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Will the Maple Leafs get out of the first round? Will the Oilers reach the second round? Are the Flames Canada’s best bet to win the Stanley Cup? And what’s the deal with Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and all those goalies who keep hurting hurt?

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With the regular season coming to an end, here are 10 burning questions as we turn our attention to the playoffs:

Will the Maple Leafs get out of the first round?

The last time Toronto reached the second round was in 2004. And while this might be the best roster that the Leafs have had in nearly two decades, the task hasn’t gotten any easier for a team that set franchise records this year in wins and points. A lot will depend on goalie Jack Campbell, who has rebounded in the final month of the season. But even more might depend on whether Mitch Marner can produce when the games matter the most. The Leafs winger had a career-year with 35 goals and 97 points in the regular season. But he’s failed to score in each of the past two years of the playoffs. That cannot continue, no matter how many goals Rocket Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews puts in the net.

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Does Mike Smith have enough in the tank?

As of Friday, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl had combined for 99 goals and 233 points. But how far Edmonton goes in the playoffs will depend entirely on how many goals Mike Smith allows. The Oilers goalie played in only 28 games this year, which was his lowest since 2010-11. For someone who turned 40 years old last month, it might not be such a bad thing. Smith looked fatigued when the playoffs started in each of the past two years. Based on his numbers from him in the final month of the season — 9-0-0 with a 1.66 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage — he should be the freshest he’s ever been.

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Can Johnny Gaudreau be productive in the playoffs?

This was a big year for the Calgary winger, who went from being trade bait to being a potential Hart Trophy candidate. Whether it’s an even bigger off-season for the pending free agent will come down to what he does in the post-season. Gaudreau, who scored 40 goals and 115 points, is going to get paid. No one is doubting that. But if he wants to truly maximize his value from him, the 5-foot-9 and 165-pound winger has to dispel the notion that size does n’t matter in the playoffs. For a Flames team that has everything you want in a Cup contender, it might be the only question mark heading into the playoffs.

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Which Canadian team has the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup?

Given the choice, I’d personally love to see Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid going head-to-head in the Cup final. But I just don’t see it happening—for either team. There’s too many holes, too many question marks, and too many things that can go wrong. If you’re looking for a sure bet, put your money on the Flames going the distance. For one, they finished in first place in the Pacific Division, giving them arguably the easiest path to the final. But more than that, they are built to win in the playoffs. Go through the list of what every championship needs and you’ll find that Calgary checks all the right boxes. They have three players in the top-30 in scoring. They have a top-5 goalie. They have size, grit and championship-winning experience. And most importantly, they have a coach who has been pushing all the right buttons.

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Which player has the most to prove?

With a league-leading 123 points, Connor McDavid is on pace to win his fourth scoring title in the past six years. But if the two-time Hart Trophy winner wants to take Sidney Crosby’s crown as the most complete player — an honor bestowed upon the Penguins captain in a recent NHLPA player poll — McDavid probably has to add the Stanley Cup to his growing collection of hardware. that might not mean he has to necessarily win a championship this year. But with an injury-depleted Kings team as a first-round opponent, it’s probably not too much to ask that the Oilers captain at least carry the team into the second round or beyond — something that McDavid hasn’t achieved since his second year in the league.

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Which team has the most to prove?

From the start of the season, Colorado was anointed as the favorite to displace Tampa Bay as champions. Since then, they’ve done little to change that belief. Colorado finished with the best record in the West, with four players ranked among the top-20 in scoring. And yet, history isn’t on their side. Colorado, which hasn’t reached the conference final since 2002, had the best record in the NHL last year and went out in the second round. Part of that was because of poor goaltending. But the bigger wild card remains Nazem Kadri, whose emotional outbursts at this time of year — he was twice suspended in playoffs with the Leafs and potentially cost the Avalanche a chance at the Cup with another suspension last year — will be front and center when the games start to get heated.

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What team should be worried the most about its goaltender?

Do you think the Leafs have concerns about Jack Campbell? Well, at least he’s healthy. That’s more than some teams can say about their goaltending situation. Whether it’s Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry or Nashville’s Juuse Saros, some teams picked the worst time for their No. 1 goalie to get hurt. And then there’s the Carolina Hurricanes, who lost not only Frederik Andersen but also Antti Raanta in the weeks leading up to the playoffs. Raanta, who combined with Andersen to win the William Jennings Trophy for the league-lowest GAA, was able to return for the final game of the season. But considering that Andersen played in 52 of Carolina’s games, the team is hopeful that the injury to his leg from him will be healed in time for Game 1 — and that he can do what he did n’t do in Toronto and win a round .

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Is this Crosby’s and Ovechkin’s last dance?

Despite their ages, you’d be a fool for thinking that Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin were done after this season. But whether they are in the playoffs at this time next year is a different thing altogether. While both Crosby (31 goals and 84 points) and Ovechkin (50 goals and 90 points) are producing at a level unheard of players their age, they are both playing for teams whose championship windows are practically shut. Barring a trade, this could be it for both of them. That being said, don’t expect much. The last time Pittsburgh or Washington won a playoff round was in 2018, when Ovechkin won his first — and only — Stanley Cup.

Which trade deadline acquisition will have the biggest impact?

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From Claude Giroux to Hampus Lindholm, there was no shortage of big-name players moved at the trade deadline who will be relied upon to make an impact in the playoffs. The guy to watch, however, is Marc-Andre Fleury in Minnesota. This has been a weird 12 months for the future Hall of Famer. Fleury went from winning the Vezina Trophy last year in Vegas to losing his net in the playoffs to Robin Lehner, to then getting traded to Chicago. Since joining the Wild at the deadline, Fleury is 8-2-0, having split the team’s final 20 games with Cam Talbot.

Can Tampa Bay become the first team in nearly 40 years to three-peat?

Winning back-to-back championships is tough. Winning three in a row is something the NHL hasn’t seen since the 1983 New York Islanders. And yet, if there’s a team that can pull it off again, it just might be the Lightning. With the exception of a revamped third line, this is practically the same team that won in each of the past two years. In some ways, whether it’s Stamkos scoring a career-high 103 points or Victor Hedman scoring a career-high 20 goals and 84 points, they are even better. But the big X-factor is their goalie. Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year, was recently voted by his peers as the guy you’d want in your net for a must-win game. Don’t argue there.

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