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Peaking too early? Favorites could struggle come playoff time

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - My favorite thing about the NHL playoffs is how seeding seems to go out the window once teams actually get down to the business of playing a seven-game series.

Critics of the NHL often say that the regular season is long and pointless, and sometimes it's hard to argue that fact considering how often teams are able to go deep into a postseason despite only securing a low playoff seed. Still, the 82-game schedule is great for die-hard hockey fans, and the league isn't likely to shorten the regular season any time soon.

When Detroit won the Stanley Cup title last spring, the club became the first top seed from either conference to win it all since Tampa Bay took the crown in 2004.

The Red Wings also became just the seventh team to win the Presidents' Trophy, and the Stanley Cup in the same season. The Presidents' Trophy, which was introduced for the 1985-86 campaign, is awarded annually to the team with the best record at the end of the regular season.

The best way to predict a winner in an NHL playoff series is to gauge how well a club plays down the stretch, but that isn't always a sure-fire way to determine how far a team will go in any given playoffs. For example, San Jose posted a superb 18-2-2 record in its final 22 games of the 2007-08 regular season only to get ousted in the second round for the third straight year.

Like playoff series in any sport, the way teams match up against a given opponent is obviously a big factor in the NHL postseason as well. One big difference in hockey, however, is the length of many playoff games in comparison to regular-season contests.

When a game is tied after regulation during the season, the contest is decided by either a five-minute overtime period or, ultimately, by a shootout. The 20- minute period, sudden-death format used in the playoffs can lead to many long games, and those types of tests have a way of bringing a superior team down to an opponent's level.

In light of this, here are five teams with high expectations that could disappoint come playoff time:

1. CALGARY FLAMES - The Flames had a seemingly comfortable lead atop the Northwest Division when they made this year's biggest trade-deadline move, acquiring centerman Olli Jokinen from the Phoenix Coyotes. Though Jokinen has done his share with 13 points (8 goals, 5 assists) in 13 games since becoming a Flame, Calgary has posted a sub-par 5-8-0 record with the Finnish forward in the lineup. The Flames' March swoon has allowed the Vancouver Canucks to wrest, for the time being anyway, first-place status as well as the third seed in the West away from Calgary. Part of the problem could be that goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff is worn down by his fourth consecutive 70-plus start season. The Flames have been disappointing in the playoff recently, as they've been ousted in the opening round in three straight postseasons since reaching the Cup finals in 2004.

2. NEW JERSEY DEVILS - A mere two weeks ago, including the Devils in a list like this would have been ridiculous, but things can change quickly in the NHL. New Jersey head coach Brent Sutter has done an excellent job this season, as he guided his club to first place in the Atlantic Division minus the services of legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur for nearly four months. As of the present time, however, the Devils have lost six straight for the first time since early in the 2000-01 season. Good news for Devils fans is that the 2000-01 club managed to make the Stanley Cup finals later on that year, but of course, a lengthy losing streak in November is much easier to recover from than one that occurs down the stretch. Thanks to recent poor play by Philadelphia, New Jersey is still likely to be crowned the Atlantic Division champion this year, but without improved play going forward, that distinction won't mean much.

3. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS - The Blackhawks didn't come into this season as favorites to win the Stanley Cup, and the firing of head coach Denis Savard just four games into the season didn't boost their stock much. However, Savard's replacement, Joel Quenneville, made an immediate impact and soon had Chicago playing its best hockey in years. For most of the season, the Blackhawks were the fourth seed in the Western Conference, making them the conference's best non-division leader. However, Chicago has posted a mediocre 7-9-3 record over its last 19 games, and although the team is still one point ahead of Calgary for the fourth seed, the Blackhawks may have already played their best hockey of the season. Still, Chicago is a young team and the club's first trip to the postseason since 2002 is a good sign for this rebounding franchise.

4. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS - When the Flyers made the Eastern Conference finals last season, it was the culmination of a surprisingly deep postseason run for the sixth-seeded club. Philadelphia entered this season as a Cup favorite and after weathering a poor start to the season, ascended to the fourth seed and remained in that spot for much of the year. However, the Flyers have struggled with consistency since late February and are currently tied with Pittsburgh for the conference's highest non-division leading seed. A major bugaboo for Philadelphia has been the erratic play of its goaltenders, a fact that shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who has followed this franchise's issue with backstops over the last 20 or so seasons. Martin Biron played extremely well down the stretch last year and was the main reason Philly went as far as it did in the postseason. Biron hasn't displayed that same sharpness as of late, nor has backup netminder Antero Niittymaki, who has played in just two career NHL playoff games. The Flyers still possess one of the most-balanced scoring attacks in the league, but there is no question the team will have to get better goaltending if it wants to produce another deep playoff run.

5. BOSTON BRUINS - Barring a monumental collapse in the final week of the season, the Bruins will be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, Claude Julien's club won't be pointing to its play after the All-Star break when seeking a formula for playoff success. Boston posted just six wins during a 19-game stretch from February 7-March 19, but the B's have since rattled off four straight wins to help offset that rough patch. Despite having already clinched the Northeast Division title, the Bruins really could use a strong showing in their final six games of the season to help regain the confidence the club displayed when it lost just four games during a 31-game span from late October to early January.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo