Kulfan: What to watch for in the Stanley Cup playoffs

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings may not be in the playoffs, but there are a lot of reasons to keep watching.

In many fans’ belief, the hockey season has just begun, with the 16 best teams ready to battle for the Stanley Cup.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are trying to win their third straight Stanley Cup.

And make no mistake, this will be a battle.

There’s no clear-cut favorite, as every team appears to have a flaw or two which could keep them from raising the Stanley Cup.

But because it’s so balanced, every series could be breathtaking, with long series expected in the majority of matchups.

There are many storylines to keep an eye on.

The most prominent involves the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are searching for a third consecutive Stanley Cup championship.

Here are 10 to keep an eye on, with the playoffs beginning Wednesday:

1. Can the Pittsburgh Penguins three-peat?

The Penguins were the first team since the Red Wings (1997-98) to win two consecutive Stanley Cups.

Can they become the first team since the New York Islanders (1980-83) to win at least three consecutive Cups?

The talent is there, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang leading the way. That’s a formidable nucleus.

The defense looks a little weaker, but this group has the capability to make history.

2. Predators back again

There was no hangover for Nashville this season.

The Predators reached the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago and earned the Presidents’ Trophy (best regular-season record) with the NHL’s deepest lineup.

This team can win in a variety of ways, which will help them the next two months.

3. Expansion miracle

Former Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar, left, has four goals and two assists in 20 games since joining the Vegas Golden Knights in a trade.

The expansion Vegas Golden Knights were the first team in any of the four major sports to win its division, and first to make the playoffs since 1967-68.

The front office and coaching staff deserve immense praise for the way they’ve constructed this roster, and played to its strengths.

But, really, this miracle has to end at some point, doesn’t it?

4. Is it finally Toronto’s time?

The Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and if (or when) they do, coach Mike Babcock and this roster will be hailed forever in this hockey hotbed.

This nucleus might be a year away, but let’s face it: They’re so talented, they could be ready this spring.

You wonder about the defense, and goaltender Frederik Andersen has to stay healthy, but the Leafs can simply out-score anyone.

5. Welcome to the playoffs, Taylor Hall

It took New Jersey forward Taylor Hall eight seasons and 529 regular-season games, but he’s finally reached the playoffs.

Hall struggled through six years in Edmonton, then missed last season while with the Devils, but was a key reason why New Jersey surged into the post-season this spring.

A Hart Trophy (league MVP) candidate, Hall had 39 goals and 54 assists (93 points).

6. Pressure’s on Tampa

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman might have assembled one of the most talented rosters in the Eastern Conference, but his team is no lock to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

GM Steve Yzerman has assembled the NHL’s most talented roster in many analysts’ estimation.

But with the Eastern Conference being so deep — and suddenly questions about forward Steven Stamkos’ health (again) — the Lightning are not a sure thing by any stretch.

If Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov can recapture their scoring pace of early in the season, Tampa will be difficult to beat.

7. Wounded Ducks

Keep an eye on the Anaheim Ducks, who’ve had to battle through key injuries from the start of the season.

Goalie John Gibson and defenseman Cam Fowler (Farmington Hills) are the latest key Ducks who are hurt, although goalie Ryan Miller (East Lansing/Michigan State) has played well in Gibson’s absence.

The Ducks still finished as the No. 2 seed in the Pacific despite the injuries. If they get healthy, they’re capable of winning the West.

8. Will Ovechkin see the third round?

It’s an incredible statistic, but true.

Washington star forward Alex Ovechkin has been in the NHL 13 seasons — and never advanced past the second round.

The Capitals were heavily favored to make an impact, go deep into the playoffs, the past couple seasons — and did not.

Despite winning the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals aren’t thought of as Stanley Cup favorites in many people’s thinking. Will that lack of pressure help them?

The Winnipeg Jets finished the regular season with 114 points, second best in the NHL.

9. NBC’s worst nightmare

The Winnipeg Jets have one of the NHL’s best rosters — and one of North America’s smallest television markets.

Can you imagine seeing the Jets winning the Western Conference and reaching The Finals?

They have the talent to do so, no doubt about it. But what would that do to NBC’s ratings?

10. Can Bobrovsky turn it around?

The Columbus Blue Jackets have yet to win a playoff series in their existence.

If they’re to defeat Washington, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has to be a key reason why.

Bobrovsky has been an annual Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) candidate lately, but in the playoffs he has a 3-10 record, with a ghastly 3.63 goals-against average and .887 save percentage.

That has to change.