Sidney CrosbyGregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty ImagesSidney Crosby has now gone nine postseason games without scoring a goal.
With so many other good storylines and incredible games going on during this Stanley Cup playoff season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been left to compete against the Columbus Blue Jackets without too much scrutiny and glare.

That ended Wednesday night.

It ended when Marc-Andre Fleury went from being one of the reasons the Penguins were beating the Blue Jackets to one of the reasons they lost. It ended when the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby went another postseason game without a goal, a playoff drought that has now reached nine games.

It ended when Nick Foligno crossed the blue line in overtime and sent a wrister past Fleury that is now among the most memorable Blue Jackets goals scored in Nationwide Arena, a moment made even better because he called it.

With the series tied 2-2 between a team with Stanley Cup aspirations against one that hadn’t ever won a playoff game, the pressure is now mounting on the Penguins to avoid a first-round exit, one that would no doubt come with consequences.

Fair or not, if it ends badly for Pittsburgh, the focus of the blame will turn to the man behind the bench, as it always does. Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma isn’t the guy who let in a soft goal or whose goal scoring went cold at the most inopportune time, but he’s the man in charge. Although they reached the conference finals in 2013, that was the only significant playoff run since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009.

Every year the Penguins have come up short since, there has been a reasonable excuse. Sometimes they were missing their best players because of injuries. Other times they had to deal with a goalie meltdown. Last year, they ran into a buzz saw in the Boston Bruins, a team that looks no less daunting this year.

Still, the disappointments mount. The reality is, Bylsma knows he's in the crosshairs. That comes with coaching star talent on a franchise with championship aspirations.

"Should we win more games? Should we win more playoff series? Should we win more Cups? Should we win more regular-season games?" Bylsma said when we chatted about the pressure on him before the playoffs began. "If I stay in Pittsburgh another four years, they’re going to keep talking about it. They’re going to keep saying it. You could write, 'Hey, anybody could win with this lineup.' People will say it. They’ll say it. ... I’d be lying to you if I say I don’t hear some [stuff]."

How much blame Bylsma deserves is open for debate.

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Patrice Bergeron and Pavel DatsyukGetty ImagesThe Bergeron vs. Datsyuk showdown has turned this series into a chess match in line matching.
The shift to Detroit was supposed to free up Pavel Datsyuk. Get him away from Patrice Bergeron and allow him to work his magic.

Game 3 of the first-round playoff series between the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings, however, turned out to be less of a tactical duel in line matching between two of the best coaches in the league, and more about one team completely overwhelming the other regardless of who was on the ice.

If both teams continue to play like they did in the Bruins' 3-0 win Tuesday, the play of two guys won’t make a difference. But if the Red Wings, a team that’s shown resilience all season, can tighten things up, the Datsyuk vs. Bergeron showdown comes back into play. And while it seems counterintuitive on home ice, perhaps keeping Datsyuk away from Bergeron isn’t the best idea.

One of the side effects of getting Datsyuk on the ice against other lines was that Bergeron was freed from Datsyuk -- a Catch-22 when it has come to line matching in this series. And in Game 3, it made a difference.

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Ryan CallahanMike Carlson/Getty ImagesRyan Callahan was effective in his time with the Lightning. Will they re-sign him this offseason?
Just like that, it’s over. Four games lost to the Montreal Canadiens, and one of the most fascinating seasons in recent Tampa Bay Lightning history is done.

This season, we saw Ben Bishop emerge as one of the league’s best goalies. Jon Cooper was the breakout coach of the year -- at least, the one who isn’t also a Hall of Fame goalie. Steven Stamkos broke his leg, yet somehow the Lightning kept winning. Steve Yzerman traded his captain, Martin St. Louis, yet somehow the Lightning kept winning.

It's time to assess what the club should do to prepare for 2014-15, but perhaps the best thing the Lightning can do is lie low for a while, while letting Stamkos recover completely. But when they resurface, these three items need to be at the top of the summer to-do list.

1. Make a decision on Ryan Callahan

This a tough one. Callahan was one of the main pieces in the deal that sent a franchise icon to New York, so you’d like him to stick around. But, there has to be a limit to what a team like Tampa is willing to pay him.

On the open market, he’ll be able to get the $6.25 million he was reportedly asking of the New York Rangers. And maybe that’s a number that works for Tampa, but with a guy like Callahan, term may be as important as money.

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Paul Stastny Don Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesColorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny's strong play has increased his price tag this summer.
At the start of the season, Paul Stastny was completely content entering the final year of his contract without a new deal with the Colorado Avalanche. He was 27 years old, had played in a total of 15 career playoff games and was getting to the point in his career where winning was the priority.

The Avs were at the start of the Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy regime change, a change that looked promising, but at that point, there were no guarantees it would work out the way it has.

"Patty and Joe have done a good job bringing a winning culture back in here. It’s huge," Stastny said. "They see the chemistry with the guys -- whether it’s a first-line guy or a fourth-line guy, and re-sign those guys. They’re little pieces to the puzzle but they mean a lot away from the ice. That’s what good management sees sometimes. Stuff like that is important."

Now, he's had a chance to see whether this regime is capable of turning things around. That question has been answered.

His future with the team? That remains in doubt. While there were rumors at the trade deadline that Stastny was in play because his contract expires after this season, Roy said nothing ever came close.

Keeping him was smart. While the Avalanche are loaded with talented young forwards, including potential centers Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly and Nathan MacKinnon, they’ve needed Stastny. He has been a steady veteran presence on a young team, and his performance without the injured Duchene in these playoffs is a big reason why Colorado is up 2-1 on the Minnesota Wild in the first-round series.

He's tied with MacKinnon for the NHL lead in playoff points with seven. Already one of the few impact centers to hit free agency in the past few years, his decision to be patient and play things out has worked just fine.

"I don’t want to deal with [contract] stuff during the year, I never wanted to. There’s too much going on," Stastny said. "The whole attitude is different. That's why I wanted to sit back and wait. That's why I didn’t want to rush anything."

The beauty of waiting in Stastny's case is that he just may be driving up his price in the process. He scored the most goals since his rookie season and his point production -- 0.85 points per game -- are the most for him since 2009-10.

The line of Stastny, MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog is an absolute powerhouse that Colorado would love to keep intact. They believe he'd like to keep it intact, too.

"We believe that Paul wants to stay with the Avalanche next year," Roy said. "We believe that there's a good chance for him to re-sign with us. Now, how it's going to happen, it will be up to Joe and his agent to discuss about what's going to be. But I think Paul has the Avs in his heart and I think he loves to be in this town, he loves those fans."

[+] EnlargeWillie Michell
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesThe Avalanche want Paul Stastny back, but must also negotiate a new deal for Ryan O'Reilly.
Stastny's contract was worth $6.6 million annually, making him Colorado's highest-paid player. But the Avalanche also have to work out a new deal with restricted free agent O’Reilly, which complicates things, as does the potential that each playoff point drives up Stastny's price tag even further.

Despite his longevity in Colorado, Stastny's playoff résumé was limited. A big postseason helps complete the picture, and it's something general managers certainly factor into the decision-making.

As the playoffs roll on, this is the time of year players can enhance their value. Last season, we witnessed Bryan Bickell drive his price tag up to the four-year, $16 million deal he eventually signed to stay with the Chicago Blackhawks.

This year will be no different for potential unrestricted free agents.

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Patrick RoyChris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Roy encourages the D to jump into offensive play anytime the opportunity presents itself.
They know what people think.

They know some people look at their team and admire a group of young forwards whose talent stacks up with any in the league, especially with the unveiling of Nathan MacKinnon in the first two games of the playoffs. Then they look at the goalie and see Semyon Varlamov, whose strong Game 2 performance was a bit overshadowed by MacKinnon’s bursts of speed that tilted the early portion of the series, but was crucial nonetheless.

The job Patrick Roy has done behind the bench has eared league-wide respect, which leaves just one area of doubt for those examining this Colorado Avalanche team, and it’s a big one in this postseason.

The defense.

The guys who make up the Avalanche blue line know there are doubters, even after a 112-point regular season and early series lead against the Minnesota Wild.

"Yeah, I can understand how people would have that impression," Avalanche defenseman Nate Guenin said when we chatted in Denver. "You look at the group back here -- Nick Holden and myself. This is our first year here in the NHL. [Andre Benoit] is relatively new here too. For us, we really do have a skilled group up front. It’s about doing our job, getting them the puck. We do know that if we do make a mistake, we have a heck of a goalie back there."

The Avalanche are at a critical point in their series against the Wild. If they win Monday night, they open up a commanding 3-0 lead on Minnesota and put themselves in outstanding position to finish off a series and wait for the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks to bludgeon themselves until a winner staggers out of that series.

If that happens, it opens up a series of possibilities for the Avs this spring, a series of possibilities that could depend entirely on just how well this group of defensemen play.

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Tuukka RaskBrian Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesConn Smythe Trophy favorite Tuukka Rask has proven solid in past postseason play.
It must have seemed like an eternity, but the wait is almost over for Boston Bruins fans, who finally get to see their team make its 2014 postseason debut tonight against the Detroit Red Wings. It’s the final first-round series to begin, and it has a couple of players who are among our favorites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy -- awarded to the most valuable player during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Bruins are ESPN.com’s consensus pick to win the Stanley Cup, in part because of their potentially easier path through the playoffs. If it happens, it’ll come with recognition for the Bruins' stars. Earlier this week, Bovada released its Conn Smythe odds -- here’s a look at some of the most intriguing choices before the betting lines shift too much:

 

Best bets among the favorites


Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins (12-1)
Goalies are always a safe pick when it comes to the Conn Smythe, winning it 40 percent of the time over the last 10 postseasons. Last year, Patrick Kane prevented a third straight goalie from winning, although if he had a vote, he would have given it to teammate Corey Crawford. You don’t win a Stanley Cup without a strong performance from a goalie, and Rask is a proven playoff performer on a team that has the best path to the Stanley Cup finals.

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Nathan MacKinnonAP Photo/Jack DempseyNathan MacKinnon scored 63 points in 2013-14, and his ice time had increased by season's end.
DENVER -- Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy was a 20-year-old when he first had the opportunity to play in the NHL playoffs, backstopping the Montreal Canadiens. For reasons he can't remember now -- because he estimates he weighed about 165 pounds -- he was sitting in the sauna one day in preparation for the 1986 postseason.

He noticed Larry Robinson coming to join him, and he realized the veteran defenseman had already showered. Robinson was coming for a conversation.

"I said, He's not coming for a sauna, he's coming to talk to me," Roy said in telling the story after Wednesday's practice. "He said: 'Hey kid. The only thing I’m asking -- no bad goals.' From the first game, I was not thinking about winning the Stanley Cup, I was thinking 'no bad goals.'"

For Roy, it eased the pressure. Here was a veteran with five Stanley Cup rings telling him he didn't have to do anything by himself. He was part of a team. If he made the saves he needed to make, his teammates would take care of the rest.

"I understood what the players wanted," Roy said. "They just wanted me to play my game."

Roy shared that story after being asked about reasonable expectations for 18-year-old burgeoning star Nathan MacKinnon when the playoffs begin Thursday.

Roy eased the 2013 No. 1 overall pick into the lineup during his rookie season, but MacKinnon’s speed, quickness and confidence earned him more and more playing time and responsibility. With Matt Duchene out and John Mitchell questionable, MacKinnon is projected to center a line with Ryan O'Reilly and P.A. Parenteau. Production from MacKinnon is a critical part of the Avs' beating the Minnesota Wild in an evenly matched first-round series.

That wasn't the message from Roy, however. His expectations for MacKinnon aren't to produce offensively.

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Ranking postseason goalies 

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Jonathan QuickDon McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Quick has proved he can stand tall in the crease for the Kings.
With the playoff matchups set and the countdown to the postseason underway, we’re ranking the top playoff teams by position. On Monday, the forward groups were ranked. On Tuesday, it was the defensemen's turn. Today, here’s the ranking of the goaltending for the 16 playoff teams.


1. Los Angeles Kings

Team save percentage: .922
Short-handed save percentage: .879
Jonathan Quick career playoff save percentage: .929 (50 games)

The Kings are a near-perfectly constructed team up front and on defense, but it’s Quick who puts them over the top in comparisons to the Sharks and other Western Conference contenders. He’s a competitor with a Stanley Cup and loads of playoff experience, and he now has Olympic experience on his résumé. There’s not a better goalie to have on your side at the outset of the playoffs.

“With Quick in goal, they’ve probably got the most complete team in the NHL,” said a veteran scout.


2. Boston Bruins

Team save percentage: .928 (No. 1)
Short-handed save percentage: .884
Tuukka Rask career playoff save percentage: .930 (35 games)

If the Bruins won the Stanley Cup last spring, Rask would've been in the Conn Smythe conversation with Patrice Bergeron after finishing the playoffs with a league-best .940 save percentage.

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Bouwmeester & Pietrangelo Getty ImagesJay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo anchor the top defensive group competing in the playoffs.
With the playoff matchups set and the countdown to the playoffs underway, we’re ranking the top playoff teams by position. On Monday, the forward groups were ranked. Today, here’s the ranking of the 16 playoff defenseman groups:


1. St. Louis Blues
Goals against per game (GA/G): 2.29 (No. 3)
Penalty kill (PK): 85.7 percent (No. 2)
Points from defensemen: 182
Shots against per game (SA/G): 26.4

A full season together for Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester gives the Blues a legitimate shutdown pair that was still figuring out how to play together when the playoffs arrived last spring. Pietrangelo has had a season worthy of Norris Trophy consideration. The duo is still a little light on playoff experience, which is a concern; the two have played a total of 20 postseason games, or 18 fewer than Kings defenseman Slava Voynov.

Having those two and trusted veterans like Barret Jackman and Roman Polak allows coach Ken Hitchcock to get favorable matchups for Kevin Shattenkirk, a talented offensive defenseman who consistently puts up St. Louis’ best possession numbers.


2. Los Angeles Kings
GA/G: 2.05 (No. 1)
PK: 83.1 percent (No. 11)
Points from defensemen: 149
SA/G: 26.2

The defense has a mix of strong offensive puck movers such as Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Voynov, along with defensive veterans Willie Mitchell, Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene.

Like everything Kings general manager Dean Lombardi builds, this defense was put together with a purpose, and if it remains healthy, it’s as good as any in hockey. Doughty is a game-changer whose puck-retrieval skills and ability to quickly transition to offense should help negate a strong possession team like the San Jose Sharks.


3. Chicago Blackhawks
GA/G: 2.58 (No. 12)
PK: 81.4 percent (No. 19)
Points from defensemen: 193
SA/G: 27.2

The one-two punch of pairs Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook along with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya is a huge weapon for coach Joel Quenneville.

Chicago’s second pair can play with any forward line, allowing Quenneville a chance to get Keith and Seabrook on the ice in moments where they can change the game.

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Barry TrotzFrederick Breedon/Getty ImagesBarry Trotz compiled 557 regular-season wins in 15 seasons as coach of the Predators.
It will be strange seeing someone other than Barry Trotz coaching the Nashville Predators next season, and equally strange seeing Trotz coaching a team other than the Nashville Predators.

One is a certainty, with the Predators announcing today that Trotz won’t be back as coach. The other is a near certainty, as coaches with Trotz’s experience and reputation rarely stay unemployed for very long.

So what’s next for both? Here are some options:

What’s next for the Nashville Predators

In acting quickly, the Predators have their choice of the available coaches, and there’s one name that stands out more than any other: Peter Laviolette.

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Milan LucicFrancois Lacasse/Getty ImagesThe line of David Krejci (No. 46), Milan Lucic (17) and Jarome Iginla has been dominant this season.
With the playoff matchups set and the countdown to the playoffs officially underway, we’re ranking all 16 playoff teams by position. Up first, we'll rank the forward groups. Note that the Corsi stats are courtesy of ExtraSkater.com, while the other stats are courtesy of NHL.com.


1. Boston Bruins
20-goal scorers: 5
5-on-5 goals for/against per game: 1.53
Corsi For percentage (CF%) (5-on-5, score close): 55 percent

The Bruins finished the season with two of the three most productive lines in hockey, with the Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Jarome Iginla line scoring more goals than any in the NHL, with a total of 55 when the players were on the ice together (per leftwinglock.com). And the amazing part was that it took time for Iginla to get completely comfortable.

“It did take us a while. I shouldn’t say us, it took me a while,” Iginla said. “Looch and Krejci have been consistent, had a good start. Mine was a little slower as far as getting results.”

Not too far behind was the trio of Reilly Smith, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. If you can put Loui Eriksson on your third line, you’re loaded at forward, and the Bruins definitely are. Claude Julien’s ability to confidently roll all four lines is a huge postseason advantage for the Bruins.


2. Chicago Blackhawks
20-goal scorers: 5
5-on-5 goals for/against: 1.27
CF% (5-on-5, score close): 55.7 percent

This is predicated on Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane returning to the playoffs healthy and productive. When everyone is out there, the Blackhawks are loaded. Toews and Marian Hossa are as good as they come in terms of two-way forward play.

Patrick Sharp had one of the best seasons of his career. And you know guys like Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell will score big goals at some point in this postseason.


3. Philadelphia Flyers
20-goal scorers: 7
5-on-5 goals for/against: 0.96
CF% (5-on-5, score close): 49.2 percent

There’s definitely concern with the Flyers' goaltending and defense heading into the postseason, but you have to love their forward depth.

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James ReimerJohn E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SportsToronto fans could be intrigued if the Leafs could still compete for the Cup ... or the No. 1 pick.
When the question was first posed to fans, the response from many was natural: Why fix something that’s perfect?

NHL playoff hockey is as good a product as there is. A playoff hockey game is better than anything played in March on college basketball courts or in the fall on baseball diamonds.

So when I posed the question on Twitter on how fans would improve the NHL playoffs, one response from @bodiva articulated the feelings of many: “They don’t need to change. Do you chip a bit more marble off the David?”

But let’s not confuse the playoff games themselves with the format. Look at March Madness. College basketball is a sport that a good number of casual sports fans manage to ignore for most of the regular season. Then, come March, everybody in the world has a bracket and is watching.

Even the president has a bracket, and we can’t even get him to attend a hockey game.

There’s plenty of room for the NHL to spice things up.

The NHL will never be confused with a league that is progressive, but if it were smart, it would look hard at some of these proposals submitted by hockey fans. They would dramatically change the spring landscape and make the hockey playoffs a must-watch not only for hockey fans but anyone who loves unscripted drama.

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Letang and MartinJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesWith Kris Letang and Paul Martin back on the ice, Pittsburgh's defense group is as good as any.
Things are coming together quite nicely for the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoffs close in, and not just because they beat their potential first-round opponent in the shootout on Wednesday night. With the impressive return of Kris Letang, the defense is shaping up to be as good as any in the East if everyone is healthy and playing well. Letang played 22:30 in his first game back and earned an assist, which is incredible considering the news of his stroke earlier this season.

Having Paul Martin and Letang both now both healthy and contributing will go a long way towards improving possession numbers that were average for the Penguins this season. With the score close, their Corsi For percentage (a metric that tracks shot attempts) is 49.7 percent this season, putting them at No. 15 in the league.

“Putting Paul Martin back in our lineup, almost immediately, you can see how it changes things for our team in terms of being able to not spend time in the defensive zone, being able to exit the zone with the puck,” head coach Dan Bylsma told Pittsburgh reporters on Wednesday. “Kris is very similar in that regard to Paul."

With the defense shaping up, the next sign the Penguins are ready to make a run is when Bylsma has a third line that he can trust in the playoffs. When you think back to what made the Cup-contending Penguins so good, it was due in large part to the play of Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke and Jordan Staal.

Pittsburgh will be tough to beat if the Penguins find a trio that can come close to duplicating what those three brought to the table.

“All three of us were just committed to not getting scored on,” said Cooke. “We committed to getting pucks in the offensive zone, committed to spending time there. There were games against Philly, games against Detroit that we didn’t score. Out of 15 minutes we spent probably 13 in the offensive zone, forcing teams to defend.”

One possibility is the line Bylsma used Wednesday night of Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Tanner Glass, although the health of Marcel Goc will factor in to that equation at some point in the postseason.

If Sutter plays well, like he did against Detroit, and anchors a line Bylsma can use as a shutdown trio, it frees up Sidney Crosby and the top six to focus on offense. It’s also a role Sutter is eager to reclaim, although with injuries this season isn’t one he’s had much opportunity to seize.

“That’s a role I like doing and something I challenge myself with,” Sutter said when we chatted recently. “It just doesn’t happen a whole lot.”

On a team loaded with stars, the play of a guy like Sutter and his linemates can make the difference in a playoff series. That’s how it is all over the league.

Here’s a look at seven other hinge players -- no goalies allowed, that's too easy -- whose success in the postseason could tip the balance of a tight series:

Thomas Vanek, Montreal Canadiens

Vanek is one of those players who you might not notice for stretches of time, but then he breaks the game open with a pass or goal only he can make.

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Henrik Sedin, John Tortorella and Daniel SedinGetty ImagesJohn Tortorella, center, and the Sedin twins face an uncertain future in Vancouver.
As teams are eliminated from the 2014 postseason, the focus shifts to next season, and we’ll be examining some of the teams expected to have the most interesting summers. Here’s an early look at the Vancouver Canucks’ offseason priorities, projected lineup for next season, free-agent targets, cap space and much more.

The facts

Points: 81 points (No. 23 in the NHL)

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Mike GillisAP Photo/The Canadian Press/Mark BlinchUntil 2013-14, the Vancouver Canucks made the playoffs for each season of Mike Gillis' tenure.
We’ll get more clarity over what comes next in Vancouver when Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini meets with the local media on Wednesday morning, but this much we know: team president and GM Mike Gillis is out.

Head coach John Tortorella is still around, for now. According to TSN.ca’s Bob McKenzie, Trevor Linden is expected to be named the new team president, which would still leave a hole at general manager for the Canucks.

Here’s a look at their best options to fill Gillis’ shoes:

1. Promote Laurence Gilman

He was the assistant GM under Gillis and is widely regarded as GM-in-waiting.

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