Five storylines to watch during Stanley Cup playoffs

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Stanley Cup Playoff Upsets & Predictions

Five storylines to track during the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin on Wednesday.

OVERDUE CAPITALS

The Washington Capitals have not advanced past the second round since Russian sniper Alex Ovechkin, a three-times league Most Valuable player who led the NHL in goals scored the last four seasons, joined the team in 2005.

Washington have had some of really good teams in the past but the current squad are much deeper and have plenty of balance both in terms of the lineup and style of play.

Coming off a stellar regular season in which they finished a comfortable 11 points clear of the second-placed Dallas Stars, the Capitals will enter the postseason as the team to beat.

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MARCH OF THE PENGUINS

Two-times NHL Most Valuable Player Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins shook off a slow start to the season and have been the league's hottest team with a 30-11-4 record since the calendar flipped to 2016.

With their top players playing at a high level the Penguins will take plenty of confidence into their first-round matchup versus a rival New York Rangers team that eliminated them from the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

A major question mark for the Penguins will be in net as there is not timetable for starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's return from concussion symptoms.

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BLACKHAWKS QUEST TO REPEAT

The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, powered by the dynamic Patrick Kane, have won the Stanley Cup three times in the last six seasons but have yet to successfully defend their NHL crown.

No NHL team have won consecutive Stanley Cup championships since the Detroit Red Wings accomplished the feat in 1998, and the Blackhawks will have a tough opening test as they face the rival St. Louis Blues in the first round.

Chicago have depth concerns on defense and face a daunting road to the Stanley Cup Final that could include a clash with the Western Conference's top-seeded Dallas Stars in the second round and a third-round matchup with a Los Angeles Kings team that finished a point behind them in the regular season.

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BLUES EYE BRIGHTER DAYS

The St. Louis Blues have been a regular-season powerhouse under head coach Ken Hitchcock for the past few seasons but have been unable to maintain that form in the playoffs as they've suffered first-round exits three seasons in a row.

The Blues boast plenty of depth at forward and defense and will need production from every line if they want to escape the first round, where they will face the rival Chicago Blackhawks.

Eliminating a defending champion is no easy feat but the Blues will hope home-ice advantage in their best-of-seven series coupled with playoff lessons learned from the past will help them get over the hurdle.

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SHARKS SEEK BITE

Coach Peter DeBoer successfully steered a veteran San Jose Sharks team back into the playoffs in his first season behind the team's bench.

The Sharks are no stranger to heartbreak having fallen short of expectations a number of times in recent years. They open the postseason against a Los Angles Kings team that erased a 3-0 series deficit in 2014 to eliminate them in seven games.

The matchup will put DeBoer up against old nemesis in coach Darryl Sutter, whose Kings beat DeBoer and the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.

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Five storylines to watch during Stanley Cup playoffs

#19t Marian Hossa -- $7.9 million

Team: Chicago Blackhawks

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $7.9 million salary

One thing to know: In the seventh season of another heavily front-loaded contract, Hossa is nearing the end of his big pay days as his salary dips to $4 million next season and $1 million in each of the four seasons after that. If he is still around to see the end of the deal, he will be 42 when his contract expires.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

#19t Rick Nash -- $7.9 million

Team: Columbus Blue Jackets

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $7.9 million salary

One thing to know: Despite rumors of a potential trade this off-season, the oft-criticized Nash is still with the Rangers, in the sixth year, of the 8-year, $62.4 million contract he originally signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

#16t Dion Phaneuf -- $8 million

Team: Toronto Maple Leafs

Position: Defenseman

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $6 million salary, $2 million signing bonus

One thing to know: Phaneuf’s 7-year, $49 million contract was considered a big reason for the demise of former Leafs GM Dave Nonis, who was fired at the end of last season.

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

#16t Vladimir Tarasenko -- $8 million

Team: St. Louis Blues

Position: Right Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $8 million salary

One thing to know: Tarasenko signed an 8-year, $60 million extension this summer, despite being just 23 years old and still years from unrestricted free agency. Sean McIdoe described the contract as “one that largely redefines the market for young players."

(AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

#16t Derek Stepan -- $8 million

(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

#15 Sergei Bobrovsky -- $8.5 million

Team: Columbus Blue Jackets

Position: Goaltender

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $8.5 million salary

One thing to know: Bobrovsky is one of only two goalies on this list, however, his 4-year, $29.7 million contract ranks just 13th among all net keepers.

(AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

#14 Patrice Bergeron -- $8.75 million

Team: Boston Bruins

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $8.75 million salary

One thing to know: Bergeron’s 8-year, $55 million contract extension, signed in 2013, means the center will likely play his entire career with the Bruins.

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

#10t Corey Perry -- $9 million

Team: Anaheim Ducks

Position: Right Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $5 million salary, $4 million signing bonus

One thing to know: Perry is in the third year of an 8-year, $69 million contract. His $8.6 million salary cap figure is the 7th-largest in the NHL.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

#10t Claude Giroux -- $9 million

 (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

#10t Zach Parise -- $9 million

Team: Minnesota Wild

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9 million salary

One thing to know: Like many in 2012 and 2013, the deals signed by Parise and teammate Ryan Suter are front-loaded, with the pair looking forward to $1 million salaries in the final years when they will be in their late-30s.

(AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

#10t Ryan Suter -- $9 million

Team: Minnesota Wild

Position: Defenseman

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9 million salary

One thing to know: Proving the NHL likes to do the teammates-get-equal-pay thing, Suter and teammate Zach Parise signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012.

(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

#9 Ryan Getzlaf -- $9.25 million

Team: Anaheim Ducks

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9.25 million salary

One thing to know: Getzlaf’s 8-year contract includes a no-move clause, meaning he cannot be traded or sent to the minors.

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

#7t Evgeni Malkin -- $9.5 million

Team: Pittsburgh Penguins

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9.5 million salary

One thing to know: After signing an 8-year, $76 million extension in 2013, Malkin’s dad sparked a controversy by claiming his son had turned down a bigger offer from the Dallas Stars, even though Malkin still had one year left on his prior deal.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

#7t Eric Staal -- $9.5 million

Team: Carolina Hurricanes

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $9.5 million salary

One thing to know: Staal is in the final year of his 7-year, $57.8 million contract. Despite talks of a possible extension, nothing has come to fruition yet.

(AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

#5t Alex Ovechkin -- $10 million

Team: Washington Capitals

Position: Left Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $10 million salary

One thing to know: The 13-year, $124 million contract signed by Ovechkin in 2008 is still the largest in the NHL. However, unlike some bigger deals signed later, his was not front-loaded.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Team: New York Rangers

Position: Goaltender

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $10 million salary

One thing to know: Even with the new limitations on contracts, Lundqvist’s new 7-year, $59.5 million contract is proof that teams still like to front-load these deals. Of the nearly $60 million, $39.5 million will be paid in the first four seasons.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

#4 Sidney Crosby -- $12 million

Team: Pittsburgh Penguins

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $12 million salary

One thing to know: Like Shea Weber, Crosby signed his extension just before the new CBA, and his deal is also heavily front-loaded. This is the final of three seasons with $12 million salaries. Starting next season, Crosby’s salary starts to shrink, eventually reaching just $3 million in 2022-23, when he will be 35.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

#2t Patrick Kane -- $13.8 million

Team: Chicago Blackhawks

Position: Right Wing

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $6.8 million salary, $7.0 million signing bonus

One thing to know: The $84 million contracts for Kane and teammate Jonathan Toews are also the largest in the NHL since the new CBA was ratified in early 2013.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

#2t Jonathan Toews -- $13.8 million

Team: Chicago Blackhawks

Position: Center

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $6.8 million salary, $7.0 million signing bonus

One thing to know: Toews and teammate Patrick Kane signed identical 8-year, $84 million contracts prior to the 2014-15 season. Their $10.5 million cap hits are the largest in the NHL.

(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

#1 Shea Weber -- $14 million

Team: Nashville Predators

Position: Defenseman

2015-16 earnings breakdown: $1 million salary, $13 million signing bonus

One thing to know: Weber was one of the last NHL players to exploit a loophole in the old collective bargaining agreement, signing a $110 million contract. The catch is that the deal is 14 years long and heavily front-loaded, not expiring until he is 40 years. The benefit to the team was to spread the salary cap hit out over many years. This practice was nixed in the newest CBA, with contracts now limited to eight years.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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