Hockey's grueling postseason, which begins with three games Tuesday night and ends as late as June 28, has a slew of storylines spilling off the ice.
Here's a pick six to follow when the puck drops.
CROSBY'S COMEBACK? Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby was healthy and productive for most of the season, getting 56 points in 36 games, after missing much of the last two years with concussion-like symptoms. A broken jaw, though, has kept him out since March 30 and he's waiting to be cleared by doctors to play in the postseason. Crosby's status for Game 1 at home Wednesday night against the New York Islanders is unclear, but he's expected to be back in the lineup at some point in the seven-game series. After consecutive first-round exits, the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference is poised to make a run with a deep roster improved before the trading deadline. If Crosby can play, the Penguins might hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009.
CAN CHICAGO CLOSE STRONG, TOO? The Blackhawks began the season with a point in their first 24 games - half of the lockout-shortened season - to surpass an NHL record by eight games. They finished well enough to lead the league in points and are hoping that translates into postseason success, unlike the franchise's only other Presidents' Trophy season. Chicago led the NHL in points during the 1990-91 season, but got eliminated by the Minnesota North Stars in the opening round. The Blackhawks will match up with the same city - against a team now known as the Wild - in the first round. Minnesota lost 10 of its last 16 games, but free agent stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have an opportunity to provide a quick return on the $98 million the franchise invested in them last summer.
RED-HOT CAPITALS: The Washington Capitals closed the season strong, winning 11 of their last 13 games to surge from toward the bottom of the East to the top of the Southeast Division, earning the No. 3 seed to set up a first-round matchup with the New York Rangers. Alex Ovechkin was at his best down the stretch with 22 points in the last 13 games after averaging less than a point in his first 35 games. He finished with an NHL-high 32 goals, lighting the lamp more than any other player in the league for the third time. Even though Ovechkin has jaw-dropping talent, he hasn't gotten past the second round of the playoffs in the first seven seasons of his career and he's playing for a franchise that hasn't advanced further than that since getting swept by Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.
KINGS' QUEST TO REPEAT: The Los Angeles Kings became the first eighth-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup, finishing off the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils in Game 6, and can become the first team to repeat in the salary-cap era that began in the 2005-06 season and the first since Detroit won consecutive times in 1997 and 1998. Compared to last season, when the Kings had to rally just to get in the playoffs, they cruised after clinching a spot in the West and will start the postseason on the road as a fifth-seeded team against the fourth-seeded St. Louis Blues.
ORIGINAL SIX STILL SKATING: For the first time since 1996, each of the NHL's Original Six teams is in the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs had a lot to do with ending the drought. The storied franchise in a hockey-crazed city and country has advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2004. In the Eastern Conference, the fifth-seeded Maple Leafs will match up with fourth-seeded Boston, another Original Six team, second-seeded Montreal will face seventh-seeded Ottawa, and the sixth-seeded New York Rangers will match up with third-seeded Washington. In the West, Detroit extended its franchise record postseason streak to 22, the fifth longest in league history, and closed well enough to avoid a first-round matchup with fellow Original Six member Chicago to move into a winnable series against second-seeded Anaheim. The top-seeded Blackhawks will open against the Wild.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK: The New York Islanders are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and for just the second time in two decades they're in the postseason at the same time as the New York Rangers. Both teams will have a tough time getting out of the first round. The eighth-seeded Islanders are matched up with Pittsburgh, a powerhouse that earned 17 more points in the condensed season. The sixth-seeded Rangers will face perhaps the hottest team in the league, third-seeded Washington.
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Ryan Reaves scored twice and Brian Elliott earned his NHL-leading 10th win in April in the St. Louis Blues' 4-1 victory over the Calgary Flames on Thursday night.
Reaves scored the Blues 1st and 4th goals in the game. In between, Andy McDonald scored a power play goal and Alex Steen scored the goal that made it a 3-1 St. Louis lead.
St. Louis, which has won five of six, moved into fourth place in the Western Conference. The Blues have 58 points, one ahead of Los Angeles and San Jose. They can clinch the No. 4 seed and home ice in the opening round of the playoffs with a victory over Chicago on Saturday.
Los Angeles and San Jose will meet Saturday in the final regular-season game for both teams.
Calgary, which will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, has won five of eight but will end the season Friday at Chicago.
Elliott made 18 saves in improving to 10-2 in April. He has three shutouts in the month and has allowed only 15 goals.
ST. LOUIS (AP) - The St. Louis Rams have selected Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree with the 30th overall pick in the NFL draft and their second in the first round.
Ogletree likely fills a starting vacancy at outside linebacker.
Earlier in the evening, the Rams got help for quarterback Sam Bradford, trading up eight spots with Buffalo and taking West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin with the eighth overall selection in the NFL draft.
The Bills also got the Rams' second- and seventh-round picks in the deal.
The 5-8, 172-pound Austin was considered the best overall wide receiver in the draft.
The 6-3, 242-pound Ogletree left Georgia after his junior season when he totaled 111 tackles in 10 games, all but one of them starts. Ogletree was suspended the first four games last season and had a DUI arrest a week before the combine.
There's no high-profile quarterback destined to go No. 1 and instantly become the face of a downtrodden franchise. There's not even a running back or wide receiver worthy of the top overall pick, someone with the kind of swagger that wins over fans weary of losing.
Nope, there's just beef. And lots of it.
There's 6-foot-6, 306-pound Luke Joeckel, the offensive tackle from Texas A&M whom the Kansas City Chiefs are expected to select first overall. There's also Eric Fisher of Central Michigan and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma, two more 300-pounders who could be snapped up in the first 10 picks.
Even the defensive side of the ball is big on bigness: Florida's Sharrif Floyd, Utah's Star Lotulelei and Sylvester Williams of North Carolina are considered premium space eaters.
Utilitarian? Sure. Flashy? Not so much.
"There are a lot of good football players there," Broncos President John Elway insisted. "It's kind of a matter of what kind of flavor you like, but there are plenty of defensive linemen - not only defensive ends but defensive linemen - in this draft, and it's deeper than most."
Only twice since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 has an offensive tackle been chosen first overall, but the Chiefs figure to make it three when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reads off the name of the league's newest millionaire shortly after 8 p.m. EDT at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Joeckel is considered the surest thing in a draft full of uncertainty.
He protected the blind side of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel last season, won the Outland Trophy as college football's top interior lineman, and wowed just about everyone at the NFL's annual scouting combine with his speed, agility and, yes, his size.
"I think this year, the offensive line position has some true prospects in it," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. "Every draft has its own unique set of characteristics. Last year's draft had its own unique set of characteristics. This year's draft has its unique characteristics."
Last year's draft made for must-see TV.
One of the deepest quarterback crops in recent years stoked the passions of fan bases in several NFL cities, including Indianapolis, which took Andrew Luck with the first overall pick.
It was the fourth straight year that a quarterback went No. 1.
The run of signal-callers didn't stop there, either. The Redskins traded up to select Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III at No. 2, and two more quarterbacks went in the first round.
West Virginia's Geno Smith is expected to go in the first round this year, perhaps as early as No. 2 to Jacksonville. But outside the strong-armed but erratic quarterback, the market at the NFL's most critical position is weak. That means a handful of teams in need - Oakland, Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Arizona among them - might wait until later in the draft to make their move.
That's all assuming that no trades are made on the opening night.
Quarterbacks who could still be on the board when the draft resumes with the second round Friday night include USC's Matt Barkley, Florida State's E.J. Manuel and Ryan Nassib of Syracuse.
"This is really a meat-and-potatoes draft, certainly early in the first couple of rounds with linemen, which is exciting," said Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, who will pick fourth.
"It may not be the flashiest thing, but it's exciting," he said. "It's hard to find big guys who can move, play with power, and there are lot of guys in this draft."
Guys who can protect those expensive quarterbacks.
Joeckel may be the top offensive tackle available, but Fisher and Johnson are both expected to go early in the draft. And they'll probably spend their careers lining up against a slew of players on the defensive side of the ball who could be picked early in the first round, too.
The Oakland Raiders, who pick third, have had their eye on Floyd and Lotulelei, among others, and defensive ends Dion Jordan of Oregon, Ziggy Ansah of BYU and Barkevious Mingo of LSU should have their names called in the first couple hours Thursday night.
Defensive back Dee Milliner is a trendy choice to go in the top 10, and offensive linemen D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack - Milliner's teammates from national champion Alabama - also are expected to go early in a draft that is more wide open than any in recent history.
"You can go and ask every scout in the room and you'd probably get a favorite player that differs from the other," Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said. "But that's the fun part of this job is trying to get all those opinions and come to a common goal to choose one."
Even told Johnson he'd be OK moving out of his No. 2 slot in the batting order after Washington's 4-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday completed a three-game sweep.
Something needs to change, Werth knows.
"We need to jumble it up, and we need to switch the `mojo' a little bit," Werth said, sitting in front of his locker in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park. "I think somebody was talking about (former NBA coach) Phil Jackson the other day. We need to call him up, have him come in here and burn some sage or something. We're not very `feng shui' right now."
Johnson said he would insert bench player Steve Lombardozzi in the lineup Thursday against Cincinnati and make other changes for a club that scored four runs in three days against St. Louis and is averaging 2.9 runs over its last dozen games.
"It's frustrating. We're just not doing the things we're capable of doing," Johnson said. "Guys are trying to do too much. (Ian Desmond) looked like he was trying to hit the ball to the light tower. Little things where guys are trying to create something that's not there yet."
"It'll change, but I'm going to have to jumble things up a little bit," he added. "Try to light a fire."
Johnson's players seemed open to the idea of giving that a shot.
"If it works tomorrow, then it works," second baseman Danny Espinosa said.
The Nationals went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position Wednesday, after falling behind 3-0 in the first inning as Stephen Strasburg (1-4) lost his fourth consecutive start. It's the longest such stretch of the All-Star ace's young career.
The game's very first batter, Matt Carpenter, got it started against Strasburg by stretching a single into a double when Bryce Harper's throw to second base was bobbled and fell to the dirt.
One out later, Matt Holliday singled. Carlos Beltran walked. Then Yadier Molina delivered a two-run single. And a throwing error on Daniel Descalso's fielder's choice grounder padded the score.
Just like that, 23 pitches in, the Cardinals had a lead that would hold up.
"It was good to get on Strasburg early," Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma said. "That's what we were trying to do from the get-go, before he starts to settle in."
Jaime Garcia (2-1) allowed a run on Harper's sixth-inning groundout, but otherwise added to the offensive struggles of the Nationals, who have lost six consecutive home games while falling to 10-11.
Trying to generate something for Washington's slumbering offense, Desmond bunted for a base hit with one out in the second. He then stole second and advanced to third on a flyout to the warning track. But rookie third baseman Anthony Rendon struck out to end the inning.
Strasburg actually was the one who got Washington going at the plate, grounding a single up the middle to lead off the sixth. Denard Span followed with a single, and Werth's groundout moved the runners up for Harper. He grounded out to second, but at least that got Strasburg home with a rare run to make it 3-1.
A walk to Tyler Moore ended Garcia's day after four hits in 5 2-3 innings. Righty Joe Kelly entered to face Desmond, who struck out swinging and flung his bat and helmet.
In the seventh, a pair of singles put runners at the corners with one out, but Kelly got out of that jam when pinch-hitter Lombardozzi struck out and Jhonatan Solano, taking off from first on a hit-and-run, was thrown out at second by catcher Molina.
Werth's fourth homer, a solo shot to left off Trevor Rosenthal with one out in the eighth, gave Washington its second run. But that was too little to stop the Nationals from dropping below .500 for the first time since finishing the 2011 season 80-81.
"Somebody said last night it feels like we're 0-20, but it's not that bad. We're only one game under .500, and it's April. We'll be all right," Werth said. "What we're going through, it's the first time this team has dealt with expectations, and there's something to be said about that. But we'll adjust. The league has adjusted to us, we'll adjust to the league."
NOTES: The Nationals are hitting .235 as a team with a .299 on-base percentage and .402 slugging percentage. ... Washington is 1-8 against teams that entered Wednesday with winning records this season. ... Washington begins a four-game series against visiting Cincinnati on Thursday, when Nationals LHP Gio Gonzalez (1-1, 5.85 ERA) faces RHP Bronson Arroyo (2-1, 3.54).
--- Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at HTTP://TWITTER.COM/HOWARDFENDRICH
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Chris Stewart reached career milestones of 100 goals and 100 assists and the St. Louis Blues clinched a playoff berth with two games to spare, beating the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 on Tuesday night.
Brian Elliott had to make just 17 saves two nights after getting yanked in a 5-3 loss at Colorado that squandered the Blues' first chance at clinching. St. Louis, which entered the game needing a point to qualify, scored two power play goals for the first time in 32 games since Feb. 15 in the home-and-home rematch.
Patrik Berglund and Andy McDonald beat Semyon Varlamov on consecutive shots in the second period to make it 3-0. Together, that duo had mustered two assists in 14 games.
Here are 10 things to watch for during the three-day NFL draft beginning Thursday night:
COMMISSIONER HUGGY BEAR
How many hugs can Roger Goodell endure from all the burly offensive and defensive players expected to be selected in the first round? Last year, he embraced many first-round picks who took the stage and was nearly hugged into submission by the likes of Fletcher Cox, Dontari Poe and Melvin Ingram.
SHOW ME A QUARTERBACK
Will any quarterbacks be taken in the first round? Possibilities include Geno Smith, Matt Barkley and EJ Manuel, but this is far from the glamour year of 2012, when QBs were huge: Luck, No. 1; Robert Griffin III, No. 2; Ryan Tannehill (No. 8); Brandon Weeden (No. 22). The last time no quarterback was taken in round one was 1996 (Tony Banks was a second-rounder, No. 42, by the Rams); the last time only one was taken was 2001 (Michael Vick, first overall) and the last time two were taken was 2010 (Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow).
Fashionistas surely will be tracking the expensive, colorful designer suits, hairstyles (think dreadlocks) and even socks of the draftees as they take the stage after being selected. (Think Griffin, the Redskins' top pick in 2012, who wore a baby blue jacket, checkered-patterned shirt, purplish tie with horizontal stripes, and burgundy and gold socks with the words "GO CATCH YOUR DREAM."
When that will be exactly is anyone's guess. Some analysts have Notre Dame's All-American linebacker Manti Te'o back to being a first-round cinch, even after a great season was marred by a poor game against Alabama followed by the hoax involving a deceased "girlfriend." He did not perform well at the NFL combine, but did better at pro day in South Bend. ---
BEEFING UP EARLY
Watch for all the beef early in the first round. There's a chance seven of the first 10 picks could be really big fellas. Among them are offensive linemen Luke Joeckel (306 pounds), Eric Fisher (306), Chance Warmack (317), Lane Johnson (303) and Jonathan Cooper (311); and defensive linemen Sharrif Floyd (297) and Ziggy Ansah (271).
WILL TIDE ROLL AGAIN IN 1ST ROUND?
A year ago, the national champions had four players picked: RB Trent Richardson (No. 3), SS Mark Barron (No. 7), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (No.17) and LB Dont'a Hightower (No. 25). National champs again, there are five that could end up as first-rounders: Warmack, cornerback Dee Milliner, offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, defensive tackle Jesse Williams, and running back Eddie Lacy.
--- FAMILY TIES
Every year, a slew of players with family ties to the NFL are draft eligible. This year is no exception, with a few dozen all-in-the-family connections. Among them are QBs Nate Montana (son of Joe Montana) and Jordan Rodgers (brother of Aaron Rodgers), Jake Ryan (son of Pat Ryan), Duron Carter (son of Cris Carter), Luke Tasker (son of Steve Tasker), Kyle Long (son of Howie Long, brother of Chris Long) and Baker Steinkuhler (son of Dean Steinkuhler).
HALL OF FAME PICKERS
A total of 32 former NFL players will be announcing second- and third-round picks for teams, including newly elected Hall of Famers Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Warren Sapp (Buccaneers) and Dave Robinson (Packers). Others making picks for their former teams include Deion Sanders (Falcons) and Larry Little (Dolphins).
--- BEST STORYLINES
Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore.
Hayden was moments from death last November after an on-field collision with a teammate tore a blood vessel off the back of his heart. He was taken to a hospital, underwent lifesaving surgery, and now could be a first-round pick. He ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at Houston's pro day in March, and now he'll wait to see if a team believes his talent and speed is worth the risk.
In 2011, Lattimore tore the ACL in his left knee midway through the season. He returned last year, and in October, the star running back suffered a horrific injury to his right knee against Tennessee - it was dislocated and ligaments were damaged as he was tackled. He had surgery a month later, continued rehabbing, and at South Carolina's pro day recently he impressed NFL scouts so much they applauded after his workout. He says he's confident he'll be ready to play when the 2013 season starts.
As the draft draws to a close Saturday, the fun revs up with the final pick, aka Mr. Irrelevant. As they did last year, the Colts have the honor at pick No. 254. Last year, they went for Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish (Andrew Luck was the Colts' other QB pick - at No. 1 overall). The last pick will be awarded the Lowsman (opposite of Heisman) Trophy during a weeklong celebration at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, Calif. In 2012, Harnish's first trip to California included golf at Big Canyon Country Club, a visit to Disneyland and parties galore. The founder of Irrelevant Week is Paul Salata, a former USC and NFL receiver. The first Mr. Irrelevant was WR Kelvin Kirk in 1976.
WASHINGTON (AP) - Yadier Molina drove in the go-ahead run in the sixth inning, backing Shelby Miller's strong start last night, and the St. Louis Cardinals returned to the site of their Game 5 NL division series victory last season with a 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals.
The other big hit for St. Louis was Allen Craig's two-run double in the third.
Miller (3-1) struck out eight in 6 2-3 innings, allowing two runs and four hits.
All the Cardinals' runs came against Dan Haren (1-3), who gave up three runs and six hits in five-plus innings.
Edward Mujica pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his second save. The Cardinals have alternated wins and losses over their last nine games.
Washington has lost seven of 10.
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Erik Kratz hit a three-run home run to break the game open in the eighth inning and lead the Philadelphia Phillies to a 7-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night.
Mike Adams (1-1) tossed a scoreless eighth inning to help the Phillies split the four-game series. The Phillies snapped a 3-3 tie with a four-run eighth that put the game away.
Michael Young extended his hitting streak to 12 games with an infield single off reliever Mitchell Boggs (0-2). Dom Brown singled to put runners on the corners with one out. Ben Revere made it 4-3 on a go-ahead single up the middle.
Kratz then hit the first pitch deep into the left-field seats for a three-run homer and a 7-3 lead.
Week 1 – Arizona 9/8 @ 3:25
Week 2 – at Atlanta 9/15 @ noon
Week 3 – at Dallas 9/22 @ noon
Week 4 – 49ers (Thursday) 9/26 @ 7:25
Week 5 – Jacksonville 10/6 @ noon
Week 6 – at Houston 10/13 @ noon
Week 7 – at Carolina 10/20 @ noon
Week 8 – Seattle (Monday) 10/28 @ 7:30
Week 9 – Tennessee 11/3 @ noon
Week 10 – at Indianapolis 11/10 @ noon
Week 11 – BYE 11/17
Week 12 – Chicago 11/24 @ noon
Week 13 – at SF 12/1 @ 3:25
Week 14 – at Arizona 12/8 @ 3:25
Week 15 – New Orleans 12/15 @ noon
Week 16 – Tampa 12/22 @ noon
Week 17 – at Seattle 12/29 @ 3:25