After six grueling months and 82 games, we are now upon the wonderful season where razors go into hibernation: the NHL playoffs.
Like the lighting of the torch at the Olympics, benches full of five oâ€™clock shadow signify the beginning to some of the most exciting weeks in sports.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are like no other in America. Upsets are likely, games are more exciting, and fans are never comfortable.
A team can win the President’s Trophy for most points in the league but still lose to an eight seed in the first round, rookie goaltenders can outplay Vezina Trophy winners, and a team can break a nearly 50-year Stanley Cup drought.
Now it wouldnâ€™t officially be playoff season without matchup previews and predictions, would it? Only one group of players will be able to lift Lord Stanleyâ€™s Cup over their heads, and their journey starts now in the first round.
The one guarantee I can make is that in the next few weeks we will see some of the worst looking facial hair in sports history.
No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers
For the second year in a row, the Washington Capitals come into the playoffs with the Eastern Conferenceâ€™s No. 1 seed, while the Rangers were given the No. 8 seed by Carolina, which lost its final game to secure a playoff spot. The pressure is all on Washington after last year’s first-round collapse against Montreal, and odds are if the Caps fall in round one again Coach Bruce Boudreau will be unemployed.
Jaroslav HalÃ¡k stifled the Caps potent offense last year, and they are now facing a top-tier goalie in Henrik Lundqvist,Â who also has the potential to stand on his head.
Prediction: Washington will forget last season, Ovechkin will play like a two-time MVP, and one of their young goalies will step up. The Caps’ offense is too fast and Lundqvist is too susceptible to having a bad game.
Capitals in 6.
No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres
Last yearâ€™s Stanley Cup runner up came out firing in the beginning of the season, looking like a Cup favorite. But a recent injury to top defenseman Chris Pronger has slowed the Flyers, who finished 3-7 in their last 10 games. In the other corner is a scalding-hot Buffalo Sabres team that is 8-2 in its last 10 games. There is a playoff rivalry between these two teams, who have met eight times in the playoffs, but havenâ€™t met since a 2006 series which is famous for then-Sabres defenseman Brian Campbellâ€™s hit on R.J. Umberger.
Prediction: In the past few weeks the Sabres have become Hancel, they are so hot right now. They seemed to learn from their playoff series loss to Boston last year, and Philadelphia is not playing at the rate it needs to. A hobbled Chris Pronger and questionable goaltending donâ€™t bode well for Philly.
Sabres in 7.
No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Montreal Canadiens
One of the greatest rivalries in sports, the Bruins and the Canadiens were destined to meet in the playoffs. The two Original Six teams are going against each other for the 33rd time in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This series will have it all: goals, hits, saves, and fights. There is lingering hatred after Zdeno Charaâ€™s questionable hit on MaxÂ Pacioretty. Both Tim Thomas and Carey Price are in the hunt for the Vezina Trophy, given to the best goaltender. If the 85 years of history in this rivalry tells us anything, itâ€™s that this is as good as hockey gets.
Prediction: This will be the most exciting series of the first round, but I donâ€™t think the Canadiens can keep up with the Bruins. At the end of the day Boston has a Vezina (best goalie) winner in Thomas, and a Norris (best defenseman) winner in Chara holding down the defense.
Bruins in 7.
No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning
In what could have been a showdown between two young superstars, Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos, the Penguins and Lightning series will take place without Sid the Kid, who is still recovering from the concussion that took away half of his season.
Pittsburgh comes in impressively with a conference-leading 49 wins during a season filled with injuries. Tampa Bay has gone 7-3 in its last 10 games and has Martin St. Louis in the MVP talk.
The key to this series will be Steven Stamkos finding the back of the net. The young sharpshooter has only two goals in his last 13 games, and lost out on the Rocket Richard trophy (top goal scorer) to Corey Perry.
Prediction: Tampa Bay has given up 240 goals compared to Pittsburghâ€™s 199. The Penguins will get their goals, but the Lightning may not with All-Star Marc-Andre Fleury blocking the net.
Penguins in 6.
No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks
Is the third time the charm? Vancouver sure hopes so as the Canucks face their newly appointed playoff nemesis the Chicago Blackhawks for the third straight season.
The Presidentâ€™s Trophy winners are having their best season in franchise history, winger Daniel Sedin is on track to match his brother/teammate Henrik with a Hart Trophy, and their goalie combo has a league low goals against average. The Hawks barely made the playoffs after dumping half their Stanley Cup-winning team due to finances. On paper, the Canucks should bury Chicago but these two teams know each other too well for winning to be easy.
Prediction: The Hawksâ€™ defense has been weak this year, rookie goalie Corey Crawford is untested in the playoffs, and their top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook has logged an unseemly amount of ice time. On the other end, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo has nightmares about this Hawks offense, and still has Chelsea Dagger ringing in his head from the United Center last year. It will be close, but all signs point to this being Vancouverâ€™s year.
Canucks in 7.
No. 2 San Jose vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Kings
The battle for California is about to begin. The Kings were the stateâ€™s first NHL franchise but San Jose has run away with being Californiaâ€™s hockey city.
With the NHLâ€™s scariest top line of Marleau, Thornton, and Heatley the Sharks have inched closer to a cup each year, with their previous season ending in the Western Conference finals. They now have a proven, Stanley Cup-winning, goalie in Antti Niemi to help them get over the hump.
Los Angeles enters boasting a defense with the 6th-best goals against average in the NHL and a top blue liner in Drew Doughty. This will be the first time these teams ever meet in the playoffs.
Prediction: The injury to the Kings top points-getter Anze Kopitar really hurts their chances of winning. This veteran San Jose team has proven that it can win in the playoffs, and it is finals or bust for them.
Sharks in 5.
No. 3 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 6 Phoenix Coyotes
Another season and another division title for the Red Wings. Nick Lidstrom is lined up to get his 7th Norris Trophy.
This season has been business as usual for the Red Wings. Phoenix, on the other hand, has been a nice little surprise this year. The team contended while the franchise is bankrupt and trying to be relocated.
Keith Yandle and Ilya Bryzgalov have shined and are both contending for post-season awards. These teams played a seven-game series last year with the Wings prevailing.
Prediction: Henrik Zetterberg is nursing an injury and wonâ€™t be playing at 100 percent for the series, which helps Phoenixâ€™s chances. But even without him Pavel Datsyuk is playing great and this wonâ€™t be like last year.
Red Wings in 6.
No. 4 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 5 Nashville Predators
Two weeks before the season ended, Anaheim was very worried about making the playoffs. Now the Ducks are the No. 4 seed and have Corey Perry, the leader of their late-season surge, being talked about as the possible MVP.
Nashville mouths are watering at the thought of winning the first playoff series in franchise history, especially after they were a crazy Game Five against the Hawks away from advancing last year. Pekka Rinne is having a phenomenal season with the third-best GAA in the league and Shea Webber and Ryan Suter make up one of the best blue line duos in the NHL.
Prediction: The Ducks are 7-3 in their last 10 games, in which they played nine quality teams. The Ducks are playing great hockey right now, BUT this is Nashvilleâ€™s year. Pekka Rinne and the Predsâ€™ defense will slow down Perry and they will use their experience from last year to win.
Predators in 7.