For Bruins fans, it may seem hard to believe. After all, wasn't it just yesterday that Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara and the rest of the 2010-2011 Boston Bruins paraded through the jubilant streets of Beantown with Lord Stanley's Cup?
Yet here we are, gearing up for a chance to watch the B's punch their ticket to the playoffs against the Washington Capitals tonight. A chance to watch the Bruins defend their title.
With the curtain rapidly drawing to a close on the 2011-2012 campaign, there is still much to sort out. Only seven spots have been locked up as of right now, and nearly two weeks remain until playoff time.
With so many teams remaining in the hunt, there is no telling who will make the cut or who will end up where—but as we prepare for the greatest time of the year, hockey fans from all over will gaze into their crystal balls and try to foresee their team's destiny...and who will be standing in their way.
If the Bruins can beat the Caps tonight at the TD Garden, they will clinch their fifth consecutive playoff birth. This is easier said than done, however, as Washington views each remaining game as must-win, trying to claw their way back into the playoff picture.
There is no guarantee, and crazier things have certainly happened, but with Boston in great shape to lock up a coveted playoff spot, what might lie in store for the Black and Gold on the other side?
Here is a list (in no particular order) of the three teams in the playoff picture that might have Bruins fans licking their chops, as well as three teams (again, no particular order) that may raise some concerns.
Let me preface this slide in saying that fans who had the Florida Panthers slotted to take home the Southeast Division crown are one of two things: incredibly impressive or liars.
The Panthers have been one of the biggest surprises of the season. Forced to assemble a rag-tag, mish-mash of available free agents, role players and spare parts to reach the cap floor, few in the hockey world gave them much of a shot to crawl out of the basement.
Alas, the cats have hung on to the division lead for almost the entirety of the regular season, and find themselves in control of their own destiny with just a handful of games remaining.
The team deserves an immense amount of credit, and should they fend off the Capitals and grab their first division title in franchise history, they will promptly be dubbed first-round losers by most.
That moniker will mean nothing to a very hungry Panthers club.
Should things remain relatively unchanged in the Eastern Conference standings, the Bruins and Panthers would not have the chance to meet up until Round 2 at least. If they were to do so, the Bruins may find themselves with a favorable matchup.
The Panthers are extremely top-heavy when it comes to scoring. Their top-line guys, Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann, have provided the vast majority of their offense, and secondary scoring is a key factor once playoff time comes around.
While Versteeg and Fleischmann are having career years, none of these players would typically be labelled a "game-breaker," and a steady dose of Chara-Seidenberg may reinforce that notion.
Not to mention the 800-pound elephant in the room in regard to the Florida Panthers in the playoffs can be summed up, rightly or wrongly, with one question: "Um...are you supposed to be here?"
The Panthers are looking to end a 10-year playoff drought this season, and as a team, simply do not have the experience to match up with the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Where the Bruins crawled out of two 2-0 deficits in their cup run, would the Panthers have that same confidence in the face of such a challenge? Or would they begin to hear the voices of the doubters themselves and crumble when the going got tough?
The Panthers have one of the most impressive prospect pools in the NHL, and young guys like Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov could benefit greatly from playoff experience.
And who knows?
Could Florida use that lack of respect as motivation, or to fly under the radar? Possibly. But at the end of the day, the Bruins would not hate to see these cats across the rink in Round 2.
The Philadelphia Flyers are one of the three Eastern Conference teams to have locked up a playoff spot at this point.
Were they not in the insanely competitive Atlantic Division, they'd have a comfortable grip on the second seed overall. Going through a major offseason overhaul that saw Mike Richards and Jeff Carter depart, and Ilya Bryzgalov, Jakub Voracek and Jaromir Jagr (yes, Jaromir Jagr) don the Black and Orange, the Flyers haven't missed a beat.
With big, strong forwards, solid defense (even without captain Chris Pronger) and a new franchise goalie in Bryzgalov, the physically imposing Flyers can stack up against any team in the league in a seven-game series.
However, the Broad Street Bullies would be a welcome opponent for the Bruins should these two squads meet in the future.
Sometimes one team just has the other team's number. When you look at the Bruins and Flyers on paper, the matchup seems to be fairly even. Two big, physical teams that can score, with solid goaltending and a penchant for fisticuffs. Yet the Bruins have found a great deal of success against their historic rivals as of late.
Tim Thomas is 13-3-2 in his career against Philly, with a 2.20 GAA and 9.35 save percentage. He manned the pipes for all four victories in the conference semifinals that saw Boston sweep the Flyers last season.
On the other side of the ice, Ilya Bryzgalov has been a bit of a space case this season.
After getting off to a slow start, creating a stir with his eccentric behavior during HBO's 24/7 program, and being benched for the Winter Classic, Bryzgalov has come alive since the All-Star break, going 10-2-1 in the month of March.
However, his play in the playoffs has been anything but spectacular.
It remains to be seen how Bryzgalov performs in his first stint as the Flyers' playoff netminder, but the erratic goalie has not provided the peace of mind in the crease that Philly so desperately required.
It is well-known that the Bruins play their best hockey when they are physically engaged. To poke the bear is to risk incurring the wrath of one of the more dominant teams in the NHL.
If there is one guarantee to come from a Flyers-Bruins series, it would be that the Bruins would have no chance but to answer to the rough-and-tumble style of Philadelphia.
While the Flyers would certainly put up a sufficient fight, and have no qualms about getting physical themselves, this would ensure that Boston would be playing their best hockey for the entirety of the series.
Much like the Florida Panthers, the NHL universe kept waiting for the Ottawa Senators to drop like a rock back to the bottom of the standings. And then, with about a month left in the season, the Sens knocked the defending Stanley Cup champs out of the division lead.
Since then, the Bruins have come back to life, winning five of six and reclaiming the Northeast lead. However, the wake-up call let the Bruins, as well as the rest of the league, know that the Sens are for real and are looking to bring playoff hockey back to Ottawa.
And also similar to the Florida Panthers, the rebuilding Senators may find themselves a bit ill-prepared and over their heads should they hold onto their four-point cushion and grab a playoff spot.
Propelled by breakout seasons from Milan Michalek and defenseman Erik Karlsson, as well as a rebound year from Jason Spezza, the Sens have a good shot of snagging one of the bottom three spots as the playoffs draw near.
For quite some time, the Sens have held the seventh slot while the Bruins remained in second place, foreshadowing a potential first-round clash between the division rivals.
So far this season, the Bruins have taken four of five meetings from the Sens. In those five meetings, the B's have only failed to score at least four goals one time, posting five goals in three of the games, raising the question of whether or not the goaltending in Ottawa is really up to snuff to make a run.
Goalie Craig Anderson has posted decent numbers, but with Tim Thomas in the opposite net, and a Bruins team that is second in the league in scoring gunning for you, decent is not good enough.
Could Michalek, Spezza and Alfredsson beat Tim Thomas enough times in seven games?
Ottawa has already begun its rebuild, and having a veteran captain like Daniel Alfredsson would give the squad a footing once the grind of the playoffs began, but the Senators have iced far better teams in postseasons past and come up empty-handed.
If the Bruins continue to get balanced scoring from their top three lines, and if Thomas could continue his dominance of the Sens in goal, the clock could strike midnight early for the Sens should these two teams pair off.
It doesn't take an in-depth hockey analyst down on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass to make this call.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will pose a threat to any team they draw once the postseason begins. They are a dangerously balanced team, and can play any style of game, fitting chameleon-like into a myriad of styles.
They can mix it up and get physical with the Bruins and Flyers. They can ride goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in a tight one against the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist. They can pass, score, defend and boy can they skate.
Dan Bylsma has thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the Eastern Conference: To beat my team, you are going to have to work. Hard.
To say that Evgeni Malkin has picked up the slack in the absence of Sidney Crosby is a monumental understatement. Malkin has played some of the best hockey on the planet, set to record his third career 100-point season. His Conn Smythe trophy can attest to the fact that he is very tough to contain when playing with a purpose.
As if Malkin weren't enough trouble, there's another guy named Sidney Crosby who is back in town as well.
After missing most of this season with nagging concussion problems, the Kid is back with time to get his legs back under him before the playoffs begin. Coupled with the monster year that James Neal is having, and the three-headed offensive monster is daunting enough on its own.
The best bet for the Bruins should these two heavyweights meet up would be the ground-and-pound approach. As witnessed by anyone who watched the dominating performance the Penguins put on against Boston in a recent 5-2 victory, the Pens will not shy away from contact by any means.
But if the Bruins can lay heavy hits on Malkin and Neal, and make Crosby a bit hesitant to touch the puck, let alone make magic with it, they have a shot.
Even so, this matchup would be a tough, hard-hitting, entertaining affair.
The Buffalo Sabres made big splashes in the offseason, signing Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino and Robyn Regehr to big contracts. With visions of division titles dancing in their heads, the Sabres got off to a solid start, building expectations greater still.
Then Milan Lucic steamrolled straight through them.
The much-publicized affair that saw the Bruins' power forward lay out Sabres' goalie Ryan Miller as the two raced for a puck sent the Sabres into a funk that all but cost them any shot at the playoffs.
With their manhood questioned, as well as disappointing performances from new faces like Ville Leino, what started as a promising run at the Cup was quickly turning into a disaster.
However, an impressive campaign from newly appointed captain Jason Pominville, as well as vintage Ryan Miller goaltending down the stretch has restored hope in Buffalo and sneaked the Sabres into the eighth and final spot. The Sabres have won five straight and Ryan Miller is red hot.
With 47 points in 44 career games against the B's, Thomas Vanek is an absolute Bruin-destroyer, the kind that will absolutely make his presence felt in nearly every meeting. The kind that garners the hatred of a city as shot after shot finds the back of the net over the course of a seven-game series.
For quite some time, the Buffalo Sabres have been Ryan Miller's team. The Vezina winner and silver medal Olympian has owned the Bruins over his career, and is nearly unbeatable at home.
Miller has caught fire, propelling the Sabres back into the hunt. Extremely outspoken following the Lucic incident, the memory of that encounter would ignite those flames even higher, giving Miller all the motivation in the world to unseat the champs.
Buffalo is a fast team, and Boston has had trouble with speedy teams in the past. They have a certified game-breaker in Thomas Vanek with a taste for the tears of Bruins fans, and a fantastic goalie playing great between the pipes.
The Sabres could pose a serious threat if the Bruins take them lightly should they cross paths.
In the playoffs, having faith in your goaltender can be the difference between winning and losing.
The confidence that emanates from the goal crease is infectious and can propel a team to greatness. If there is a goalie to have the utmost faith in, that goalie must be Henrik Lundqvist.
The Swedish netminder has been the picture of consistency since his debut, and has made a strong case for the Vezina Trophy with his play this season. The Rangers have given up the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference, and third-fewest in all of the NHL.
Making the task of beating Lundqvist that much harder is the shot-blocking clinic put on by the Rangers as a team. Coach John Tortorella demands that his players block shots if they want to see ice time, and opposing offenses can be driven mad trying to break through the blockade of defenders laying out.
A Bruins-Rangers series would be a defensive, blue-collar showdown. So far this season, the Rangers are 3-0-0 against the B's, with Lundqvist improving his all-time record to 19-5-2 against Boston. His numbers versus the Bruins are better than against any other team in the NHL.
What makes this series so daunting is the sheer fact that Boston is very streaky in terms of goal production. They are second in team scoring, and have three lines that can contribute, but when things go awry, they come to a screeching halt. The Rangers are designed to frustrate opposing teams, and when frustrated, the Bruins lose much of their effectiveness.
Last season, the Montreal Canadiens hopped out to a 2-0 lead against the B's by keeping Carey Price's workload easy. For two games, the Montreal defense kept the Bruins to the perimeter, and shots from the blueline didn't pose much of a threat. The shots that did make it through were gobbled up by Price.
The Rangers will likely have home-ice advantage through to the finals. With a solid record of 26-10-2, Tim Thomas will have to deal with the poor lighting, bad ice and whatever else impaired his performance the last time these two teams met.
More daunting than that, however, is the fact that the Rangers are a balanced, tough, gritty team with phenomenal goaltending. They have proven they are the real deal all year, and may be the team to beat in the East.