Are you ready for the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs?
The NHL is getting set for a crazy final weekend that could determine the fates of four or five teams, and the all-knowing schedule-makers did everyone a favor with a season-ending home-and-home between the Kings and Sharks that could determine the winner of the Pacific Division.
If your playoff beard is ready, here are 20 bold predictions for the first round.
If you didn't know by now that the Flyers and Penguins don't like each other, last weekend's brawl and "dialogue" between the suits is an indication that the first round Battle for Pennsylvania will be as physical and nasty as it will be skilled and fast-paced.
Philadelphia, Nashville and Chicago have relied on rookies for more than 200 games this season, and all three teams have received huge contributions from kids. At some point, a team will need a rookie to make a big play. Will it be Matt Read, Andrew Shaw or Craig Smith who comes up big?
While there are certainly some young players who will play a big role in these playoffs, the ancient warriors will also make their marks. Martin Brodeur, Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist are all on the wrong side of 30, while Nicklas Lidstrom, Daniel Alfredsson and Jaromir Jagr might be ending Hall of Fame careers this spring.
Last year's postseason was scarred with a number of ugly plays, including the cheap shot on Nathan Horton in the Finals. While fights are minimal in the playoffs, we've seen an increase in the number of dumb hits. It might happen in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, or it might come from one of the usual suspects (we're looking at you, Raffi Torres), but odds are that someone will do something stupid in the first round.
What was that in Vancouver on Tuesday night? Roberto Luongo getting pulled from a relatively meaningless regular-season game against the Ducks?
The Canucks have the blessing/curse of having two good goalies, but they're (over)paying the older of the two, and Luongo has struggled to be consistent this year. Add to that the reality that Cory Schneider will be a restricted free agent this summer, and there is a lot more weight on the coaching decisions between the pipes in Vancouver this year.
Florida GM Dale Tallon spent a lot of money last summer to add players like Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopecky because of their Stanley Cup experience, and then traded for Mikael Samuelsson during the season. The Panthers have some young pieces and have been a very pleasant surprise in winning their division this season, but the guys Tallon paid to have been there before will need to lead by example.
The Red Wings are old, banged up and haven't been very consistent in the second half of the season. Their issues could be magnified by a first-round matchup with Nashville, which went all-in at the deadline and suddenly has more depth everywhere on their roster (at least on paper). It's going to be tough for the Red Wings to advance if they're on the road in Nashville to begin the postseason.
The top seed in the East is going to have an interesting end of this week.
If the Buffalo Sabres continue their red hot play and fight their way into the playoffs, the Rangers will have to play an energized team that's playing their best hockey of the season. And, like the Rangers, the Sabres have a goalie that can steal a game (or series).
If the Washington Capitals hang on to the bottom spot in the conference playoffs, it won't be because they were hot at the end of the regular season. There might be better high-end talent on the Caps roster, but they line up as a much more favorable matchup for the Rangers.
Everyone has fallen in love with Erik Karlsson this year, and the hockey world is very well aware of other star defensemen such as Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Nicklas Lidstrom.
But one young defenseman that will (finally) get the attention he deserves is Alex Pietrangelo in St. Louis. He probably should be on the short list for the Norris this year and has quietly become one of the better blue liners in the game. On a bigger stage, his name will be known in more cities around the league after the first round of the playoffs.
The Bruins will have home ice advantage against the Ottawa Senators in the first round, a series they should be able to escape. They're too big, too physical and have too much firepower all over the ice...and a smart gambling man would put his money on Tim Thomas to perform well over Craig Anderson.
The Blues are having a historic season between the pipes as both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are having all-star-caliber seasons. They are both in the top five in the league in shutouts and have led the Blues to the top of the Central Division.
But in case you haven't noticed, Mike Smith posted his third consecutive shutout in the desert for the Coyotes on Tuesday night and has quietly been as good as anyone in the league this year.
It might sound extreme, but there might not be a three-goal game in this series.
With season-ending head-to-head games between the Sharks and Kings, the Pacific Division crown is on the line...as are the seventh and eighth seeds. But the worst-case scenario for Vancouver might be the Kings or Sharks, both of whom have physical players all over their rosters (not to mention the Sharks have a goalie that's knocked them out before).
Whichever team wins the Pacific is going to get all they can handle from the Blackhawks, who were 10-2-2 in March without Jonathan Toews (and without Duncan Keith for the final four games of the month). Chicago has the depth to make a run again this year and appears to be getting both hot and healthy at the right time. If it's LA or San Jose in the Pacific, they'll have their hands full with Chicago.
As I wrote about yesterday, there are a couple of guys that have greatly improved the television side of the game lately: Kevin Weekes and Jeremy Roenick. But the continued overuse of Pierre McGuire, Mike Milbury and Brian Engblom will continue to leave many Americans wondering why there's an idiot holding a microphone.
How about 34 points in 20 games this season for Crosby, who appears to be moving further away from his concussion problems with each game. He's a special talent who, in many ways, had been taken for granted outside of Pittsburgh. Now that he's back, and playing at an exceptional level next to likely Hart Trophy-winner Evgeni Malkin, the world will be quickly reminded that 87 is the best in the game.
Whether it's restricted free agents like Cory Schneider in Vancouver or unrestricted free agents like Zach Parise in New Jersey and Ryan Suter in Nashville, there is no better stage for a free agent to earn a bigger payday than the postseason. Watch for someone with an expiring contract to make a major impact early in the playoffs.
There will be a number of 100-point teams in the postseason this year, and a few of them will go home. One of the Flyers-Penguins matchup will be a 100-point team that is headed home, while odds are that both the Preds and Red Wings will be 100-point teams as well.
But at least one more 100-point team will lose in the first round. Will it be the Canucks? Blues? Rangers?
Lots of teams are hoping to be healthy next week when the playoffs start. Chicago appears to be getting its captain, Jonathan Toews, back just in time, while Detroit certainly needs some of its veterans to be back on the ice in one piece as soon as possible. And now the lingering concerns regarding Jeff Carter in LA and Danny Briere and Nicklas Grossmann in Philadelphia will put pressure on the medical staffs all over the league to get their players ready to go.
Oh, and Pittsburgh got Sidney Crosby back. Just don't ask Mike Milbury about that...
The Atlantic Division will be represented by four teams in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, but only two of those four will see the second round. The Rangers (the top seed), Flyers, Penguins and Senators will all face interesting first-round matchups. Obviously one of the Flyers-Penguins will advance, but will the second team be the Rangers or Devils?
The Central Division faces a similar fate to the Atlantic, with four teams getting into the playoffs but two of those facing each other in the 4-5 matchup. It appears that series will be between Nashville and Detroit, so one of those two will be sent home.
But the Blues and Blackhawks will both be a tough out in the first round, and the Central Division could have three of the final eight teams left in the NHL.