It's the most wonderful time of the year! With the NHL Playoffs coming up, there are probably a dozen teams with a realistic chance at taking home the Stanley Cup this year.
There is no postseason in professional sports that is harder to get through than the NHL. Sixteen wins will get you there, and considering that teams can end up playing a maximum of 28 games, with every game being as physical as the next, it is hard to imagine how players still find the gas to compete for the game's most coveted prize after an 82-game season.
So here are five things to look for that will determine who Gary Bettman hands the Cup over to this year.
Obviously the favorites to win the Cup will be at the top of the standings as the first round approaches, but the beauty of the NHL playoffs is that there are no gimmies.
Just ask the 2010 Washington Capitals, the 2006 Detroit Red Wings or the 2009 San Jose Sharks. Truth of the matter is, history has shown that winning the President Trophy in no way gives you a free run to the finals or even the second round.
Since 1986, the year the Presidents trophy began being awarded, only seven teams who won the Presidents Trophy have won the Cup, while five have been knocked out in the first round.
Prediction: I think the team to watch that could make some noise in this year's playoffs are the Phoenix Coyotes, who are currently the No. 7 seed in the West. They are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, and Mike Smith has to be the hottest goalie in the NHL right now, coming off a shutout Tuesday night where he made 54 saves against Columbus.
Now on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, an early-round sweep gives a team a huge advantage as the playoffs move forward. I know there is an argument about teams getting rusty after they wait up to 10 days to play a second-round game after a first-round sweep, but believe me, rest is much more important.
The season is long, grueling and takes a physical and mental toll on everyone. Getting to sit back and watch film of the possible teams you will be facing in the next round can be the difference between a second-round exit and a trip to the Finals.
Prediction: The Boston Bruins are set up to face the Ottawa Senators, and this series could be over early. The Bruins are a very deep team that play well at home and on the road. They play the Sens Thursday night for their sixth and final meeting of the season. The Bruins have won four of the five meetings this year.
I'm a Penguins supporter, so let me try to make my point here as unbiased as possible.
If he plays his game, I don't think the Penguins can be stopped; however, there are many issues that arise. Can he stay healthy? Will he accept that this is Malkin's team? Will he continue to make the power play unstoppable? Can he handle the grit that the playoffs bring?
Health is obviously the biggest issue here, but he has looked solid ever since returning to the lineup. He is averaging 1.7 points per game, which leads the league, but take into consideration he has only played 20 games this season.
He is the player to watch in this year's playoffs, and he is the one player that will have the most impact on whether or not this team wins the cup. If he plays timid, and doesn't want to get involved in the physicality that the playoffs bring, the Penguins will be in trouble.
Prediction: If the Pens get by the first round, I think they win it all. But with a first-round matchup against the Flyers, who have had the Penguins' number this year, the task could be a tough. It kills me to write, but if Philly stays out of the box, I think their grit is something that Pittsburgh just can't match. Philly in seven.
Every year there are costly injuries that can really a series turn around, and this year will be no exception. There have already been injuries that might cost some teams a chance at the Cup.
Look at Daniel Sedin, who is out with a concussion after he took an elbow from Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. Speaking of Chicago, Captain Johnny Toews missed his 17th straight game Tuesday night. He is planning to return soon, but head injuries are often reoccurring.
The Penguins share this same fate. I mentioned a chance of Sidney Crosby having some recurring symptoms, but another impact player is Kris Letang, who has missed time this season with concussion-like symptoms as well.
Detroit has also had their fair share of injuries this year and could easily lose a few players come playoff time. At one time or another, the Wings have played without Nicklas Lidstrom, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Johan Franzen, Patrick Eaves and goaltender Jimmy Howard due to injury.
One last thing to watch is how important the injury to Tuukka Rask will affect the Boston Bruins. If Tim Thomas struggles, all the pressure will be on Marty Turco, who has been atrocious ever since he signed midseason.
Prediction: I think the injury to Tuukka Rask is really going to hurt the Bruins. Thomas has gotten a lot of playing time with the bleak play of Marty Turco, and he'll have to stay healthy and play well in every game for the Bruins to have a chance. That's a lot of work for a guy who turns 38 on April 17th. I think they make a serious run, but asking them to repeat may be too much.
One name: Tim Thomas. It is hard to find another instance where a goaltender was such a catalyst in winning the cup as Thomas was in last year's finals.
A hot goaltender can win a title, there is just no doubt about that; however, there are so many goaltending questions going into this year's playoffs: Can Jimmy Howard continue his regular-season performance in the postseason, where he has struggled in the past? Who will the Canucks go with, Luongo or Schneider? Will Bryzgalov show up in the postseason for Philly?
The fact of the matter is, there is a reason why the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the playoff MVP, has been won by a goalie 15 times. It is the most important position on the ice come playoff time, and whichever team brings the hot goalie might be raising the Stanley Cup when all is said and done.
Prediction: This is a little bold, but after Tuesday night's come-from-behind win for the Canucks, I think Schneider eventually gets the nod for the Canucks in the playoffs. He is 20-7-4 this season with a .938 save percentage and 1.93 goals against average... tough to keep him on the bench.