With 2,460 regular season games in the books, the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are finally here!
Gone from last year's playoffs are the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference. They will be replaced by the Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators.
Only the Anaheim Ducks did not make the playoffs from last year's elite eight in the west, while the St. Louis Blues went from being a non-playoff team all the way up to the second seed and the Central Division Champions.
There will certainly be some great first round matchups this year, with some very intriguing storylines. Here are a few players who will be key to their teams' success and will no doubt feel the heat if their teams fail.
After a Stanley Cup win in 2009 and Olympic Gold in 2010, Sidney Crosby was quickly on his way to becoming the best hockey player in the world.
However, concussions sidelined the Penguins captain for virtually all of 2011 and into 2012. Now, unfortunately for the Philadelphia Flyers, he is back. Crosby returned to action on March 15th and hasn't looked back.
In just 22 games this season, Crosby amassed 37 points. The Pittsburgh Penguins are already one of the deepest teams in the league with James Neal coming off a career year.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is as reliable as any goalie in the league. Their blueline boasts Kris Letang, one of the NHL's best two-way defensemen. Oh and let's not forget Evgeni Malkin, who will likely walk away with the Hart Trophy in June.
With a healthy and effective Sidney Crosby, the Penguins will be a very, very tough team to beat.
Roberto Luongo has a very impressive resume. From Olympic Gold in 2010 and several all-star appearances, to serving as the Vancouver Canucks' team captain for a short stint.
However, the Stanley Cup playoffs continue to be Luongo's Achilles heel, and questions of whether he has what it takes to win a Stanley Cup will surround him until he hoists Lord Stanley's prize.
For the second consecutive year, he and the Canucks claimed the Presidents' Trophy, ensuring them home ice throughout the playoffs.
Last year, they lost to the Boston Bruins in game seven in their home arena. What will this year have in store for Lu and the 'Nucks?
When things are going well, "Luuu" chants can be heard throughout Rogers Arena, but if Bobby Lu falters, even slightly, Canucks fans will quickly turn those "Luuu" chants into boos. They may even riot for good measure. The Canucks also have a very capable backup in Cory Schneider.
Nicklas Lidstrom will go down in history as one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history. His four Stanley Cups and seven Norris Trophies speak for themselves. As long as he is the captain of the Detroit Red Wings, they will remain a competitive team.
However, at the age of 41, has "father time" began to show itself to St. Nick? His 23 points this season were his lowest offensive output in over 15 years, and he missed several games due to injuries.
Whether this is the last run for Lidstrom or not, he is one of the best captains in the game today, and will rally his team to be a tough-out for anyone in the playoffs.
A few seasons ago, Jeff Carter had 46 goals and 84 points with the Flyers. After failing to fit in with Columbus, he was once again dealt to the Kings and was reunited with his former captain Mike Richards, who was also experiencing a tough season.
He's been banged up lately, but Carter, Richards, and the Kings offense will need to show up, score some goals, and not put 100 percent of the onus on their all-star goalie, Jonathan Quick.
At 39-years-of-age, time may be running out for Daniel Alfredsson to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
He and the Sens came close five years ago before being defeated by the Anaheim Ducks.
This year's Ottawa Senators exceeded expectations, especially after getting off to a dismal 1-5 start to begin the year.
Ottawa's long-time captain will have to rally the troops and overcome enormous odds as an eighth seed to make a long run for the Stanley Cup. Their first test will be the top-seeded New York Rangers.
With 59 points on the season, Alfredsson showed he still has gas left in the tank, but how much?
Ilya Bryzgalov made headlines last December with his off-the-wall comments during HBO's 24/7 series. This spring, he and the Flyers hope that he will make headlines with spectacular play in goal.
He will face a tough test, however, in the stalwart Pittsburgh Penguins. The $51 million goalie will certainly have his mettle tested in his first-ever playoff series as a Flyer.
His counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury has won the Stanley Cup and knows what it takes to go all the way in the playoffs. Bryz will have to out-duel the Flower if he hopes to lead his team there as well.
The St. Louis Blues have a goaltending controversy. Typically that's a bad thing, unless it's because you have to decide between two of the best goalies from the regular season.
Ever since Ken Hitchcock took over behind the Blues' bench, they have become a defensive powerhouse. Jaroslav Halak had an epic run in Montreal two years ago before being dealt to St. Louis, and Brian Elliott has revitalized his career after an abysmal stint in Colorado last year with an All-Star appearance.
The Blues leapt over Chicago, Detroit and Nashville to capture the Central Division crown, but now face a Sharks team who is hungry to finally make a name for themselves in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Just two seasons removed from leading the Chicago Blackhawks to the promise land, goaltender Antti Niemi enters his second playoff run as a Shark.
The regular season was somewhat disappointing for the Fish as they failed to capture the Pacific Division title and wound up in the seventh seed.
They did edge out Dallas and Colorado, just barely make the postseason while taking the last two games from their rivals in L.A. to move up to seventh.
Niemi will have to be good as the Sharks will face the best defensive team in the league in the St. Louis Blues. Whether Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott gets the nod in goal for the Blues, Niemi will have to be up to the challenge.
Patrick Kane is one of the most dynamic and exciting players in shootouts. Unfortunately, this will do him absolutely no good in the playoffs.
With 66 points, Kane by no means had a terrible year, but it was the lowest output of his young NHL career.
Captain Jonathan Toews is confident he'll be ready to go, after missing the last 22 games of the regular season, but even if he plays, his effectiveness will be a question mark after missing nearly two months with a concussion.
Kane will likely not be sporting a Superman cape in the playoffs, but in order for the Blackhawks to get by Mike Smith and the Coyotes, he will need to play like Superman.
Last summer, when Jaromir Jagr announced his intent to return to the NHL after a three-year stint in the KHL, many people thought the Pittsburgh Penguins would be a natural fit as he won two Stanley Cups there in the early '90s.
However, Jagr instead chose to take his talents to the City of Brotherly Love and play for the Penguins' biggest rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.
Now he will face-off against against his former club in Pittsburgh in the battle of Pennsylvania, where no brotherly love will be shown whatsoever.
54 points in 73 games this season certainly is not bad, but at 40 years old, Jagr is not the force he once was.
Sure, there are younger, more pivotal players in this series (Crosby, Malkin, Giroux, Hartnell), but the Jagr storyline is certainly a juicy one, and this series has all the makings of a first-round classic.
Martin Brodeur is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer and one of the best goalies to ever play the game. Three Stanley Cups, four Vezina Trophies, Olympic Gold—Brodeur has done it all.
Approaching his 40th birthday, the question remains if Brodeur has one more Stanley Cup run in him. Brodeur has not had a bad year and the New Jersey Devils are a talented group. If Brodeur can regain the form that made him into a legend, they could make a surprising run in this year's playoffs.
After winning the Hart and Vezina trophies a decade ago in Montreal, Jose Theodore has pretty much been a journeyman goaltender after stints in Colorado, Washington and Minnesota. This year, he found himself in Florida with a newly revamped Panthers team and chance to be their starting goalie.
Theo has been solid all year and helped to propel the Cats, the biggest surprise team in the NHL this year, to the Southeast Division title.
Despite the fact that Florida will be the favorites in this series, by virtue of the fact that they are the third seed vs. the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils, the Devils finished the season with 102 points to Florida's 94, so who is actually the favorite here?
Theodore will have to beat one of the best goalies of all-time in Martin Brodeur, but both of these goaltenders on the wrong side of 35, have had resurgent seasons.
With 78 points in 81 games, Erik Karlsson will likely earn his first Norris Trophy this season as the league's best defenseman. Karlsson's 78 points were by far the most of any D-man in the league this year. The next runner-up had 53.
Karlsson will have to continue his phenomenal play for the Ottawa Senators to beat Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. Points aside, Karlsson will have to be good in his own end as well, against Rangers superstars Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan.
When Ilya Bryzgalov departed Phoenix for Philadelphia, many people thought (including me) that Smith would be a huge downgrade in goal. Admittedly, we were wrong.
After backing-up Marty Turco in Dallas, Smith was supposed to be the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay, but failed to establish himself there.
After rejoining former Stars head coach Dave Tippett in Phoenix, this time as a starter, Smith had a career year and led the Phoenix Coyotes to their first ever (and possibly last) Pacific Division title.
The Coyotes are probably breathing a sigh of relief that they are not facing the Detroit Red Wings, the team that eliminated them in the first round of each of the past two seasons. Smith and company will need to continue to excel in the playoffs however, as he and the Yotes face a Blackhawks team who won the ultimate prize just two years ago.
With their No. 1 and No. 2 goalies (Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth) on the shelf, the Washington Capitals will turn to 22-year-old Braden Holtby as their playoff goaltender.
When the Capitals traded goalie Semyon Varlamov to Colorado last year, it seemed logical that Neuvirth and Holtby would remain with the Caps and battle for the starting job.
However, when they signed the veteran goalie and former all-star Vokoun, Holtby found himself the odd-man-out and spent most of the season back in the AHL with the Hershey Bears.
Now, he will certainly get his shot to make a name for himself in the NHL on the biggest stage of them all—the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Holtby will face MVP Tim Thomas and the defending Stanley Cup champions, so his task will not be an easy one. Not at all.
Like a fine wine, Tim Thomas seems to get better with age. Last year, he won the Vezina Trophy, Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy. What else does he have to shoot for?
Sure, he and the B's can aim to become the first team to repeat as champs since the Red Wings did it in the late '90s, and why not? The Bruins are every bit as formidable as they were last year and have all the makings for another long playoff run.
As the defending champions, however, they will certainly have a huge bullseye on their collective chests.
Nope, not talking about Ovechkin here, but Alexander Radulov will be a key cog for the Nashville Predators this postseason, however.
The Predators' back-end is as solid as any team in the league. From goalie Pekka Rinne to defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, the Preds will be solid defensively as they always are.
They lack however, a true offensive powerhouse, but the recently returned Alex Radulov should help. Radulov's NHL career has been a sporadic one, but he is back with the team who drafted him back in 2004 and is looking to help them make their playoff run.
The Preds advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in team history last year and are looking to build upon recent success.
Radulov's offense will be welcome to help Nashville match the high-powered weapons of the Detroit Red Wings like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the best goaltenders all season long—on one of the league's best teams. He is the front-runner to take home the Vezina in June, but there is another piece of hardware he would like to claim more.
Last year, the Blue Shirts entered the playoffs as the eighth seed and lost to the top-seeded Capitals. This season, the Rangers find themselves as the No. 1 in the east and King Henrik certainly has what it takes to guide his team on a long playoff run.
Anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but look for the Rangers to be a force.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick has been one of the league's best all year long. He will likely earn votes for the Vezina and is probably the only reason the Los Angeles Kings are even in the playoffs.
The Kings lost six games this season by a score of 1-0, and their offense will need to show up if they have any expectations of making it past the first round.
Quick will need to continue his stellar play and hope the Kings' offense comes to life, if the seventh-seeded Kings hope to upset the highly-favored Vancouver Canucks.
He may look like Henry Winkler, but New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella is all business. Sure, he's not technically a player, but Torts will certainly make his presence felt in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The New York Rangers are a very good team from top-to-bottom, and it's no accident that they are the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference. Their coach is a big reason why they're there.
He's outspoken, brash, and a bit controversial at times, but Tortorella is a good coach who knows what it takes to win it all from his success in Tampa Bay in 2004.
If things go south for the Blue Shirts during these playoffs, you can guarantee that Torts will be right there to stir the proverbial pot and shake things up to right the ship for his squad.