It’s that time again, folks.
The weather is getting warmer by the day, but it is heating up even more in 16 cities across North America.
Tonight, one of the great traditions of sports comes our way again as the 2012 NHL Playoffs start.
From Vancouver and Miami to Boston and Los Angeles, pucks will be dropped; players will hit, fight, and shoot; and crowds of more than 17,000 will cheer their respective teams on to victory.
It’s a two month process that is arguably the most grueling in sports—where else is there so much heart shown on a constant basis, from the first puck drop to the final horn? There is no quitting in hockey—injuries and slumps do not slow players down for one second, let alone a game.
It starts with 16 teams, then eight, then four and then down to two. Then, there will be only one team that holds Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Each team has a different story. Whether they had been virtually assured of a playoff spot for a month and a half, or snuck-in during the final week of the regular season, all of the teams still playing have their own nuances heading into the first-round.
Beginning with the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, the top seeded New York Rangers take on the Ottawa Senators, starting on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. A New York team that has been hovering around the middle of the Eastern Conference for the past few years has finally made it to the top of the Conference in a very competitive Atlantic Division.
Last offseason’s pickup of Brad Richards has paid off in spades. Led by captain Ryan Callahan and superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the “Blueshirts” look to make a big run. Their opponents from North of the Border have an uphill climb in their first round, but captain Daniel Alfredsson and the rest of the Sens will look to make a series of it.
The defending Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins, won the Northeast Division and will face the Washington Capitals in the first-round. Washington’s four-season-long streak of Southeast Division championships came to an end this season, in a year that has seen much turmoil, including a coaching change, for the Caps. Led by superstar Alex Ovechkin, they will look to upset the Northeast Division champions, a task easier said than done with the many questions they have surrounding the goalie position, not to mention the many weapons that the Bruins have, i.e. Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara.
A very interesting series pits Florida against New Jersey. The Panthers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2000, claiming their first-ever Southeast Division championship. With a myriad of offensive talent including the likes of Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss, the Panthers will look to solve the puzzle that is Devils goalie Martin Brodeur in a series that truly could go either way.
Perhaps the most eye-catching series of the first-round contains two of the bitterest rivals in hockey—Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The “Battle for the Keystone State” features one of the best scorers in the game in the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin, and his matchup with fellow Russian and Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov will be a key point to watch throughout a series that may go the full seven games. The X-factor in the series, however, may very well be Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who has had a difficult season-and-a-half recovering from concussions and spinal injuries. If he plays like the Crosby we saw pre-2011 Winter Classic, he will further prove his status as one of the best on the planet.
Out West, the story is the same for Vancouver—another season, another Presidents’ Trophy for best record in the league and another Northwest Division title. The question here is, can goalie Jonathan Quick steal a series for the Los Angeles Kings and stun the defending Western Conference champs, or will the Sedin twins send the Kings to the beach early? We’ll see if Roberto Luongo can maintain his form from the regular season and lead the Canucks to another Stanley Cup Final.
Five months ago, no one gave the St. Louis Blues a shot at making the playoffs. Fewer said that they would end up with the No. 2 seed and win the Central Division, but they did and will play a stout San Jose team. If the Blues get past the Sharks, they may be a true Cup contender. The Sharks want to show everyone that they are not the same old playoff failures, but doing that will be easier said than done.
While Chicago is favored to beat the Pacific Division champions in Phoenix, Mike Smith has been white-hot as of late and may very well lead the Coyotes over the 2010 champion Blackhawks. The Coyotes are teetering on the brink of being relocated to another city, so winning this series is critical for the Phoenix franchise in general and their fans. A win may give them much-needed stability, but a loss may doom them to a similar fate as the Atlanta Thrashers.
Two Central Division rivals in Nashville and Detroit will face off, as an aging Red Wing side will try and beat a solid Predator team led by Shea Weber and a red-hot Pekka Rinne. Although Detroit is full of playoff experience from top to bottom, this is a Nashville team that, if they play to the best of their ability, can beat anybody in the Western Conference, and maybe even the NHL.
That’s it. Put down the razor and pick up your rally towel. Seriously. Don’t shave until your team is either holding golf clubs or the Stanley Cup. Let the playoff beard ride. Go crazy. Watch every game. Because this is hockey, and this is the playoffs.