The 2012 NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday night with an assortment of great matchups in the first round. Sixteen teams enter chasing one ultimate dream — the chance to hoist the best trophy in sports, Lord Stanley's Cup.
Each team has strengths and weaknesses that they will need to maximize and minimize if they hope to go the distance this year.
Let's take a look at what is bolstering and holding back each team in the playoffs, starting from the No. 8 seeds up to the No. 1 seeds.
Drew Doughty celebrates after a goal during a recent home game
The Kings had a rough first half of the season, but a late charge that saw them finish 9-2-3 over their last 14 games pushed them into the final playoff spot. With the big trade deadline moves of GM Dean Lombardi, this is a hot and dangerous team. If Quick plays as well as he has all season, don't be too surprised if the Kings score an early upset over the Canucks.
Goaltending - The Kings have leaned heavily on a Vezina-worthy campaign from netminder Jonathan Quick this season. Quick leads all starting goaltenders in GAA (trailing to Blues' backup Brian Elliott) at 1.95.
Defense - The Kings boast the second-lowest goals against per game during the regular season and despite dealing Jack Johnson in a blockbuster trade before the deadline, they play tremendous defense in front of Quick.
The Kings are also in the top five in fewest shots allowed per game and have the third-best save percentage in the league as a team.
Jeff Carter's Injury - The questionable health of Jeff Carter adds serious problems to a Kings team that is desperate for offense. Carter suffered a bone bruise on his foot and given his past problems with foot injuries, a day-to-day designation could mean that he misses a handful of games in the first round.
Offense - With Jeff Carter, the Kings were averaging over an extra goal per game. Despite this, LA finished with the league's second-worst goals-per-game average, netting just 188 goals this season.
Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown found their stride late in the season, but the Kings will need the top-six stability that Carter adds to the lineup if they want to make a run in the playoffs.
Jason Spezza scored a team-high 84 points this season and is key to Ottawa's success
Few people thought that the Senators would be in the playoffs at the start of the season, but after midseason few people thought the Senators would have fallen to eighth place. An injury to Craig Anderson was weathered admirably by backup Ben Bishop, who was acquired from the St. Louis Blues before the trade deadline. But a late fall-off by the Senators saw them drop their division lead and fall down to the last playoff spot.
Top-six scoring and offensive power - A real argument could be made for Jason Spezza in the Hart Trophy conversation as he produced all season at a point-per-game pace, tallying 84. Good leadership and solid production from Daniel Alfredsson has helped balance one of the most lethal top lines in the NHL.
Rounding out the top six, Milan Michalek, Nick Foligno, Colin Greening and Kyle Turris have done all the heavy-lifting in Ottawa's monster 249-goal season. That mark would tie for the lead in the Western Conference.
Defense - The Senators have gotten great offensive production from their D-men like Karlsson's 78-point campaign, but have severely lacked in the shutdown department.
The Senators allowed 240 goals this season, which is more than any other playoff team.
Worse, the Senators allowed the second-most shots against this season, and while Craig Anderson is capable of stealing a few games, he is not an elite goalie who can be depended on to stand on his head when facing so many shots every night.
Bottom-six production and size - The Senators' third and fourth lines have not produced consistently this season and do not often contribute to the team's offensive success. This would not be too problematic if they were good checking lines, but the Senators do not have great size, something that could hurt them if they want to make any sort of splash in the postseason.
Joe Pavelski and the San Jose Sharks have had a disappointing season to date
The San Jose Sharks have had a disappointing season thus far, on the heels of a number of years of playoff disappointments. An offseason trade that sent away Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi left the team with a serious hole offensively, and the addition of Martin Havlat did little to fill that void.
It's certainly possible that being an underdog with little expectations and no pressure is what this team needs to make a serious postseason run.
Playoff Experience - The Sharks have a ton of playoff experience on their roster, although much of that experience has been getting knocked out of the postseason way too early as members of a once-elite Sharks team. Still, their core of veterans like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau know how to win a series and can be one of the most elite forces when playing at their best.
Discipline - The Sharks were short-handed fewer times than any other team in the league this season. This is in part because of their veteran core that has learned to play smart with and without the puck. Special teams can make or break a team in the playoffs, and with the Sharks' horrid penalty kill, they will want to stay out of the box as much as possible.
Power play - The Sharks may not be anywhere near the offensive team they were a year ago when you look up and down the entire roster, but the top forwards and defensemen are still as talented as you will find. The Sharks converted on 21.1 percent of their extra-man opportunities, which is good enough for second in the NHL. Any Dan Boyle-led power play will always be dangerous in big-game situations.
Penalty-kill - The Sharks special teams have been on opposite ends of the spectrum. While the power play sits at second-best in the league, the penalty kill sits at second-worst, just ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Sharks have great depth at defense, but lack a consistent defensive line that can shut down the opposition's top lines.
Their defensive shortcomings has led to a severe inability to defeat other teams that play strong defensively, as they are unable to rely on their offense.
Depth - The top players on the Sharks are as good as they get, but consistent production is hard to find up and down the lineup. As good as the Sharks' top power-play unit is, a second power-play unit that features Tommy Wingels and Justin Braun has trouble getting it done against the league's better penalty-kill units.
Braden Holtby may be the last option left for the Capitals as they head into the playoffs
Much like the Sharks, the Capitals have endured a disappointing season, battling down the final few games just to make the playoffs, this after an insane 7-0 start. But you can bet that the Boston Bruins are certainly not underestimating the Capitals, and are more than aware of how dangerous a team they could be, especially if Alex Ovechkin catches fire.
Of course, the sudden carousel of goalies in Washington has everyone guessing who will play when, and if it's true that Braden Holtby will have to shoulder the load, how could he possible handle it?
Alex Ovechkin - The superstar has had a bit of an "off" season, seeing his numbers go down in virtually every category while scoring the fewest points of his professional career. However, "Ovie" has shown in the past that he knows how to turn it on in big games, especially in the playoffs.
Ovechkin has been on a rampant pace for his career in the playoffs. He has scored 50 points in just 37 postseason games, a time when teams tighten up defensively and defensemen stick to their men like glue.
His big-game skills and talent will be crucial to the Capitals shaking off of a poor regular season and scoring a first-round upset over the Bruins.
Nicklas Backstrom's Return - The return of Nicklas Backstrom does nothing but help the entire lineup, and he has given the team a nice jolt of energy since returning four games before the end of the regular season. Backstrom's presence allows the Capitals to focus on constantly matching up defensively instead of trying to get the right matchup for their top line.
With low expectations, expect Washington to play well in this series, feeling no added pressure from a seventh place seeding.
Injuries To Goaltenders - Two weeks ago, you would have said that the Capitals had one of the more defined starter and backup roles at goaltender in the league. After trading away Semyon Varlamov, the Capitals brought in Tomas Vokounin for a steal of a price, leaving Michael Neuvirth as one of the more capable backups in the league.
Vokoun has been out since a Mar. 29th groin injury sidelined him, and an Apr. 5th injury to Michael Neuvirth has suddenly left the depth chart topped by Braden Holtby.
Holtby has only played in 22 career NHL games, seven of them coming this season, and doesn't have any playoff experience. His backup, at least for Game 1, will be Dany Sabourin, who has not appeared in an NHL game since 2009.
If Neuvirth or Vokoun are unable to make it back at any point during this series, it is surely far too much to ask of two inexperienced goalies to carry the Capitals past the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins.
Special Teams - The Capitals were not particularly strong on either end of special teams. Their power play ranked 18th, and their penalty-kill was just inside the worst 10 in the league at 21st. With shaky goaltending, the Capitals will be looking for some aspect of the game that will give them an edge, and special teams probably won't be it.
The season-long woes on special teams was a big factor in making the Capitals one of just two playoff teams with a negative goals for/goals against differential.
Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews' return is crucial to Chicago's postseason chances
There was a time around midseason that the Blackhawks looked like the favorites to win not only the Central division, but also the Western Conference. Instead, a long midseason struggle found the Blackhawks finishing fourth in the division and sixth in the conference. There's little doubt in anyone's minds, however, that the Hawks are as dangerous as any team in the playoffs.
Scoring From The Entire Lineup - Just looking at this roster still strikes fear in opponents. Sharp, Kane, Hossa, Stalberg and Keith. Now it looks as if Jonathan Toews is poised to return in Game 1 for the Blackhawks — just another player in their lineup who can dominate a series when playing his best.
Scoring can come from anywhere in this lineup as well. Andrew Brunette, often on the fourth line, put up 27 points this season, and Brian Bickell centering the third line scored 37 points.
Chicago ranked fifth in the league with 2.9 goals per game.
What is most impressive is that Chicago has managed to assemble scoring from every line without sacrificing size and physicality. They have done this by maintaining strong checking players like Jamal Mayers and Dave Bolland.
Return Of Jonathan Toews - Getting back their captain and best offensive player can do nothing but jump-start the team as it enters the playoffs. Chicago fans would have liked it if he could have returned to play at least one game in the regular season to get back into the swing of things before the playoffs, but no one is complaining.
Playoff Experience - Extremely valuable during the playoffs is leadership and experience, and the majority of these players were with the team in 2010 when it won the Stanley Cup in overtime fashion. These guys can play in big games, know how to handle the spotlight and know what it takes to make a playoff run.
Defense and Goaltending - Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a fantastic defensive pairing. After that, Chicago lacks depth at defense, and allowed the second-most goals during the regular season of all playoff teams. Corey Crawford has been solid, but not spectacular, and the Blackhawks may need to rely on him to steal a few games for them.
Special Teams - What a mess it has been in Chicago on special teams. Despite having some of the most talented forwards in the league, Chicago finished in the bottom five on the power-play at 15.2 percent, and the fourth worst in the penalty-kill at 78.1 percent. In a tight series that might be decided by special teams and defense, the Blackhawks need some serious improvement.
Martin Brodeur can still play with the top team when he is on his game, but that's no guarantee
The New Jersey Devils probably deserve a better seed than sixth, but playing in the best division in the league has to have some casualties. The Devils are interesting because they have many players with lots of playoff experience like Brodeur, Sykora and Elias, yet so many key players have very little playoff experience like Kovalchuk and Adam Henrique.
Penalty-kill - The Devil were the best team in the league on the penalty-kill, allowing just 27 power-play goals and scoring 15 shorthanded goals. That can be huge in a series, especially when a long kill can change the momentum of a game.
Defense - The Devils allowed just 26.8 shots per game, second only to the Blues. As Martin Brodeur continues to age, he'll need as much defense as he can get if he's going to stay sharp for a stretch run. New Jersey's defenders have great hockey sense in quickly pushing the puck forward to their elite offensive threats and causing a lot of odd-man rushes.
Team Chemistry - The Devils play well together as any great team should. Head coach Pete DeBoer can tinker with line combinations often and the players will all perform well together. Even stars like Kovalchuk have agreed to play different roles at different times and have done so without complaint. Communication and personal responsibility are key values that you can see in the Devils' play.
Streaky Goaltending - Martin Brodeur is getting older and can't play at the amazing level he once wowed audiences with. However, he can still play at a very elite level when he is "on his game." If Brodeur can get hot and stay hot with help from his defense, he still has the skills to carry a team deep.
But there have been stretches this season where Brodeur has looked shaky in goal and one bad game could snowball into a bad series. Don't be surprised if DeBoer isn't hesitant to let Hedberg start if Brodeur starts to struggle.
Inconsistent scoring - This Devils offense can play with the best teams in the game when they are playing well. But, they can also come up short far too often. The Devils scored two or fewer goals 35 times this season, although to their credit they were only shutout four times.
The Red Wings will need Jimmy Howard to come up big if they want to have playoff success
It seems strange to see the Red Wings without home-ice advantage this postseason, but late injuries made for a tough stretch in late February/early March that saw Detroit fall down the standings quickly in the tightly contended Western Conference.
The roster as a whole is starting to look fairly old, but Detroit is still one of the most well-run franchises in all of sports and the front office has already stock-piled replacements for veterans soon to retire.
Defense - Arguably the smartest and most disciplined blue line in the NHL, Detroit allowed the third-fewest shots during the regular season and contributed 81 points on offense. Solid defense is key to postseason runs and the Red Wings have some of the best, led by future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom.
Experience - Suffice it to say this isn't Detroit's first rodeo. The Red Wings will be competing in its 21st straight postseason, the best active streak in the NHL. A strong core of savvy veterans know what to say, when to say it and how to back it up on the ice.
Forwards - Detroit scored the seventh-most goals in the NHL this season and have some of the best role players in the league. Pavel Datsyuk is one of the best set-up men and two-way players in the league, Johan Franzen has one of the league's strongest presences in front of the net and Henrik Zetterberg continues to be one the best forwards in the league.
The Wings don't give up much size either. They have plenty of flash, but also enough grit to wear down opponents, particularly throughout an entire series.
Road Record - The Red Wings went just 17-21-3 on the road this season, struggling away from Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings do not have home-ice advantage this year and will need to find a way to take games on the road in order to make it out of the first round.
Nagging Injuries - After a great start, Jimmy Howard has been hampered by minor injuries the past few months of the season. He has not fully regained his groove and could re-aggravate an injury at any point. Captain Nicklas Lidstrom is still noticeably affected by his recent foot injury, pinching in on offense much less in the past few games.
Now Darren Helm looks like he will miss the first few games of the playoffs with a sprained knee, a presence that will be severely missed in the Wings' depth.
Claude Giroux leads a strong Philadelphia Flyers team into another postseason
The Flyers had one of the more exciting offseasons in the NHL, capped off by the surprise signing of Jaromir Jagr. Philadelphia has one of the most balanced attacks in the NHL and is capable of taking down any team they meet in the playoffs.
Top To Bottom Production - The Flyers netted the third-most goals in the league this year, but their real strength lies in how complete the entire lineup is. The Flyers have someone on each line who scored 19 or-more goals this season. Any lineup that has Max Talbot on its fourth line is frighteningly dangerous. No player reached 40 goals, but 11 different players had more than 10 goals.
Power play - The Flyers scored the most power-play goals in the NHL during the regular season, converting on 19.7 percent of chances. They also are great at getting into the slot and forcing opponents to hook or slash them, drawing the most penalties in the league and spending more time on the power play than any other team.
Up-and-Down Goaltending - Ilya Bryzgalov has had one of the wildest seasons of any player. There were points during the season when his job seemed like it would be lost to Sergei Bobrovsky, yet he finished out the season on a tear and secured his No. 1 status for the playoffs.
He had one of the worst four-game stretches of his career when his Coyotes were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of last year's playoffs. But the Philly faithful believe he can regain his once-elite status. His playoff experience is minimal, but the Flyers will need him to remain consistent throughout the postseason.
Injuries - The Flyers have been forced to deal with huge injuries this season. Playing without Chris Pronger for almost the entire year has had a huge effect on this team as it allows more goals than every other playoff team except the Blackhawks and the Senators.
Now late in the season, injuries may hamper them. Andrej Meszaros is still week-to-week as is James van Riemsdyk, and now Nicklas Grossman is threatening to miss some time. Danny Briere was also injured but is expected to play against the cross-state rival Penguins.
Pekka Rinne has been far and away the best player for the Predators thus far, and they'll need him to do their best in the playoffs.
Few teams are more deserving of a postseason berth than the Nashville Predators, who will compete for the Cup for the second straight season. The Predators play the game the right way with strong defense and a balanced offense to complement their tremendous goaltending. Head coach Barry Trotz has been one of the best coaches in the NHL over the past five seasons.
Goaltending - Pekka Rinne led the league in wins with 43, games played with 73, shots against with 2,153 and saves with 1,987. He has been the true definition of a workhorse for his team. He has gained serious Vezina trophy consideration and has undoubtedly been the MVP of his team.
Late Season Additions - No team has added more since the midpoint of the season than the Nashville Predators. The Predators added substantially to every aspect of the game at the deadline. They added to their defensive stability by trading for Hal Gill, added to their offensive physicality and size by trading for Paul Gaustad and added to their offensive power by trading for Andrei Kostitsyn.
Nashville also scored a true prize in bringing Alexander Radulov in from the KHL to further boost their offense. The Predators are a completely different team to play against now than they were a few months ago.
Power play - The Predators had the best power-play percentage in the league this season at 21.6 percent, not bad for a team that only has two players with more than 20 goals and none with 30.
The unit is led by arguably the best pair of defensemen in the game in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Suter and Weber are magical in running a power-play and unprecedented when it comes to getting pucks on net, a basic key to power-play success.
No Go-To Scorer - In tight contest, the Predators lack a distinct offensive threat who can take control of a game. The highest goal-scorer on the team is Patric Horqvist with just 27 goals. In situations where Nashville needs a late goal to tie a game, there is no one to definitively try to get the puck to and no player who has the skill to beat a defense on his own.
The Predators also lack significant playoff experience and imagining them legitimately contend for a conference title doesn't quite feel right just yet.
Pittsburgh Captain Sidney Crosby celebrates after scoring in a home game
The Pittsburgh Penguins stormed into the playoffs with a fantastic final month of the season and are considered by many to be a Stanley Cup favorite, despite being a No. 4 seed. Evgeni Malkin and James Neal were unstoppable for most of the season while they kept Pittsburgh as an elite hockey team even without Sidney Crosby.
Health - For the first time practically all season, the Penguins are completely healthy and have the most offensively-gifted lineup in the league to show for it. Sidney Crosby is back and producing again and will no doubt continue to get better with each game he plays. James Neal and Steve Sullivan missed a couple games but are healthy and ready to build on their strong regular-season campaigns.
Offense - This team is freakishly good and is peaking at the right time. Just look at their numbers. Eighteen different players tallied 10 or more points this season, including Ross trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, who netted 50 goals and dished out 59 assists. Talk about production from the entire lineup.
The Penguins led the league in goals per game despite missing Crosby for most of the season. Crosby is one of the greatest offensive talents to ever play the game and now that he is joining an already great lineup, the Penguins may be too strong to stop.
Now the Penguins are red-hot on offense. Malkin finished the season with 28 points in the final 15 games, Pascal Dupuis recorded a point in 17 straight games to end the season and Sidney Crosby is starting to return to pre-concussion form as a nucleus for offensive production scoring 25 points in his 14 games since returning.
Goaltending - Marc-Andre Fleury won a career-best 42 games and has been a source of consistency for the Penguins throughout the season. His save percentage and GAA are not stellar, but you can't argue with the win total. Not to mention that any goalie who has gone the distance and won a Stanley Cup is invaluable to a playoff team looking for a title.
Combined with the offensive prowess and Fleury's solid play, the Penguins posted the second-best goal differential in the NHL this season.
Mentality - A weakness proclaimed by head coach Dan Bylsma is the tendency of the Penguins to beat themselves by getting too caught up in mind games. The Penguins don't have the best size and can be knocked around, so they need to keep their heads clear and focused when dealing with a long series that can get bitter, especially with Philadelphia in the first round. When faced with a deficit, Bylsma has said that players can get too flashy trying to do it all themselves when they need to stick to basics to score important goals.
Similarly, when playing with a large lead, Pittsburgh occasionally lets off the gas pedal and can have trouble putting the pressure back on. The Penguins need to play with complete intensity for the entirety of the game without letting up.
Coyotes goalie Mike Smith will be leaned on heavily if the Coyotes are to advance this postseason
The Coyotes surprised a lot of people by taking the Pacific Division crown. After bringing in Mike Smith to replace Ilya Bryzgalov, the Coyotes seemed like an owner-less team with little potential, yet here they sit as a No. 3 seed.
Mike Smith - Mike Smith is coming into the playoffs as the league's hottest goalie. The Coyotes won five straight to clinch the division, and during that stretch Smith pitched three shutouts while stopping 190 of 192 shots.
This season, Smith had the third-best save percentage while also recording the third-most saves. The Coyotes can lean on Smith but will need to allow fewer shots to avoid fatigue. As Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens can tell you, any team with a hot goalie can make a deep run in the playoffs.
Defense - The Coyotes allowed 31.6 shots per game this season and were very poor at defending opponents' top lines. That number has been trending upward as the Coyotes allowed 38.4 shots per game over the last five games. This trend can't continue if the Coyotes want to keep Mike Smith fresh and ready night in and night out.
Power play - A season-long woe for the Coyotes, Phoenix finished with the 29th-ranked power play converting on a measly 13.5 percent of opportunities with the man-advantage. Much of this number is due to a complete lack of results from the team's second power-play unit, which has shuffled members in and out with little success ever occurring.
Jose Theodore has a weak grip on the starting job entering the postseason having lost seven straight games
The Florida Panthers are arguably the least-feared team in the 2012 playoffs. The Panthers won just 38 games this season and are relatively unimpressive in almost every aspect. But, give GM Dale Tallon some credit for making a complete overhaul of this team in the offseason and getting them to the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
Playoff Experienced Veterans - GM Dale Tallon brought in a number of veterans this offseason who can help the Panthers make a run this postseason. Five players on the Panthers' roster have won a Stanley cup including Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, John Madden and Mikael Samuelsson. In addition, Ed Jovanovski brings in 69 games of postseason experience.
Top line and Power play - Despite a poor offense overall, the Panthers' top line has been one of the best lines throughout the entire season. Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Brian Campbell all finished the regular season with more than 50 points and have worked incredibly well together for the duration of the season.
This line worked well on the man-advantage, too, giving Florida the seventh-rated power play this season.
Cold-streak - The Panthers only won two of their last 10 games, with starting goaltender Jose Theodore losing seven-straight starts. The scoring has been down and the shots allowed have been up. The Panthers backed into the playoffs and will need to turn things around in a hurry in order to compete with the New Jersey Devils in the first round.
Offense - Yes, the top line was successful throughout the season. But beyond that, the Panthers struggled mightily on offense this year, scoring just 203 goals this season which is the second fewest among playoff teams. The Panthers need to either perfectly match up their top line against opponents to maximize their production or begin receiving offensive output from other lines.
The Panthers' penalty-kill has also been one of the worst in the league.
The lack of offense combined with mediocre defense has left the Panthers with the worst goals for/against differential of all playoff teams at minus-24.
Jaroslav Halak will look to catch fire like he did in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens
What a magical season it's been in St. Louis. After replacing Davis Payne early in the season, Ken Hitchcock has led this Blues team to the second seed in the Western Conference, a successful season fans in St. Louis have been dreaming of for years. The roster lacks a superstar, but is as solid throughout as any team in the league, much like the Flyers and Penguins.
Defense - The Blues allowed the fewest shots against in the entire NHL this season. Hitchcock has established a disciplined style of play that thinks defense first. David Backes will gain a lot of consideration for the Selke trophy for his part in shutting down opponents' top lines. The Blues defense is suffocating and does a tremendous job forcing shots to the outside while physically punishing opposing players on a nightly basis.
Goaltending - To complement the Blues' great defense, the Blues have enjoyed the best goaltending-tandem in the league. The Blues allowed a league-low 155 regulation/overtime goals this season, and have recorded the highest save percentage in the NHL to go with a league-leading 15 shutouts.
Both Jaroslav Halak and the resurgent Brian Elliott have been phenomenal for the Note this season and coach Ken Hitchcock isn't afraid to ride the hot-handed goalie during the postseason. In short, the Blues' defense and goaltending are as consistent and dominant as any team we've seen since the lockout.
Top to Bottom Offense - The Blues quietly have one of the most complete lineups in the NHL. There are no real dominant players on offense, but every line can produce well. Now completely healthy for the first time this season, the Blues pencil in a lineup that has 17-goal scorer Jason Arnott and 15-goal scorer Chris Stewart both on the third line.
In the Blues' starting lineup, just one player has a negative plus/minus rating. The Blues are young, but have a number of players who can change the game in an instant like David Perron and TJ Oshie.
Much of the in-your-face mentality the Blues displayed all season came from hard forechecking and muscling opponents off of the puck. The Blues have great size, particularly in front of the net with the likes of David Backes and Chris Stewart, and there is not a single player on this team who is afraid to give or take a hit.
Home Record - The Blues are one of the toughest teams to play when they are at the Scottrade Center. The Blues' 30 wins at home were the second-most in the league and St. Louis' No. 2 seed guarantees them home-ice advantage through at least the first two round of the playoffs.
Go-to scorer - The Blues have a balanced offense that can produce throughout the entire lineup. However, the Blues lack a defined goal-scoring threat to produce matchup issues for the opposition. Just two players reached the 20-goal plateau this season, although offensive talents Andy McDonald and Alex Steen both missed half of the season with various injuries.
Mentality and Intensity - The intensity of the Blues has been their strong suit over the past few years and was the edge they had in games all season. However, in the last few games of the season, the Blues seemed complacent and lacked their "outwork the opponent" style of hockey.
Players seemed to be going through the motions and the physical play was down. The Blues don't have the raw talent on their roster to win if they do not play with the same determination they had all season, and Ken Hitchcock needs to get his players' minds back in the right place before it's too late.
The Bruins' bench watches a replay during a recent home game
The defending champion Bruins went through an up-and-down season, but have begun playing their best hockey late in the season and much like last year, may be peaking at the right time. Led by Tim Thomas, the Bruins have played well defensively all season long and the balanced and consistent offense is among the best in the league.
Production From Entire Lineup - You have to love a team that had 20 different players post double-digit point totals. The Bruins simply don't let up with six different 20-goal scorers and five different players who were plus-30 or better.
The Bruins will roll each line at you consistently and never let off the pressure, scoring the second-most goals per game this season. Any line on this team is capable of victimizing an opponents' worst defensive line, so matching up against them is a maddening task for any NHL coach.
Defense and Goaltending - Tim Thomas turned in another great season despite battling some injuries. Headed into the postseason, Thomas is rested and ready for another Cup run behind one of the best defenses in the league. Zdeno Chara will once again be a candidate for the Norris trophy and presents a size matchup that no team is able to handle.
Experience - Most of the players from the Bruins' 2011 Stanley Cup Championship returned this season, giving the Bruins the most experienced team in the playoffs. Every player on the roster knows what it takes to win a championship and the veterans and coaches wouldn't let them forget anyway.
The Bruins are also riding a hot streak into the postseason, a streak that saw Tim Thomas go 6-1-1 in his last eight games.
Special Teams - It's really tough to find something to pick on with this Bruins team. The penalty-kill and power play haven't been bad, but they also haven't been great. The PK ranked 11th, and the PP ranked 15th this season. The Bruins are the best 5-on-5 team in the league and it's in their best interest to stay out of the box.
Fatigue - As defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Bruins played a longer season than any other team last season. Having played more games than any other team over the past year-and-a-half, one has to wonder if fatigue could factor in as playoff intensity increases.
The health of Daniel Sedin could make or break the Canucks' playoff success
The Canucks never really had a low-point this season as they played fundamental, solid hockey throughout the entire year. In March, all the Presidents' Trophy talk was about the Penguins, Blues and Rangers, but in the end the consistent play of the Canucks edged them to the title.
Offense and Power play - There's not much surprise here as the Canucks finished in the top five in the league in both goals per game and power-play percentage. What else did you expect? The Sedins led the team in scoring, per their usual, and Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Chris Higgins all turned in 40-point seasons. These guys really have been as good as it gets for the past couple of seasons.
The Canucks also have great size and physicality, something they made sure of by acquiring Samuel Pahlsson and Zack Kassian at the trade deadline.
Defense and Penalty-kill - Again, the Canucks dominated both sides of the puck this season. Their fourth-ranked defense and sixth-ranked penalty-kill helped to give them the best goals for/against differential in the Western Conference. The Canucks are like a machine that consistently produces results.
Goaltending - Roberto Luongo has been an elite goalie for years, but is prone to meltdown games in the postseason. Backup Corey Schneider played dominantly during the regular season and could certainly start some games if Luongo begins to show signs of letting up. Critics won't stop describing his playoff shortcomings, but Roberto Luongo has put together a number of consecutive postseasons in which he has played extremely well and this year shouldn't be any different. He's as bankable of a player as you can find in the league.
Second-line Scoring - The Canucks' top line has consistently scored even as different players cycle in and out of it. Their third line has played well all season in shutting down opponents' top lines and their checking line is one of the bigger and strongest in the conference.
The issue all season has been the lack of production from their second line. Ryan Kesler has failed to fall into the groove as he did last season, David Booth has had a disappointing year and Mason Raymond scored just 20 points this season. The Canucks need scoring from more than just their top line, and the second line could be what kills the Canucks in the playoffs.
Daniel Sedin's Health - Star winger Daniel Sedin has missed the last nine games with a concussion and missing him in the playoffs would obviously be a huge blow. The top line would continue to play well, but wouldn't be as dominant without him and the second line would also suffer in his absence. If he does return, jumping right back into the action at a playoff-hockey pace might be difficult for Daniel as it could take him a few games to regain his speed and awareness.
Scrutiny - Canucks fans have watched for several consecutive years now as their team has consistently failed to deliver in the postseason. Last year they were able to make it to the Stanley Cup final, but a disappointing showing has fans restless for a championship.
Roberto Luongo is under extremely close scrutiny and every mistake he or any other player makes will be over-analyzed and over-hyped by fans for weeks. It's a difficult environment to play in and if the Canucks fall behind in a series, the pressure may be too strong for them to maintain a clear head space throughout the playoffs. With all the distraction that Daniel Sedin's status might have down the road, the Canucks need all the focus they can muster.
Henrik Lundqvist has carried his team through the entire regular season, but still has higher goals in mind
No one can deny that Henrik Lundqvist deserves to be the frontrunner for the Vezina trophy this year. He led the Rangers to the top seed in the East while allowing the fewest goals in the conference. The Rangers have a balanced attack that is difficult to defend for 60 straight minutes, and their defense is unrelenting.
Henrik Lundqvist - Lundqvist finished the regular season in the top-five in GAA, wins, save percentage and shutouts. He's been the workhorse for the Rangers all season long and hasn't showed any signs of slowing down.
The Rangers play defensive-minded hockey forcing shots to the outside and minimizing odd-man rushes against which has been critical to Lundqvists' success this season. Lundqvist can take them the distance if they continue to play smart hockey and avoid turnovers.
Road record - The Rangers finished the regular season 27-12-2 on the road, tallying more road wins than every other Eastern Conference team except the Penguins. The Rangers have home-ice advantage through at least the first three rounds, but the ability to get it done on the road can always help a team advance in the playoffs.
Penalty-kill - The Rangers have had the most consistent penalty-kill this season, finishing with a tidy 86.2 percent success rate. New York doesn't give up much and their penalty-kill helped them to give up just 2.2 goals per game.
Secondary scoring - The Rangers' top line is one of the most talented in the league. Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik have been a potent duo for the entire season and Michael Del Zotto and Ryan Callahan have provided unparalleled two-way games. After that, however, the scoring tends to drop off a bit. The Rangers have leaned on their defense and top line all season, but in high-scoring games the Rangers will need to find scoring from other sources.
The Rangers scored two or fewer goals 33 times this season.