It's the time of year where hockey fans put away the TV guides, forget about their favorite TV shows and focus on one thing: Playoffs, baby.
The 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in just more than a month and the battle for the top eight seeds has already begun to heat up.
A team can be in sixth place before a game, but drop to ninth or tenth by the night’s end, it’s that tight.
Scoreboard watching becomes a ritual for fans and players alike across North America, eager to see who has won and lost and how it all plays out in the standings.
This year, there are some intriguing teams fighting for a playoff spot, six in particular, who are on the bubble right.
These teams are not the division leaders, fighting for the top four spots in their respective conferences.
They're not the teams one would expect to see in the finals, or even make it past the first round of play. They don't strike the average fan as a team that has any capability of doing anything other than having a hard-fought first round exit.
Then again, once you get in, you've got a shot, and all these teams are the kind that would definitely make it good while it lasted.
So, why do you want to see these six teams make it to the dance?
Well, they each have their own reasons; some looking to climb back to the top where they once sat, others looking for another shot at that cup that slipped away and some who have never been there before, but want it just as bad as everyone else.
These teams are the kind that when they make it to the playoffs, they suddenly have a much bigger crowd sitting on the bandwagon, and for good reason.
These are the six teams you most certainly want to see in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Florida Panthers in the playoffs, how could that be exciting?
A team stuck in the middle of a city where people worry more about the ice in their drink than the ice in the arena.
Allow me to elaborate.
When you think of the Florida Panthers and the playoffs, what comes to mind?
In 1996 the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals to face the Colorado Avalanche.
The Avalanche swept the Panthers in four games, but that wasn't the big story, it was the fact that the entire state of Florida was talking about them and all because of a rat.
On Oct. 8, 1996, opening night of the regular season, Florida winger, Scott Mellanby, killed a rat with his stick in the dressing room just minutes before the game started.
Mellanby went on to score two goals that game and the dawn of the rats had begun.
Things didn't get crazy until the playoffs began though.
One fan threw a toy rat on the ice after a goal, then the next goal more fans threw rats, until finally after every goal thousands of toy rats were being thrown. I say thousands, because it was said by the staff who cleaned them up that there were an average of 3,000 rats per night collected.
That's a lot of rats.
No one will ever forget the image of Patrick Roy fishing the puck out of his net as a cloud of black rats rained from the roaring fans above.
Obviously I’m not just saying the only reason the Panthers would be great to have in the playoffs is, because of a once-loved rat ritual; there's much more to like.
They have some great young talent in Nathan Norton, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester among others, and solid goaltending from Thomas Vokoun in the net.
The Panthers are the type of team that can sneak up on you, get a few quick goals and then lull the game to sleep with great defensive play. Fitting to their team name, sneak up, pounce and devour, but ever since that Stanley Cup run in 1996 the Panthers haven't been roaring too loudly.
Getting back to the playoffs this year would once again bring the hockey fans in Florida to life.
Now, the rat riot probably wouldn't fly with Gary Bettman these days.
This is the commissioner who, last year, banned the head of ice management of the Detroit Red Wings, Al Sabotka, from waving the octopus around his head once he retrieved from the ice.
Then he started fining fans for throwing octopi on the ice.
So, the thought of thousands of rats being whipped at the players would hardly impress the little man in charge, but the fans weren't supposed to do it in '96 either and somehow they managed to prevail.
Yes, rat throwing was banned after that '96 season, because of the delay to clean up, but come on, it's not like they're hurling chants of "sloppy seconds" on to the ice.
The Panthers sit in eighth place in the east right now, only one point ahead of the teams breathing down their necks.
In order for them to squeak in, rat-like, they'll need to keep up the consistent play.
Here's a public service announcement to the fans of the Florida Panthers: If they make the playoffs, be the first to throw a rat after a goal, please. It only took one the first time!
Whatever you do, just make sure hockey in Florida is once again something for people to be excited about, because of the passion of the fans in 1996—people loved watching Panther games and that could certainly happen again this year.
If there are rats flying after every goal this year, there won't be one hockey fan willing to miss a game!
In the 2006-2007 season, the Buffalo Sabres won the Eastern Conference with 113 points.
They were an offensive powerhouse built with speed and the ability to outscore anyone.
Boasting a lineup of offensively gifted skaters like Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Maxim Afinogenov and Brian Campbell, they were simply unstoppable.
Backstopped by goalie, Ryan Miller, playing at the top of his game, Buffalo was a favorite to represent the East in the Finals.
They beat out the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers in the first two rounds, only losing three games combined in those two series.
They met up in the Eastern Finals with the fourth seed Ottawa Senators, who also had some serious offensive talent and were knocked off in a shocking 4-1 series loss.
That oh-so promising season was done and the powerful Sabres were a forgotten team.
Since then the Sabres have never really been the same.
Gone are the big names like Drury, Briere and Campbell, and the team has never really been that offensive threat they once were.
Today, they sit four points out of the eighth seed, struggling to maintain the consistency they need to get in.
As fans, you want to see them make it.
With budding superstar Thomas Vanek and two of the most underrated players in the league in Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, the Sabres can certainly still put on an offensive show when they're on their game.
Ryan Miller can still steal games and is just waiting for his chance to shine once again under the spotlight that is the NHL Playoffs.
If they were to squeak in, you could expect them to put up on heck of a fight with the top seeded teams. They are certainly not a team to be taken lightly with the ability to light the lamp with the best of them.
They would definitely be a team to watch out for, not necessarily to win it all, but to make some serious noise and cause fits for any team they face.
Not to mention, play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret brings some of the best, most exciting calls in the NHL, especially the playoffs. He's always one goal away from screaming out another classic.
"La la la la La-Fon-Taine!"
If he can't get you pumped up, nobody can.
Rick Jeeaneret and the Buffalo Sabres, a team you want to see in the playoffs this year, if it were only for his goal calling—it would be enough.
Stanley Cup Champions in 2007—hard fought to make the playoffs in 2009.
A lot has changed in Disney Duck land in two-years.
Gone is mastermind GM, Brian Burke to Toronto and gone are those Stanley Cup expectations they had not long ago.
The Ducks are struggling, that's no secret, but why they are struggling is somewhat of a mystery.
In those 2007 playoffs, there were four Ducks in the top ten in playoff scoring: Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne, Corey Perry and Chris Pronger.
All four of those players still play for the team.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere is still in net and he has more Western Conference and Stanley Cup Final experience than most goalies in the NHL.
So, why have they fallen so far, fighting for a playoff spot, sitting one point out with 14 games to go?
They may have traded away some valuable assets at the deadline, but got a good young defender in Ryan Whitney in return and they have the ability to win a series, they just have to get in.
They may be struggling now, but if they could just get over what ever it is that ails them at the moment, they could be dangerous.
It's not a stretch to say it wouldn't be the biggest shock in the world to see the Ducks get in and make it past the first round or two.
Almost everyone on the team has Stanley Cup experience, most of them wearing at least one ring and all still have an absolute desire to return to where they were just two-years ago.
It is always important for a team to be playing well at the end of the season upon entering the playoffs.
If the Ducks get on a run here in the final weeks of the regular season and are playing well come the end, watch out.
The Ducks are a team you want to see in the playoffs this year, because they know what it takes to get to the top, and they liked the view.
The Edmonton Oilers have changed a lot since their 2006 Stanley Cup run where they took the Carolina Hurricanes to seven games before getting beat.
Gone are grizzled veterans like Ryan Smith, Chris Pronger and Georges Laraque; in are young guns like Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano, ready to prove they can take the Oilers into the playoffs.
There still are some key members of that cup run on the team though.
Guys like goalie, Dwayne Roloson, Ales Hemski, Fernando Pisani and Shawn Horcoff, each who know what it's like to be in the Finals, they want to be back.
It’s certainly not the same team that Canada fell in love with for three months in the playoffs three-years ago, but there is one thing that never changes about the Edmonton Oilers.
Oiler Country fans
In the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Edmonton crowd absolutely took the meaning of loud to a whole new level.
In Edmonton they cheered "Let's Go Oilers" from April to June, non-stop, as loud as humanly possible.
Who can forget the Canadian national anthem?
When Mr. Paul Loreaux sang the first line of the song, then simply lifted the microphone up to the sky and let the crowd do the rest, it was breath-taking.
That right there, the uniting of an entire city and entire country, cheering for one hockey team, is why the Edmonton Oilers should be in the playoffs.
Fans of every team couldn't help but watch in amazement as that crowd blew the roof off the Rexall Center.
Sitting tied for eighth with 71-points, they find themselves only one-point ahead of three teams nipping at their heels.
If you aren't convinced that the Oiler crowd is, was and always will be one of the best in the league during the playoffs, watch this and then come back and try to say otherwise.
If that doesn't send a chill down your spine, you are not a fan of hockey or you're a Hurricane's fan, but that's beside the point.
If for no other reason than the tear-jerking, heart-pumping, mind-blowing crowd in Oil Country, the Edmonton Oilers make the NHL Playoffs something special to watch.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
That alone could be the argument for why the Penguins should be in the playoffs this year, but there is so much more.
The Penguins still have got to be bitter about losing to the Red Wings last year in the finals and Marian Hossa leaving to the enemy team in the off-season makes it sting much more.
Not only is a rematch with the Red Wings a juicy possibility, but there are so many other match ups that the Penguins could have that would be mind-boggling for a seven game series.
Penguins and Flyers: The heated and hated rivalry between Pennsylvania cities. Every Philly fan curses the name of Crosby in hatred since, well, Philly and Terrell Owens.
Penguins and Canadiens: Crosby versus Canada. Delicious.
Penguins and Capitals: Crosby versus Ovechkin, Malkin versus Semin; it doesn't get much better than that.
We’ve been able to talk about the rivalry these teams have built up over the years, but imagine a long series between these two teams?
It doesn’t get any better.
Not only do the Penguins have vengeance on their mind, but also the long road back to the Finals could see them go through some fantastic match ups along the way, if they made it that far, of course.
Sitting in sixth place in the east, they're in a good spot, but only two-points ahead of the ninth place team, so by no means a lock just yet.
With so many incredible series as a possibility, the playoffs would not be the same if Sid and the gang were not a part of it.
Of course, everyone needs to see how Sid's playoff beard or lack thereof, has improved since last years sad display.
The Sidney Cros-beard will become a craze in the NHL yet again, because when it comes to the playoff facial hair, Sid really is a kid.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are the only active team to have never qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
How is that for a sales pitch as to why you should want this team to be a part of the regular season after party?
That's not the reason they should be in, even though you've got to feel sorry for that organization, as young as it is.
The Blue Jackets are certainly an exciting team, with a bunch of young talent just waiting to unleash their skill in the post-season.
Captain, Rick Nash was drafted No. 1 overall in 2002 and ever since then he has been abusing defenses league-wide in an attempt to make the playoffs, but it hasn't happened yet.
They have never finished better than third place in the Central Division; blame that on lack of talent on their team or the result of being in the same conference as the Red Wings.
Rick Nash is the leader on that team, but the guy they can thank for their sixth place seed in the West right now is rookie goalie sensation, Steve Mason.
Columbus drafted Mason 69th in 2006 and ever since he stepped foot onto NHL ice this year, he's done one thing: Win.
Mason leads all goaltenders with nine shutouts and is second with a 2.19 GAA.
He also has an impressive .920 save percentage, which is phenomenal for a rookie. He has 27 wins and is the reasons the Jackets are where they are right now; not only that, he did it all while suffering from mono for most of the season.
He be considered for rookie of the year and there is a serious case to be made for him to win the Vezina Trophy as the leagues best goalie, especially with many of the usual suspects having suffered injuries this year.
The Columbus Blue Jackets: Never in the playoffs, lead by a young captain and a rookie in net, would find themselves as the ultimate underdog should they make it to the post season.
It would be great to see this fine organization finally play meaningful games past April, with their well-deserving fans having stuck by them through the tough early years and they would give the rest of the fans a chance to cheer for a team that will be expected to go nowhere.
It's those teams, the ones that sneak in under the radar and aren't named the Red Wings or the Sharks, that can do some damage to their opponents when they aren't taken seriously.
It's time the league took the Columbus Blue Jackets seriously; it's time they made it to the playoffs.
Everyone loves an underdog.