NHL's Playoff Picture: The Road To The Stanley Cup

Mark PareCorrespondent IIMarch 24, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 04: Nicklas Lidstrom #5 of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Mellon Arena on June 4, 2008 in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania. The Red Wings defeated the Penguins 3-2 to win the Stanley Cup Finals 4 games to 2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are almost upon us, and already we have no rough estimate on who will face who.

For instance, the Eastern Conference has a tie for the final spot, Montreal and Florida have 81 points a piece, and they are five points ahead of the 10th place Buffalo Sabres.

As we look inside the playoff picture, the Boston Bruins look poised to hold onto first place, but Washington has closed the gap as of late; thanks in large part to 50-goal scorer, and obvious winner of the Maurice Richard Trophy, Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals are now only six points shy of the Bruins.

That's not the only threat. One point ahead of the Caps are a revitalized New Jersey Devils team, who stayed in the race all season; despite being without future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur in the lineup for most of the season.

The rest of the picture looks like this:

As the lineup stands now, we could be in for a great first round. We would have Boston/Montreal, a rematch of last year where Montreal swept the season series, and was poised to sweep the playoff series. Much to the chagrin of the Habs, the Bruins pushed them to the limit. The Canadiens finished them off in seven games.

The Rangers and Devils would meet in another rematch from last year's first round.  We don't have to tell you about the bad blood between these two teams, more specifically Sean Avery and Martin Brodeur.

Washington and Pittsburgh...a marketer's dream. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are arguably the two biggest stars in the sport today. Also, more recently, Crosby and Ovechkin have spilled their true feelings towards each other. This would be an interesting series to say the least, and that's without even mentioning Evgeni Malkin.

Finally, Carolina and Philadelphia. Two teams, with a similar goal in mind, crossing paths. Carolina's first playoff appearance since winning it all, and Philadelphia rebounding after losing in five games to Pittsburgh in last year's Conference Final.

The season series was a wild one, as 23 goals were scored (PHI-13; CAR-10), and three of the four games played went to extra time, with only one of those needing a shootout. Philly won the season series 3-1.

The Western Conference list is also one filled with mystery and wonder. The race is truly on in this Conference, as sixth through 12th are separated by eight points.

At the top, defending champion Detroit (105 PTS) and San Jose (106 PTS) are in a league of their own. They are separated from third place Calgary by an astonishing 15 points and are on a sure collision course to meet in the Conference Final, however, before you jump the gun on this one, here's a stat:  Detroit and San Jose have only met once since the turn of the millennium and it was in the Semi-Final that they met (the Wings took that series in 6 games in 2007).

The rest are scrambling for position, but as of now, here are the playoff matchups in the West:

The significance here is that, as of now, every Canadian team in the West is in, and every Canadian team in the East is out (with the exception of eighth place Montreal--a team that came in with high expectations but have been falling quickly and may not make the playoffs if they play the way they are now).

The Road to the Stanley Cup is one filled with hard work and determination, but it all pays off in the end. If you want proof, just look at Nicklas Lidstrom in the photo at the top of this very article.