The 2009 NHL season saw some surprise teams qualify for the playoffs (Blues, Blue Jackets), while some perennial playoff teams are in the thick of it yet again (Red Wings, Devils).
It will be a strenuous trip through four rounds of hockey, and whoever ends up holding the Cup come June will certainly have earned it.
Boston and San Jose come in as the top seeds after playing consistent hockey all season. One thing is for sure—come playoff time, nothing is certain, and anything can happen.
Here are my first round predictions as well as picks the rest of the way.
1. Boston Bruins vs. 8. Montreal Canadiens
Remember what happened last time these teams played in the playoffs? It went seven games, and Montreal had to gut out a Game Seven victory to knock off the eighth-seeded Bruins.
This year their seeding is flipped, but expect this to be a hard-nosed series, with home ice being huge. Tim Thomas has been spectacular all season, and if he keeps up his play, the Bruins will be a tough out.
Boston will use its tremendous depth to keep pressure on the Canadiens and will steal one in Montreal. While it looks like Boston should win this one, anything is surely possible when these two teams meet.
Bruins in six.
2. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Rangers
The Capitals got hot towards the end of the season and grabbed the two seed. They are very much a team that revolves around the play of Alex Ovechkin, but a pair of 30-goal scorers, Alexander Semin and Mike Greene, cannot be overlooked.
The Rangers have played much better since the hiring of coach John Tortorella, and Nik Antropov has been a huge addition to the club. If Henrik Lundqvist can outplay Jose Theodore, that could very well be the difference.
Rangers in seven.
3. New Jersey Devils vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes
A lot of things point to this being another disappointing playoff exit for the Devils, as they struggled towards the end of the season. It was quite the opposite for the Hurricanes, as they were sparked by the trade for Erik Cole, as well as some spectacular play down the stretch from Cam Ward.
The Devils in many ways are built for the playoffs with their mix of role-playing veterans. If New Jersey is to advance, they must limit penalties and avoid giving up power play goals, which hurt them during their recent six-game losing streak.
In the end, the home ice and veteran presence should be the difference for the Devils.
Devils in six.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers really hurt themselves by losing to the Rangers on Sunday. Home ice will be huge in this series in what should be a very hard-hitting affair between two bitter rivals.
The Penguins seemed lost midway through the season, but after acquiring Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin to skate with Sidney Crosby, they have looked much better.
The Flyers gave up a lot of depth due to cap trouble during the season, and that may hurt them come playoff time. Will it be Martin Biron or Marc-Andre Fleury that steps up and wins a big series?
Penguins in six.
1. San Jose Sharks vs. 8. Anaheim Ducks
While the Ducks got hot at the right time to sneak into the playoffs, San Jose is aimed at putting all of their past postseason failures behind them. The Sharks were the model of consistency all year, and it shouldn't stop here.
The Ducks do have a good mix of veterans left over from their Cup year and will need to get J.S. Giguere back into his postseason form quickly.
It's hard to pick against a team that went 53-18-11 in the regular season.
Sharks in five.
2. Detroit Red Wings vs. 7. Columbus Blue Jackets
The team in these playoffs with the least experience will go toe to toe with the defending champs in the first round. The Jackets make their first ever playoff appearance after a strong second half.
The defending champs are as deep as always, but faltered a bit down the stretch. This could be a very interesting series. Rookie goaltender Steve Mason has been spectacular, while Chris Osgood has not been.
The Wings are certainly the deeper and more tested team, but Columbus will ride Mason and their youthful energy to a huge upset.
Blue Jackets in seven.
3. Vancouver Canucks vs. 6. St. Louis Blues
The Blues ended their playoff drought with a nice run down the stretch. Chris Mason has been a huge part of the Blues' success, and he will have to have a big series if St. Louis wants to advance.
The Canucks finished strong to win the division after it seemed like the Flames would run away with it. Roberto Luongo is as good as it gets, and if he gets hot, they could be a tough team to deal with.
While the Blues could surprise some, they are still a year or two away from really being a threat; it doesn't mean they'll go quietly, though.
Canucks in six.
4. Chicago Blackhawks vs. 5. Calgary Flames
The Flames looked like they were on their way to great things when Olli Jokinen came in on fire. Since then they have struggled and not only lost the division, but home-ice altogether.
Chicago continues to improve game after game and has used its youth to break its playoff drought. The United Center will be the difference in this series.
The Flames are always dangerous because Miikka Kiprusoff is scary when he's on his game. Still, the Flames have got to be reeling after falling so far, so quickly.
Blackhawks in six.
Predicting the rest of the way:
1. Bruins over 7. Rangers in five.
4. Penguins over 3. Devils in five.
1. Bruins over 4. Penguins in six.
1. Sharks over 7. Blue Jackets in five.
4. Blackhawks over 3. Canucks in six.
4. Blackhawks over 1. Sharks in seven.
Stanley Cup Finals
Boston Bruins vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The youthful Blackhawks face the resilient Bruins in an Original Six matchup. While the Blackhawks will be on fire, the Bruins' depth and goaltending will be too much.
Stanley Cup Champions: Boston Bruins in six.