The 16 teams that are headed to the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are finally set. After what feels like months of shifting standings and will-they-or-won't-they storylines, fans finally know who the top eight teams in each conference are.
For some, there was little doubt.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been all but guaranteed a spot in the postseason since roughly the seventh week of action. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been outstanding in the Eastern Conference as well, putting together another memorable season, much of it without Sidney Crosby.
There's good, but then there's great. And the guys on this list are the best at their respective positions heading into the postseason.
Several things were considered when compiling this slideshow. Points and statistics are important, but so are intangible things such as grit and two-way play. The more dimensions to a player, the higher the likelihood of finding them here.
The more a guy can do to help his team win, the higher his value come this time of the year. It's also important to note that these aren't power rankings, so the "no particular order" clause applies here.
There is a no particular order clause, isn't there?
If you think Ryan Getzlaf is a monster during the regular season, just wait until the playoffs roll around. There's no such thing as an easy shift against the bruising center in the postseason, and his ability to wear down the opposition's best forwards by leaning on them and hitting them is invaluable.
Especially across a six- or seven-game series.
He's the soul of these Ducks, and the team as a whole tries to emulate Getzlaf and his physical style of play.
Getzlaf missed a handful of games earlier in the month with pain in his leg, giving way to this quote from teammate Andrew Cogliano (per the Los Angeles Times):
He's probably our best player, our captain. His presence—you can't find another guy, a big centerman who controls the game, and his power play is very noticeable. His play makes our whole team better.
Enough with the when-he's-healthy garbage. Sidney Crosby is and remains the most offensively talented player in the NHL, regardless of whether or not he has a broken jaw. Much to the chagrin of Crosby's legions of "haters," the injury that has sidelined him since the start of April isn't connected to a concussion issue and will not keep him out of the playoffs (per ESPN.com).
Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have looked mighty pedestrian without Crosby. With him, the trio forms one of the most dangerous top lines in the NHL. Better living through chemistry, indeed.
You better not take any penalties against the Penguins either. During Crosby's first practice back, he skated on a power-play unit along with Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Jarome Iginla (per CBSSports.com).
For the Chicago Blackhawks, the most dominant start to a season in NHL history just so happened to coincide with the maturation and evolution of two young players. Jonathan Toews returned to the ice with a vengeance, eager to put a forgettable 2012 campaign behind him. It wouldn't take long for the explosive and shifty center to put that season in the rear-view for good.
A point-per-game season on the best team in hockey will remove many a wound, after all. It will also garner you plenty of interest for the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in all of hockey (per USA Today).
Toews doesn't just bring piles of points to the table, though, as he's a proven and dedicated leader. Captain Serious is the unquestionable commander on a squad that would be on pace to lose only 12 regulation games in an 82-game season.
He also has 50 points through 52 career playoff games, showing that he knows when to step his game up and how to do it.
The New York Islanders are headed back to the postseason, thanks in no small part to John Tavares. Prior to the 2013 season, fans knew that he was a good hockey player. In 2012, he'd posted his best season to date, putting up 81 points on a weak Islanders club.
Tavares entered the new year on a clear mission, elevating his game and his team to the postseason for the first time in his career.
How will the young center handle playoff action, once teams can focus on him game in and game out and attempt to wear him down?
If history is any indication, Tavares will be even better in the playoffs than he was during the regular season. That might be a bit of a stretch, but he morphed into an unstoppable force in the OHL during the postseasons he played there.
While he may not average two points a night, there is little doubt that Tavares will be in the thick of any offensive-points race as long as the Islanders remain in the playoffs.
The last man on Earth you want to get into a one-on-one battle for the puck with, Pavel Datsyuk, is headed to the playoffs after the streak of the Detroit Red Wings was preserved by some outstanding late-season play.
At the middle of the season-saving effort was Datsyuk, who is once again among Detroit's leading scorers and most important players. Even when he doesn't have the puck, he is among the most dangerous forwards in the NHL because of his ability to pilfer the puck and make things happen out of thin air.
Datsyuk is willing to try things in games that most people only mess around with at practice, and he's able to do that because of his confidence, hard work and creativity.
While there are some forwards who put up more explosive offensive numbers, this shifty Russian is near the top of the opposition's watch list every night. He manages to make average players around him even better, as evidenced by the recent play of Justin Abdelkader, and is one of the most dangerous players from the slot in the league.
His vision is uncanny, his release is spectacular and there isn't a better two-way forward around. It's a rare star player whom a coach is willing to put on the ice to both defend and attack a lead. Datsyuk is one of those few players.
Rick Nash has been the most offensively dynamic player on the New York Rangers since arriving via trade last July. The Blue Shirts wanted a goal scorer on the wing, and Nash has done nothing but light the lamp on a consistent basis in 2013.
He was only given four games to shine as a postseason player during his tenure as a Columbus Blue Jacket. If New York has its way in the playoffs, he'll be given many more chances to do some damage than that.
Nash has a big body, and while he isn't a power forward in the mold of a guy like Corey Perry, he can still do his fair share of leaning and driving to the net. Few players have shot more than Nasher in 2013, as he's currently fifth in shots taken with a whopping 169.
He's found the back of the net 19 times, and has been good on both sides of the puck as evidenced by his plus-14 rating. Along with Derek Stepan, he gives the Rangers a great go-to scoring punch on the first line.
Evgeni Malkin and James Neal just get each other. They go together like ice cream and chocolate syrup. Rum and Coke. Jay-Z and Beyonce—don't ask me which is Beyonce. Bonnie and Clyde—don't ask me which one is Bonnie either.
Malkin slides a pass to an area of the ice, and Neal's stick seems to already be swinging there nearly every time. Malkin-to-Neal-SCORES! is something that Pittsburgh Penguins fans were getting used to hearing when Neal went down in early April with a concussion.
He's back on the ice now and could be back in time for the first game of the first round (per Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
When Neal is healthy and not catching flagrant elbows to the head, he's one of the most dangerous and powerful wingers in hockey. He's built for the grind of the playoffs, and he scores goals from all the right areas to be effective as a postseason weapon of choice in Pittsburgh.
If the Penguins go the distance, here's a dark-horse leading goal scorer for you.
If 2013 was a regular 82-game schedule, Max Pacioretty would be close to putting up close to 80 points this season. Instead, he's posted a paltry 39 points in 43 games, pushing his way towards the top 30 point-getters in the NHL.
Like James Neal and Rick Nash, Pacioretty is a big boy who knows how to cut and get to the center of the ice, using his edges and size. He's an impressive skater and can beat defenders if they end up leaning the wrong way in anticipation of an inside-or-outside move.
Which is part of what makes Pacioretty such a dangerous winger. He's just as capable circling the net, rounding up the wagons, as he is muscling his way to the middle of the slot. He's only 24 years old, and we haven't seen the best that the kid has to offer yet.
As it stands now, though, he's one of the most dangerous players at the forward position heading into the postseason. He can take over a shift like few players in the NHL can and will be a handful for any team to lock down throughout a long playoff series.
Henrik Zetterberg demonstrated how he can step his game up over the final few games of the regular season—games that the Detroit Red Wings absolutely had to win. He put up seven points over his last three games, all of which were more or less win-or-go-home scenarios for the Wings.
Despite the attention of the best defenders on the ice every night, Z has managed to put up yet another remarkable offensive season while captaining the Wings through a tough transition period.
There wasn't a night through the 2013 season that Detroit didn't have a notable player out of the lineup, yet Zetterberg has found a way to get things done despite not always playing with top-line quality players. He posted 45 points through 48 games and was the motor running the Red Wings, as he played just more than 20 minutes a night.
Not to be forgotten are his skills away from the puck—he wouldn't be a Euro-twin without those. Zetterberg is an excellent penalty killer and is one of the better back-checking forwards in the NHL. He never, ever quits on plays and out-wills his opponents at every turn.
When fans around the NHL think of Zach Parise, they probably think of his twisted wrister and his scoring ability from the slot. He brings much more than that to the table, though, as he has a very underrated nose for the net and a Chris Drury-like taste for the big moments.
He scored a huge goal in the Minnesota Wild's playoff-spot-clinching victory over the Colorado Avalanche on the last day or the regular season, and he potted many big goals as he led the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago.
Parise will aim to do the same for the Wild now that they are safe and sound in the postseason.
It's been an up-and-down season in Minnesota, but all that matters at this point is that they made it to the dance. Now the free-agent acquisitions of Ryan Suter and Parise get to show why the Wild really brought them into town.
Parise posted 37 points and 17 goals in his first season in Minnesota—not half bad considering he was adjusting to a new system, city and linemates on the fly without a training camp. You'll be hard-pressed to find a harder worker on the ice than Parise, and he's one of the most dangerous players in the postseason this year.
Alexander Ovechkin was a deflated and somehow still dangerous 30-goal scorer when Adam Oates took over behind the bench, slaying the idea of off-wing wingers and in the process reviving Ovechkin's love of the game and goal scoring.
After taking some time to warm up to the move from the left side to the right, Ovie has quite literally been an automatic goal scoring machine over the last month. He's scored 14 goals in April alone, electrifying fans of the Washington Capitals again and catapulting the team back to the top of the Southeast Division.
Which is kind of like beating a group of fourth-grade girl scouts at dodgeball as a highly touted NFL-quality quarterback. But I digress.
When Ovie has the puck, a goal can come from nowhere. There are maybe two or three other players in the NHL who have this same knack for making hockey happen. He's clearly fired up and ready to move on to the bigger stage of the NHL playoffs.
Phil Kessel is one of the most elite goal scorers in the NHL, period. He's in the same league as the likes of Alex Ovechkin (post-2008) and Ilya Kovalchuk, and has been every bit as electric as those two in 2013.
Which isn't saying much in the case of Kovalchuk.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have finally made the playoffs in the post-salary cap era, and the calm center of the storm has been Kessel. For things to work out this way for the quiet and unassuming winger is fitting. He's the sixth-leading scorer in the NHL and has found chemistry with various Leafs at different points of 2013.
The new-look top line of Nazem Kadri, Kessel and Joffrey Lupul could become one of the most dangerous early on in the playoffs if Tyler Bozak yields his spot as the No. 1 center (per the National Post).
Patrick Kane from 2013 looks like a different man than Patrick Kane from 2012.
The 2012 version of Kane got lost somewhere in the Chicago club scene over the summer and never returned. In his place was a fired up and focused young man who seemed ready to set the NHL ablaze.
Being ready and being able are two very different things, and he's proven more than capable this season as he's currently the sixth-best goal scorer (22), 10th-best setup man (32) and fourth-best point-getter (54) in the NHL.
Kane has been one of the most exciting players to watch in 2013, dragging and dazzling with the puck in all three zones and making creative things happen on a nightly basis. This is the player everyone wanted to see when they were grilling him for being a teenager.
He's 24 now, and the hero of the 2010 Stanley Cup run is poised and ready for big things this postseason.
The second half of the Anaheim Ducks' All-Star duo, Corey Perry is just as nasty and physical as his counterpart Ryan Getzlaf.
While he may not be the best trash-talker around, Perry more than makes up for his lack of a silver tongue with his golden hands around the net. Few players can score more frequently when hot than the former Rocket Richard trophy winner, and he always seems to know where Getzlaf's passes are going to be.
He can fight, hit and wear down a defensive pairing over a playoff series with his physicality. Perry is the kind of player that you love if he's on your team but despise if he's not. In other words, he's a player made for the postseason. Plenty of grit to go along with his skill.
Dustin Brown is the epitome of Captain Crunch.
He's the jam that makes the top line of the Los Angeles Kings work, creating space for Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams with his physical—and at times, obnoxious—play. He's an irreplaceable part of the lineup for the defending Stanley Cup Champions and brings all the intangibles coaches and managers foam at the mouth over.
Brown has compiled 156 hits this season, which is good for seventh in the NHL. Couple the physical presence with 18 goals and 11 assists, and this is a player who brings a little bit of everything to the table come playoff time.
He was a driving force behind L.A.'s unlikely Cup run last year and will be just as important as the team fights to defend it this year.
P.K. Subban seems to make something happen in the offensive zone nearly every time he touches the puck. He uses his smooth skating to easily gain entry and forces the opposing defending forwards to pinch on him because of his booming shot.
That opens up lanes that he can either attempt to skate to while carrying the puck himself, or that a roaming forward can sneak into to create mismatches and cause the defending team to scramble.
Subban is constantly in motion, whether he's walking the line looking for a better shooting angle or creating opportunities for his teammates by causing defenders to over-commit because of his speed and stick-handling.
There are only a handful of defensemen who are as offensively gifted as Subban.
Slava Voynov instead of Drew Doughty?
In his first full season with the L.A. Kings, Voynov has gone from doghouse to blue-line anchor in just over 40 games played in 2013. The defending champs were wrecked early with injuries to defenders, leaving an opening for Voynov to step up.
Coach Darryl Sutter has handled the gifted Russian masterfully through that time, giving him just enough rope while knowing exactly when to reel him back in a bit. The results have been outstanding.
Voynov has been the best Kings defender since early March, and has continued to elevate his play as Sutter has tacked on responsibilities.
While there are more well-known names that could be here, the sky is the limit for the talented offensive-minded defenseman in the postseason. And who doesn't like the occasional dark horse mixed in with the fan favorites?
There was a time when Dion Phaneuf was maligned and abused by the media in Toronto, put up as the poster boy for Maple Leafs underachievement and for a management team that seemed to overvalue players.
Fast forward a couple years, and Phaneuf has captained the Leafs to their first playoff birth since the advent of the salary cap—and played a huge part in the resurgence to boot. He's been a rock in his own zone, logging big minutes against the opposition's best players on a nightly basis.Don't let the plus/minus rating fool you either. He's been outstanding all year.
In so many words, he sucks to play against, as he's the current reincarnation of Chris Pronger. Minus the sociopathic tendencies, of course.
Phaneuf hacks and slashes and hits and makes life miserable for opponents. No one wants to see his mug on a nightly basis, but that's what the playoffs are all about.
He hasn't been bad in the offensive zone either this season, as he's logged an impressive nine goals and 18 assists.
Not even having 70 percent of his Achilles tendon severed (still an awful combination of words) can slow Erik Karlsson down. The defending Norris Trophy winner returned months ahead of schedule, playing against the Washington Capitals on April 25th in a must-win game for his Ottawa Senators.
All he did was post assists on both of the goals that the Sens scored en route to securing a playoff spot via a 2-1 victory on the road.
Nothing special to see here, folks. Just keep it moving.
Karlsson played more than 27 minutes in his first game back after missing 31 contests with the injury, showing that he was ready to make a frequent and immediate impact for Ottawa. Now that he is back and manning the blue line, the Senators are going to be a tougher out than onlookers might have originally thought.
People used to say that it was Shea Weber who made Ryan Suter look good when the two played alongside one another for the Nashville Predators. These days, it's looking like the exact opposite.
Weber struggled to find his game through much of the 2013 season, and his Preds missed the playoffs by one of the largest margins in the team's history. They appear poised to take a high draft pick, while Suter has lead the Wild to the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade while playing Norris-quality hockey.
He's far and away one of the best defensemen in the league right now when it comes to play in all three zones. While some other blueliners are great with the puck, they aren't quite sure what to do when under pressure in their own defensive zone.
That isn't a problem for Suter, as he's become an anchor on the back end along with rookie sensation Jonas Brodin.
The pair creates one of the best top pairings in the playoffs this spring, and any team that doesn't keep a close watch on Suter is bound to get burned in various degrees across various games.
No one in Boston talks about Tim Thomas anymore.
That might not be the case if the man that replaced him had turned out to be subpar. Or even average. Tuukka Rask has been every bit as good as the former Bruins netminder, who is now helping the New York Islanders reach the salary-cap floor with his salary.
The Finnish star has maintained a sub-2.00 GAA through 34 games played, pitching five shutouts and posting a sparkling .930 save percentage along the way.
Initial seasons as a starting netminder in the NHL don't get much better than that.
Rask's play this season will earn him at least a nomination for the Vezina Trophy, and his presence is one of the many reasons that the Bruins are one of the tougher outs in the Eastern Conference this postseason.
During the offseason and all the way through to the deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs were public about the fact that they were shopping for a No. 1 goalie with a little more experience than James Reimer. Even at the trade deadline, rumors swirled that either Roberto Luongo or Miikka Kiprusoff were bound for Toronto (per the Toronto Sun).
While either of those trades might have made Leafs fans happy at the beginning of the season, Reimer quickly cemented himself as a capable No. 1 goaltender and led Toronto to several key early season victories.
The playoff push probably doesn't happen without Optimus Reim between the pipes and going 19-7 with a .928 save percentage and a 2.38 GAA.
He's still prone to the occasional bad game, but once Reimer gets into the playoffs, he'll have the whole city of Toronto and over a decade's worth of playoff futility fueling his play every night.
The Vezina Trophy would have likely belonged to Craig Anderson if not for a mid-season ankle injury that kept him out of action for 18 games. While he was gone, the Ottawa Senators managed to stay afloat, but they are clearly a much better team with him in the net.
Through 23 games this season, the Illinois native has put up a 12-8-2 record and a ridiculous .942 save percentage to go along with a 1.67 GAA.
Quite simply, eye-popping numbers like those in the playoffs win Stanley Cups. If Anderson's regular-season play translates to the playoffs, the Senators could pull an L.A. Kings and do more damage than anyone anticipated.
The saying goes that there ain't no rest for the wicked. Well the same can be said about ultra-talented Swedish netminders who play for the New York Rangers.
The Blue Shirts have milked King for every possible start that they could this season, as only Ondrej Pavelec has seen more action. It's been an odd season for Lundqvist, as the goaltending spotlight hasn't been on him constantly.
The likes of Tuukka Rask and Sergei Bobrovsky have garnered their fair share of attention, but Mr. GQ has put up numbers very similar to those guys. He has loads of playoff experience and will finally look to get the Rangers over the conference final hump after avoiding a scary near-miss of the postseason entirely.
If Antti Niemi wasn't playing on the West Coast, he'd be one of the most talked-about players in the NHL right now. Instead of garnering all the attention of a guy like Sergei Bobrovsky, he's quietly lead the San Jose Sharks back to the playoffs for the ninth straight season.
While the Sharks have had shaky patches through 2013, Niemi has been as solid as can be. He's started a massive 42 games for San Jose—among the league leaders in that category—and has been outstanding to boot.
His GAA rating of 2.14 sits just outside the top 10 in the NHL, and his .925 save percentage is as good as anyone else's in the league.
Niemi also posted four shutouts en route to leading San Jose back to the playoffs, and he appears poised to help the Sharks make some long overdue noise.