The NHL playoff bracket 2013 is almost set, as there's just one game remaining left in the season. The Western Conference is set, and the Eastern Conference will be set pending the result of Sunday's Boston Bruins game against the Ottawa Senators.
All of the matchups should provide great, entertaining hockey. And while so much is still left to be determined, it's time to project the Stanley Cup Finals.
Which team from each conference will meet for a chance to raise Lord Stanley's Cup?
Read on to find out.
Here's how the Eastern Conference bracket shakes out:
*These are the standings before Sunday night's game between the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 8. Ottawa Senators
2. Montreal Canadiens vs. 7. New York Islanders
3. Washington Capitals vs. 6. New York Rangers
4. Boston Bruins vs. 5. Toronto Maple Leafs
The overwhelming favorite in the Eastern Conference is the Pittsburgh Penguins. They've been remarkable this season, posting a 36-12 record and simply steamrolling over most of their competition.
They will get their captain, Sidney Crosby, back for the playoffs, and they have the most balanced offense in the league. In addition, they have a wealth of experience and enough grit and energy to make a long run.
Of course, the Penguins must get a good performance from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is coming off an awful postseason last year, in which he put up a 4.63 goals-against average in a first-round loss. If he plays more like he has this year, where he has a 2.39 goals-against average, then the Penguins should be fine.
The Penguins will have to get by a few tough teams, namely the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. The Bruins are the most experienced team, and they have a hot goalie in Tuukka Rask. The Rangers, meanwhile, have been hot in the month of April and have the best goalie in the Eastern Conference in Henrik Lundqvist. Hot goalies and hot teams are tough to stop in the postseason.
Both teams, however, will struggle to stop the Penguins' high-flying offense, and the Penguins should win the Eastern Conference fairly easily.
Here's how the Western Conference bracket shakes out:
1. Chicago Blackhawks vs. 8. Minnesota Wild
2. Anaheim Ducks vs. 7. Detroit Red Wings
3. Vancouver Canucks vs. 6. San Jose Sharks
4. St. Louis Blues vs. 5. Los Angeles Kings
Like in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks are the clear favorite. They put up a 36-7-5 record and have the best defense and the second-best offense in the league.
That's a pretty good combination. The only real internal threat is their goaltending play. Corey Crawford is having a great season, with a 1.94 goals-against average, but he's struggled in the postseason in his career. He has a 5-8 record with a 2.41 goals-against average.
If Crawford plays well, then the Blackhawks should be fine. That said, there are some really tough teams in the West. The Ducks have had a fantastic year, as have the Canucks. Meanwhile, the Blues are incredibly hot heading into the postseason, as they went 12-3 in the month of April. The Kings, of course, won the Stanley Cup last season, and you can never count out the Detroit Red Wings.
The Western Conference is a lot tougher than the East. The Blackhawks have to deal with some really good teams. Their biggest threat is probably the Blues. They are a hot team entering the playoffs with a good goalie in Brian Elliott. Hot teams with good goalies usually do well in the playoffs.
Still, the Blackhawks dominated the competition in the regular season, and their enviable combination of a great defense and offense is tough to beat.
It may not be easy, but the Blackhawks should reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
Pittsburgh vs. Chicago
That means I'm predicting a Pittsburgh vs. Chicago Stanley Cup Finals. And what a matchup that would be. Pitting the two best teams in the league against each other would be fun to watch. They both have explosive offenses, and they were the only two teams to finish with more than 70 points.
Both teams have also won Stanley Cups within the last five years, and both possess incredible star power.
If this matchup were to happen, the smart money would be on the Penguins to win. That's because they will have an easier time in the Eastern Conference. Because the conference is weaker, the Penguins will have an easier time winning it and thus won't be as banged up and exhausted. The Stanley Cup playoffs are a war of attrition, and the team that can stay healthiest and freshest usually wins.
The two teams are relatively equal, so the team that will likely be fresher—the Penguins—is the team likely to win.
It will undoubtedly be a great series, perhaps going seven games, but odds are that the Pittsburgh Penguins take home the greatest trophy in sports.