The 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs will begin on Tuesday, when the Los Angeles Kings will attempt to become the first repeat champions in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.
Standing in the way of the Kings' pursuit of another championship are several top contenders and a few dark horses with Stanley Cup dreams.
The favorites in the Eastern Conference are the Pittsburgh Penguins, who finished with a stellar 36-12 record to earn the top seed. In the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks are expected to reach their second Stanley Cup Final in four seasons. They started the regular season with a record 24-game point streak and continued to win games consistently throughout the year.
On a historic note, this is the first season since 1996 that all of the Original Six teams are in the playoffs, which will be great for the league.
Will the Penguins and Blackhawks meet in the final? Let's look at some predictions for all four rounds of the 2013 NHL playoffs.
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) New York Islanders
This is a battle of youth versus experience as the Penguins begin their march toward another Stanley Cup title against a young Islanders team that is making its first playoff appearance since the 2006-07 season.
The Penguins finished the regular season as the league's highest-scoring team, and they have a favorable matchup against an Islanders squad that ranked 21st in goals against and penalty killing.
Pittsburgh won four of the five games between these two Atlantic Division rivals this year, and there's no reason to believe this dominance will end anytime soon. The Penguins are a better team in every area of the game.
Prediction: Pittsburgh wins 4-0
(2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (7) Ottawa Senators
This is not going to be an easy matchup for Montreal because Ottawa played very well to close out the regular season (6-3 record in last nine games) and just got reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson back in the lineup after a lengthy recovery from an Achilles injury.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens struggled in April with just four wins in their last 10 games. Star goaltender Carey Price was a Vezina Trophy candidate just a few weeks ago, but he finished the regular season with a 2-6 record in his last eight starts.
Since both of these teams have great goaltending (despite Price's recent performance), Montreal has the slight advantage in this series because it has a more talented and deeper offense. The Canadiens were the fourth-highest scoring team in the league, while the Senators are the lowest-scoring team in the playoffs (27th in goals scored during regular season).
Prediction: Montreal wins 4-3
(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) New York Rangers
These two teams will meet in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons and the third year in a row. The Rangers defeated the Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinal in seven games last year, and they will once again send the Southeast Division club home for the summer.
As a strong defensive team that blocks shots, plays physical and has one of the best goaltenders in the world, New York will cool off the sizzling Capitals offense and advance to the second round.
The recent Capitals and Rangers series have been tight-checking, defensive battles, and New York has a roster better suited for this style of hockey.
Prediction: New York wins 4-2
(4) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Toronto Maple Leafs
This is an awesome matchup between two fierce rivals and Original Six franchises.
Leafs fans have watched their team struggle against the Bruins for the last few years, with Boston winning nine of the last 10 games these teams have played. Toronto has also lost 12 of its last 13 playoff games against Boston, although these rivals last met in the postseason back in 1974.
The Bruins' biggest advantage in this series is between the pipes, where No. 1 goalie Tuukka Rask has been phenomenal this season and will likely be a Vezina Trophy finalist. Leafs starting goaltender James Reimer has no playoff experience and just one win in his last five starts versus the Bruins.
Prediction: Boston wins 4-1
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8) Minnesota Wild
The Chicago Blackhawks won the President's Trophy for the first time since 1990-91 this season, which was the last time that they played a Minnesota team in the NHL playoffs. The Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars) defeated the Blackhawks in the division final that season, but don't expect a similar outcome in 2013.
The Blackhawks are the only team that ranked in the top three in goals scored and goals against, and their special teams are also impressive. They were 2-0-1 versus the Wild this season and will have home-ice advantage in this matchup. Minnesota finished the season with a disappointing 5-8-1 record in April and will be lucky to win two games in this series.
Prediction: Chicago wins 4-1
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings
This is the sixth time that the Ducks and Red Wings have met in the playoffs since the 1996-97 season. Detroit is 3-2 in those series, but Anaheim will be favored to win this one because of its incredible scoring depth and goaltending advantage.
The Red Wings have just one win in their last seven games against playoff teams, and unless No. 1 goaltender Jimmy Howard has an unbelievable series, it's hard to imagine Detroit being able to outscore the high-powered Ducks offense. Anaheim is built for the playoffs with a physical style of play, responsible defensive system and timely goal scoring.
Prediction: Anaheim wins 4-2
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks
This will be a low-scoring series in which goaltending is the determining factor in who reaches the second round.
Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider will try to do what his backup, Roberto Luongo, could not over the last few seasons: lead his team to a Stanley Cup title. His opposite number will be Antti Niemi, who was the Sharks' best player this season. The former Stanley Cup champion finished the year with a Vezina Trophy-worthy resume that included a 24-12-6 record, a .924 save percentage and a 2.16 GAA.
San Jose won all three meetings with Vancouver this season, but the Canucks have more scoring depth, a better blue line and a slight goaltending advantage over the Sharks. Expect this to be the most competitive series in the first round.
Prediction: Vancouver wins 4-3
(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings have dominated the St. Louis Blues over the last two seasons. They swept the Blues in last year's second round and defeated them in all three regular-season meetings this season by a combined score of 14-7.
The Kings proved last season that they are built for the playoffs with a strong defense, great goaltending and impressive scoring depth. This team rarely makes foolish mistakes and also has a ton of postseason experience from last year's Stanley Cup run. The Blues have a very small chance of ending the Kings' Stanley Cup defense in Round 1.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 4-0
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (6) New York Rangers
The Rangers have the best chance to upset the Penguins because they are a more physical team, their best players are starting to heat up and Henrik Lundqvist is a much better and more reliable goaltender than Marc-Andre Fleury.
For Pittsburgh to win this series, Fleury would need to outplay Lundqvist, which isn't a likely scenario given the Penguins star's recent playoff failures.
Over the course of a seven-game series, the Rangers' toughness and physical style of play would wear down the Penguins. The Blueshirts also have a deep and talented blue line with defensemen who are willing to block shots and kill penalties consistently. If there's any team with the defensive skill and goaltending to prevent the Penguins' top-ranked offense and strong power play from having success, it's New York.
New York finished the regular season strongly with a 10-3-1 record and the second-most goals scored in the month of April. The Rangers are playing their best hockey of the season going into the playoffs with a higher level of confidence since the team bolstered its forward depth, grit and offensive skill with two trade-deadline deals.
Now that the Rangers offense is firing on all cylinders and top-six center Brad Richards is playing like an elite player again (15 points in last 13 games), expect New York to win a very close and competitive series against the rival Penguins.
Prediction: New York wins 4-3
(2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (4) Boston Bruins
There is no better rivalry in hockey than the Bruins and Canadiens, which is why a playoff series between these teams would be must-see television.
As you would expect, Boston and Montreal don't like each other, and they have played some great playoff series in recent seasons. These rivals have met in the postseason three times in the last five years, and two of those matchups (2008, 2011) went the full seven games.
Even though the Canadiens won the season series, Boston would still be a slight favorite in this matchup because it has more reliable goaltending, more truculence/grit, a deeper, healthier and more talented blue line and recent success at the Bell Centre. The Bruins have won four of their last five playoff games in Montreal dating back to the 2008-09 season.
As long as the Bruins penalty kill does its job (it ranked second in the NHL, but struggled at the end of the regular season), the B's will eliminate the rival Canadiens and advance to their second Eastern Conference Final in three years.
Prediction: Boston wins 4-2
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
The most difficult opponent for the Blackhawks in the West is the Kings because the defending champs will not be intimated by Chicago's physical style of hockey and playoff experience. Los Angeles has a lot of size, strength and offensive skill in its top-six forwards group, and it's one of the few teams in the West that has enough depth to roll out four quality lines against Chicago.
The Kings would also have the goaltending advantage in this series. Reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick and young backup Jonathan Bernier are the best goaltending duo in the NHL, and both players are capable of shutting down a high-scoring team like the Blackhawks.
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have been spectacular for Chicago this season, but neither player has enjoyed much playoff success over the last few years.
From a defensive standpoint, the Kings are a better team than the Blackhawks. Slava Voynov, Drew Doughty, Rob Scuderi, Matt Greene and rookie sensation Jake Muzzin give Los Angeles a more talented and deeper blue line than Chicago. The Kings also finished second in the NHL in hits, fourth in faceoff percentage and had a 19-1-2 record when taking a lead into the third period.
As a well-balanced team that scores goals, has great goaltending and excels on special teams, the Kings are not a good matchup for the Blackhawks. Los Angeles went 19-4-1 at home this season, so if it won just a single game at the United Center (which is very possible since the Kings won 5-4 in Chicago this season), it could defeat the Blackhawks in six games.
Los Angeles will give Quick the offensive support he needs to defeat the Blackhawks and keep the team's title defense alive.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 4-2
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (3) Vancouver Canucks
The Ducks and Canucks met three times in the regular season, with Anaheim winning two of those games (both on the road in Vancouver).
As the chart below shows, the Ducks have the advantage in several important areas in this series.
Not only do the Ducks have more scoring depth than the Canucks, they also play the physical style of hockey that has given Vancouver a lot of trouble in the playoffs over the last few years. Anaheim has the toughness and depth (four quality lines) to wear down Vancouver over the course of a seven-game series.
Anaheim is capable of beating the Canucks in a low-scoring series in which goaltending is center stage (Ducks were 14-2-6 in one-goal games), or in a high-scoring series where special teams, specifically power plays, become a real factor.
Another advantage that Anaheim has over Vancouver is Stanley Cup-winning experience. Captain Ryan Getzlaf, veteran forward Teemu Selanne and defenseman Francois Beauchemin were all part of the 2006-07 Ducks team that won the first championship in franchise history.
If the Ducks superstars (Corey Perry, Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan) contribute offensively and play a physical game, they will lead their team to the Western Conference Final for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
Prediction: Anaheim wins 4-2
(4) Boston Bruins vs. (6) New York Rangers
The Bruins and Rangers played three times during the regular season, and each matchup was full of hard hits, blocked shots, strong defensive play and exciting goals. These two teams create exciting hockey for the fans and would make a thrilling Eastern Conference Final series.
The Blueshirts, and Lundqvist in particular, have enjoyed great success against the Bruins in recent seasons. The lack of home-ice advantage in this series wouldn't be an issue for New York because it has won six of its last seven games at TD Garden, while Lundqvist has won 11 of his last 15 starts against the Bruins.
The Rangers failed to reach the Stanley Cup Final last season because they didn't have enough scoring depth to beat quality defensive teams and an elite goaltender, which was evident in their six-game defeat to the rival New Jersey Devils in the East final.
Head coach John Tortorella has much more depth this season with Brad Richards playing well (15 points in last 13 games), the addition of superstar winger Rick Nash to the lineup (led team with 21 goals), the emergence of Derek Stepan as the team's best center and the trade-deadline acquisitions of Derek Dorsett, Derick Brassard and Ryane Clowe.
Not only are the Rangers fully capable of matching the Bruins' physical play and intensity, they also have a more talented group of forwards and a more reliable goaltender. It's hard to imagine Boston being able to score enough goals in this series against Lundqvist when it tallied more than two goals in just four of its final 14 games in the regular season.
New York's recent success against Boston, its improved offense that is scoring goals at an impressive rate and the play of Lundqvist in net gives this team a strong chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the time since 1993-94.
Prediction: New York wins 4-3
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
These two Pacific Division rivals have never met in the playoffs, but there is a very real possibility that they could play each other for the right to represent the Western Conference in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
Both of these teams play a physical style of hockey, excel on special teams and have great goaltending. However, Los Angeles would have the goaltending advantage in this series because not only is Jonathan Quick more talented than Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, he also has a lot more playoff experience.
Quick was 2-0 against the Ducks this season with a 1.50 GAA. Dating back to the start of last year, Quick is 7-1 in his last eight starts versus Anaheim.
The difference in this series for Los Angeles will be the ability of top-six centers Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards to play well defensively against Ducks stars Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. These two forwards are so important to Anaheim's offense, but as elite defensive players, Richards and Kopitar are capable of shutting them down and preventing the Ducks' first line from dominating the series.
The Kings are the most well-rounded team in the NHL and the only club that finished in the top 10 in goals scored, goals against, power-play percentage and penalty killing. Los Angeles' depth, goaltending and playoff experience will help it edge the Ducks in a hard-fought series to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second consecutive season.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 4-2
(5) Los Angeles Kings vs. (6) New York Rangers
Toward the end of last year's playoffs, a lot of hockey fans were hoping for the Rangers and Kings to meet in the Stanley Cup Final. Those fans will get their wish this season because these are the two teams best equipped to handle the grueling two-month period of intense playoff hockey.
These teams are so evenly matched because they have tremendous depth down the middle, they play a physical style of hockey, their blue-line depth is strong and both are led by elite goaltenders.
The difference in this series will be Lundqvist, who ended the regular season with a 10-3-1 record, a 1.78 GAA and a .934 save percentage. He is highly motivated after playing extraordinarily well in last year's playoffs only to watch his team struggle offensively against the Devils in the East Final.
If the Rangers' goal-scoring success from April (3.64 goals/game) is continued in the playoffs, they will be the most difficult team to beat in the postseason because Lundqvist will give them a chance to win each game. This team is structured defensively, it kills penalties and has more depth than the Kings at nearly ever position.
The Blueshirts have the grit, toughness and scoring depth on their bottom two lines that will help them match up well with the Kings and wear them down physically in this series.
New York's forwards are getting hot at the right time, its goaltender is playing at an elite level and the blue line is deep and talented (star defenseman Marc Staal returning from injury will improve it even more).
The Rangers will win a thrilling seven-game series to prevent the Kings from repeating as champions and capture their fifth Stanley Cup title in franchise history.
Prediction: New York wins 4-3
Nicholas Goss is an NHL lead writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.