The unpredictability of this NHL season has been almost too much to take. But the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins enter the postseason as the clear-cut favorites in each conference after dominating the majority of their respective slates.
As they often say in sports, though, the regular season means nothing when the puck drops on Tuesday.
The Blackhawks are among six teams who will hit the ice on Tuesday with an eye toward the Stanley Cup. We've got you covered with some last-minute previews for the first three games of the 2013 NHL postseason.
No. 8 Minnesota Wild at No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks
When: Tuesday, April 30 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Where: United Center; Chicago, Ill.
Records: Minnesota (26-19-3), Chicago (36-7-5)
Season Series: Chicago won, 2-0-1
Leading Goal Scorers: Minnesota LW Zach Parise (18), Chicago RW Patrick Kane/C Jonathan Toews (23)
As the Minnesota Wild enter the United Center on Tuesday night, they will be doing so without Jason Pominville (h/t Michael Russo of the Star Tribune). Per Russo's report, they will also be entering the game with nine players making their Stanley Cup playoff debut.
The Wild had to make a late-season push just to make the playoffs out West, making the entire team grateful just to have a chance at the top seed in the conference.
It also makes Minnesota dangerous.
No one knows that better than the Chicago Blackhawks. They had a first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks a few years back that ended up being one of the most memorable first-round matchups we've seen in quite some time.
At the time of that series, the Hawks were an eight seed.
It should come as no surprise that the Hawks are saying all the right things in press conferences and media appearances during the lead-up to this opening-round Game 1 showdown. As reported by Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune, the Hawks aren't taking anything about the Wild lightly.
However, with a full compliment of players and the conference's best record, top stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are ready to help this Chicago team cruise through the first round of the playoffs.
It won't be an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but Chicago has a leg-up on the Wild after not dropping any of the three contests against them this season. They will also get the United Center crowd for the first game of this series.
And they are among the top penalty-killing teams in the NHL this season (87.2 percent, good for third in the league), meaning Minnesota's 5-on-4 chances are of vital importance to its success.
The Wild are also at a serious disadvantage up front against Chicago's speed, depth and raw power. However, they have two costly stars, Parise and Ryan Suter, who will have to be exceptional for the Wild to compete over the course of a seven-game affair.
It would definitely be a monumental upset if the Wild were able to steal Game 1 of this series.
But with the unpredictability of the NHL season this year it might be less surprising than some of the other feats we've seen so far.
Prediction: Chicago 3, Minnesota 1
No. 5 Los Angeles Kings at No. 4 St. Louis Blues
When: Tuesday, April 30 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Where: Scottrade Center; St. Louis, Mo.
Records: LA (27-16-5), St. Louis (29-17-2)
Season Series: LA won, 3-0-0
Leading Goal Scorers: LA C Jeff Carter (26), St. Louis RW Chris Stewart (18)
The Kings got off to a slow start this season, but things are setting up for them to get a shot at the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the NHL playoffs.
The Kings sit in the No. 5 seed and will travel to St. Louis for the first game of a showdown with the Blues on Tuesday. This could very well be the kind of drag-it-out, seven-game affair that showcases the willpower of both teams by series end.
St. Louis ended the month of April on a hot streak.
This is thanks to goaltender Brian Elliot coming alive in the net to help the club capture an 11-2 mark heading into this series. The Blues might be the team on the hot streak but history decides with the defending champs.
The Kings have beaten the Blues in eight-straight games dating back to the 2011-12 season (including a four-game sweep in the playoffs last year).
For the Kings, things are certainly setting up for a return to grace. But this year won't be as magical of a run as it was during the 2012 championship season when LA finished three full seeds ahead of where they were (No. 8) when the playoffs started.
Carter has been a real offensive spark for the Kings, but things get testy on the road for the champs. He and the rest of the team have not been as proficient (19-4-1 at home versus 8-12-4 on the road) away from the Staples Center.
Carter and Dustin Brown will have to find away to penetrate a particularly stout St. Louis defense, which only allowed 24.2 shots per game this season—good for second in the NHL.
But the Blues must face the demons of a poor record against this opponent and find a way to stop an offensive attack that is actually better than it was when the Kings won the title last year. Game 1 could be a foreshadowing of a long series between these two teams.
Prediction: St. Louis 3, LA 2 (OT)
No. 7 Detroit Red Wings at No. 2 Anaheim Ducks
When: Tuesday, April 30 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Honda Center; Anaheim, Calif.
Records: Detroit (24-16-8), Anaheim (30-12-6)
Season Series: Detroit won, 2-1-0
Leading Goal Scorers: Detroit C Pavel Datsyuk (15), Anaheim C Ryan Getzlaf/RW Corey Perry (15)
When the Detroit Red Wings get hot, they make things very difficult for their opponents.
And no one is statistically hotter than the Wings right now.
They are coming into the postseason on a four-game win streak to push their consecutive playoff appearance streak to 22 years. The Wings won't have a clear-cut advantage over the Anaheim Ducks, though.
The Ducks featured11 players with at least 10 assists and an offensive attack that averaged 2.79 goals per game—good for eighth in the NHL.
One thing is for sure: The Red Wings are eager to get back on the ice in Game 1. As noted by Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, Detroit is more interested in keeping this current streak alive than getting some time off to rest their aching bodies.
Veterans Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are the main focus of the Detroit attack. The Anaheim tandem of goalies will have a tall task ahead of them to ensuring Detroit doesn't bear down from all angles of the ice.
In a battle of two of the better offensive teams in the league, this matchup could come down to defense.
In a Game 1 thriller, expect the uber-hot Red Wings to steal one on the road and continue their most recent stretch of inspired play.
Prediction: Detroit 2, Anaheim 1
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