It has been quite the season for NHL fans with brutal divisional battles and bitter rivalries—not to mention some Olympic action for good measure—but the postseason promises to be the icing on the cake.
Armed to the teeth with superstars and a new head-scratching format, the 2014 iteration of the Stanley Cup Playoffs promises to be one of the best to date.
Let's take a look at the new format and highlight some of the top superstars to watch with the playoffs just around the corner.
Let's try to figure this out.
One division can send five teams to the postseason under the new rules. Why? There's a wild-card element now after the top three teams in each division qualify. The final four spots go to the two highest-placed finishers in each conference—regardless of division.
Why doesn't division matter? Because there is not an equal amount of teams in each conference.
What results is division winners playing wild cards and no re-seeding after the opening round.
Got all that? With some of the bracket still in flux, here are some players to watch.
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks sit comfortably with a 46-19-15 record and 107 points despite having missed star Patrick Kane for the last month thanks to injury.
That success, which includes a 4-0-0 record without Kane and Johnathan Toews in the lineup the past four games, simply won't hold up in the postseason.
There's a race atop the Central division, but the Blackhawks will play the No. 2 seed regardless. Luckily for Chicago, Kane expects to be back just in time, per ESPN's Scott Powers:
I think I will be [100 percent] for sure. It looks like we're a week away from playoffs. That's right about the timetable they told me I should be healed.
The injury feels pretty good, and I feel pretty confident that especially being on the ice my fifth time in the past six days. It's an injury that they said would probably keep me out the rest of the regular season when it happened, so it looks like it's staying true to that.
Kane has been a bit down performance-wise since the 2014 calendar year started, but has still accounted for 69 points overall. His production, and really just his presence, are a must for the Blackhawks.
Prediction: 10 goals, nine assists in the playoffs
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
It's impossible to ignore Sidney Crosby as the postseason begins. He's the 100-point man in a season where only a handful of players will surpass the 80-point mark. He has scored a minimum of one point in 59 of 79 games.
There's no debate—Crosby is the best player on the planet, especially now that he has played his first full season since the 2009-10 slate.
But the postseason is a different animal. The talent and desperation are kicked up a notch when it matters most, and even though they'll be playing a wild-card team, the Penguins are no guarantee to advance.
Crosby has done the majority of his work with a weaker-than-normal cast, so he'll need more strong solo performances if the Penguins are going to reach the final. He'll do just that as fans have come to expect this season.
Prediction: 12 goals, 12 assists
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