This has already been one of the most exciting seasons of hockey we've seen in a long time, and it's just starting to get to the good part!
We've had plenty of surprises, both good, like the Dallas Stars, and bad, like the New Jersey Devils.
We've seen the continued emergence of young superstars like Steven Stamkos and Ryan Kesler.
We've seen yet another crop of exciting 18-year-old rookies that we can't wait to see develop and a group of 40-somethings more than holding their own.
We've also seen a race toward the Stanley Cup that has more legitimate contenders than almost any other year.
So now that the players have had a chance to rest up and prepare for the stretch run, what are the most exciting story lines to follow the rest of the season?
The Atlanta Thrashers have been one of the favorite Cinderella stories of the NHL season so far. After trading away former superstar captain Ilya Kovalchuk last season, most preseason predictors had the Thrashers being one of the doormats of the league.
As it turns out, trading Kovalchuk is looking like one of the best moves in franchise history, as it enabled the Thrashers to bring in Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, who have become a key part of the core of the team.
Now, Ladd is the Thrashers' captain, and Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom have formed one of the best defensive pairings in the league, with both being potential Norris Trophy candidates.
Lately, though, the Thrashers have been slumping. They're just 3-4-3 in their last 10 games, and Byfuglien doesn't have a point in that stretch.
The Thrashers still sit in eighth in the Eastern Conference but are just one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes, who have two games in hand.
So the question is, can the Thrashers still manage to make the playoffs?
If Byfuglien can find his game again and Enstrom comes back from his current injury, the Thrashers should have a very good chance at a playoff spot. Carolina has typically been very good after the All-Star break though, so Atlanta needs to play well enough to earn it, because Carolina won't choke.
There are many big names that could be moved before the trade deadline, including Tomas Vokoun, Brad Richards and Jarome Iginla. Who will actually be traded?
Brad Richards: There is about a one percent chance that the Stars will trade Richards. He and the team are performing so well that it's extremely unlikely they'll move him before the deadline.
Tomas Vokoun: Vokoun will probably be dealt, maybe to Philadelphia.
Jarome Iginla: Iginla is a wild card, and his status depends on whether or not the Flames can stay in playoff contention. If they do, he is safe. If they slide, it's hard to say if the Flames would trade him. I'll say he's going to finish the season with the Flames.
Kris Versteeg: Versteeg will very likely be traded. There are rumors he's unhappy in Toronto and that he ideally wants to go back to Chicago.
Francois Beauchemin: Beauchemin will almost certainly be moved, likely to San Jose.
Robyn Regehr: Like Iginla, Regehr's fate depends on the Flames' performance. If the Flames falter, I think Regehr will be traded (if he will waive his no-trade clause), possibly to Colorado or Montreal.
Stephen Weiss: Weiss will probably be traded, maybe to Boston or Phoenix.
The Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders are battling for last place in the league. All three own their first round picks in the upcoming entry draft.
Which team will finish last? Will it win the draft lottery and pick first overall? Will the Leafs fall far enough to give the Boston Bruins another lottery pick from the Phil Kessel trade?
Also, there are currently four prospects all about equal in the race for first pick. Will a leader emerge, or will it be a wide-open surprise?
Gabriel Landeskog, captain of the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL, plays a game very much like Mike Richards. He's a great leader who's solid both ways and can score.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a very good offensive forward who currently sits fifth in scoring in the WHL.
Sean Couturier, a member of Canada's world junior team, is a big two-way center with good offensive upside.
Adam Larsson is a Swedish defenseman who plays like Victor Hedman but is better offensively. In 2009-10, he tied the season scoring record for defensemen under 18 years old in the Swedish Elite League.
Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas is putting together one of the best, if not the best, seasons by a goaltender in NHL history.
The NHL record for save percentage in a single season is owned by Dominik Hasek, at .937. Thomas is on pace to smash that record with his current save percentage of .945.
His goals against average is a sparkling 1.81, which would put him fifth best since 1967.
He's on pace for 45 wins, which would put him fifth all-time for wins in a season.
Finally, he's on pace for 13 shutouts, which would be second best since 1967.
The question is whether Thomas can keep up the incredible pace he's posted so far.
If he can, he'll be a Hart Trophy nominee at the very minimum and should have a great chance to win it.
Even more importantly, if Thomas keeps playing like this, the Bruins would have to be considered a favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
Sidney Crosby has now missed 10 games with a concussion but still sits second in league scoring, just one point behind Steven Stamkos.
He was cleared to resume "light exercise" on Sunday but is still quite a ways away from returning to the lineup.
How far behind can he fall before it's too late for him to catch up?
So far this year, Crosby has posted the best points-per-game average since Mario Lemieux in 2000-01 and had been playing the best hockey of his career before the injury.
If Crosby misses two more weeks and continues at his current pace, he'd still post 103 points in just 64 games. League leader Stamkos is currently on pace for 107 points in 82 games.
When Crosby is cleared to come back will be the biggest factor in whether or not he can come back to win the scoring title.
The San Jose Sharks haven't missed the playoffs since 2003 and have only missed them once since 1997, but they're very much in danger of missing out this year.
The Sharks currently sit in a three-way tie for seventh place in the extremely tight Western Conference but are only two points away from being in 12th.
The Western Conference standings are so close this year that if the Sharks go through another five-game losing streak like they did in early January, they could find themselves too far back to catch up.
Before the season began, many people picked the Sharks to finally make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and it was virtually a given that they'd make the playoffs.
If they do miss the playoffs, the Sharks management may finally decide that this isn't a team that can win and start shipping out some of the stagnant mainstays among the leadership group.
"What's wrong with the Capitals?" has been a common question this season. The Caps are averaging 1.13 less goals per game this season—that will be 93 fewer goals than last season if they stay on pace!
Superstar captain and three-time defending Ted Lindsay Award winner Alexander Ovechkin is on pace for 16 fewer goals than his previous career low despite taking more shots than last season, when he scored 50 times.
Sensational center Nicklas Backstrom is on pace for 14 fewer goals and 28 fewer points than last season!
Sniping winger Alexander Semin is on pace for eight fewer goals and 22 fewer points than last year.
In addition, back-to-back Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green is on pace for six fewer goals and 40 fewer points than last season! He's going to have less than half as many points this year if this keeps up! His plus-minus is also on pace to fall by 24.
Not surprisingly, the Capitals are on pace to finish 20 points lower this year in the standings and are in danger of losing the Southeast Division for the first time since 2007.
The Caps have been trying to play a more defensive style this season, which accounts for part of the decline in scoring, but their goals against average is only 0.09 lower than last season.
So are the Capitals really this average? Or will the high-scoring, wide-open Capitals reappear? If they keep playing defensively, will they have success in the playoffs? Or will they get knocked out early again?
When Peter Forsberg has been able to stay healthy, he's been one of the most complete and dominating players in NHL history.
The Hart Trophy winner in 2003, Foppa's incredible skill combined with his strength and physical play made him nearly unstoppable.
Unfortunately, Forsberg's injury problems have limited him to just 706 career games and forced him out of the NHL in 2008. He hasn't played 70 games in a season since 2003.
Still, Forsberg sits fourth all-time in assists per game, behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr, and unlike those three, he played almost exclusively in the dead puck era.
The only season Forsberg scored less than a point per game was in 2006-07, when he put up 55 points in 57 games while playing on a severely damaged right foot.
Now, Forsberg has spent about a week skating with the Avalanche in the hope that his foot will hold up for one more NHL comeback.
It's not about whether Forsberg will put up points if he returns, but rather whether or not he can play in most of the games. If he's back, he'll likely be playing with Chris Stewart and Paul Stastny and will certainly be getting points.
Personally, I think that even the most hardcore Detroit Red Wings fans, to whom Forsberg was a hated rival, would cherish the chance to see him play again. I know I hope Foppa makes a successful comeback.
Will hockey fans be treated to another epic Penguins vs. Capitals playoff battles with dueling Ovechkin and Crosby hat tricks?
Or one last Detroit vs. Colorado series before Nick Lidstrom and Peter Forsberg call it quits for good?
How about a Boston vs. Philly rematch after last year's historical comeback by the Flyers?
Maybe another wide-open Canucks vs. Blackhawks fight to the death?
The NHL playoffs have recently cultivated so many good rivalries among the elite teams that we should be in for some incredible battles. One of the best things about this year is that the great teams are so close that it's almost impossible to pick a winner.
It's going to be one of the most exciting playoffs in NHL history, and I can't wait for the madness to start.
Always the most important story line in the NHL—who will win the Stanley Cup?
It's even better this year because there are at least eight teams that can be considered legitimate contenders, and it's all but impossible to accurately predict the winner without just getting lucky.
Philadelphia Flyers: Philly has most of the normal attributes of a Cup winner with depth on offense and defense, toughness, leadership and experience. The biggest question is if their goaltending can hold up throughout the playoffs.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks have elite-level two-way forwards, depth on defense, a good checking line and proven regular season goaltending. The Canucks' questions right now surround secondary scoring from Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson and whether or not Roberto Luongo can be good in the playoffs.
Detroit Red Wings: The Wings are finally starting to get healthy again, and with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Nicklas Lidstrom, they may have the best all-around elite talent. They're very good offensively and defensively and have tons of experience. The questions are around clutch goaltending, health and whether the oldest team in the league has enough in the tank to make an extended playoff run.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins' strength has traditionally been down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and it still is, but the Pens look more complete than ever before. They have the best player in the league, good depth on defense, a proven winner in net, great leadership, youth that has experience and by far the best penalty kill in the league at 88.4 percent. The biggest question for the Penguins is if they can get and stay healthy.
Dallas Stars: The least expected of the contenders, the Stars have proven themselves with two extremely talented lines that play a physical, playoff style of game every night. The Stars don't have the depth of other contenders, but they boast a Conn Smythe winner as their best player and a youthful energy that should benefit them in a long series. The questions are many for the Stars, such as goaltending, elite defensemen and depth, but they could surprise other contenders.
Boston Bruins: The Bruins boast by far the best goalie in the league right now, a great backup, the best shutdown defenseman in the league and great depth on forward. There aren't really any questions with the Bruins this year, except maybe whether or not they'll get Marc Savard back and be even better.
Chicago Blackhawks: While the Hawks haven't been as good this regular season as they were last year, they have a core that boasts Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. They're also getting great goaltending from rookie Corey Crawford and have experience and the league's best power play. The biggest question for the Hawks is if their loss of depth will cost them in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning: There are some issues with the Lightning, but their embarrassment of riches at forward makes them a threat. Dwayne Roloson is also a proven playoff goalie, and Victor Hedman is one of the best young defensemen. The issues are depth, defense and goaltending.
Washington Capitals: The Caps haven't been good this season but have superstar talent, solid defensemen, great team speed and three goalies fighting to get playing time. The questions surround goaltending, scoring depth and why they've been struggling this season.
Any team that makes the playoffs this year will have a good chance to win in the first round, and there shouldn't be any easy series. It should be a great rest of the season.