It's getting to be about that time. It's getting warmer, the birds are coming out to sing and the late-season surge in the NHL will give way to the most exciting spectacle in all of sports—the NHL playoffs.
Some may say I'm crazy for ranking it ahead of March Madness and the touchdown dance competition, AKA the Super Bowl. Nothing—NOTHING—compares to the emotion of an NHL playoff game, particularly a game in the Stanley Cup Final.
Go ahead and tell any hockey fan that the Duke Blue Devils winning yet another national championship tops the Chicago Blackhawks ending a 49-year Cup drought, and he or she will laugh in your face.
Here are the odds of the top 20 teams to take home the greatest trophy in sports. Bear with me, as I have never made odds before.
Sitting in third place in the suddenly competitive Southeast Division are the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are currently one point out of a playoff spot but are only three points behind the Rangers in seventh place, on whom they have three games in hand.
The team's captain, Eric Staal, is having a productive season with 29 goals and 62 points to his credit. In addition to a few other scorers, the Hurricanes lineup boasts this year's highest scoring rookie, 18-year-old Jeff Skinner. Cam Ward is having a quietly fantastic season in net with 28 wins and a .920 save percentage.
If the team can tighten up, it can shoot up the rankings.
After a rocky start to the season, many were quick to write off Ryan Miller's Vezina-winning season of 2009-10 off as a fluke. When leading scorer Derek Roy was shut down 35 games into the season, there was no hope for the Buffalo Sabres.
On the contrary, the Sabres have surged back into a playoff spot thanks to strong play by Miller and his supporting cast, including Thomas Vanek, who is having a resurgent season, and the sudden breakout of Drew Stafford. Former St. Louis Blues star scorer Brad Boyes has looked great through four games in a Sabres sweater.
If the team can continue its strong play, it's likely to advance.
One of the trickiest teams to figure out in the entire league. Despite its plus-29 goal differential, one of the best in the entire league, this team can look like it's playing for a lottery pick at times.
Simply put, this team cannot score. The Rangers' stellar goal differential is thanks to a stingy defense and one of the best goaltenders in the league in Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers feature a strong young core with players like Marc Staal and Ryan Callahan and are led by the often injured Marian Gaborik, who is in the midst of a down season. The Rangers have the ability but are way too inconsistent to be considered a true Stanley Cup contender.
How does that old saying go again? Ah yes, "defense wins championships." If the Nashville Predators hope to win one, they'll have to be big-time believers in that.
The team's captain, Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman Shea Weber, is on pace to lead the team with 48 points. However, he leads one of the stingiest defenses in the entire NHL.
The man they play in front of, Pekka Rinne, is no slouch either, being near the top of the league in most goaltending categories. The Predators as a team have given up only 156 goals, the third least in the league.
Even though defense and goaltending are key, their lack of scoring may come back to haunt them.
Shh, don't look now, but Jacques Lemaire is still gone, and Niklas Backstrom still looks like a Vezina Trophy candidate. Despite recent struggles, Backstrom is carrying the team, ranking fifth in the NHL with a .925 save percentage.
Up front, they are led by a resurgent Martin Havlat, who has picked up where he left off in Chicago, with captain Mikko Koivu not far behind. Brent Burns is looking like his old self on the back end as well.
Minnesota is full of gritty role players such as Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak, which truly embodies the "hockey state." However, their lack of true goal scorers may doom them in the end.
The Ducks are struggling right now, but I believe they are an extremely talented team that could make a run. They have as talented a group of forwards as any team in the league, with captain Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry and the ageless Teemu Selanne, who is still producing big numbers at age 40.
On the back end, the team boasts one of the highest-scoring blueliners in the league in Lubomir Visnovsky and also breakout rookie Cam Fowler.
While not the tightest bunch defensively, they play in front of one of the better goaltenders in the league in Jonas Hiller. However, Hiller has sustained a head injury and has not played in nearly a month. If Hiller does not return, Dan Ellis will be unable to carry the load in the playoffs.
See that guy in the picture? The guy everyone thought should have been traded? Boy, does Pierre Gauthier ever look like a genius on that one.
The man who lost his job to Jaroslav Halak, the story of last year's playoffs, has been lighting the league on fire (no pun intended, Habs fans). Carey Price is currently near the top of every goaltending category and, simply put, has been absolutely lights out. He is the reason the Habs are in contention, as the team is ranked 23rd in scoring.
Tomas Plekanec leads the team with only 51 points, and their leading goal scorer is captain Brian Gionta with 23. Roman Hamrlik anchors their defense, combined with the strong play of rookie P.K. Subban, who most people would prefer to simply curl up into a ball on the bench than play hockey.
What off-ice drama? Last season's feel-good story, the Phoenix Coyotes, keeps rolling along despite persisting reports that they may be relocated.
Though he has not put up the gaudy numbers of last season, Ilya Bryzgalov continues to be stellar in goal, as the 'Yotes sit second in the ultra competitive Pacific Division. Breakout star defenseman Keith Yandle leads them in scoring with 54 points and may even come away with a Norris Trophy with his name on it after the season.
They are a team stocked with many role players, however; only one forward has broken 50 points as of yet, and nobody has scored 20 goals. I believe it will be difficult to compete with some of the higher-scoring teams.
With the Stars struggling a short while ago, Brad Richards was the name on everybody's tongue at the trade deadline. However, when the clock struck 3:00 pm, Brad Richards was still a Star. That's because GM Joe Nieuwendyk believes they can compete for the Stanley Cup, and he's not too far off in his thinking.
Kari Lehtonen has proven himself to be more than an adequate replacement for longtime goaltender Marty Turco. Despite sacrificing a great young forward, the team recently acquired its power-play quarterback in Alex Goligoski, who is also a more than capable defenseman.
With captain Brenden Morrow leading the team with 25 goals and Loui Eriksson continuing last season's success, the team looks poised for a run. However, their championship chances rest in the hands of Brad Richards. The team's leading scorer is currently sidelined with a concussion, but if he can return at full form, watch out for Dallas.
If not for a midseason rough patch, the Kings would be higher up on this list. After all, what's not to like? A star scorer in Anze Kopitar, a gritty captain who can pot a few goals of his own and a wily veteran in Ryan Smyth, not to mention other scorers, like trade deadline pickup Dustin Penner.
Their defense is star-studded as well, as they boast Jack Johnson, who has an impressive 40 points on the season, and, though he is not scoring as much as last season, defensive stalwart Drew Doughty. Jonathan Quick is having a fantastic season in net as well, with a 2.22 GAA and a .918 save percentage.
This is a team, like the 2009 Blackhawks, that I believe can make a lot of noise.
Yes, THOSE Flames. The one who were so awful that Jarome Iginla was going to be traded and the entire management was going to be removed.
Well, those Flames have been hot to the point where saying that might be an understatement. They're 7-2-1 and sit second in their division to only the Vancouver Canucks.
While not having the absolute greatest season, Miikka Kiprusoff has been more than solid, as he is currently tied for the NHL lead in wins. But the Flames' streak directly coincides with Jarome Iginla putting the team on his back, clawing his way to eighth in the league in scoring and seventh in goals, while recently recording his 10th consecutive 30-goal campaign.
Watch out for the Flames. They're getting hot at exactly the right time.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning hired Steve Yzerman to be their new general manager, everyone knew he would take steps to improve the team. However, nobody expected this kind of improvement. They trail the Washington Capitals by only two points but will make the playoffs regardless, a huge turnaround from finishing 25th last season.
Last season's breakout star, Steven Stamkos, continues to impress, leading the league in goals and sitting second in points. His linemate, Martin St. Louis, is as good a player as there is in the league, being tied for third in points. In addition, the dormant Vincent Lecavalier has woken up lately and has been red-hot.
The team seems to have solved its goaltending problems for the most part with Dwayne Roloson. However, I believe their lack of a defensive game will force them out of the playoffs before the Finals.
Who ever thought I'd be using a picture of Marc-Andre Fleury as the picture for a slide about the Pittsburgh Penguins? Well, the bad news is that it's likely going to stay that way this season.
The good news is that Fleury has been simply fantastic for the Penguins. The elephant in the room (slide?) is obviously Sidney Crosby's concussion and the fact that despite playing only 41 games, he will likely remain the team's leader in goals and points.
Add in Evgeni Malkin's season-ending injury and you have what should be a last-place team. But certainly don't tell them that.
Despite a rocky start, Fleury has carried the team to the tune of 29 wins and a .918 save percentage. Not bad for a guy who sounds like he learned his English from watching Kevin Smith films (fans of 24/7 will know what I mean). Kris Letang has been the team's breakout star on defense with a possibly Norris Trophy-winning season.
If the Pens are to contend without Crosby, they need obvious improvements from players like Jordan Staal, James Neal and Alexei Kovalev.
Another season, another goalie for Washington. With Semyon Varlamov injured, Michal Neuvirth has stepped up and become the man in the crease. However, it appears he may be headed to the injured list as well, leaving Braden Holtby as the starter for the time being.
However, they always have Alex Ovechkin and his 50-plus goals to fall back on. Right? Not this season at least, as Ovechkin is on pace for only 31 goals and is averaging just slightly over a point per game. Linemate Nicklas Backstrom doesn't look like his usual self either, with only 55 points, and enigmatic star Alex Semin has been decent but unspectacular.
Mike Green, who had been labeled the best offensive defenseman of this coming generation, is averaging less than half a point per game, while the Caps are led on defense by rookie John Carlson.
Despite all this, the Capitals continue to win games. We all know Alex Ovechkin has the talent. If he breaks out, there could be no stopping him or his team.
Earlier in this season, the Sharks seemed to be attempting to rid themselves of the "playoff choker" label by simply missing the playoffs. Evidently, they decided they could actually win the thing this season.
Newly-named captain Joe Thornton is on pace for his worst season in years, by far his worst in San Jose. Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau have also turned in underwhelming performances.
However, the depth of this team allows for them to succeed despite all that. Rookie Logan Couture has been turning heads, leading all rookies with 25 goals and currently second on the team.
The biggest catalyst has been in net though. Antti Niemi struggled mightily early in the season but has been showing the form that he won the Stanley Cup with last season in Chicago.
With a Cup-winning goaltender, this could be the Sharks' year.
Wait, weren't they just four points out of the playoffs? Can't ever count out the champs, as the Chicago Blackhawks are surging at just the right time. They are 9-1-0 in their last 10 games and have won eight games in a row.
Most of it is due to their captain, Jonathan Toews. Never known as a true superstar scorer, Toews has put up 10 goals and 27 points in his last 17 games, helping Chicago to a strong record in that time. He currently sits 10th in NHL scoring with 65 points through 64 games.
Of course, Toews hasn't been doing it all by himself. Teammate Patrick Sharp is in a tie for third in the league in goals, and Patrick Kane is averaging a point per game.
Chicago does seem to have an effect on late-blooming goaltenders, though, as 26-year-old Corey Crawford has been nothing short of stellar, posting numbers with the best goaltenders in the league. Hey, it worked for them last season.
There is not a team deeper than the Flyers in the NHL. They currently boast four players with 50 or more points (six with 40) and three 20-goal scorers (two with 19).
Claude Giroux has broken out to lead the team with 59 points, and Jeff Carter is tied for the team lead in goals with 28 with Daniel Briere, who is having possibly his best season in the black and orange. While Chris Pronger is not as dominant as he was last season, he leads a fantastic defense full of physicality and toughness.
What's more, is that the Flyers seem to have finally found a goaltender to rely on in 22-year-old rookie Sergei Bobrovsky. He and Brian Boucher make for a formidable goaltending tandem, but it appears likely that "Bob" will be handed the reins in the playoffs.
The Flyers' depth absolutely has the ability to wear teams out, and it could be them hoisting the Cup in June.
No, I couldn't find one of them in the same uniform, okay? Some say the Bruins overpaid for Tomas Kaberle, nearly mortgaging their future for the offensive defenseman. Hey, if they come away with their names on the Cup this season, is there a Bruins fan that will care? The Bruins are "in it to win it" now, and they may very well just do that.
While Kaberle has contributed just one point (an assist), the team is 6-01 since his acquisition. The Bruins also boast a deep lineup. They are being led in points by Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci (50 points each), and Milan Lucic has busted out big time with a team-leading 28 goals.
Even at age 42, Mark Recchi is still showing the ability to produce points, and Brad Marchand has been one of the better rookies this season with an impressive 19 goals.
They are led on the back end by captain and perennial Norris Trophy contender Zdeno Chara, in addition to the newly added Kaberle and other strong defensemen such as Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference.
But the real story is in goal, where Tim Thomas has reclaimed his starting job and is sporting a goals against average of 1.97 and a potentially record-breaking save percentage of .939. The certain Vezina winner, Thomas may very well have his name on the Hart as well this season and, if things go his way, the Stanley Cup.
Before this season, I told my friend that the Detroit Red Wings were my pick to win the Stanley Cup. He responded with, "Dude, again?" Well, yes, again, and it's not looking like such a bad pick.
I am convinced that in addition to owning Little Caesars, Mike Ilitch has also discovered the Fountain of Youth. At age 40, Nicklas Lidstrom has been the obvious catalyst for the team, scoring 13 goals and an incredible 54 points. Henrik Zetterberg isn't scoring goals like he used to, but he is tied for fifth in the NHL in points with an impressive 69.
Despite missing time, Pavel Datsyuk is also up to his old ways, averaging over a point per game. Johan Franzen has impressed also with a team-leading 27 goals, not to mention offensive contributions from Dan Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, Brian Rafalski and Valtteri Filppula.
In net, Jimmy Howard has not been perfect, but he has shown the ability to be a top-flight goaltender.
I stand by my pick of the Detroit Red Wings.
That Sedin guy is so good, it's like there's two of him out there.
Last season, Henrik Sedin led the NHL in scoring and became the first Canuck to capture the Art Ross and Hart Trophies. This season, however, it's his brother Daniel leading in scoring.
If there ever was a team to rival the depth of the Flyers, it's the Canucks. Daniel leads the NHL in scoring and is second in goals, and Henrik is not far behind, leading the league in assists and tied for third in points.
Aside from the twins, Ryan Kesler has been a big-time catalyst for the Canucks, building upon his 75-point season from last year with a career-high 33 goals, combined with stellar defensive play. Alexandre Burrows, Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond have also helped the Canucks climb to the top of the NHL ranks, with the depth trades for Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre helping as well.
The Canucks' horribly injured defense should be getting healthy just in time for the playoffs as well, with even Alexander Edler possibly returning for Round 1.
Last but certainly not least, though he has been called overrated, Roberto Luongo is still one of the NHL's best goaltenders, and he has proven that this season, with 30 wins, a 2.21 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.
As it stands today, the Vancouver Canucks stand the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup.