I'm a firm believer that the song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is traditionally reserved for the wrong time of the year. While Christmas is no doubt wonderful, we are now finally in the time of the year that hockey fans all over the world look forward to: the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Starting this Wednesday, 16 teams will begin what is sometimes called the "Second Season" in pursuit of hockey's ultimate prize. Four best-of-seven series await them, as well as an innumerable amount of bumps, bruises, and injuries.
This season has been one of the closest in history with standings positions being up-for-grabs until the final games. Now that the dust has settled, it's time to take a look at the hockey we'll be seeing for the next two weeks in the respective conference quarterfinals.
There's going to be a ton of these type of articles up on Bleacher Report, but here are my thoughts and predictions on the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Follow me on Twitter for news and updates all throughout the playoffs!
Season Series: NYR 3-1-0
The Washington Capitals cannot be too happy about this matchup.
After a year filled with criticism and question marks about their sudden lack of offensive production and the play of their normally high-scoring all stars like Semin, Backstorm, and Ovechkin, the Capitals finally found a way to turn their season around in the latter months. They even wound up stealing the Eastern Conference's number-one spot from the Flyers, who held it for most of the year.
Their reward for their brilliant surge? A first-round series with the New York Rangers, a team who they've struggled heavily with all year.
Ominous visions of last season's playoff collapse have got to be playing in the minds of Caps Fans everywhere. Visions in which the Caps blow through the regular season, only to be stunningly ejected in seven games by a Cinderella Montreal team who, much like the Rangers this season, they struggled with all year.
The Rangers won three out of the four meetings this year, two of them by extremely lopsided scores (6-0 on Feb. 25th and 7-0 on Dec. 12th).
However these two teams have been headed in opposite directions lately. The Rangers, who have sat as high as fifth in the East this year, are entering the playoffs on a slide. In fact, their playoff lives were out of their hands as late as Saturday night when they could have been knocked out by a Hurricanes win.
The Capitals on the other hand are riding high with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10. Alexander Ovechkin has found his scoring touch again, scoring three times in his last five games and finishing the year with a respectable 32 goals and 85 points (amazingly enough, both are career lows).
The goaltending matchup is definitely in the favor of the Rangers, with proven veteran Henrik Lundquist going up against the talented-yet-streaky duo of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov.
The bottom line is this series is going to come down to whether the Capitals can overcome their regular-season woes with New York and get four wins. The regular season is one thing, but winning in the playoffs, particularly when starting cold like the Rangers are doing, is a lot more difficult.
Prediction: Capitals in 7
Season Series: PHI 2-1-1
I've got to tip my hat to the Sabres. Even at the outset of the season a lot of analysts had written them off as a near-lock to miss the playoffs, and an even bigger contingent called them guaranteed goners with the catastrophic injury to top-offenseman Derek Roy.
However the Sabres have battled back through their mound of adversity and brought themselves back to a 7th-seed playoff position.
The Sabres have drawn 30-goal campaigns from Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford, and goaltender Ryan Miller has picked up his play again, bringing back some of the form that won him the Vezina Trophy last season.
Buffalo went on a rampage in the final stretch of the season to climb back into the playoffs, including eight wins in their last ten games, making them one of the hottest teams in the East.
They'll go up against a lethal, but slumping Flyers team who dominated the East all season, only to lose their fire in the home stretch, and fall to the second-place spot.
They're still without their top defenseman and playoff superstar Chris Pronger, whose absence on the blueline has been a serious blow to the Flyers.
However, the Flyers are gifted in their offensive depth in a way very few, if any, other teams are. They've got three different lines who can score any shift they're placed on the ice.
This is going to present a huge challenge to the Sabres young defense, anchored by 21-year-old Tyler Myers. If they're going to win this series, this defense is going to have to step up to this massive test and protect Ryan Miller, who will nonetheless still be bombarded with shots each game.
The big story of the series definitely comes down to the Flyers third-best offense vs. the Sabres defense and Ryan Miller. If the Sabres want to have a chance in this series, they've got to find a way to shut down the potent Flyers forwards like Mike Richards, Danny Briere, and Ville Leino, among many others.
Prediction: Flyers in 6
Season Series: MTL 4-2-0
One of the most storied rivalries in the entire NHL will revive itself in the quarter finals... as if it actually lost it had some of its edge.
The season series between these two has been nothing short of drama filled, and with the memories of Zdeno Chara's controversial hit on Max Pacioretty being fresh in everyone's mind, there is bound to be very little love lost in this series.
That is... unless Zdeno Chara gets arrested by Quebec police at the Montreal Airport.
The last time these two met in the playoffs was just two years ago, and it didn't end pretty for the Canadiens, as they were swept out 4-0 by their rivals.
However, much like the WSH-NYR series, the team with the lower seed actually won the season series. Montreal beat up on the Bruins pretty handily this season, even though the Bruins have for the most part been on a rampage.
Boston has home ice advantage, which could prove to be key in this series, as the Canadiens are a very good team at the Bell Center.
On the Bruins' end, Tim Thomas has been nothing short of amazing this season, setting an NHL record with a .938 save-percentage, and leading the pack with a sparkling 2.00 goals-against average. If the Bruins want to hope to defeat their long-time rivals, he'll have to keep this form up, particularly with the Bruins surrendering a second-worst 32.7 shots per game.
The Canadiens have been extremely stingy all season, with goaltender Carey Price being one of Thomas's biggest competitors for the Vezina Trophy. They give up fewer shots per game than the Bruins do, but with the injuries they're currently fighting (including the one to Max Pacioretty), they're going to have their work cut out for them.
Their ace-in-the-hole comes in the form of a power play that finished the season ranked 7th in the NHL, which will be up against the Bruins middle-of-the-road 16th ranked penalty kill. It's not good to rely on special teams in the playoffs, but the Canadiens definitely have this advantage over their rivals.
The Canadiens also have the burden of being one of two Canadian-based teams in the entire post season, adding to the pressure they have bearing down on them.
One thing about this series is for certain: this one will be beyond a battle... it will be a war.
Prediction: Canadiens in 7
Season Series: Even 2-2-0
The Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the big surprises of the Eastern Conference, storming out of the gate this season, holding the Southeast Division lead for much of the year, and even challenging Philadelphia for the conference lead.
Steven Stamkos was an early favorite for both the Rocket Richard and Hart trophies. 35-year-old Martin St. Louis has been phenomenal, being second in the league in both assists (68) and points (99).
Early-season acquisition Dwayne Roloson has filled their biggest gap in net, with a .914 save-percentage and 2.59 goals-against average.
The result is an offense that finished the regular season ranked seventh in the NHL.
However they'll face a Pittsburgh Penguins team that I must also tip my hat to for their sheer resilience. Over the course of the a season they lost both Evgeni Malkin (to a horrific leg injury) and Sidney Crosby (concussion), the latter of which being a Hart Trophy favorite for a significant amount of time.
Yet despite these setbacks (as well as a number of others) they've still manage to finish the season with 102 points, two behind the Flyers for the division title and three behind the Capitals for the Conference lead.
The four vs five matchup is usually extremely exciting and this one is no exception. The season series is dead even at 2 wins each, with the home team taking each game. By that logic the Penguins should have the advantage in this series, but I think it goes a little further than that.
The biggest question is will the Penguins be able to win a series without the two biggest pieces of their offense? They're finally getting healthy again, which will do wonders to their offensive and defensive depth.
The bulk of the pressure is now going to fall on guys like Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, and Tyler Kennedy.
And of course, Marc-Andre Fleury is going to have to find his playoff form to lead the team as well. If his consistency isn't there, the Pens are going to have a hard time winning games.
Prediction: Penguins in 7
Season Series: VAN 2-1-1
The same thought has got to be going through the minds of every mildly-dedicated Vancouver Canucks fan everywhere: "NOT AGAIN!!!"
For the third straight season the 'Nucks will face the Chicago Blackhawks. Both of the previous meetings saw Vancouver make what many considered to be an early exit.
However, this is Canucks team is not the same Canucks team that the Blackhawks have beaten the previous two years.
If there's ever been a definition of dominance during the modern era of the NHL's regular season, it would have to be the 1995 Detroit Red Wings who finished with 131 points. The Vancouver Canucks might not have reached that lofty number this season, but their 117 points is by far the best record in the league.
The Canucks are the best in the NHL at just about everything. They boast the number-one powerplay, penalty kill, five-on-five goal differential, and goaltending tandem in the NHL (with the combination of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider taking the William Jennings Trophy).
Their record is very nearly impeccable, losing only 19 games the entire season. If you think they're difficult to beat in your own building (they've only lost 10 regulation road games this year), they're even harder to beat at Rogers Arena, where they've failed to get a point only nine times.
However, if history were to have its way, none of this would matter as the Canucks would suffer yet another early exit.
The Blackhawks were the last team in the West to make the playoffs (a fact for which they owe a major word of thanks to the Minnesota Wild), but they cannot be written off as an easy team.
They're definitely not the same team they were when they stormed their way to a Stanley Cup title, but they're still not any bit of a pushover.
Leading scorer Patrick Sharp is now healthy, and he'll join a high-flying offense, featuring names like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa.
Their eighth-place seed is very misleading, as they boast the third-best goal differential in the West, and a fourth-best 3.07 goals-per-game average.
They're going to need a lot of help from their defense, however. The tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is going to likely be seeing close to half a game of ice time every game this series, and they'll need to contain the Sedin twins if the Blackhawks are even going to have a chance here.
Corey Crawford is also a big enigma, as the rookie netminder will be getting his first NHL playoff experience in a trial-by-fire fashion. The Blackhawks will need him to have a level, calm head if they want to hope to pull off a third straight series win.
The one thing I can truly guarantee about this series: the rivalry is going to get even more bitter and bad-blooded than it already is. Expect no love to be lost or held back between these two.
Prediction: Canucks in 7
Season Series: SJS 3-1-2
The last time the San Jose Sharks faced a fellow California team in the playoffs, they were the President's Trophy winners, and were eliminated in 6 games (to the Anaheim Ducks in 2009).
Since that disappointment, they've dedicated themselves to breaking their playoff curse and finally going all the way to the Stanley Cup FInal. They came close last year by reaching the Western Conference Final.
This year they have still another chance with what they hope is the lineup that will finally get it done, and they're definitely playing like they want it.
Their skilled veterans like Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, and Joe Thornton, are playing just as well as ever, and are once again the players to watch.
Additionally the Sharks also have offensive depth with guys like Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe, and Logan Couture, who scored 32 goals this year as a rookie.
They're no slouch on defense either with names like Dan Boyle and Jason Demers.
They're up against a young, but talented Kings team who has already proven they can stand up and win in the face of adversity.
For the last two weeks the Kings have been without their two top scorers in Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. It's unlikely that either will be back in time for this series, though it's rumored that Williams could return late in the series.
In the mean time the Kings will be relying offensively on the likes of Dustin Brown and Brad Richardson, who have had solid seasons, but there's not much depth offensively behind them, with only two other forwards with more than 30 points.
Instead the Kings' biggest keys are going to be their contributions from their defensemen, particularly the high scoring Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty.
And likewise they're going to be leaning heavily on goaltender Jonathan Quick. However, the difference for the "Los Anze-less Kings" this year is Jon Quick was forced to play over 70 games last season. This season backup Jonathan Bernier has picked up 22 starts and played a very solid season as a backup goaltender.
Additionally, with a pretty ineffective power play, the Kings will once again be relying heavily on their second-ranked penalty kill when it comes to special teams play.
Prediction: Sharks in 6.
It's a rematch of last year's four vs. five matchup that saw the Detroit Red Wings narrowly squeak by the upstart Coyotes in seven games.
This year, the Coyotes are out for revenge, while the Red Wings look to make yet another deep and meaningful post-season run.
This year marks the first time Phoenix has made the playoffs in consecutive years since 1999-2000, and after last year's successful season ended so abruptly, you can bet the Coyotes want to bring some success to the desert this year.
They're led once again by goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who once again boasted some solid numbers on the way to 36 wins, seven shutouts, and a .921 save-percentage.
Offensively the Coyotes are not exactly a superpower. In fact they have just one player to score 20 goals this season (Shane Doan).
But defensively they're one of the stingiest teams in the entire NHL, giving up a respectable 2.68 goals per game. However, they do surrender a third-worst 32.6 shots against per game, which connects back to the stellar play of Ilya Bryzgalov.
It's almost become same-old-same-old for the Detroit Red Wings at this point, making the playoffs for the 20th straight year. Their form has slipped a little in the last couple weeks of the season, which resulted in the San Jose Sharks jumping into the 2nd slot.
The Red Wings are once again led by a core of veteran talent with more playoff games than any other team combined. They're getting scoring from just about any line they put on the ice, solid defense from just about any of their pairings, and stellar special teams play.
In fact the only real "weakness" in this Detroit lineup would have to come down to their goaltending duo of Jimmy Howard being backed up by either Joey MacDonald or long-time vet Chris Osgood. While there's no doubting Howard's starter talent, the netminding has been streaky in Motor City, and if Detroit is going to go all the way like they plan to, they're going to need to find some consistency in this area.
Prediction: Red Wings in 6
Season Series: NSH 3-1-0
Well... as little as one week ago, who could have imagined the Ducks would not only be in the playoffs, but at the last second stealing the fourth and final home-ice slot right out from under the collective noses of the Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Nashville.
This result is no doubt a stunner as many people at the outset of the season figured they would be battling to stay off the bottom of the Pacific division well out of the playoffs.
Instead, the Ducks have fought their way back from an abysmal start on the back of their top line, led by Rocket Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry.
Outside of this top line who some have called the most lethal line in the NHL at this moment, the Ducks have some significant strength in the play of Lubomir Visnovsky, who could very likely be a finalist for the Norris Trophy, and Jonas Hiller, who up until his long bout with vertigo, was in the early talks for the Vezina trophy.
Additionally, Anaheim has developed a deadly power play that finished the season tied for second-best in the league. This extra-man unit will need to stay hot if they want to have any hope against Nashville's brilliant fifth-ranked penalty kill.
And after all this hard work to overcome the odds and take the final playoff spot, what are they rewarded with? A first-round series with the team absolutely nobody wants to play: The Nashville Predators.
The Predators have quietly made their sixth playoffs in the last seven years, and this time they're determined to finally get their first series win. This very likely might be the year.
The Preds have dominated this season series, with their only loss coming on November 7, when Paul Mara scored the game winning goal with two seconds remaining in regulation.
Their biggest strength this season has unquestionably been in net with the duo of Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback frustrating opponents night after night. These two, specifically Rinne, have carried the Preds to the playoffs with one of the best second-half records in the NHL.
Their big weapon on offense is Sergei Kostitsyn, who boasts 23 goals and 50 points. When this is compared to Corey Perry's 50 goals and 98 points, it's easy to see the difference between these two clubs: Anaheim's high-power offense vs. Nashville's stifling defense.
For some time now, Nashville has been labeled as the team absolutely nobody wants to play. Between their recent form and the Ducks' record against them this season, you can bet Anaheim is less than thrilled to be the one stuck facing them in the first round.
It's horribly painful for me to have to write this, particularly with Perry and the Ducks playing such great hockey at the moment, but after watching the season series between these two it's clear how badly Anaheim struggles with this Nashville team, and I'm not so sure they can adapt to overcome these struggles on such a short notice.
Prediction: Predators in 6
Once again, you can follow me on Twitter for news and updates all throughout the playoffs.