After months of games and preparations, we've finally reached the best two months in sports.
The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs were officially set Sunday as the regular season closed, and we now know what the matchups will be when the playoffs begin Wednesday night. For a hockey player, all the work you've done for the entire season is to get to this point: to play for the right to raise the Holy Grail.
During the next few months, we will see amazing feats: great goals and even greater saves, crushing hits, fierce intensity, clutch moments and overtime heroics. And eventually, we'll know who has won the right to drink from Lord Stanley's Cup.
So with that in mind, now is as good a time as any to take a look at some of the burning questions that we'll have heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, questions we hope will be answered by June.
It's a testament to the strength of the Penguins and the job that Dan Bylsma's done that he helped guide the Penguins to one of their best regular season records in franchise history without his two biggest stars.
And while Evgeni Malkin is out for the season with his injury, there is still an outside possibility that Sidney Crosby, the current face of the sport, could come back. ESPN.com passed along a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report this week that Crosby is likely out for the first-round series against the Lightning, and considering his injury, that's not surprising.
Crosby has been skating the last few weeks with the team, although he hasn't participated in full-contact activities yet. And while the world waits to see whether or not the phenom will return in the playoffs, don't be surprised if he doesn't.
The bigger question surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins might be, considering the number of injuries this team has right now, will the Penguins stick around in the playoffs?
Obviously they've been able to keep it together to this point, but the Tampa Bay Lightning create some tough matchup problems for the Penguins considering the offensive firepower they have and how healthy they are. Not only are Crosby and Malkin out, but the Penguins also have to deal without Matt Cooke, who will be suspended for the first round after the NHL finally dropped the hammer on him.
The Penguins probably have enough skill and guile to get past the first round, but I don't see how they can hold up without Crosby in there in the postseason, unless someone steps up offensively.
Momentum can be a fickle thing, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in which a hot team can make a huge run.
If that's the case, then the Buffalo Sabres should be in very good shape. Few teams, if any, played better than the Sabres down the stretch to get themselves into the postseason. The Northeast Division champions from last season seem to be finally hitting their stride, and if Ryan Miller can find his rhythm, then look out.
Meanwhile, the Sabres' first-round opponents, the Philadelphia Flyers, basically backed into the postseason as the Atlantic Division champions, but they lost the top seed to the Washington Capitals. So now the bigger question is whether the Sabres can stay hot or whether the Flyers can turn it around?
The Western Conference has been so competitive once again this season, that making it through the West this year should earn you at least one win to start off the Stanley Cup Final.
Last year, seven of the eight teams finished with at least 100 points. This season, the No. 4 through No. 8 seeds were separated by one point. So it's safe to say the lower seeds will all be tough outs in the first round. But you have to look down to the No. 8 seed and the defending champs to answer which is the most dangerous lower seed in the West.
The Chicago Blackhawks still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, plus they're facing a team they've beaten two years prior in the Canucks. Yes, this isn't the same team from last season, but compare it to the other lower seeds. Nashville and Phoenix can't score enough and Los Angeles has a ton of key injuries.
Chicago isn't the best team of the bunch, but the Blackhawks are the most dangerous low seed in the West. Plus there's that whole defending Stanley Cup champs thing.
The most dangerous low seed in the East is not as clear cut in the West because the bottom seeds here are so much alike. All four teams can play defense, block shots, be physical and they all have goalies who can steal a game or a series.
But of those four teams, the most dangerous team is the Buffalo Sabres. I like them not only because of the way they're playing right now, but also because of the favorable matchup against a struggling Flyers team that hasn't been itself for several weeks. We'll have to see if getting Chris Pronger back is all that team needs, but Buffalo creates some big problems for the Flyers.
For all the talk about the Capitals being in the NHL's elite, it hasn't shown much where it really counts.
In the Ovechkin era, the Caps have appeared in four postseason series. All four went seven games, all four of those Game 7's were at Verizon Center, and the Caps won only one of those. So to say there's a lot of pressure around the Capitals, especially after last season, is an understatement.
But as the playoffs begin, the question of whether the Caps are really a changed team that can be a solid defensive team will begin to be answered. The No. 8-seeded New York Rangers should be a good test for them.
We won't know until the playoffs begin. And if the Capitals get upset again, we'll know the answer for sure.
Goaltender is always one of the most important positions during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially considering how goaltenders have carried teams to the Stanley Cup Finals in the past.
But perhaps in no city other than Montreal is a goaltender under more scrutiny then Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, the guy who will be expected to help finally bring a Stanley Cup to the Lower Mainland. Luongo is one of the game's highest-paid players, yet he hasn't been able to get past the second round.
With a team that won the President's Trophy and is the Stanley Cup favorite, the expectations on Luongo will be through the roof. The opinion that he's not a big-game goalie will only grow stronger if he doesn't deliver this time.
The way the New York Rangers are set up, it's not a team of superstars.
In fact, this team is almost the exact opposite of those bloated-payroll teams from earlier in the decade. That explains why there's so much hope surrounding this team and this season, more than there has been for a long time.
So as you watch the first round, expect Marc Staal to have a big impact. Henrik Lundqvist is the key factor, but Staal does so much. He'll be one of the defensemen expected to shadow the Ovechkin line. He's a leader on that defense and he's developed remarkably in the offensive zone this season. If the Rangers are going to have a chance, Staal has to be one of their best players.
If you've watched the NHL during the last month or so, you know that it's been fun to watch Teemu Selanne play.
The guy is 40, yet he's looking more and more like the Finnish Flash who took the league by storm back in the 1990s. He's scoring goals left and right. He had his best season in years and he and Corey Perry basically put the Anaheim Ducks on their backs and carried them into the postseason. Heck, he even got into his first fight in years on Saturday night.
Selanne has been a joy to watch this season, and I'd just expect it to continue in the postseason.
The Flyers have other important pieces, but let's be honest: the team goes as Chris Pronger goes. To borrow the words from Reggie Jackson, he's the straw that stirs the drink, if that straw stole the pucks from Stanley Cup Final games.
Anyway, the Flyers have been without their straw for portions of their season, and his absence has shown itself during the last few weeks. And according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, his status for Game 1 against the Sabres is still unknown.
That's not good news for the Flyers, which need Pronger back desperately because of what he can do when he's healthy. So while the Flyers have other key players, they won't be going anywhere without Pronger.
When it comes to the nastiest first-round series, is there any doubt it will be Boston-Montreal?
These teams don't like each other to begin with, and that's going back 70 years. But this season has taken it another level. Between the Chara hit and the brawl-filled shootout earlier in the season, the hate between these two franchises has reached another level. It's like the 1970s all over again. The only thing that is missing is Don Cherry.
If the intensity and the ferocity even come close to what it was during the regular season, it should be an absolutely amazing series.
Considering the pressure that comes with being the starting goaltender in Montreal, Price handled himself well this season.
He put the Canadiens on his back, carried them for a large chunk of the season and did so with a certain swagger about him. But the playoffs are a different animal, and Carey Price has struggled in the postseason. So it's not out of bounds to wonder how Price will hold up to the pressure, especially considering what Jaroslav Halak did last season.
Sorry Habs fans, you're not going to like this.
Carey Price has been nothing short of outstanding this season, as he's brought an attitude to the entire team. But the fact of the matter is that the guy has not been good in the postseason. In 19 career games, he's 5-11 with a 3.17 goals-against average and a .894 save percentage.
We can talk all you want about how that was the old, non-folded-arms-pose-after-shootouts Price. But this will be his first true test and, until he proves otherwise, he still has to break his own history or else he will be doomed to repeat it.
The Canucks enter the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs off of the best regular season in franchise history, winning the President's Trophy as the best team in the league.
The key words in that sentence are regular season.
Now the true season begins, and right off the bat they'll have a chance to exercise their demons against the Blackhawks, the team that's eliminated them the past two seasons. And while the Blackhawks are still the defending champs, this isn't the same team. No Byfuglien, no Ladd, no Versteeg and no one really able to cause havoc in front of Roberto Luongo.
Like the Capitals, we've heard a lot about how this is a different Canucks team. But just like Washington, Vancouver will have to prove it.
Maybe this year will be different considering the Sharks had to battle back from a rough start to finish as the No. 2 seed.
But the fact of the matter remains that, until they prove otherwise, the Sharks still haven't been able to break through out of the West. They exercised some demons with the trip to the conference finals last year, but Chicago wiped the floor with them in four straight.
The Sharks have a lot of playoff baggage and maybe this will be the year they finally exorcise some of those demons.
The Los Angeles Kings are a very talented team, but they took a huge blow late in the season when Anze Kopitar went down with a broken ankle.
Kopitar was not only their No. 1 center, but he was also perhaps their most talented offensive player. Now the onus is on the rest of the team (especially with Justin Williams out long term as well) to pick up the scoring slack left behind by Kopitar. The Kings still have some talented wingers, but losing Kopitar is a big blow.
Someone else now has to step up.
You had an idea how good Corey Perry could be during his few seasons in the league. He wasn't putting up fantastic numbers, but he was one of the best players the Ducks had.
But in the last few months, Perry introduced himself to the rest of the league in a huge way. Not only was he one of the main reasons why the Ducks are the No. 4 seed in the postseason, but he came from out of nowhere to be the league's lone 50-goal scorer this season, taking home the Rocket Richard trophy.
Perry is playing the best hockey of his career. Combine that with his ability to be a physical force all over the ice, and he's a very dangerous player in the postseason.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have surprised all year long.
With the development of Steven Stamkos, you knew it wouldn't be long before they were back in the fold of things in the Eastern Conference. But in three seasons, the Bolts went from the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to the No. 5 team in the East.
I really like what they can bring to the table both offensively and defensively. Plus, with Dwayne Roloson in net, now the goaltending situation has calmed down from earlier in the year. They'll have a tough matchup in the first round with Pittsburgh, but if there's any time the Penguins can be beaten, it's right now.
When they are on, the Flyers are one of the best teams in hockey. They proved as much for the first three months of the season when they dominated the Eastern Conference.
But they haven't really been themselves for most of 2011, and the loss of Chris Pronger just magnified the struggles down the stretch. Add to that a recently ineffective power play and the team still not knowing who its No. 1 goalie is, and all the makings are there for an early upset.
If Pronger comes back, then all this changes dramatically. But I see a lot of the 2008-09 Sharks in these Flyers. They blew the league away for the first part of the season and gained such a big lead that it was hard to stay focused.
That Sharks team lost in the first round to Anaheim.
When you think of the Detroit Red Wings, the last thing you think of is dark-horse candidate.
But consider that the Red Wings will be the No. 3 seed out of the West, facing Phoenix in the first round again. Detroit's obviously a team loaded with playoff experience and a team that, when healthy, could very well make yet another Stanley Cup run. Plus, considering the recent playoff history of the top two seeds in the West, Detroit could very well sneak in there again...providing they stay healthy.
To say the Bruins choked during their semifinal loss to the Flyers last year would be an understatement.
Although when you become the fourth team in North American professional sports to blow a 3-0 series lead, I'm not sure what else you can call it.
Either way, the Bruins are back in as division champs, and some consider them to be a dark horse in the East because of Tim Thomas in net. Whatever the case, the Bruins will have to prove they can put last year's collapse behind them. Or else it'll be yet another season of high expectations and disappointment.
A hot goalie can do wonders for a team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and there are a number of good ones in this postseason.
The one that a lot of people don't know about is Nashville's Pekka Rinne, who once again had a spectacular season for the Predators, finishing second in the league in save percentage and third in goals-against average. Of course, considering the style of play the Predators use and their lack of offense, Rinne has to be good.
Still, if the Predators want to win their first playoff round in franchise history, Rinne will have to be big.
It won't be the easiest road for the Blackhawks. who have to start with the Vancouver Canucks.
But remember, this is the team Chicago knocked out of the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Yes, some of the key players that were there the last two years aren't there this season. But the Blackhawks still have their two franchise stars in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Plus, they'll be facing a team that will have to deal with the pressure of being the Cup favorite.
It's not likely, but there's a chance.
There are a few interesting matchups in the quarterfinals, especially in the Eastern Conference. But it's going to be hard to top Boston versus Montreal when it comes to theatrics.
Just take two of the biggest rivals in the sport, add two fanbases that don't like each other and all the bad blood that's spilled over during the season, and it should make for one of the best series we've had in a while. If nothing else, the atmosphere in Boston and Montreal should be electric.
But make no mistake, this entire season should be appointment television.
Conventional wisdom should tell us that the Canucks are the favorite to win it all this year and should do it.
But the Stanley Cup Playoffs have never been long on conventional wisdom.
Still, the Canucks are the deepest team in the postseason, when they can get both of their scoring lines going. If the defense can stay healthy and Roberto Luongo can get into a groove, the Canucks will be hard to stop, although it will be very tough getting through the West. But I like the makeup of this team, I love the depth and I love the way they play.
So look for Vancouver to win it all.