It's that time of year: The fridge is full of Molson, the new plasma TV's been installed by the good folk from Future Shop, and our wives have stopped complaining when we wear those jerseys at the dinner table.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here.
If you're thinking I'm one of those north-of-the-border types who have no idea how irrelevant hockey can seem in the United States, think again:
I was born and raised in Northern California.
Hockey has jumped atop my list of favorite sports in recent years, and no, it's not because the media's convinced me, or because my company has a cushy skybox to throw around.
The NHL is my favorite new league because it earned the top spot: one goal, forecheck, and fight at a time. And for those of you in the U.S.A. who aren't jazzed about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, here are four simple reasons to start paying attention.
Reason Number One: Last year's playoffs speak for themselves.
Relatively few Americans watched the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it's a shame. Or, to put it in more direct terms, it was their loss.
The 2006 NHL postseason literally had it all.
First, there was the stunning Western Conference upset sweep: Each of the four quarterfinals series ended with the lower seed on top. That improbable outcome spoke volumes about the game's intensity, parity, and overall excitement. No team in the NHL can ever be counted out.
Then there were the Cinderella Oilers. Is there anything better than watching a small-market team with an absolutely rabid fanbase beat one contender after another?
In a word: No....unless, the Stanley Cup Finals boast that single defining moment which occurs at best once or twice a decade: Game Seven.
In short, the 2006 playoffs produced an unbelievable two months of action, and one would hope that those who missed it have learned from their mistakes.
Reason Number Two: 2007 marks the debut of a new dynasty: the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Not many people can claim to be Penguins fans, or even fans of Pittsburgh itself...but none of that matters. Why? Because Western Pennsylvania's greatest export is no longer steel: It's a hockey team, or, more accurately, a traveling exhibition of hockey's future.
To say that the Penguins have "great young talent" is an understatement. They have, in Sidney Crosby, perhaps the most impressive teenager in all of world sports. Remember the hoopla surrounding LeBron James' arrival in the NBA? Well, with all due respect to James, he wasn't a scoring leader, MVP front runner, and championship contender at the age of nineteen.
The King was great, but not as great as Sid the Kid.
And the Pens' youth movement doesn't stop there. Evgeni Malkin will likely win the Calder Trophy as hockey's Rookie of the Year. This is no surprise, as he was the crown jewel of Russia's Olympic team and a star in the country's domestic league. Pittsburgh also looks to have the makings of another perennial All-Star in Jordan Staal, younger brother of superstar Eric Staal and another top performing rookie this season.
Oh, and by the way: The Penguins are serious contenders in this year's postseason tournament...just as they will be for the next decade-plus.
Reason Number Three: There's no East Coast or big-city bias in the NHL.
Sure, the media will always have three favorite children in New York, Chicago, and Boston, but as long as their hockey teams are the Rangers, Islanders, Blackhawks, and Bruins, it's going to be hard for East Coast bias to exist anytime soon.
And sure, part of hockey's flagging American popularity is probably rooted in the recent ineptitude of big market teams, but for the rest of us little people, it sure is nice to enjoy the spotlight for a change.
Look, for example, at Anaheim, the bitter little brother of Los Angeles. Most bookies would call the Ducks an easy pick to win it all. Or consider Buffalo, the "other" New York city. Not many Americans could find the Sabres' hometown on a map...but that won't stop them from winning the Eastern Conference crown.
Reason Number Four: The regular season is razor-close.
How much parity is there in the NHL? A quick look at the standings shows that the difference between second and seventh place in the Western Conference is only three games. And the competition's only going to be keener in the playoffs.
Every single matchup is going to be a tough one, with six- and seven-game series being the norm rather than exception. However the final bracket gets cast, there are sure to be several lower-seeded teams who outplayed their higher-seeded opponents in the regular season.
The bottom line: You don't have to be a diehard hockey fan to be pumped up about these playoffs. The storylines are all there. The rivalries are all there. And while the men on the ice can't help their league's poor management and embarrassing media relations, they can do the one thing that really matters:
Skate their assess off.
So, expect big things from the '07 postseason. And, yes, it's okay: Your favorite MLB and NBA teams won't mind if you jump between channels, set up picture-in-picture, or go to Dave and Busters to see all the big games on a million different screens.
I can guarantee you won't regret it.