It's finally here.
After a wild stretch run that saw the Ottawa Senators make a miraculous, improbable run to squeak into the postseason on the last day of the season and the toppling of perennial playoff giants in Los Angeles and Boston, the NHL's final weeks had a bit of everything.
While what happened in the regular season serves as a good reference as to what will happen over the next few months, it's not the be all, end all. The Rangers are the Presidents Trophy champions? Doesn't matter. Alex Ovechkin scored 53 goals? Means nothing. Carey Price is such a sure thing that he can make room for the Vezina on his mantle? Don't care.
What matters is what happens over the next two challenging, arduous months. Heroes will falter and legends will be born. The suspense will have you hanging not by the edge of your seat, but by the thread hanging off that edge. There will be late nights - some from celebrating, some with your face buried deep in your tear-moistened hands, and some fueled by espresso shots to get you into triple overtime.
For the first time in a long-time, you could make a legitimate argument for almost every team that has qualified for the postseason. Would it really surprise anyone if a team like Washington, Vancouver or Minnesota went on a deep run? Would you really be surprised if Ottawa knocked off Montreal or if Winnipeg stunned Anaheim?
If there ever was a "crap shoot" year, this is it. While it may be difficult to predict who will win it all, one thing is certain - it's going to be a hell of a lot of fun watching it play out.
21 Eastern Conference, Round 1
20 Montreal Canadiens (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (4)
The Ottawa Senators went from firing their head coach and being 14 points out of a playoff spot to getting a fairly good matchup against the Montreal Canadiens. The Sens had the Habs number in the regular season, going 3-1 (although one of those wins came against Dustin Tokarski). The Senators have been on fire of late, but they'll need to sustain the momentum they built to get to the playoffs and crank it up once the real deal starts.
Andrew Hammond and Mark Stone have carried the Senators, but both are rookies with zero playoff experience. Hammond will have to stare down Carey Price every night for the next two weeks (or less), and you'd be hard pressed to find someone willing to put money on the Hamburglar stealing four wins from under the nose of the best goaltender in the world right now.
Prediction: Montreal in 5
The Canadiens won't take Ottawa as lightly as they did during the regular season, and with P.K. Subban and Price entering "their time of the year," Ottawa's fairy tale season will draw to an early close.
19 Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Detroit Red Wings (3)
The most electrifying team in the NHL against the league's most consistent franchise. This series will be fascinating to watch, as Ken Holland's experienced bunch will practically be looking at a spitting image of their past selves when they face off against Steve Yzerman's up-and-coming squad. Yzerman has been building the Bolts with the blueprint he learned in Detroit, and it seems to be working quite well.
Both teams possess the puck extremely well, have plenty of firepower and are solid on the back-end. The real question here is in goal. Many fail to remember that this will be Ben Bishop's first taste of the postseason, while the Wings will counter with rookie Petr Mrazek.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 5
The Lightning have too much firepower up front (and they've used it well in their three wins against Detroit this season), and Bishop will be able to out-duel Mrazek.
18 New York Rangers (1) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (4)
The New York Rangers went from a team seemingly on their way to a disappointing season to Presidents Trophy champions. They bolstered their defense at the deadline with the addition of Keith Yandle and have been paced by the resurgent Rick Nash.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins went from clear Cup favorites to barely making the postseason. The Pens still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the rest of their lineup leaves much to be desired - especially with Kris Letang out.
The Rangers are the league's best at 5-on-5, and even though Pittsburgh puck possession numbers are much higher, it doesn't mean as much when the goalie you're trying to beat is Henrik Lundqvist, who looks just fine since returning from injury.
Prediction: New York in 4
There's not much else to say about this series. Barring something shocking happening, the Penguins will be hard pressed to get a single win against the Blueshirts, let alone four.
17 Washington Capitals (2) vs. New York Islanders (3)
This series will boast two of the top scorers in the league in Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares, and overall two of the top six scoring teams in the league - so you can expect a lot of twine bulging in this one. However, the Caps go into these playoffs with something they've never had before - defensive structure. Barry Trotz has turned this team into a stifling unit that can still put the puck in the back of the net.
While they'll be hard-pressed to contain Tavares & Co. to perfection, they know that they'll have rock-solid Braden Holtby between the pipes. Jaroslav Halak stealing this series is not out of the question, but we won't believe he's a true playoff performer until he does it more than the one time (in 2010 with the Canadiens).
Prediction: Washington in 7
In this case, bet on Barry Trotz getting the Caps to play the right way and eek out a series win.
16 Western Conference, Round 1
15 St. Louis Blues (1) vs. Minnesota Wild (4)
The St. Louis Blues might be the team with the most to prove heading into these playoffs, and this is a good a time as ever for them to finally get over the hump. Meanwhile, the Wild, like the Senators, climbed out of the abyss to secure a playoff spot thanks to the arrival of Devan Dubnyk (never though you'd be reading that sentence, did you?).
The Blues have yet to decide who they'll be starting in goal, but they have two solid options in Brian Elliot and Jake Allen, and can go to the other if one falters. There aren't many holes beyond that, and even though Minnesota has the league's top penalty kill, the Blues are capable of doing enough damage at even strength. Dubnyk could continue his magical run, but there's still a part of me that refuses to believe that this is the real Devan Dubnyk.
Prediction: St. Louis in 6
Minnesota is good enough to push back against St. Louis, but the vaunted Blues will ultimately prove to be too much to handle for the Wild.
14 Nashville Predators (2) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (3)
This series was going to be interesting to begin with, but it just got a whole lot better thanks to the news that Patrick Kane should be able to suit up come Game 1. This changes things quite a bit, as the Predators, even with Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Pekka Rinne already had their hands full with Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp (among others). With Kane back, the Hawks should be able to use their speed and pounce on the Preds mediocre penalty kill, which finished 18th in the regular season.
Prediction: Chicago in 7
The Predators have some new-found firepower of their own, but let's be real - are you going to side with Mike Ribiero, Mike Fisher and Filip Forsberg, or the guys the Blackhawks have up front?
Pekka Rinne could easily steal this series, and he'll undoubtedly get them a few wins, but he'll be in tough against a potent offense and, perhaps more importantly, a much more experienced team.
13 Anaheim Ducks (1) vs. Winnipeg Jets (4)
The Winnipeg Jets could easily become the surprise story of these NHL playoffs. After an roller-coaster type year, they turned it on and won four of their last five games against quality opponents to secure a playoff spot. They'll be in tough against a solid Anaheim team, which boasts a ton of experience, scoring and depth.
However, the Jets have an X-Factor no one has had to face before until now: the MTS Centre during a playoff game. The Jets home is usually rocking for a regular season matchup, so one can only imagine what will happen in Game 3 and 4. If the Jets can steal one in Anaheim, they could ride their own home-ice advantage to a big upset. As an aside, don't be surprised if Jets' defensemen Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba have a bit of a coming out party by shutting down the Ducks big guns.
Prediction: Winnipeg in 6
While Ondrej Pavelec isn't a sure thing, he's been huge down the stretch, and the Ducks goaltending duo of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen is no sure thing themselves come playoff time. Every year we get an upset or two - this will be 2015's first upset. Winnipeg surprisingly has the special teams advantage (especially since Anaheim's power play is pitiful, somehow), and that's often how teams upset higher-ranked opponents.
12 Vancouver Canucks (2) vs. Calgary Flames (3)
It's always nice to see two bad teams turn it around in one off-season and make it to the playoffs the next year. The Vancouver Canucks aren't that much of a surprise, thanks to the addition of Ryan Miller and Radim Vrbata to a core that already included the Sedin twins.
The Flames, on the other hand, were expected to be part of the McDavid sweepstakes. Instead, they shocked the hockey world and find themselves in an all-Canadian first-round showdown.
While the teams matchup pretty evenly across the board, this is one series where experience may legitimately play a major role. Outside of Jiri Hudler, the Flames don't have much in the way of playoff success. The Canucks, meanwhile, still have several key names from their 2011 Cup run.
Prediction: Vancouver in 7
The Flames are going to scratch and claw all series long, but the untested youth combined with an uninspiring goaltending tandem of Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller leads me to believe that Vancouver will be able to fend off the pesky Flames, even if it is with Eddie Lack between the pipes to start the series.
The Flames will be throwing themselves in front of shots all series long, but a certain point the walls will crack - and it's only a matter of time before the loss of Mark Giordano comes around to hurt the upstart Flames.
11 Eastern Conference, Round 2
10 (1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (2) Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning absolutely owned the Montreal Canadiens all season - there's no other way of putting it. They outskated, outscored, and outsmarted the Habs at every turn. Not even heroic efforts by Carey Price were enough to stop Steven Stamkos and the Bolts.
The Lightning can score in bunches, and they've shown all year that they aren't afraid of Price. While these Habs showed last year they can lock it down come playoff time, this isn't the Boston Bruins they will be dealing with - the Habs are fast, but Tampa can wheel pretty good, too.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6
Price will finally topple the Lightning this season (twice, actually), but the Lightning will be playing this entire series with the memory of last season's sweep in the back of their minds. That's motivation enough - the fact that they're flat out better is gravy.
9 (1) New York Rangers vs. (2) Washington Capitals
The Capitals might be able to ride the Ovechkin Express past the Islanders, but it'll be stopped abruptly at Pennsylvania Station. The Caps don't have much firepower past Ovechkin, and if need be Rick Nash can keep up with him over a seven game series; if it's even necessary, as the Rangers defense might be able to erase his impact on their own.
Prediction: Rangers in 5
Braden Holtby will do everything he can, but Lundqvist won't cave and the Rangers can send wave after wave at the Capitals, while Washington will be relying heavily on their top-heavy offence to beat one of the best goalies in the world.
8 Western Conference, Round 2
7 (1) St. Louis Blues vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks
The Blues and Hawks. Wouldn't be a playoffs without it, would it? This is always a fun match-up to watch, as the these two teams go at each other like two battering rams repeatedly crashing into each other.
One of the top playoff rivalries of the 80s and 90s is heating up again, and this year could be the best of the bunch. This year's edition features a bit of a twist, as the Blues are the high-scoring ones while the Hawks finished second in the league in goals against per game.
The Hawks are a top possession team, but a fast and physical team like St. Louis can shutdown the Hawks own high octane offense.
Prediction: Blues in 7
This could turn into the best series of the entire playoffs - for that reason alone we should all be hoping that it happens, and that it goes the distance. This time around, the Blues topple their longtime enemy.
6 (2) Vancouver Canucks vs. (4) Winnipeg Jets
Whoever told you they thought this would be a second round playoff series at the beginning of the season is a liar - unless they were telling the truth, in which case they should go ahead and play a couple of lottery tickets.
It might not seem like a sexy matchup on paper (I'm sure you would have all preferred San Jose vs. Los Angeles again), but many will forget that Vancouver finished eighth in scoring this year, while the Jets were one of the league's top possession teams. The two sides played some fairly high-scoring and exciting games this year, and we could get more of the same if this series materializes.
Prediction: Vancouver in 6
By this point, one of two things will have happened: Eddie Lack will be playing so well that he'll still be in the crease, or Ryan Miller will have reclaimed his No. 1 job. Either scenario is bad news for the Jets, who counter with Pavelec. The Sedins & Co. have had something of a revival this year, and that will push them into the third round.
5 Eastern Conference Finals
4 (1) New York Rangers vs. (2) Tampa Bay Lightning
This is the premiere matchup in the Eastern Conference - and the one the NHL is probably praying they get. The Rangers and Lightning boast the East's two most potent lineups, and even though a year has passed, there's a juicy storyline for the taking with the return of Martin St. Louis and Ryan Callahan to the cities they used to wear the captain's C in.
The Lightning will roll out their heavy artillery, but the Rangers will be able to counter with a top 5 defensive unit and some scoring punch of their own.
Tampa was one of the few teams to have their way with the Rangers this season, as they went 3-0 and outscored the Blueshirts 15-7 - two of those games we're at MSG, too.
Both we're top 3 in overall scoring and at even strength, so there will be plenty of scoring chances in this one - so the goalies, as usual, will play a major role in how this one plays out.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 7
As previously mentioned, the Lightning have proven to be able to handle the Rangers thus far this season. It won't be as easy over a seven-game series, but the Lightning matchup well as a team that possesses the puck much better than the Rangers do. If the Bolts can control the play, they'll be good enough to find some kinks in King Henrik's armor and take down the Beast of the East.
3 Western Conference Finals
2 (1) St. Louis Blues vs. (2) Vancouver Canucks
The St. Louis Blues are expected to be here. The Vancouver Canucks, not so much - but in this scenario the Jets do them a favor and take out Anaheim, pretty much paving the way to the Conference Finals for the Canucks.
The city of Vancouver will be buzzing, memories of 2011 floating through their heads. The Blues, meanwhile, will be taking a more business-like approach to it all. This is their time to finally prove the doubters wrong. The Canucks aren't going to be the ones to get in the way of that...are they?
Prediction: St. Louis in 6
No, they won't. The Blues have arguably the deepest roster in the league - the top talent is better, and the bottom lines, which boast names like David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Marcel Goc and Steve Ott shouldn't have much trouble with the likes of Bo Horvat, Ronald Kenins, Brad Richardson and Derek Dorsett. The Canucks won all three contests this season, but one was in October and another ended in a shootout. The Blues will be an entirely different beast come late May/early June, one that will finally fight it's way into a Cup final.
1 Stanley Cup Finals
(1) St. Louis Blues vs. (2) Tampa Bay Lightning
I don't want this series to happen just to justify my selections - I want it to happen because it would be an absolute barnburner of a Stanley Cup Final.
The Blues rely on physicality, balanced scoring and strong team defense, while the Lightning burn opponents with blazing speed, a lethal transition game and a strong structure under head coach Jon Cooper. Both are fantastic models for the rest of the league to mold their franchises around, and both will be able to duke out for that high honor - and of course, that big silver trophy.
The season series, which is barely worth mentioning since it was only two games, goes to the Blues, who won the first contest 2-1 in OT at home, and followed that up with a big 6-3 win in Tampa just over a week later.
Tampa Bay has the advantage in puck possession, goals per game and even strength scoring. This bodes well for the the Lightning, except for the fact that the Blues were fifth in the league in goals against and bolstered an already stacked back-end with Zbynek Michalek at the deadline. The Blues are no slouches in the scoring department themselves, and finished in the top 10 in goals for, goals against, 5-on-5 play, and in both special teams department. Based on the stats alone, the Blues are as solid a roster as it gets in the NHL (which is why we're projecting them to get this far).
The biggest question, of course, will be in the crease. At this point someone will have locked down the number one job. If it we're me, I'd let Jake Allen run with the ball, but if it's Brian Elliot who gets them this far, so be it. For the record, Elliot won the two games against Tampa this year, finishing with a .932 save percentage and allowing four goals.
It's going to be a fast-paced, hard-hitting series - as it usually is when the Blues are involved - and while the Lightning have plenty of firepower, the Blues have enough speed to not only keep up, but potentially punish to Bolts into submission. If St. Louis can slow down and intimidate the Lightning's "second line" of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat (which hasn't been easy for anyone), and contain Steven Stamkos, then the Blues will be singing some pretty upbeat versions of "Saint Louis Blues" in June.
Prediction: St. Louis in 7
The Lightning will be a tough out, but if Ken Hitchcock can limit the four Lightning scorers listed above, they'll be hard-pressed to beat St. Louis with secondary scoring. The likes of David Backes and T.J. Oshie will finally step up in the spotlight, thanks largely in part that they're now able to share it with budding superstars Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are in the prime of their career, and they're puck-moving ability will be a key cog not only in this series but throughout the entire playoffs.
In limited playoff experience, Paul Stastny has put up 18 points in 22 games, and the Blues hope he'll be the missing offensive cog that will get the entire machine working smoothly throughout a long playoff run - once and for all.
In this scenario, the Blues won't be "singing the blues" any more - then again, it's the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Anything can happen.
But at least it's finally here.