The longest 48-game season in NHL history is finally over, and now the best two months in sports begins. - Seriously, didn't the lockout-shortened season seem just as long as a regular 82-game season? Maybe it's because the Lightning was so bad. - But now it's time to move on to the second season, as 16 teams begin a quest that will last four rounds and two months to win the most storied trophy in all of sports. - So, with the postseason set to begin this week, here is a Two Cents preview of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Before we get started with which teams are in the playoffs, we should note a few teams that are starting golf season this week. For starters, there's the Devils, last year's Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup final. This is only the third time since 1990 the Devils failed to qualify for the postseason. Meantime, the Flyers will miss the playoffs for first time in five years despite having a pretty good team. If I were in charge, I'd send coach Peter Laviolette a pink slip. And finally, when the Lightning started the season 6-1, who would've thought it would end up firing its coach and not even come close to a postseason appearance?
Contenders in the East
If hockey has proven anything over the years, it's that any team, even the No. 8 seed, is capable of making a serious run at the Stanley Cup. However, the Eastern Conference this season feels top-heavy with the Penguins and Bruins. Certainly, the Canadiens have a chance with Carey Price in goal, but they've played their worst hockey of the season over the past three weeks. But really, after the Penguins, the only team that has that look is the Bruins: strong in goal, solid defense, balanced scoring and plenty of toughness. And, oh, playoff experience.
Contenders in the West
Because they play on the West Coast and because of the Blackhawks' record-breaking start, the Ducks have been largely ignored. But with former Caps coach Bruce Boudreau behind the bench, a balanced attack and two reliable goalies in Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller, Anaheim might be just as good as the 'Hawks. And the Ducks were 3-0 against Chicago this season. Meantime, pretty much any team in the West - especially the Canucks, Blues, Sharks and defending-champion Kings - will be tough outs in the postseason. We could see a bunch of overtimes and seven-game series out West.
Surprise playoff teams
The Maple Leafs are back in the postseason for the first time since the season before the 2004-05 lockout. But the feel-good story of this postseason is the appearance of the Islanders. A loyal, if not overly large, fan base supports this team even though it appears on its way to Brooklyn. It seems like this franchise is forever building around young players who never quite pan out or who go on to have success in other places, such as Todd Bertuzzi, Roberto Luongo, Zdeno Chara and Olli Jokinen. But, the Islanders have been patient this time around and built a nice team that is only going to get better.
The Rangers have gone in fits and starts all season and even dealt one of their best players (Marian Gaborik) to try to jump-start some momentum. All season long they were on the cusp of missing the playoffs. But now that they've made it, they are a team no one wants to play. Why? Start in goal with Henrik Lundqvist (above). The "king'' is capable of winning a series by himself. Then there's playoff experience, led by former Lightning and 2004 playoff MVP Brad Richards. This just isn't a team you want to face at this time of year.
The natural choice here is to pick the Blackhawks, who started the season 20-0-3 and finished with the best record in the NHL. But the Blackhawks' season has been stress-free, with no major adversity. Forwards Patrick Sharp and Michal Handzusmissed some time, and Marian Hossa has missed a handful of games. Other than that, the 'Hawks' top players have remained healthy, and the goaltending has been superb. The team with a record nearly as good as Chicago is Pittsburgh. And the Penguins have dealt with injuries all season. Captain Sidney Crosby is the most notable injury. He has been out with a broken jaw, and his status for the playoffs remains a question. But Crosby was hardly the only injured Penguins star. Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, James Neal and Paul Martin all have missed time with serious injuries. Yet, the Penguins go into the playoffs as the East's top seed. You get the feeling that even if Crosby or another big star or two misses time in the playoffs, the Penguins still have more than enough to win it all.
Players to watch
Everyone knows about the game's superstars, such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Chicago's Jonathan Toews, Vancouver's Sedin twins and Washington's Alex Ovechkin, who is playing as well, if not better, than anyone over the past month.
But here are two guys - one from each conference - you might get to watch closely for the first time now that they'll get some playoff exposure.
First, in the East, there's the Islanders' John Tavares ( above). It's not as if the 22-year-old center has come out of nowhere. He was, after all, the top overall pick in the 2009 draft. But the Islanders are not exactly a marquee franchise, and they are rarely on TV, meaning even casual hockey fans might have a hard time recognizing Tavares in a one-man lineup. But he finished the season among the top scorers in the NHL, and there's even a school of thought that he deserves to be the league MVP.
Out West, Anaheim's Corey Perry (left) is a former 50-goal scorer, yet is one of the best players you never see because the bulk of his games start around the time you go to bed.
Series everyone wants to see
Many old-school Canadian hockey fans fall into one of two categories: They like either Toronto or Montreal. They're either a Leafs diehard or a Habs follower. The teams faced each other for the first time on the day after Christmas in 1917, making it the oldest rivalry in the NHL. They have faced each other 15 times in the playoffs but haven't met in the postseason since 1979. The last time they met in the Cup final was 1967 - the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup.
Before the season, I picked the Rangers to beat the Canucks in the final. That would be a long shot at this point, so it's best to switch up. But I'm not going to go with the easy pick, which would be the Penguins and the Blackhawks. Those are the top seeds in each conference. Instead, let's go Ducks vs. Bruins. For the second time in three seasons, the Cup will reside in Beantown.