The time of year when just sixteen teams remain, all vying for the chance to sip out of Lord Stanley's mug and reign supreme as Stanley Cup champions for the next season.
Being that the playoffs start tonight, I figured it was time to ponder my playoff prognostications...so here they are!
Starting out in the West:
Sharks vs. Ducks
(season series 4-2 SJ)
-San Jose may have the season series, but this one will be a war. If this series doesn't go to seven games, I'll be surprised. In fact, if it's a sweep either way, I'll be even more surprised. This is a make-or-break sort of year for the Sharks -- they've been a good team for a few years, but have yet to play to their full potential come the postseason. They've got scoring, they've got a solid blue line, they've got good goaltending; you don't win the Presidents' Trophy without that. As for the Ducks, they're a hard team to play against -- a talented but gritty group with good goaltending. For the most part they've still got the core of the group that won the 2007 Stanley Cup, which makes them dangerous, but maybe not dangerous enough.
*MY PICK: Sharks in seven
Wings vs. Jackets
(season series 3-2-1 Detroit; 1 overtime decision)
-Detroit's achilles' heel this season has been sloppy play in their own end and they've been punished a few times this season, including an 8-2 loss to Columbus in March. If the Red Wings stay disciplined and stick to their game plan, they'll be playing well into the spring. As for the Blue Jackets, they're making their postseason debut as a franchise with a lot to prove. Ken Hitchcock has turned this club around, Steve Mason has won them a lot of games and Rick Nash has become an even better player, but I don't see them beating Detroit over seven games.
*MY PICK: Wings in six
Canucks vs. Blues
(season series 2-2)
-The pressure is on the Vancouver Canucks to win this series. The pressure is on the Sedin twins to perform and put up good numbers. The pressure is on Roberto Luongo to maintain his status as one of, if not the best goalie in the world. As for the St. Louis Blues, there's no pressure. They went 9-1-1 to end the season, making what seemed like an improbable leap into the playoffs, their forwards are scoring, their goalie on fire. I'm going to say Vancouver, but I won't be surprised if I'm wrong.
*MY PICK: Canucks in six
Blackhawks vs. Flames
(season series 4-0 Chicago; one overtime decision)
-The Calgary Flames have been a team on the decline for weeks now, while the Chicago Blackhawks have been a solid team throughout the entire season. The Flames are battling injuries, the Hawks are healthy for the most part. There have been times where Miikka Kiprusoff looked completely unbeatable, but he's looked like a mere mortal at times this season. Jarome Iginla is the type of player that can change a series, but the Flames haven't been themselves lately. Chicago has improved a lot this season, and I think we'll see them moving on.
*MY PICK: Blackhawks in five
Taking a look at the Eastern Conference:
Bruins vs. Canadiens
(season series 5-0-1 Boston; one overtime, two shootout decisions)
-I can't wait for this series. The last game between these two teams was old time hockey to a tee. There was bad feelings between the two clubs, and it translated into some very feisty play. Just like the Western conference, this is a series where the eighth seed Habs could very well beat the number one Bruins, but it wouldn't really be an 'upset' per se. Half of the meetings between the two teams this season went to extra time or a shootout, but I think the Bruins are just too mean and gritty to lose this series.
*MY PICK: Boston in five
Capitals vs. Rangers
(season series 3-0-1 Washington; one overtime, one shootout decision)
-The Caps have all the pieces to make a serious run, except maybe for really strong goaltending. I think it'll be up to the Washington forwards to score enough goals to allow for a few weak ones in their own end. This will be another great series in the East -- the Rangers have talent up front and a strong goalie, but I think Washington's offense is just too strong.
*MY PICK: Caps in six
Devils vs. Hurricanes
(season series 3-1 Carolina)
-The Carolina Hurricanes have been one of the best teams in the NHL in the last month of the season and there's no better time to click than that. The Devils have the right mix of experience and talented young players though, and they're a disciplined club defensively, which I think gives them an advantage. Cam Ward and Marty Brodeur are two goalies that are capable of stealing games, but I think the Devils have the depth to once again take them past the first round.
*MY PICK: Devils in six
Penguins vs. Flyers
(season series 4-1 PIT; one overtime, one shootout decision)
-The rematch of last season's Eastern Conference final looks like it'll be a great one to watch, much like a few of the other ones in the East. In the series last year, the Flyers couldn't score...this year, they've got six 20+ goal scorers including four players that broke the 30-goal mark. The Penguins boast two of the top three scorers in the league, and also have six 20+ goal scorers (although that includes deadline acquisitions Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz). What the Pens have though, that the Flyers don't is a group of young core players that are one season removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Pens have a clear edge in goaltending, but if Marc-Andre Fleury goes down for any reason it'll be time to panic.
*MY PICK: Pens in six
Who knows, I might be completely wrong...but to be honest I'll be happy as long as I get one series right (see: Jim's playoff beard from last season)