It’s the most glorious time of the sports year for hockey fans. There is nothing quite like the Stanley Cup playoffs. The best atmosphere, intensity and excitement that sports has to offer all bottled into three months of action. No other pro sports postseason offers parody and shock quite like the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the first time in nearly 45 years there are ZERO Canadian teams in the playoffs. Guaranteeing that for the 23rd straight season an American franchise will hoist Lord Stanley. It will the first postseason for the Philadelphia Flyers without founder Ed Snider, and possibly the last for Red Wings fans to see Pavel Datsyuk in a Detroit sweater. The story lines are endless, as they always are. So get out your rally towels, build your team shrines, and sit in your lucky spots; because it’s time for the greatest postseason in sports.

Central Division

stlchiNo. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks

Since this is predominately a Blackhawks site, we will start with the defending Stanley Cup champs. The Hawks are coming off their third championship in six years. It’s been three straight years of deep, nail-biting, exhausting runs in the playoffs in Chicago. Enter the St. Louis Blues, the Hawks hated rivals. The Blues have been plagued by playoff shortcomings the last four years, and everyone is wondering when and if they can break their image of being perennial chokers. I really dislike the Blues, their fans and the city of St. Louis. I’m positive Blues fans feel the same about their big city brothers.

This will be the 12th postseason series between the two teams, with Chicago holding an 8-3 edge. If there is a year for St. Louis to breakthrough it’s this year. Despite superior talent and pedigree, the Blackhawks have looked average and tired down the stretch this season. In my opinion, the effect of three straight arduous playoff runs has taken its toll on the Hawks.

With that being said, there are a few bright spots. Andrew Shaw, Marian Hossa and Corey Crawford are expected to be healthy. Duncan Keith is suspended for Game 1, but other than that the Hawks should be at full strength and relatively rested heading into the first game in St. Louis. An obvious major key for the Hawks will be limiting Vladimir Tarasenko. Easier said than done with a defense that has lacked depth and struggled mostly all year. Needless to say Corey Crawford will have to be large (as if anyone thought otherwise).

Between the pipes for St. Louis, Brian Elliott has been slated for Game 1, with Jake Allen returning from injury as backup. Troy Brouwer and David Backes are still questionable to go for the Blues, with Steve Ott returning to practice Tuesday. If the Blues can halt the production of Art Ross winner Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, they have a good chance to win the series. Nothing St. Louis does will surprise Q or the Hawks, because what the Blues do is incredibly simple. The question will be can the Hawks to take what St. Louis gives them. Home ice is also crucial here. While many shrugged off last Tuesday’s 2-1 OT loss, it ended up deciding home ice for this series. St. Louis has it, and with a struggling defense Chicago really could have used the last change. It’ll be vital for the Blues to take advantage of this.

It’s a foregone conclusion that Toews will out-captain Backes, and Quenneville will out-coach Hitchcock. Everything else… who knows. Who knows what Hawks team will show up Game 1. I stopped trying to overanalyze this team long ago. They have earned our trust. It should be a great, nasty series. This might be the Blues best chance to dethrone the Hawks. But I’m still not convinced. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Prediction: Chicago in 6

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No. 1 Dallas Stars vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild

This series is full of history for Minnesota wild fans. A chance to go up against their old franchise, the former Minnesota North Stars. I’m sure fans in the “State of Hockey” would love nothing more than to stick it to their old team. The only problem is that I don’t think it is very likely to happen.

The Stars are coming off a 109 point campaign that lead to a Central Division championship. Dallas has played steady hockey all season long, and acquisitions like Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya have added pedigree and experience to a team that was talented but raw. The Stars are the full package this year, and are poised for a deep run. Tyler Seguin’s status for Game 1 is still uncertain. There are also some concerns between the pipes, and on defense. The Stars own home ice advantage in the West which could be a huge factor. They play well anywhere, but seem to have much more postseason success playing in Texas.

On the other side, the Wild enter the playoff earning the least amount of point by any team, and by a pretty wide margin. The Wild went ice-cold late in the year, and if it wasn’t for an anemic performance down the stretch by Colorado, the Wild might be golfing right now. Zach Parise and Erik Haula are day-to-day with undisclosed injuries. Their status for Game 1 is also in doubt. Devin Dubnyk will once again be the key for the Wild in the crease.

The last two years Minnesota has gotten into the playoffs as a wild card team and gone on to upset a No. 1 seed. So they have plenty of experience in the underdog role. If Dubnyk can possibly steal a game, and the Wild can prey on a shaky defense, this series could get interesting. I think the Wild will fight, but I just think Dallas is too strong right now.

Prediction: Dallas in 5

Pacific Division

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No. 1 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 4 Nashville Predators

The Ducks are coming off a trip to the Western Conference finals. They were a game away from making the Final… and once again it slipped away. Needless to say this team has some demons to exorcise. For Anaheim the problem hasn’t been struggling in early rounds. In fact that seems to be when they play their best hockey. It’s the later rounds where they have been snake bitten.

After a horrid start to the season that saw many calling for the firing of Bruce Boudreau, the Ducks have righted the ship nicely with a second half surge and Pacific Division title. No team has more games since Christmas than Anaheim. The heavy hitters will once again be present for the Ducks: Kesler, Getzlaf and Perry. If Kesler can play well both ways, it gives Anaheim that much more of a chance. He’s the centerpiece of the team, and that’s why they traded for him when they did.

The Preds took two of three games against Anaheim this season, and have been one of the hottest teams down the stretch en route to a wild card spot. Maybe hot is too strong a word, but they’ve been much better. They are no prize for a Ducks team that won their division on the last day of the season. Nashville plays best when it’s centered around a defensive game, and turning that defensive speed into transition offense. Their biggest challenge will be stopping the numerous weapons that the Ducks have.

Nashville is gelling into a playoff experienced team. Anaheim is already there, and their play in early rounds has proven that they are more than capable. It’s only a question now of sustaining that regular season success and turning it into quality and consistent postseason play. Anaheim better pray to close this in six or less, because we all know what a Game 7 in Anaheim means…

Prediction: Anaheim in 6

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No. 2 Los Angeles Kings vs. No. 3 San Jose Sharks

If the Sharks are going to exorcise their playoff demons, it will have to start with defeating the team they blew a 3-0 series lead to in 2014. San Jose’s epic collapse vs. Los Angeles left scars on the franchise that just finished healing this season. Their reward? Drawing that same team to open these playoffs.

For the Kings, they’re back in the playoffs after missing last season following their Stanley Cup win in 2014. Los Angeles has looked rested and back to form all season. They were unable to hold the Pacific title, so their reward is facing a team they’ve beaten the last two times in the playoffs. California’s biggest hockey rivalry is renewed again.

San Jose won four of five games in the regular season, but that won’t matter a lick. The Kings’ pedigree under Sutter has revolved around hanging in games long enough to go for the kill. Los Angeles’ playoff resolve in probably tops in the league, right with the Hawks. This team is tried and tested, and hungry again. Jonathan Quick will once again be an integral part. The Kings veteran laden lineup will be the difference in the series. Psychology matters, and LA owns all of it going into Game 1.

For the Sharks, half the battle will be upstairs. If they can believe they can take down Los Angeles, they very well can. Martin Jones will be making his first playoff start in Game 1 in Staples Center. It’s very likely San Jose gets lit up in Games 1 and 2. If they can take one on the chin and stay standing as LA did in 2014, they have a chance. Their stars will have to show up consistently. If Pavelski, Thornton and Burns can stay hot, the Sharks have a chance.

Prediction: Los Angeles in 7

Metropolitan Division

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No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 4 Philadelphia Flyers

The Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals have been the class of the league all year long… Tell me if you have heard that before.

Jokes aside, Washington has been incredible this year. Ovechkin hit 500 career goals, and 50 in a season for the seventh time. As a team, they have looked stout all year, and a near lock for the Final. Braden Holtby had one of the best years for a goalie in NHL history, and cemented himself as the league’s best.

For the Caps the story of a sensational regular season is all too familiar. This too is a team plagued my playoff heartache. The Caps earned a league high 120 points this season. The last two times a team has scored 120 points they lost in the quarterfinals. One of those teams was the 2010 Capitals. The team has demons to overcome, there’s no way around it. I don’t care how great they have been all year, the playoffs are different and weird stuff happens.

Enter the Philadelphia Flyers. A team on a second half surge with new life that got into the playoffs on the last weekend of the season and whose longtime owner Ed Snider just passed away… What could go wrong for Washington? I’ve seen a lot of Caps fans dismissing Philly. While the Caps are a far superior team, it will be no cakewalk. The Flyers, on a 20-9-6 run in their last 35 games, have looked slightly fatigued at season’s end. The playoffs may provide a boost of energy, but they will need more than that to shock the Caps. If goalie Steve Mason can continue to carry them, and the Flyers play their typical greasy style, I think this could be a longer series than many might think.

If I’m a Capitals fan, this match up gives me at least a little bit of concern. They say this Caps team is different that the rest. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Prediction: Washington in 6

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No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 3 New York Rangers

These two teams will meet for the third straight postseason. It’s a rematch from last year’s Metro semifinals, and almost a complete reversal of roles. Last year, the Pens were anemic coming into the playoffs and got thumped by the red-hot Rangers. This year, vice versa. The Penguins are the hottest team in the league right now, and the Rangers struggled to stay afloat down the stretch, riddled with injuries. New York has a 7-1 record against Pittsburgh in the postseason since Game 4 in 2014 when the Pens went up 3 games to 1. Since then, total domination by the Rangers.

No shock that Pittsburgh will have the best player on the ice in Sidney Crosby. The question is can Crosby finally lead his Pens through the postseason back to the Stanley Cup Final? Since 2009 Pittsburgh has found new and newer ways to fall short of returning to the Final. This year they look as primed as ever to make a run. The biggest question remains in net with Marc-Andre Fleury out with a concussion. Backup Matthew Murray has been formidable, but lacks Stanley Cup playoff experience. The crease will be the biggest wild card for Pittsburgh in this series.

The Rangers have been snake bit in the health department this year. Everything will once again revolve around Lundqvist being good. If he can backstop the team, guys like Nash, Staal and Hayes will step up. It’s unclear if McDonagh and Girardi will be available early in the series. If the Rangers can pick up the slack and persevere, they have as good a chance as anyone.

Pittsburgh cannot get caught looking ahead to a probable second round meeting against Washington. They have to handle their business against New York. The Pens will be wearing their throwback black and gold jerseys for all home games this postseason, along with a Consol Center “Gold Out.” That’s good enough for me. The Pens will win, and look fantastic doing it.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in 5

Atlantic Division

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No. 1 Florida Panthers vs. No. 4 New York Islanders

Dale Tallon has done it again. The Panthers have been one of the most surprising and exciting teams in the league this season. Their youth movement has paid off, and the addition of veterans like Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo have made them a solid contender.This is the first playoff meeting ever between these two teams. One of these teams will end a long postseason drought. The Isles have not won a series since 1993, and the Panthers since their Cup Final run in 1996. Something has got to give.

The Panthers have all the ingredients to make a playoff run. They have a youthfulness about them that is anchored by a solid veteran core. They will be led by the likes of Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Florida’s special teams rank in the bottom third of the league, one area where the Cats must improve if they are to make a deep run.

The Isles are led by 33-goal scorer and captain John Tavares. Jack Capuano’s club has seemingly been on the cusp of playoff success for a few years now. Yet every year recently the Isles just haven’t been able to put it all together. New York will be without No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak, who will be out until the second round. They lies the responsibility solely on Thomas Greiss, who has been solid but lacks playoff experience. If the Islanders can keep the scoring from drying up, and have Greiss do just enough, they have a shot.

The arenas will play a key role for me in this series. The Islanders will be playing the first playoff hockey games in the Barclay’s Center. It won’t be anything compared to the atmosphere at Nassau Coliseum though. I’m interested to see how the new home ice works for them in the playoffs. For Florida, I worry about the number of transplant New Yorkers who will invade BB&T Center in Sunrise. It’s no secret that attendance is an issue for the Panthers, and when big market clubs come it can cause a shift in arena atmosphere. If Panther fans can show up, I expect the Panthers to do just enough at home to win the series. Oh, and I hope to see a lot of rats tossed on the ice in Florida.

Prediction: Florida in 7

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No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 3 Detroit Red Wings

Another fantastic series rematch from last season. A year ago the Lightning came back to beat the Wings in seven games, and eventually go on to the Stanley Cup Final. This year however, the story may be more about who might not be one the ice for these two teams. The Lightning will be without star player Steven Stamkos who is out 1-3 months after having surgery to remove a blood clot. Tyler Johnson was banged up late in the season, and losing defenseman Anton Stralman to a fractured fibula is another major blow for the Bolts.

The Wings are in the playoffs for the 25th straight year, the longest active streak in pro sports. It is an unbelievably impressive run, and it seems every year that when the playoffs roll around Detroit is there and ready to compete. They are a testimony of what a culture can do to a team for years to come. I don’t think Detroit is better than Tampa. If Stamkos, Johnson and Stralman are on the ice they certainly are not. But two-thirds of them definitely won’t be, and that is the difference for me.

The Wings will once again be led by Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Add rookie Dylan Larkin to that list after his impressive 23-goal campaign. A big factor for the Wings will be surrounding reports that Datsyuk intends to leave Detroit to return home to play in Russia. Will this news cause strain in the locker room that translates to the ice? Or will the team and fans be inspired to make one last Cup run with Datsyuk? Only time will tell.

With so many stars sidelined, this series looks like it will be a low scoring one. The injuries sustained by Tampa are brutal. The team is still incredibly talented, but it will take an even greater source of fortitude to overcome Detroit this year. I always believe that rematches usually favor the team beat the previous year or previous game. The injuries just add onto that. I’ve learned to never bet against Detroit… This hurts me…

Prediction: Scum in 6

The best part about this is that most of the predictions will probably be incredibly wrong. That’s what makes sports great. That’s what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs great. The puck drops in just TWO days…