The next two months of NHL hockey are when the casual fans come out of the wood work. There's no tournament in professional sports better than the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and with things getting started Wednesday night, you'll need all the knowledge you can to out-wit Charlie and Betty at the water cooler each morning.
So as always, SB Nation is here to help! With assistance from our army of hockey bloggers, we'll run through every participant and every story line in this year's postseason.
Without further adieu, let's kick off in the Eastern Conference with the top-seeded winners of the President's Trophy, the Washington Capitals.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS - 1st in East, record: 54-15-13, 121 points
SBN blog: Japers' Rink
121 points will usually win you the President's trophy, and this season was no different. Keep in mind, of course, that it's rare to see a President's Trophy winner win the Stanley Cup. In the past decade, only three of nine teams have won the Stanley Cup and two of them have even been bounced in the first round.
There are questions surrounding the team entering the postseason, the biggest of them being goaltending. Becca H at SB Nation's Japers' Rink thinks that Jose Theodore returning to Montreal in the first round will be a big storyline in the Caps' first round series.
Bruce Boudreau can play coy all he wants, there's almost no way Jose Theodore's not between the pipes for Game 1 of this series. And thank goodness, as Theodore finished the season on a high note, going 23 straight games without losing in regulation (20-0-3 over that stretch) and setting a franchise record in the process. Questions of his consistency will always remain until he proves otherwise in the postseason, but the bigger story with Theo is his return to Montreal - a city that has not been kind to its native son.
The other problem facing the Caps is the idea that they're an offense-only team. They'll score goals at will, but can they stop the opponent from scoring? Many people seem to believe that defense comes first in the playoffs, and for this reason, the Capitals are in trouble. At least one person thinks that Washington can turn that notion into a myth this spring.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: The Caps are the most exciting team in the league. Period. Watch them play the game and it's hard not to be riveted by the experience. Tough to hate.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: Bandwagon fans. Legions and legions of bandwagon fans. And they'll all be vindicated by a Caps' Cup win.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: The Caps will win the Cup if they can successfully out-gun every team they face. If defense is not a factor, if opponents can't control the play, and most importantly, if they can't stop Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin & company.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: Simple: if the holes everybody sees in their armor are actually real. If the goaltending is a problem and if the defense isn't good enough for playoff-style hockey, the Caps will have trouble -- just like they have in the last two postseasons.
SAN JOSE SHARKS - 1st in West, record: 51-20-11, 113 points
The Sharks are here in the same spot they've been in just about every year. Top seed in the West, seemingly poised for a long playoff run. Hasn't happened. San Jose has developed the reputation of playoff choke artist, largely due to the fact that Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have completely disappeared in the postseason.
The Sharks have struggled since the Olympic break, probably as a result that many of their players participated deep into that tournament, so it'll be interesting to see how they turn it on once the playoffs begin.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: They have pretty awesome colors. And pretty awesome fans, which you wouldn't necessarily expect in such a 'non-traditional' market. Plus, seeing Joe Thornton fail so many times, you can't help but feel sorry for the guy. He's a great hockey player and he deserves a Stanley Cup.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: Dany Heatley is a cry baby, whining his way out of Ottawa and kicking and screaming his way out of a trade to Edmonton. Eventually, he got his way and was sent to the Sharks, but come on. You don't want him to win.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: The scoring will show up, Evgeni Nabokov will be a brick wall and Heatley will push them over the top.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: Another invisible postseason from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS - 2nd in West, record: 52-22-8, 112 points
SBN blog: Second City Hockey
Chicago's back in the postseason for the second year in a row, and this time around, people think they actually have the tools to get to the Cup finals or maybe even beyond. They torched the Central Division like the Great Chicago Fire, winning in runaway fashion. Like many teams, though, they have questions in goal. Coach Joel Quenneville has essentially marked Cristobal Huet as a sieve, while Antti Niemi is an unproven rookie playing in his first career playoff games this spring.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: They're young, they're likable, and they've completely re-energized a fanbase that was left for dead a few years back. If you like exciting, up-tempo hockey, the Blackhawks are the team for you.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: The fans were gone for years and years, and they return now that the team is good again? Nevermind that the team hasn't won since the 60s, do most of those people really deserve it?
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: Much like the Caps in the East, they'll win if they can control the flow of the game. If they can force the other team to play their game -- a game most teams can't keep up with -- the Hawks will go a long way.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: They struggled a bit down the stretch in the last two months of the season. Also, if the goaltending concerns become a storyline in the playoffs as they did in the regular season, it'll likely spell the end of the Hawks season.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS - 3rd in West, record: 49-28-5, 102 points
SBN blog: Nucks Misconduct
The Canucks are Canada's best hope at winning another Stanley Cup. They boast a potent offense led by the Sedin twins, a big, strong defense, and possibly the best goaltender in the league with Roberto Luongo.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: They're good. Oh, and you're a Canadian and you want the Cup back in you country. As mentioned, the Nucks are the best bet.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: You're Canadian, but you want your team to be the one who brings the Cup back to Canada.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: Everything will come together at the right time. The defense has to come together, and most importantly, Roberto Luongo has to play on top of his game. He hasn't played his best this season but if the Canucks want to have a shot, he has to be great.
We are one D-man injury away from total chaos. Elder, Bieska , Salo, Ehrhoff will have to stay healthy to give the Canucks and more importantly give Luongo a chance to be who he needs to be in the post season. The core D-men need to play smart and simple hockey. I miss Mitchell’s grit and his smart simplistic no non-sense hockey. With that being said guys like Rome, SOB, Baumer, Alberts need to reflect that simple hockey. No need to put points up or jump in the play. Their whole focus should just be to be a solid defender, to clear the puck and to make sure to relieve the pressure in the defensive zone when the pressure is on. I believe in this D core. Bieska is a -5 but, Edler, Salo & Ehroff are all plus’s. And the bottom 4 D-men are surprisingly +16. Simple, smart, decisive defensive hockey will keep this team out of trouble.
PHOENIX COYOTES - 4th in West, record: 50-25-7, 107 points
SBN blog: Five For Howling
The Coyotes are back. The fans are pumped, throwing snakes and stuff. What's not to like about the Coyotes? They have a likable identity, they play a very solid team game, and most importantly, they've gotten superb goaltending from Ilya Bryzagalov all year long.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: They're the true underdog. It's the movie "Major League,' except it's real. The off-ice turmoil has really, really hurt the Coyotes and their fan base, so why not reward them with some playoff success?
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: Go Jets!
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: They're no fluke. People are still looking past them, even after a 107 point season. Look out for the underdog, even if they shouldn't be one.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: Bryzagalov will come back to earth, and the hype will turn out to be overblown. They are a fluke.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS - 2nd in East, record: 48-27-7, 103 points
SBN blog: In Lou We Trust
Martin Brodeur has been the rock of the New Jersey Devils for the past 17 seasons, but there has been criticism this season that he's well... being a bit human. There's no denying that he's one of the best goaltenders to ever play the game, but is that going to be the case in the postseason this year?
John Fischer of In Lou We Trust is enthusiastic as ever about his team's goaltender:
Here how Brodeur stacks up against the NHL in the four main stats for goalies: First in wins, third in GAA, 13th in save percentage (3 goalies ahead of him didn't play more than 50 games, so he'd be tenth with that conditional), and first in shutouts. Yep, I'd say he's once again among league leading goaltenders. Once again: AGE IS JUST A NUMBER FOR LEGENDS
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: You're American, as are the Devils. There's young superstar Zach Parise, who led the US team through the Olympics. There's Jamie Langenbrunner, Team USA captain. They even have Marty Brodeur, who tried his best to blow the Olympic gold for Canada and lost a game in the preliminary round to the red, white and blue. It's patriotic.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: They're boring. Everybody knows this. And if they're to win the Cup again, even the parade will be boring. It'll be in a damn parking lot. Or maybe the streets of Newark, to which you immediately think "hm, that parking lot idea isn't so bad... ."
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: Lou Lamoriello recently said that he believes he has something special with this Devils team. If you trust him, and you probably should because there's no doubt Lou knows his stuff, the Devils will be right there in the end, ready to hoist another Cup.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: If Martin Brodeur plays like he did in the Olympics for Canada, the Devils might not even escape the first round. The Devils rely on a strong system to win hockey games, and the biggest part of that system is Brodeur. If he falters, the team falters. Simple as that.
DETROIT RED WINGS - 5th in West, record: 44-24-14, 102 points
SBN blog: Winging It In Motown
They're always here, aren't they? Just when it looked like the Wings were ready to miss the playoffs for the first season in... forever... they turned on the jets and catapulted themselves all the way from the dregs of the Western Conference to fifth place, frustratingly close to home-ice advantage. They're healthy, they're in the playoffs where they seem to be most comfortable, and a third-straight Finals appearance shouldn't be out of the question.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: They're the Red Wings. They always win, so you might as well hop on the wagon early, right?
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: They're the Red Wings. You're 100 percent sick and tired of them ruining the fun for everybody else.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: Again, they're the Wings. Do we need to explain this, really?
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: Injuries will plague them again. They hurt them early in the season and if a star player goes down in the playoffs, they'll see more trouble. Also, Jimmy Howard. He's a rookie (although he's pretty old) and he'll be playing in his first even NHL postseason. Always a question mark.
BUFFALO SABRES - 3rd in East, record: 45-27-10, 100 points
SBN blog: Die By The Blade
Ryan Miller. This is the only thing that you need to know about the Sabres. Miller has been the key to the Sabres success in the regular season. 41 wins this season, the second best goals against average in the league and the second-best save percentage.
Miller is expected to lead the Sabres pretty deep into the postseason, and if you ask fans at SBN's Die By The Blade, you'll come back with the impression that the first round series against the Boston Bruins should be a breeze.
So given all of this why in the world are folks in Boston so confident about this matchup? Simply put, because it's a lesser evil compared to the alternatives. You honestly can't blame them. Would you expect them to want Washington, New Jersey, or Pittsburgh instead?
By facing the less powerful Sabres, Boston's chances of reaching the second round increase from virtually impossible to very unlikely. Make no mistake - regardless of what the standings say, the Bruins are the weakest playoff team in the East. It's the new NHL, where earning points for losing games can get you a higher seed than you deserve. It'll take a colossal breakdown on the part of the Sabres to lose to this team.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: What's there to hate about Buffalo, really? They're a likable hockey team with a national hero in the crease, and they've been deep in the playoffs with so little to show for it in recent years. Why not root for Buffalo?
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: You're Canadian and Ryan Miller is the Sabres goaltender. You're afraid of 2014 already.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: It all comes down to Miller. If he can be exceptional, and if he can play the best hockey of his career, the Sabres could walk away with a Stanley Cup. The team in front of him has to do their jobs, of course, but Miller is a world-class goaltender who doesn't screw around. He can steal you hockey games, he can steal you multiple series, and as he almost proved in the Olympics, he can steal you a championship.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: Two reasons. Obviously, if Miller flops, it's over. But the team in front of him has to score as well. You can't win hockey games, even with a superb goaltender, if you don't score goals. And even the best goaltenders can't fend off shots all night -- not in the postseason. Miller will need help, and if he doesn't get it, it could be rough in Buff.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS - 4th in East, record: 47-28-7, 101 points
SBN blog: Pensburgh
Three straight Cup finals? Back to back championships? That's what the Pittsburgh Penguins will try to accomplish this spring, and it'll all begin with a first round match up against the Ottawa Senators, a team they've seen a lot of in recent playoff years.
It's no surprise that the Penguins are favored by a lot of people to at least get back to the Conference Finals. They have the experience, they know how to win in the playoffs, they can score at will, they have solid defense and their goaltender is world-class. What's there not to like about the Pens' chances, really?
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: You're the owner of this truck. A true front-runner. Those loser teams? You're too good for them. Also, you probably bought a Sidney Crosby Fathead last year and it's now plastered on the wall in your "Man Cave," and you wouldn't want to have to buy a new one if somebody else won the Cup, would you?
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: You hate everything about the person described above.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP (again): The obvious answer, of course, is Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, etc. They're all a huge part of any success the Penguins have had and will have in the future. But the Penguins will repeat as champions if the young guys who have taken big strides this season can step up even more in the playoffs. Pitt counted on young defenseman Kris Letang a lot this season, and guys like him are going to be crucial to a repeat bid.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: They'll run into a better team. Look, there's no denying that the Penguins are a great team. But are they better than Washington this year? Are they better than Chicago? San Jose? Hell, Buffalo or New Jersey? We don't know the answer to that, but it will be determined.
LOS ANGELES KINGS - 6th in West, record: 46-27-9, 101 points
The LA Kings are young. Most fans are looking at this season as one to build experience for future playoff runs, but could the Kings make a run at things this time around? They have the skill, that's for sure. They flew under the radar out West, consistently finding themselves in the middle of the playoff picture. Not in the spotlight on either the good side or the bad side, but it's the playoffs now, and every team is now in the spotlight.
How they deal with that pressure will go a long way toward how they perform in the postseason.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: Another young, exciting team. They'll keep you on the edge of your seat, but at the same time, you'll probably get some reward out of it. They're going to give you hard work and effort every single night, cutting down on the frustration level for a fan.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: That hipster SoCal attitude. So non-chalant about everything, showing up to playoff games in flip flops and board shorts. That's not Stanley Cup stuff, dude.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: Anze Kopitar is good, and he'll continue to be very good as the playoffs roll on. Jon Quick will put the doubters to rest and prove that he's a phenomenal young talent
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: They're too young. Not enough experience. This playoff run will help them in the future, but it's not enough for this season. Better luck next time, Kings.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS - 7th in West, record: 47-29-6, 100 points
SBN blog: On the Forecheck
The Predators are really flying under the radar. That tends to happen when you you're a middle-of-the-road playoff team in the West and you play in a place like Nashville. That's not to say the Preds don't have a wonderful fan base, because they do, but you don't think of it that way.
Still, there's no reason not to like Nashville. They score, albeit by committee, but they do it. They have a strong goalie in Pekka Rinne who has really established himself of late as a guy that can take this team on a run. And, quote honestly, they have one of the best defenses in the Western Conference, especially if Denis Grebeshkov is back and healthy for the playoffs.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: Why shouldn't you? Nashville never did anything to you. That laid back Tennessee attitude is infectious, and have you ever been to the Music City? Holy hell, it's a good time.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: You're one of those people who irrationally hates hockey in Southern markets. You're from the North, where it gets cold, and only you deserve hockey.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: Rinne will be incredible and the defense will shutdown opponents. Scoring is usually at a premium in the playoffs and the Predators will be able to generate goals, but it's going to come down to the back end if they want to win the whole thing.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: Rinne won't be as good as he needs to be and the scoring won't be there. Pretty simple.
COLORADO AVALANCHE - 8th in West, record: 44-30-9, 95 points
SBN blog: Mile High Hockey
The Avalanche were expected to be terrible again this season. Hey, guess what? Didn't happen. Behind great goaltending from Craig Anderson, the young Colorado club got off to a red hot regular season start. After a while though, they started to fall off the map. Down the stretch things were really ugly, and you could argue that if Calgary put up more of a fight, Colorado would be on the golf course right now.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: Nobody expected them to be here. Nobody did. Honestly, some people are still surprised that they're here.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: Craig Anderson can't stop everything, and besides him, what do the Avs have going for them? Rooting for Colorado this year is an exercise in futility.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: The red hot play they started the season with will come back, the Avs will gain some early momentum, and they'll ride that wave all the way home.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: They terrible finish to the regular season carries over to the postseason. It'll be a quick exit.
OTTAWA SENATORS - 5th in East, record: 44-32-6, 94 points
SBN blog: Silver Seven
The Senators are a bit of a weird case. They reeled off 11 wins at once this season, a mark of a solid team, no? Any team that can do that at any point of an NHL season clearly has something going for them. But look at the goaltending. Brian Elliott? Really?
Peter: I'm picking the Senators in six games, but that's likely just because I'm an incurable homer. I'm not going to suggest a series win is at all a simple task for the Senators; pulling off this upset will be a hell of a tall order. There are, however, a number of things I've seen from the team this season that makes me optimistic, notably, their solidarity as a team, their resilience, and the undeniable sense that this team has one thing in mind: success. Sens in 6.
Mark: The Penguins have been to the finals twice in the last two years and I genuinely believe that adds up. Ruutu-Kelly-Neil will rise to the challenge for this series, and I want to pick Ottawa because I believe they can win... but in the end, I don't trust Brian Elliott or Ottawa's road performance. Pens in 7.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: Who are the Ottawa Senators? If you pick them, you're clearly implying you know who they are. And when they go on to win the Stanley Cup, you can look really, really smart by picking the unknown entity. Chicks dig that sort of thing.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: Who the hell cares about the Ottawa Senators?
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: They'll get hot at the right time. An 11 game win streak in the middle of the year. 7-2-1 to finish off the regular season. If the Sens are playing like that throughout the playoffs, it doesn't matter who's in their way.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: The goaltending will be too much of a factor. It's not Cup-caliber, and the Sens can't expect it to win games for them.
BOSTON BRUINS - 6th in East, record: 39-30-13, 91 points
SBN blog: Stanley Cup of Chowder
Most people are writing off the Bruins, citing a league-worst offense and a rookie goalie who's expected to take them to the promised land. It's not only people that think lowly of the B's, though. Computers, too.
According to statistical mumbo jumbo at Whatifsports.com, the B's have a zero percent chance at winning the Stanley Cup.
Zero. No chance. Impossible.
And yes, they are in the playoffs. They kick off their first round series with the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: Poor Boston sports fans. So neglected. Their team makes the playoffs and still doesn't have a shot at the Cup? You have to feel sorry for them, and for this reason alone, you feel the need to root for the poor, neglected underdog.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: Wait a minute. Neglected Boston sports fans? They'll still hanging their caps on the 'Sawks didn't win for 86 yeaaaas' thing? You've gotta be kidding me.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: Seriously, it doesn't matter what some robot says. The Boston Bruins are in the playoffs, and therefore do have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. So how can they do it? Well, it's a long shot, yeah. Despite their sixth seed, common wisdom seems to be that the Bruins are the weakest team in the postseason. Their weakness is that they can't score... at all.
But if they can get through the first round behind some excellent goaltending from Tuukka Rask, the Bruins play a strong enough defensive game to make things happen. Plus, Marc Savard could even be back by the second round, and that would be a serious boost to the entire team.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: Rask is a rookie. If he plays like one, the Bruins have no chance in hell. There's Tim Thomas to fall back on, of course, but nobody is really expecting much from him, if he would even get a chance to see playoff action.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS - 7th in East, record: 41-35-6, 88 points
SBN blog: Broad Street Hockey
The Flyers were picked to be one of the top guns in the East before the season began, but a season full of inconsistency, injury and frustration left them fighting for the postseason on the final day. There are serious questions in goal, especially with their first-string, second-string and fourth-string goalies all still injured, and it'll be up to Brian Boucher to carry the load for the Flyers.
Boosh hasn't done that for any team since doing it for the Flyers in 2000, coming just a game away from the Cup Finals as a promising rookie. He won't be brilliant, but Philadelphia needs him to be consistent and solid.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: You hate the New York Rangers. The Flyers eliminated the Blueshirts on the final day of the season in absolutely gut-wrenching fashion. As a hater of all things NYC, you should love the orange and black for this.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: Everybody else is doing it.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: They have the talent -- everywhere except for in the net. They're extremely solid up front, they have a Cup-caliber defense, and their special teams are among the league's best. The Flyers are talented enough to make up for shortcomings in goal, and they have the playoff experience to win a Stanley Cup as well.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: All of those problems during the regular season that caused them to not fulfill expectations? Yeah, they can't be repeated. Philadelphia won't even come close to sniffing the Cup if they are lackadaisical in their effort or if they play anything less than their best. Boucher is a liability and shouldn't be expected to win a game or even a series for them, so the play in front of him needs to be so good that goaltending becomes a non-factor.
MONTREAL CANADIENS - 8th in East, record: 39-33-10, 88 points
SBN blog: Habs Eyes on the Prize
The Habs backed into the postseason in the worst possible way. They had three opportunities in their final three games to clinch a playoff berth simply by winning, but in all three instances they failed to do so. In Game 82 against the Maple Leafs, though, they were able to squeak out one point to get them into the playoff party. Against the Maple Leafs.
The Habs have been woefully out of joint against a round of bottom feeders of late. I'm not sure it is a case of them playing to their opponents level anymore. I think it more a statement on their inability to find that needed killer instinct when they require it best.
So now, it can be said (imagined?) that the Habs have a clean slate for half a week, until the real season begins.
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR THEM: Bottom seed in the East, technically speaking the worst team in the playoffs. That may or may not be true, but everybody loves an underdog, right?
WHY YOU SHOULD ROOT AGAINST THEM: The sense of entitlement. Holy hell, the sense of entitlement.
WHY THEY'LL WIN THE CUP: They're a good team when they want to be. Pretty strong all around, and they have excellent goaltending in Jaroslav Halak. If they can dictate the flow of games more often than not and Halak can be solid in goal, Montreal has a shot.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN THE CUP: They're playing like utter crap as the postseason begins. How's that sound?