It's the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas. This week starts the NHL Playoffs! The next month and a half is the greatest time to be a hockey fan. And while I, personally, am not a huge fan of the way the league has restructured the playoffs, this year does offer some really interesting matchups. Let's take a look at them.
8. LA Kings vs. Nashville Predators
Did I say interesting matchups? I meant besides this one. Yawn. Neither team is really very great and both are very overrated. Neither city should actually have a hockey team, although, to be fair, Nashville's fans seem to be pretty awesome if the All-Star Game was any indication. But as far as the actual teams go, Nashville has had problems with their goaltending and LA hasn't been able to buy a goal recently. This series will go seven games, each will end 1-0 and it won't matter who wins it in the end.
Pick: Who cares, neither team is going to make it past the second round (But if I had to pick, LA Kings in seven games)
Bonus Pick: The cameras will focus on someone who's fallen asleep in the stands at least three times during this series.
7. Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
The only thing making this series marginally more interesting than Kings vs. Predators is the history this series has. The Minnesota North Stars relocated to Dallas in the early '90s and became the Dallas Stars; meanwhile, a new franchise was started in Minnesota called the Wild. If it weren't for that, this series would be so boring that it would cancel out how great some of the later series on this list are. I'm pulling for Minnesota, because Dallas shouldn't have a hockey team either, but Dallas is just too good if they're at full strength. If everyone returns from injury, Dallas will be fine. If not, Minnesota might make things interesting.
Pick: Dallas in five games
Bonus Pick: This series will start a huge rivalry between Dallas and Minnesota about who the true successor to the North Stars is.
6. Florida Panthers vs. NY Islanders
Florida suddenly got really good really fast. The Islanders are probably better than their record suggests. As far as talent goes, this should be a good series. And neither of these teams have been successful in the playoffs in years. There's no real history between these teams, but the fact that one of these teams will advance makes this series fun.
Pick: Islanders in six games
Bonus Pick: Jaromir Jagr will score five goals in the series, since he's immortal and will be playing hockey for at least another 40 years.
5. Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks
Another series between two teams that shouldn't exist, but this one is at least fun. There is some real bad blood between these two. Anaheim bounced back from a terrible start to the season to finish second in the division. San Jose went from probable non-contenders to performing solidly in the playoffs. San Jose definitely has a chip on their shoulder from years of playoff failure, and the franchise's all-time best players are getting close to retirement. The window is closing, but this is not their year.
Pick: Anaheim in five games
Bonus Pick: Disney will buy the Anaheim team back and re-name them the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, since that name is far better and the logo was amazing.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
After last year's brutal series, a repeat this year should be so much fun. Especially since Pavel Datsyuk recently announced he would retire at the end of the season. Tampa Bay has the talent, but Detroit can be really fun to watch. Since I picked them to ultimately win the Stanley Cup, I'll pick them here.
Pick: Detroit in seven games
Bonus Pick: Steve Yzerman will resign as Lightning GM midway through the series and suit up for the Red Wings, for old times' sake.
3. Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Hoo-boy. On paper, the best team in hockey should have no problems with a team that clinched their playoff spot this weekend. But hockey isn't played on paper, and these teams have split four regular season games. There's a lot of history here, and the Flyers have, for the most part, been playing very well the past two months. I really want to pick the Flyers to win this, but Washington is just too deep. This should be a really fun series though.
Pick: Washington in seven games
Bonus Pick: After seeing Yzerman quit his management job and go back to playing, Flyers GM Ron Hextall will also go back to playing, where he will break his own record for penalty minutes in the playoffs.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. NY Rangers
Speaking of bad blood, there is some real hatred between these two teams that has resurfaced in recent years. The Pens have been playing great recently, even without their best player, Evgeni Malkin. He should be back fairly soon, and if he's back for this series, look out. The Rangers have been playing solid hockey as well, and with Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes you can never count them out.
Pick: Rangers in six
Bonus Pick: Lundqvist will make at least three saves that leave hockey fans everywhere with their jaws on the floor.
1. Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
Where do I even begin? This should be a Conference Final, not a first round matchup. In terms of pure talent, this is easily the best of the first round. This will be an all-out war of attrition. The best parts of the first round will come out of this series. I really, really want to see St. Louis win this one, just to break up the Chicago dynasty. But Patrick Kane has easily been the best player in the league this year, and Corey Crawford has been sensational in the latter half of the season.