So Day 1 of the playoffs is finally here. Sixteen teams, eight series and eventually one Stanley Cup.
Here's a quick guide as to what to keep an eye on in Round 1:
1. What will Crosby do?
From the moment the playoffs kick off at 7 p.m. in Pittsburgh, every camera in the building is going to be trained on Sidney Crosby, as his return to hockey finally hits games that really matter.
The Penguins have been red hot since Crosby’s return, with only four regulation losses in the 14 games, and the 24-year-old still often called The Kid had 25 points in that run.
What will he do for an encore? How will his health hold up against the hard-nosed Flyers? And just how high will the ratings be for his first playoff game since May of 2010?
2. The return of the rat
Sure, there’s little talk of the Panthers-Devils series around the league, but when a team makes the postseason for the first time in an NHL record 12 years, it deserves a mention.
And when that return comes with the potential for thousands of plastic rats being thrown on the ice when the series opens Friday in Sunrise, even more so.
3. Upset potential
There’s always the potential for upsets in the first round, but this year more than normal, the so-called top teams look vulnerable.
Shootout points have bunched the standings together to the point that only seven points separate the bottom five teams in the West, where the low seeds are the likes of the Kings, Sharks, Blackhawks and Red Wings.
And all four could easily win their series.
The East appears to be more certain, but the Sens and Caps are a surprising goaltending performance away from an upset of their own.
4. The Coyotes saga rolls on
More than a few sage hockey observers believe Phoenix is Quebec City bound the moment they finish their postseason run this spring.
That, however, could take longer than usual, as after 16 years in the desert and zero playoff series wins, the franchise seems overdue.
Chicago has significant issues in goal and captain Jonathan Toews’s health is a question, meaning if the Coyotes can put together a scrappy defensive performance, this should be a long series.
And you have to know the remaining diehards – who have already sold out Games 1 and 2 in Glendale – will celebrate like they’ve won the Cup once they finally make Round 2.
Besides, wouldn't it be nice to see Shane Doan win something other than a medal with Team Canada?
5. Nashville Predators, Stanley Cup favourites?
Hard to believe, but here we are: Many of the experts are picking the Predators for a sustained run this spring after years of being written off as the low spending little guy.
Nashville is making a concerted push after loading up at the trade deadline with Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill and, of course, Alex Radulov – all of it in a bid to convince superstar defencemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to sign on long term.
They have the horses to make it happen, but a first round date with the Red Wings is never easy. Getting those first four wins could be the toughest ones.
6. Luongo v. Schneider
What was old is new. And the fans out in Vancouver are making Roberto Luongo bashing an annual event.
It doesn’t help matters that youngster Cory Schneider has done nothing to disprove the notion he’s a No. 1 in waiting, as he posted a 20-8-1 record with a .937 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average in a statline that’s better than Luongo’s in every way.
Luongo, however, is expected to start things off against the Kings. The only question is: Will we see Schneider in this series and beyond? And could this be Luongo’s swan song in Vancouver?
7. The Pens-Flyers bloodbath
Even aside from the Crosby Watch that will be hard to avoid, the Eastern Conference’s 4 versus 5 matchup is easily the most compelling one in the first round.
These two franchises hate each other, have rabid fan bases and have both had a lot of recent success in the regular season and playoffs.
Both teams are also hot, with the Pens carrying an 18-4-1 record into Game 1 and the Flyers having gone 13-5-2 in their last 20 games despite battling several injuries.
A prediction: As nutty netminder Ilya Bryzgalov goes, so go the Flyers in this series. And that’s why so many people are picking against what’s become one of the best teams in the league.