The guessing games finally ended for the Vancouver Canucks Sunday, when it turns out - yes - it is the Chicago Blackhawks they'll face in the opening round after all.
Well, why not? To be the best, you need to beat the best - and the Blackhawks were the best last year, ending a 49-year Stanley Cup drought. Nothing about the current edition of the team inspires the same general confidence - unlike a year ago, the Blackhawks were touch-and-go just to make the playoffs and unceremoniously backed in - losing to the Detroit Red Wings, but qualifying anyway when the Dallas Stars couldn't defeat the also-ran Minnesota Wild.
But playoff ghosts are a funny thing and Chicago's presence as an eighth seed is reminiscent of the time the New York Rangers, a year after they won the Stanley Cup for the first time in forever, just barely squeaked into post-season play as an eighth seed.
The Rangers drew an improving Quebec Nordiques team that year, coached by Marc Crawford, and used their superior experience to engineer a major upset. In three of the past 10 opening rounds in the post-lockout era, a No. 8 took out a No. 1, and so the Canucks, despite being the heavy favorites, need to be wary as well.
As Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville put it, after drawing the Canucks for the third time in three years: "The history of having a series against familiar foes creates a whole different level of intensity. The rivalry becomes part of the culture. Let's make sure we respect that part but know what's at stake. Being smart, being intense, being competitive is what we'll need to be. They'll be excited to knock us off after the last two years."
Quenneville acknowledged that the Blackhawks were lucky to make it to the playoffs at all. He liked the way they played against the Detroit Red Wings and figured the 2008 champions had extra motivation on their side, with a chance to eliminate the defending champions.
"That's basically how it was all year long. We played 82 games with everyone battling against us. At the end we got a break, a huge break. We're very fortunate to be in the position we're in today."
Quenneville added: "Certainly we got lucky. Now let's take advantage of being lucky."
Probably the best news of all is how consistent goaltender Roberto Luongo has been - and how all the players that gave him trouble last year (Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd) are all gone. Moreover, Luongo is playing deeper in the crease this year than ever before, meaning the chances of getting bumped and otherwise worked over are significantly reduced.
Even without Raffi Torres for the first two games, the Canucks have enough depth up front to handle the Blackhawks and their blue line, with Alex Edler back Thursday and Dan Hamhuis returning Saturday, is as deep as it's been all year.
Besides, it could have been Anaheim and the way the Ducks are flying these days, best to postpone that match-up until further down the playoff path.