It has been a remarkable regular season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who steamrolled to the top of the Eastern Conference and will be a No. 1 seed for the first time in 20 years.
At the end of February, the Penguins were 13-8-0, which was good enough for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. When the calendar flipped to March, Pittsburgh went on an incredible run -- 15 consecutive victories and wins in 22 of 24 games -- to wrap up the top spot in the East.
They are the favorites in the conference, and given the recent wobbles by the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, maybe decidedly so. The Penguins have won one playoff series since taking the Stanley Cup in 2009, and being considered the favorite by many pundits last season didn't turn out so well.
With that in mind, here are five questions facing the Penguins as the Stanley Cup Playoffs beckon:
After watching free agents Ryan Smyth and Jason Blake sign elsewhere, New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow began his plan to rebuild the club into an annual Stanley Cup contender in the summer of 2007. With the attraction of a new arena far from guaranteed, Snow knew the only way to rebuild his club would be through the draft.
It was a long, grueling process. After entering each of the past five NHL drafts in possession of a top-five selection, the Islanders are finally back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Islanders went the first three weeks of April without losing a game in regulation. They finished the season 14-6-4 on the road. And with superstar John Tavares leading the way, they're capable of beating anybody on any given night.
Now that the Islanders are back in the playoffs for the first time in six years, here are five important questions to consider as they look to win a series for the first time since 1993:
The New York Islanders enter the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs with one of the top centers in the sport.
John Tavares, the No. 1 selection at the 2009 NHL Draft, has emerged as a superstar in the NHL. Whenever defenseman Mark Streit moves on, Tavares, 22, will undoubtedly become the franchise's next captain.
But the Islanders, their fans and their opposition know No. 91 is going to produce, along with linemates Matt Moulson (a three-time 30-goal scorer) and Brad Boyes, who has rejuvenated himself in New York.
So, who is the Islanders' X-factor this postseason? Who is the one man the opposition would be foolish to forget about, who can help the Islanders claim what would be their first playoff series victory since 1993?
A painstaking rebuilding process has since taken place. The plan is finally taking shape with the Islanders, after five straight finishes in the bottom five of the NHL standings, finally back in the postseason.
The quest begins for the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship since 1983. Some might think there is no way it can happen. But the opposition would be foolish to take these Islanders lightly.
Start with what transpired at the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Who went on to win the championship? That's right, the Los Angeles Kings, who became the first No. 8 seed to hoist hockey's Holy Grail. The bottom line is this: All you need to do is get in. The Islanders are in.
Any team that plans on winning the Stanley Cup needs solid goaltending. The Islanders have that with Evgeni Nabokov, who got the job done down the stretch and brings plenty of postseason experience to the table, something that will be very beneficial to this young core of players. Nabokov is talented enough to not only steal a game, but a series. Opponents, beware.