The 16 teams that will compete for the Stanley Cup have been decided. The chase for hockey's ultimate prize begins Tuesday.
All of the first-round pairings in the Western Conference are settled, but only one of the four matchups in the East is certain. The other three will be decided after the Boston Bruins host the Ottawa Senators on Sunday in a game postponed by the Boston Marathon bombings.
Skinny: The Washington Capitals appeared headed for a non-playoff season when they went to Winnipeg for back-to-back games on March 21-22. They won both games and never looked back, going 15-2-2 in their final 19 games to win the Southeast Division going away. Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 32 goals, including 19 in that season-ending stretch. Braden Holtby has emerged as the No. 1 goaltender and the return of Mike Green helped give the Capitals the NHL's most dangerous power play (26.8 percent).
The Rangers also ended the season on a roll, going 10-3-1 in April to climb all the way to sixth in the East. Henrik Lundqvist is a rock in goal, the top four on defense is as solid as anyone's even without injured Marc Staal, and the forward lines have sorted themselves out. The unit of Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin has been one of the hottest in the League, and Brad Richards' revival has given New York a second unit that can put the puck in the net.
The Rangers had Game 7 at home last spring when they outlasted the Capitals in a bitter seven-game marathon. If they go to a seventh game this time, the Capitals will be at home.
Skinny: The Minnesota Wild were the last team to qualify for the playoffs; they had to win their season finale on the road against the Colorado Avalanche to get it after a late-season slump nearly kept them out of the postseason for the sixth straight season. Minnesota's two big free-agent acquisitions, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, have played well, but there's not a lot of scoring depth and Suter can't play every shift on the blue line. If Niklas Backstrom struggles in goal, there's no reliable help behind him.
It's hard to play much better than the Chicago Blackhawks, who started their season on a 21-0-3 run and ended it by going 10-3-2 in April, with two of the losses in meaningless road games during the final week of the season. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa lead a deep and balanced attack, Duncan Keith heads a solid corps of defensemen and the goaltending combination of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery allowed a League-low 97 non-shootout goals.
The Wild will have to play virtually mistake-free hockey to compete with the Blackhawks -- and even that may not be enough to win.
Skinny: The Detroit Red Wings had to go to the final night of the season to extend the longest current playoff streak in the NHL to 22 seasons. The retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom left a huge hole on the blue line that was aggravated by a host of injuries, and the offense has often struggled to score. Goaltender Jimmy Howard doesn't get a lot of attention, but he might have had his best season; his play was the one constant in a season of change.
The Anaheim Ducks raced out to a big lead and coasted to the Pacific Division title, though their level of play dropped markedly in April. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, two-thirds of the Ducks' first line, signed big contracts last month to stay in Anaheim; now they have to produce. The Ducks also need more scoring from forward Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne, who slumped after good starts. The defense is solid though unheralded, and the goaltending combination of Jonas Hiller and 30-year-old Swedish first-year player Viktor Fasth gives coach Bruce Boudreau options in net.
The Ducks open with two games at Honda Center, where they won 13 in a row at one stretch this season. But Anaheim was only 7-5-1 in April, and it'll be facing a Detroit team that's gotten better as it's gotten healthier.
Skinny: The San Jose Sharks got faster with a string of deals near the trade deadline, but came up short in their quest to finish fourth and earn the home-ice advantage in the first round. That would have helped a lot -- the Sharks won 17 times and failed to earn points only twice in 24 games at HP Pavilion; they won just eight road games, though one was in Vancouver. Antti Niemi has been excellent in goal, the defense is competent and the core forwards -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski -- can score.
The Canucks won the Northwest Division for the fifth time in six seasons, but that was attributable to the struggles of the other four teams as much as the Canucks' solid play. The goaltending situation is the same as it was during the summer -- Cory Schneider is the starter when healthy, former starter Roberto Luongo is the backup. Six forwards reached double figures in goals, but no one had more than 13 and only the Sedin twins finished with more than 27 points. Vancouver won its division, but the Canucks weren't nearly as dominant as they were in the past couple of seasons.
This figures to be a tight series -- the teams combined to play shootouts. Niemi has a Stanley Cup championship on his resume; Schneider will have to prove to everyone that he's the elite goaltender the Canucks need him to be.
Skinny: The Los Angeles Kings open defense of their Stanley Cup against one of their victims from last spring. But while the Kings finished fifth in the West rather than eighth, as they did last season, they've had their ups and downs -- including a marked difference in the play of goaltender Jonathan Quick at home and on the road. Jeff Carter's 26 goals have given the Kings an offensive spark -- they averaged about half a goal more than they did last season. But Quick's numbers are way down from last season, especially on the road. Including last spring's sweep, the Kings have won eight in a row against the Blues.
St. Louis closed the season on a roll, going 12-3-0 in April behind the goaltending of Brian Elliott, who was 3-6-1 before allowing 16 goals while going 11-2-0 this month. The Kings shredded him last spring after Jaroslav Halak was injured; he got to play down the stretch because Halak was hurt again. Chris Stewart has bounced back with a career season, but he was one of only three Blues to reach double figures in goals. Alex Pietrangelo is a premier defenseman.
Both teams play a grinding game that figures to limit chances; they are second and third in fewest shots allowed. The winner figures to be the one that gets the better goaltending -- Quick and Elliott both finished with below-average save percentages that belie their goals-against averages.