The best postseason tournament in all of professional sports is about to begin.
The NHL regular season is over and done with. The playoffs matchups are set.
And. Here. We. Go.
This year has the potential to be one of the wilder playoffs in recent memory. On one side of the bracket -- the East -- there's a select group of teams in a tier unto themselves. One of those teams -- the Lightning -- just tied the NHL record for most wins in a season, and posted a plus-103 goal differential. No other team finished better than plus-62.
They're your prohibitive favorites, but face arguably the toughest path to the Cup Final of any division winner.
In the Western Conference, well, it's anybody's guess who will make it out alive. Can the upstart Flames finish off an already successful season with a dream finish? Which heavyweight makes it out of the Central? Can the Sharks finally get over the hump?
Here's how I see it all playing out:
Flames over Avalanche in six
Golden Knights over Sharks in six
Predators over Stars in five
Jets over Blues in seven
Lightning over Blue Jackets in four
Bruins over Maple Leafs in six
Capitals over Hurricanes in seven
Penguins over Islanders in six
That's right, I expect seven of the eight semifinalists from a year ago to make it back to that round once again. The only team that fails to do so? San Jose.
The Sharks are playing their worst hockey of the season. They're banged up -- who knows what to expect out of Erik Karlsson, and Timo Meier's recent injury couldn't have come at a worse time. Oh, and they can't make it out of the first few minutes of a game without being scored on.
The Knights have had San Jose's number since coming into the league. It pains me to say it, but I don't see reason why that will change.
Knights over Flames in seven
Predators over Jets in seven
Bruins over Lightning in seven
Penguins over Capitals in seven
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and each of these winners, minus the Knights, has had an entire year to chill.
As great as the Lightning have been -- and I mean great -- I'm going out on a limb and predicting the Bruins avenge their second-round elimination at the hands of Tampa Bay last year. I like whichever team emerges from this series to go all the way.
Same goes for the Penguins and Predators -- the vengeance part, that is.
Calgary's somewhat surprising season ends in a dramatic Game 7 loss to a team that has played in far more big games in recent memory.
Conference finals predictions
Predators over Knights in six
Bruins over Penguins in six
Vegas' luck finally runs out. Marc-Andre Fleury, still not at full strength, fails to provide the kind of staunch goaltending that proved so vital to the Golden Knights' dramatic run a year ago. Pekka Rinne, meanwhile, steals a couple games and gets some of the critics off his back. Nashville makes it back to the Cup Final for the first time since losing to the Penguins two years ago.
Pittsburgh won't meet them there, though. Worn down from an extremely physical series with the Capitals, the Penguins don't have the requisite energy to keep up with the Bruins' multi-layered attack. Boston's depth proves to be the deciding factor this late in the postseason grind.
Stanley Cup Final prediction
Bruins over Predators in six
I know, I know. Hasn't the city of Boston won enough lately?
When it rains, it pours.
In a battle of attrition, the Bruins do just enough to become champions. Nashville's defense has their hands full with Boston's top line, and the Bruins' 3rd-ranked power play vastly outperforms that of the Predators, which ranked dead last in the league during the regular season.
David Pastrnak scores the series-winner in Nashville in overtime of Game 6. The Cup eludes P.K. Subban at least one more year.