And so it begins.
Two months of NHL hockey almost every night from now until the first day of summer. Five games on the first night Wednesday, three more on the second night to get us started, doubleheaders in May, overtime until the sweet wee hours of the morning.
Playoff pools, fresh batteries for the remote control, guys and teams coming out of nowhere, stars and favourites disappearing, one more beer since it's going to overtime, a Jaroslav Halak-like performance, dragging your butt to work after a triple overtime the night before, ending Stanley Cup droughts, another year without a Cup.
Eighth seeds winning, top seeds falling, favourites prevailing.
The Stanley Cup playoffs get underway Wednesday night and NHL fans will pile on for the ride hoping there will be another story like the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers running all the way to Game 7 of the final like they did in 2006.
Or a goaltender like Halak lifting an underdog team like the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens and leading them to upsets of teams led by the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
Or a team like the Detroit Red Wings, the closest thing we've had to a dynasty lately, fulfilling its potential and promise and delivering on that promise.
In this salary cap era since the lockout, anything seems possible.
What's going to happen this year?
Five best story lines
1. Upsets. You know they are going to happen. Since the lockout, there have been only two seasons (2007, 2008) when an eighth seed did not upset a first seed. The Oilers did it in 2006, taking out the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings; the Anaheim Ducks ousted the top-seeded San Jose Sharks in 2009 and last year, the Montreal Canadiens, backed by the goaltending of Halak, shocked the Washington Capitals. If I had to pick this time around -- though I don't think either of the top seeds will fall -- I'd take the New York Rangers over the Caps, though there are probably a lot of fans -- Canucks fans -- who think the Chicago Blackhawks have the Canucks' number. The 'Hawks are shooting for a hat trick against the Canucks, having eliminated them in the second round the last two years.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins have been one of the remarkable stories in the regular season, finishing fourth in the East despite not having captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the last half of the season. What other clubs could miss their two top forwards -- especially forwards of their calibre -- and do what the Pens have done? They've been doing it as a team under coach Dan Bylsma. They seem to have an interesting chemistry going for them right now, finishing up the season 8-2 in their last 10. They'll need goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to be special -- and he's shown he can be -- and look out if they do get Crosby back.
3. Nik Lidstrom. The ageless Detroit Red Wings defenceman remains the face of the club and the standard bearer for the franchise's playoff excellence. Lidstrom enters this post-season with 247 playoff games, just 19 behind former Wings defenceman Chris Chelios for the most playoff games played all-time. He is currently tied with goaltender Patrick Roy for second place on the list. Lidstrom's all class.
4. Anaheim Ducks. On Boxing Day, the Ducks were 18-17-4 and on the outside looking in when it came to the playoff picture. Fueled by the play of Hart Trophy contender Corey Perry, the Ducks won twice as many as they lost, going 31-13-1 to earn the fourth seed and home ice advantage in the first round against the Nashville Predators. You might question their goaltending (who is in net, anyway?), but as we've seen lately, that's not a big an issue as it used to be in the playoffs. They've got key guys who won the Cup in 2007.
5. The Montreal Canadiens. The Habs were the story of the first couple of rounds last spring with seven-game upsets over the Caps and the Penguins, led by Halak and the scoring of Mike Cammalleri (who wound up with 13 goals in 19 games). This spring they play the Boston Bruins for the 33rd time in the playoffs, two clubs with a huge backstory this season which includes the Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty controversy. This time the Habs go with Carey Price in net who's coming off a marvleous season. Without their two top defenceman in Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, Price is going to have to be something special for the Habs to pull off another upset. This has the potential to be the best first-round series. Hey, why else would they reschedule the French federal leadership debate?
Five biggest question marks
1. Roberto Luongo. For a guy who has the reputation for being, well, good, the Vancouver Canucks goaltender owns a shockingly mediocre 17-17 lifetime mark in the playoffs with just one shutout. He did win Olympic gold right in the Canucks' building, so he's got that going for him. The good news is most of the 'Hawks who terrorized him the last couple of years in the playoffs are now with other teams. At least he's got that going for him.
2. Boston Bruins. The B's are loaded this time around, finally snagging defenceman Tomas Kaberle in what had to be the longest trade rumour of all-time. They've got Zdeno Chara on the blue line, too, in front of goaltender Tim Thomas and a deep forward group. But they are still under a cloud after blowing a 3-0 series lead against Philly last spring and until they show they can close, everybody is going to be on eggshells.
3. Washington Capitals. The Caps keep trying to tell us they get this playoff thing now and they've figured out what you need to do to win when you're playing for games in the playoffs and not just two points in the regular season. Certainly they sacrficed offence this season (from first in goals scored at 3.82 a game last year to 19th at 2.67) to improve their defence (from 16th last year at 2.77 to fourth this year at 2.33). Can they make it stick when the pressure's on?
4. Joe Thornton and the Sharks. Jumbo is a big poster boy for the San Jose Sharks playoff underachieving. The impression is he's been a playoff bust. He's averaged 1.04 points a game in the regular season in his career, but has seen that fall to just 0.714 in the post-season. Interestingly, that's 12th -- pretty respectable -- among active players entering this post-season. Still, Thornton needs to show he can carry the Sharks to a final.
5. The Winnipeg Coyotes. As the Coyotes embark on the post-season, their future will continue to be a topic as the NHL closes in on the deadline for making the schedule for next season. Without a deal done to sell the club to Matthew Hulsizer is the NHL going to be willing to commit to keeping the team in the desert for another season? Also, what's going to happen with the Atlanta Thrashers, who are also for sale? Both those questions are going to be hot topics in the background to the post-season dance.