The puck drops tonight and everything changes. The intensity goes up. The stakes are raised. The mistakes are magnified. The great goals seem even greater. A soft goal appears softer. A two-goal deficit feels like four. A body check sounds like an explosion against the boards. The cheering is louder. The sound of disappointment even more silent and empty. The bad call becomes the worst call ever - until the next one favors your team. Everything is ratcheted up several notches, and the end result is the most exciting sports tournament in the world: the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Because I follow the Washington Capitals so closely, I'm going to go into more depth when discussing their series than the others. But I'm not going too deep, because the reality of the situation is very clear. If the Caps play at their maximum intensity throughout and the Rangers do the same, Washington advances in five games - unless the King stands on his head, in which case it might go six. If Lundqvist is spectacular AND Theodore is a sieve, but the Caps play at the top of their game - in terms of sheer effort - the Rangers can push them to seven.
I really don't think that anyone can question that line of reasoning. However, in my mind the issue is this: The Caps, despite going 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, have been on cruise control for a month. They are that talented. The danger is that if they can't get to that peak level of intensity quickly enough, the Rangers could steal a game or two. If that happens - and Lundqvist gets hot - you have a recipe for an upset.
Still, everyone is talking about Ovechkin and Avery being keys to this series. Avery has put up solid numbers since his return and been the pain in the butt and inspiration the Rangers needed in their lineup to make a run to the playoffs. I think Ovechkin wants to win too much to let a guy like Avery get him off of his game. Believe it or not, I believe there is another level that Ovechkin can get to, and we will see that starting tonight. If I had to bet on Alex Ovechkin or Sean Avery, although I do respect Avery's influence on his team, I'll take Ovie every time. Avery may be able to get inside a guy like Semin's head, but Ovechkin is one of the mentally toughest athletes I've ever seen. He's Jordan on skates. Remember, Michael was part of a rebuilding team before winning all the championships.
The Caps will backcheck like crazy, eliminate the unforced turnovers in their own end and in the neutral zone. They'll play the combination of speed/physical hockey that makes them unique. That will wear down the Rangers, which will allow Washington's talent and depth to take over.
Prediction: Caps in five.
Bruins vs. Canadiens
While I'm still not sold 100 percent on Boston, you can't argue with their scoring depth or the goaltending performance of Tim Thomas this year. Thomas still has to avoid the mental lapses that sometimes have cost him and prove that he is a playoff goalie, but the Bruins have too much scoring too sound in their own end to drop this series. Because of the rivalry factor and the ghosts in Montreal, the Habs will put up a fight and make it as ugly as necessary to compete.
Prediction: Bruins in six.
Devils vs. Hurricanes
The Devils limped across the finish line, while the Canes finished as one of the hottest teams in the league. While the Devils have much more offensive talent and scoring depth than in years past, they are not nearly as good defensively as they have been in years past. And Marty hasn't looked like Marty - at all. Is it possible he could get pulled for the rookie if things go bad? I think maybe. Anyway, I'm one who thought that Jersey was doing it with mirrors all year, anyway.
Prediction: Canes in six
Penguins vs. Flyers
I can't say that I'm unhappy that one of these teams will be eliminated in the first round. Clearly this is the most even and interesting matchup. It's a rematch of last year's conference finals, for crying out loud. Philly plays a true playoff style all year long, so there will be no adaptation period for the Flyers. They are physical and talented. Danny Briere is a key. If he plays at his usual high playoff level, that extra bit of offense will be the difference. I think the Flyers can get Crosby and Malkin off their games and trying to do too much. Neither team's goaltending impresses me, but I like Philly's depth and overall level of talent across the board.
Prediction: Flyers in seven
Running out of time here, so these will be quick:
Sharks vs. Ducks
The Battle of California. All the pressure in the world is on San Jose in this one. And on top of that, Anaheim has been on fire. The monkey on Joe Thornton's back will grow to elephant proportions if he and the team don't find success early. If Anaheim wins Game 1, the series will belong to the Ducks. Taking history into account, that's my bet.
Prediction: Ducks in seven
Red Wings vs. Blue Jackets
No, the Wings have not been playing well, but they aren't playing for any more President's trophies. Columbus, in just-happy-to-get-there mode, will steal a couple of games, but Detroit's experience and all-star talent will prevail.
Prediction: Wings in six
Canucks vs. Blues
What an amazing run by the Blues. They've been playing at playoff intensity for weeks just to get here, while the Canucks also have played well of late to win their division and earn the No. 3 seed. I think the Blues will come out hard and steal one or two early, but the Canucks seem to be more focused than ever before. Luongo, Sundin and the Sedin's will be just too much for the Blues to handle:
Prediction: Canucks in six
Blackhawks vs. Flames
This one may surprise you, but Calgary has stunk for the last four weeks, and Chicago is talented and hungry. Khabibulin has been out to prove himself all year and has one more BIG contract waiting for him if he keeps playing well. Chicago, while young, has great offensive depth and a very solid defense. If they get on a roll and gain confidence the Hawks could make a serious run.
Prediction: Hawks in five