And so the playoffs are upon us. Two months of heroes and goats, blown leads and moments seized along the way to Stanley Cup glory.
To repeat an oft-spoken-yet-absolute truth, there is simply no better playoff tournament in pro sports. And it starts with eight first-round matchups that historically have provided some of the game's most stunning upsets and epic collapses.
Here are the key questions and storylines we're following as the 2016 NHL playoffs begin on Wednesday.
Are the Caps vulnerable to another collapse?
The Washington Capitals are the crème de la crème of the league. Even though they took the slightest step sideways down the stretch after clinching everything there was to clinch long before the end of the regular season, the Caps remain the gold standard -- at least on paper. The tangibles -- their speed, size and skill -- suggest that they should cakewalk their way to the finals. But for a team like Washington, whose playoff history is checkered with memorable flameouts and disappointments, the keys to winning might be as much between the ears as on the ice.
A year ago, in Barry Trotz's first playoff season as head coach, the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead against the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers, losing Game 7 in overtime at Madison Square Garden. In 2010, when they were also the NHL's top regular-season team, the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round against the eighth-seed Montreal Canadiens. Washington has never won a Stanley Cup and has not even reached the Cup finals since losing to the Detroit Red Wings in four consecutive games in 1998. Will this be the year the Caps conquer their playoff curse?
Can the Blues banish their playoff demons?
The St. Louis Blues battled the Dallas Stars for the Central Division crown until the final day of the regular season -- in spite of the fact that the Blues continued to lose key personnel seemingly on a daily basis. This is not a new storyline for St. Louis, which always seems to be missing a key component either physically or mentally come playoff time. Last year, the Blues won the Central but could not get a timely save or a timely goal during the first round; they were bumped by the wild-card Minnesota Wild in six games.
For four or five seasons, the hockey world has wondered: Is this the year the talented, hard-working, physical Blues make their move? For the answer to be "yes" this time around, St. Louis will have to take down the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Like the Capitals, the Blues have never won a Cup. In fact, they haven't even been to the conference finals since 2001. They have lost in the first round in six games each of the past three years, getting outscored 49-38. Some expected GM Doug Armstrong to overhaul the team after last year's disappointment, but he held firm. He's unlikely to do so again this summer if the Blues can't banish their considerable playoff demons in the coming days and weeks.
There's something unfair about players working like dogs all season to gain home-ice advantage -- like the Blues did last spring, for instance -- only to find out that home-ice advantage is a relative term. Or, more to the point, that home ice means squat. Three of the four teams in the Western Conference that began the playoffs last season with home-ice advantage -- St. Louis, Nashville and Vancouver -- were one and done. The Eastern Conference played out more to form, with the home team winning all four first-round series.
It does appear to be a cyclical thing, though, as our friends at Elias Sports Bureau explained that the home team went 63-83 in the first round between 2010 and 2013. Since then, home teams in the first round have gone 90-52. And then there's the Anaheim Ducks, who have somehow managed to lose three straight Game 7s on home ice -- proving that home might be where the heart is but not necessarily where the series-clinchers are.
Will it be a war of attrition?
It is one of the basic truths of playoff success: stay healthy. It's no guarantee of winning it all, but your chances go up exponentially if you can keep your key players on the ice. If you can't, well, look at Boston in 2013. The Bruins were dropping like flies as they fell in the finals to Chicago in six games.
This spring, we begin the postseason with a cavalcade of top, key players missing in action. No Steven Stamkos, Anton Stralman and now possibly Tyler Johnson in Tampa. No Marc-Andre Fleury or Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh and some questions about standout backup goalie Matt Murray. Ryan McDonagh and his busted hand are out for the Rangers. No Jaroslav Halak for the Islanders, who are also without Anders Lee, who broke his leg in a late regular-season game. No Thomas Vanek in Minnesota (stop snickering), and Zach Parise is banged up. David Perron is absent from the Ducks' lineup, as is Rickard Rakell and Kevin Bieksa -- while the Blues (see above) are still waiting on David Backes and Jake Allen. Dallas' Tyler Seguin is trying to recover from a partially torn Achilles' tendon and might miss the start of the Stars' first-round series against Minnesota. On and on it goes. Where does it end? Sadly for some teams, it will end with an early playoff exit.
One for the aged
It has been a most improbable, dramatic season in South Florida, where 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr has re-energized a talented, youthful Florida Panthers team and helped guide them to an unexpected Atlantic Division title. Now what? The Panthers have scant playoff history on which to build new postseason successes. That means the players Florida brought in for precisely this moment -- Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell -- will have to teach this team how to win on the fly. They are built for the playoffs with their size, defensive prowess and speed. Now we'll find out if they're built for the 2016 playoffs.
Coach's challenge: jeopardy or justified?
Our good pal Pierre LeBrun has already made reference to this, but it's worth repeating as we begin the first playoff season under the new coach's challenge rule. The rule, introduced this season, allows coaches to use a challenge once per game for two specific scenarios: an offside play that leads to a goal or interference on the goalkeeper.
At best, the system remains in a state of evolution. At worst, it will gum up the works without appreciably improving the chances of getting the call right on the ice. But Pierre is right: we are going to see an overtime goal or series-clinching goal disallowed on review because of a coach's challenge (or conversely, allowed on review). Now, the one part of this rule I do like is that it will help officials get things right on offside calls. You can bet that Ray Shero wishes this rule had been in place back in 2012, when Daniel Briere scored a crucial goal in Game 1 of the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh series in spite of being about three feet offside when Shero was Pittsburgh's GM ... but we digress.
Playoff officiating: officially a problem?
I say this every spring, and it seems to go unheeded, but it's worth noting again: On-ice officials need to follow the same regular-season standards for calling penalties during the playoffs. Officiating is a thankless, merciless job, no question. But here's hoping that, this spring, the hook or the interference minor that is easy to call in the first period in Game 1 gets a consistent reaction from officials in overtime of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals -- and at every point in between. You often hear people say, "Let the players decide the games." We would counter with, "Let the players who know how to play by the rules decide the games." Here's to calling the game as the rules were designed. That's the way to ensure the best or most deserving teams win the most important games. It doesn't happen by not calling penalties just because it's the playoffs.