It took 1,230 games to get down to this: the field of 16 from which a Stanley Cup champion will be crowned in approximately two months.
It won't be the Carolina Hurricanes, who needed to only beat long-eliminated Florida during their season and home finale Friday night to win the Southeast Division. Instead, they lost by a goal, and in one fell swoop went from third in the East to ninth and out of the playoffs.
It won't be the Buffalo Sabres, who each of the past two postseasons were Eastern Conference finalists, within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 and 4-1 losers against Ottawa last year. With the departures of Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Brian Campbell, the Sabres slipped to 10th, or about where they'd figure to finish after losing that type of talent.
It won't be the Vancouver Canucks, who stumbled to the wire by losing seven of their last eight after spending most of the season in a playoff spot. It won't be Chicago, Phoenix or Columbus – all improved – but are on the outside looking in on a very competitive and difficult Western Conference race.
So now the fun begins with four best-of-seven conference quarterfinals starting Wednesday, three Thursday and one Friday.
(8) Boston Bruins-(1) Montreal Canadiens: What stock should be put into the fact the Canadiens swept the eight-game season series by a combined score of 38-16 over the rival Bruins? If anything, it should probably warn the top-seeded Canadiens from getting overconfident. Isn't that just the kind of stat that comes back to bite teams in the postseason?
The Bruins have had their share of bad luck with injuries. Patrice Bergeron, arguably their top offensive threat, went down after 10 games. Marc Savard, the team's leading scorer by a wide margin, has not appeared since March 22 because of a back injury. And yet this team finds a way.
The Canadiens have a big injury concern and an inexperienced player at the most important position on the ice. Captain Saku Koivu is out, and that means players such as Tomas Plekanec or Christopher Higgins have to step up at center ice.
Rookie sensation Carey Price is in goal, but the postseason is different from the regular season. Montreal knows Price is a big-game, big-even goalie, so that's what they'll be counting on regardless of the fact he's just 20 years old.
The 31st postseason meeting between the two teams – dominated by Montreal's 23-7 edge thus far – starts Thursday in Montreal and features Games 1-3 in the first four nights.
(7) Ottawa Senators-(2) Pittsburgh Penguins: This could turn out to be a dandy of an offensive-minded series, but the Senators are going to have to find some confidence that has been lacking for the past three months.
The Senators suffered a couple of tough injuries, too, when captain Daniel Alfredsson and versatile forward Mike Fisher hurt their knees last Thursday in Toronto. Martin Gerber is the man in goal, and he figures to have his hands full against Pittsburgh's high-octane attack.
Pittsburgh has motivation beyond the obvious. It was Ottawa that dashed its hopes last spring with a quick five-game ouster in the first round. The Penguins don't know how much they will have Sidney Crosby in this postseason. Then again, they had success during the 28 games their captain was missing.
The repeat of last year's first-round matchup begins Wednesday in Pittsburgh and includes back-to-backs with travel April 19-20 for Games 5 and 6.
(6) Philadelphia Flyers-(3) Washington Capitals: An interesting series to say the least between a Flyers team that had to hang on to qualify for the postseason against a Capitals team that had to win its last seven in a row to move from ninth to third.
Alexander Ovechkin gets to showcase his immense talents in the postseason for the first time. He is just the sixth player in 37 years to lead the league in goals (65) and points (112) in the same season. Ovechkin's game is built for the playoffs, and he'll finally be on a national stage to showcase those talents.
Philadelphia righted itself a bit down the stretch by finishing up 7-1-1 in its last nine games. Goalie Martin Biron could be a key figure for the Flyers. He finished the regular season with back-to-back shutouts over the Devils and Penguins.
The series starts Friday in Washington and includes a whopping three days off between Game 4 and a potential Game 5.
(5) New York Rangers-(4) New Jersey Devils: The Rangers won the first seven games of the season series, but Sunday when the season finale between the two teams meant home-ice in their playoff matchup, the Devils emerged victorious. It probably doesn't matter much more than the fact that now more Ranger fans will have an opportunity to watch Game 7 in person if the series goes that long considering the difficulty to get a seat at Madison Square Garden as opposed to across the river.
It's easy to suggest this will be a battle of goaltenders, so, well, we'll just say that. New York's Henrik Lundqvist will have to be at his best to outduel New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. Then again, the Devils' attack doesn't scare a lot of people and who can figure out which Rangers' offense will show up?
It just figures, too, that Scott Gomez goes from the Devils to the Rangers and his first playoff series with the Blueshirts has to be against his ex-teammates.
The commuter series starts Wednesday in New Jersey and includes a two-day break between Games 3 and 4.
(8) Nashville Predators-(1) Detroit Red Wings: One of three intra-divisional quarterfinal matchups, the Presidents' Trophy winners would appear to have it all over the Predators, who have to just be happy to be here. But it also sort of reminds one of a series in 1994 when the top-seeded Red Wings lost in seven games to an upstart band of San Jose Sharks.
Nashville is making its fourth straight playoff appearance and has yet to win a series. The Predators have picked the wrong teams to face, that's for sure. This is the second time they go against Detroit, which beat Nashville in six games in 2004. San Jose eliminated the Predators in five games each of the past two springs.
Detroit would appear poised for a potential long postseason run. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were productive both last postseason and this regular season. And they boast the Jennings Trophy winners in goalies Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood.
The series starts Thursday and is the only one in the first round that has one off day between every potential game.
(7) Calgary Flames-(2) San Jose Sharks: Does anyone else see this as potentially the most grueling, physical, hard-fought opening-round series of the eight? Does anyone else see this as the potential for the most likely upset?
Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, Miikka Kiprusoff, Robin Regehr and Mike Keenan are about the Stanley Cup playoffs. Owen Nolan, Kiprusoff, Wayne Primeau, Mark Smith, Darryl Sutter and Rich Preston all were recently with San Jose. Motivation galore.
On the other side, the Sharks looked to be to most primed team heading into the playoffs, only having a streak of 20 straight games with at least a point (18-0-1-1) snapped two games ago. Brian Campbell has added a dimension that was missing, and now the Sharks play the way their general manager Doug Wilson and coach Ron Wilson had in mind at the start of the season.
What should prove to be an epic battle starts with games on back-to-back nights in San Jose on Wednesday and Thursday, and includes three games in four nights at the outset before playing out with two days off between potential Games 5 and 6.
It will be interesting to see what Peter Forsberg can add after not doing a whole lot for the Predators late last year, and by not returning to the NHL until after the trade deadline.
Minnesota will keep it close to the vest. They are very comfortable in low-scoring, one-goal games. Marian Gaborik is healthy and his immense talents will be on display.
The series, which includes back-to-backs in Denver for Games 3 and 4, begins Wednesday in St. Paul. There will be two days off before a potential Game 7, too.
(5) Dallas Stars-(4) Anaheim Ducks: A Pacific Division battle that has seemingly been set for weeks features the defending Cup champion Ducks against a Stars team that has lost three straight years in the first round.
Anaheim will be tough to penetrate with its big four on defense – Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Mathieu Schneider and Francois Beauchemin – and with Jean-Sebastien Giguere in goal. But the big question will be how it attacks Dallas goalie Marty Turco without first-liner Corey Perry and an inconsistent second line.
The Stars go into the postseason a big wobbly. The big blow was the recent news that All-Star defenseman Sergei Zubov is out indefinitely. Brad Richards made a big splash during his five-point debut after the trade-deadline deal with Tampa Bay, but he finished with just two goals and nine assists and he missed the last three games due to illness and injury.
The intriguing series begins Thursday in Anaheim, includes two days off between Games 2 and 3 and goes back-to-back for Game 4 and a potential Game 5.