With less than 10 games remaining for every team in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL regular season, many fans have their eye on the standings as well as the potential first-round matchups that could come to fruition a few weeks from now.
There is obviously a lot that can change over the course of several games, but it's never too early to look at the playoff picture. With so many teams in the midst of fantastic seasons and other supposed top teams struggling to make the top eight, there is potential for some extremely intriguing battles in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Here's a look at how the first round would shake out if the postseason started today, as well as some deeper analysis on which series would be most entertaining.
Current Eastern Conference Matchups
1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 8. New York Rangers
2. Montreal Canadiens vs. 7. New York Islanders
3. Washington Capitals vs. 6. Ottawa Senators
4. Boston Bruins vs. 5. Toronto Maple Leafs
Current Western Conference Matchups
1. Chicago Blackhawks vs. 8. Detroit Red Wings
2. Anaheim Ducks vs. 7. Minnesota Wild
3. Vancouver Canucks vs. 6. St. Louis Blues
4. Los Angeles Kings vs. 5. San Jose Sharks
Most Intriguing Potential Series
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
The Pittsburgh Penguins already had a star-studded roster heading into the season with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, but they have managed to add to that ideal nucleus as well. Ahead of the trade deadline, the Pens acquired Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray, so the squad that was already considered the team to beat by most onlookers got better and even more potent.
Another team that was expected to contend for the Eastern Conference crown this season was the New York Rangers. The Blueshirts made it all the way to the conference finals last year and added dynamic power forward Rick Nash to the mix during the offseason. That should have bolstered their offense significantly, which is a big deal when you consider that all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is between the pipes.
Things haven't gone according to plan for the Rangers, though, as they are clinging to eighth place and traded winger Marian Gaborik to the Columbus Blue Jackets. New York has played better since the deadline, though, and has the talent to compete with Pittsburgh. The key here would likely be Crosby's recovery from a broken jaw. He's expected to be back for the playoffs, and if he plays at his normal level, then the Penguins should be able to vanquish their divisional foes.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Detroit Red Wings
The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings have had many great battles over the years, but they will be few and far between once the Red Wings move on to the Eastern Conference next season.
Before that happens, however, there is potential for one last hurrah between them. The Blackhawks have essentially led the Western Conference from wire to wire by virtue of their 24-game point streak to open the season, while Detroit has struggled to adjust to life after Nicklas Lidstrom.
Chicago has certainly slowed down since the point streak came to an end, but it has maintained its top spot and has a roster stacked with talent, especially on the offensive end. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are tough to stop, while their defense has been extremely solid this year as well.
Detroit has had its ups and downs, but any team with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg has a fighting chance.
The key in this possible series could very well be goaltending. The Red Wings would seem to have the advantage with Jimmy Howard between the pipes, but Chicago's Corey Crawford has been surprisingly good this season. The Blackhawks would be favored in this series, but Detroit certainly wouldn't be an easy out.
Vancouver Canucks vs. St. Louis Blues
Even though the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks have been the top two teams in the Western Conference for the entire season, there is no question that things are pretty wide open out west. Two particular teams that figure to be in contention are the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues.
The Canucks haven't been as dominant during the regular season as they have the past couple years and the Blues have struggled to live up to last season's surprise ascent, but they currently sit No. 3 and No. 6 respectively.
Goaltending is a constant storyline when it comes to the Canucks as Cory Schneider is their starter and has played well this season, but Roberto Luongo is always lurking.
The Blues had the best goaltending combo in hockey last year as Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were lights out. Halak has been hurt for the majority of this season and Elliott has been hit or miss, but he does have three straight shutouts and is peaking at the right time.
Both teams have a lot of depth and have the ability to light up the scoreboard if the situation calls for it. The Blues are more of a defensive-minded team, so they would probably try to stifle Henrik and Daniel Sedin more than anything. This series would be a chess match and it would definitely be fun for any hockey fan to watch.
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