Even the casual sports fan knows that the NHL playoffs are the best of the bunch. Year after year hockey proves itself to be the most exciting postseason sport, and this year should follow suit. With the action getting underway this week, it’s time to take a look at the first round matchups. No real predictions coming from this space, but some quick thoughts and possible things to look for. Instead of going by conference, we’re going to look at each first round series in order from least interesting and exciting to most interesting and exciting. I tried to keep it short. But you know how that goes. Without further ado…

8. Florida (#3) v. New Jersey (#6) – Eastern Conference
Somebody’s gotta be last, right? It’s not right to declare that teams have no chance of making the finals, because every year, sports tend to tell us otherwise. In hockey alone, we’ve had recent finalists like the ’06 Oilers who probably had no right being in the finals. Can you name one player from that team? Did you even remember that Edmonton made it? Probably not. Granted that was coming off the lockout and more unpredictable than usual, but you get the point. Anyone can make a run, including these two teams.

Why is this the least interesting series starting this week. Well, let’s pose this simple question: How many guys can you name on the Panthers? How many can you name on the Devils that aren’t named Kovalchuk, Brodeur, and Parise? Probably not many, but that’s okay. These just aren’t the most exciting teams. But there is plenty to like in this series. For nostalgia’s sake, we have teams that represented the Eastern Conference in back-to-back finals not too long ago (Jersey swept Detroit in ’95, Florida got swept by Colorado in ’96). If we’re looking at milestones, it’s the first division championship ever for the Panthers in their 18th season of play. If that seems like a long time to wait, Florida fans, don’t feel so bad: Liverpool Football Club is allegedly one of the most stories teams in the world, but we’re on Year 20 of the Premier League and the Reds are still without a title. The last time Florida made the playoffs was 2000, where they lost to, you guessed it, the Devils (in four games).

In terms of what to watch for, of course you want to look at the flashiness of Ilya Kovalchuk, to go along with Zach Parise, and the legend Martin Brodeur in net. Not to mention, some good young players named Adam (Henrique and Larsson). The Panthers? They’re shorter on star power than any other team in the tournament, save for maybe the Coyotes. They have some grinders that get the job done like Ed Jovanovski, Kris Versteeg, former Devil John Madden, Stephen Weiss, Sean Bergenheim, and Marco Sturm (kidding). You could say that defenseman Brian Campbell is their highest profile player, but their goalies are pretty intriguing. Former league MVP Jose Theodore (where did those 10 years go?) should be manning the net for Florida, while their backup is former Devils backup Scott Clemmensen. Some former teammates in new places, a 12-year old playoff matchup renewed, and a couple of teams who have appeared in the finals more recently than blue bloods Toronto and Montreal (let’s hope this is the first of many Canadiens insults of this piece!), maybe this series isn’t as boring as we thought. If this is the least intriguing series, we’re in for a good two months.

7. Phoenix (#3) v. Chicago (#6) – Western Conference
I was seriously considering moving this one up a spot and switching it with the series I have ranked at six. However, 2011 is more relevant than 2010, which gave the next series a slight edge (if that doesn’t make sense now, it will soon). While this isn’t the most star-laden series, Phoenix is better than anyone thinks and will give big-name Chicago a run for its money. Most experts and analysts will peg Ken Hitchcock as the Jack Adams Trophy winner as coach of the year for his spectacular work with St. Louis, but Dave Tippett has to be in the conversation. Having taken Phoenix to the playoffs three years in a row, he’s becoming the Martin Brodeur of the Jack Adams Award: Let’s just assume he’s going to be nominated every year. To the voters’ credit, they did rightfully acknowledge Tippett with the award in 2010. That is not to say this Coyotes team is not talented, because it must possess a certain level of skill and toughness to win the Pacific Division and grab the third seed in a very difficult conference. But we’ll play the same game we did with the Panthers: Name someone on the Coyotes. Casual fans will know Shane Doan, but that’s likely it. What about 39-year old Ray Whitney? Or 25-year old Milton, MA native Keith Yandle? Or Rangers castoffs like Lauri “The Korpedo” Korpikoski and Michal Rozsival? Strong role players, balance on all lines, and strong goaltending from Mike Smith (who Tampa Bay jettisoned in favor of 82-year old Dwayne Roloson) sent them to a Pacific Division crown, unseating the stalwart San Jose Sharks.

What to make of the Blackhawks? They still have firepower in the form of Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. They’re currently waiting on injured captain and all-world superstar Jonathan Toews to return after missing the last couple months of the season with a concussion. And they have a Stanley Cup-winning pedigree, having reached hockey’s holy grail in 2010. They didn’t make it out of the first round last year, although they staged a herculean series comeback, and a Game 7 comeback where Toews said “I’m going to win this game or die trying” and single handedly sent the game into overtime with what is probably my favorite individual effort and goal ever (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNMtSCPw1f4). It was a shame that Chicago’s title defense stopped in overtime of that game, and they’ll surely want to advance further this year than they did last year.

But will Toews be healthy? Will they get production from the bottom lines? Can they shake off a long season of bruising battles in hockey’s toughest division (sorry Atlantic, it’s the Central by a hair). Certainly it’d be good for the sport if a signature, Original Six franchise can make a run. Of course, that’d mean the bastard child Coyotes are pushed out in the first round yet again. Tough to call this one, because it’d be great to see Phoenix finally advance, especially because they’re essentially an ownerless team, unwanted and malnourished. While most people will eyeball this series and chalk it up to a Blackhawk victory, beware of the Desert Dogs and their masterful leader.

6. Boston (#2) v. Washington (#7) – Eastern Conference
This series is neck and neck with CHI-PHO, but as I alluded to earlier, a series involving the defending Stanley Cup champs is, simply by virtue of recency, narrowly more intriguing than the winners of two years ago. Not to mention that the Bruins, while they lack big names like Toews, Kane, and Hossa, do have three players who ply their trade as well as anyone else in the league: Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, and Patrice Bergeron. Thomas and Chara are inarguable, as their regular season and postseason accolades and results speak for themselves. I can see where some may declare Bergeron to be a very good player who isn’t elite, but if you really follow and appreciate Bergeron’s game, you’d know he’s a great player who should finally win the Selke Trophy this year. Just watch the highlights from Game 82, a meaningless one for Boston, to see why. He creates two goals directly from generating turnovers and then scores the shootout winner. In the span of 16 months, he won an Olympic gold medal and scored the game winning goal in Game 7 of the Cup finals. He may not have the same flair, perfect hands, and raw skill as Pavel Datsyuk (my favorite non-Bruin and the league’s best player not on Pittsburgh), but he does all of the same things and means as much to his team.

Please excuse this month’s Bruins rant; I just had to get that off my chest. Plus, it’s maybe the only time you’ll ever hear me praise a French Canadian, so enjoy it while it lasts. Anyways, it’s not just that “Big 3” of the Bruins that makes this series one to watch. As for other things Boston-related, injuries are a factor. Defensemen Johnny Boychuck and Adam McQuaid are banged up, first line winger Nathan Horton is out for the entire tournament, and backup goaltender Tuukka Rask is slowly battling his way back. Plus, there’s the added pressure of being the Cup holders and having everyone trying to pry the glorious chalice from their grasp. If Boston plays like they did in November, they are the favorites. If they play like they did in February, they might win one series, but no more. If they play the way they did in October, they’ll lose 4-1 in the first round. Here’s hoping we get the November/December Bruins, not just for the sake of us Bruins fans, but also for the sake of the league having a deep run from the defending champion.

Alas, the Bruins do have an opponent, and it’s one with some immense talent at the top and grit near the bottom. The Capitals are as enigmatic as they come in the Eastern Conference. From 2008-2011, the Caps won the Southeast Division and cemented their status as favorites, usually along with Pittsburgh, in the conference. Each year, they came up short. In fact, they’re yet to reach the conference finals during the Ovechkin Era. The question was always, Who takes the blame? GM George McPhee repeatedly escaped getting canned, continually saving his ass by making poor acquisitions that he trumpeted as successes, and people were dumb enough to give him the benefit of the doubt and put the blame not on the overall truth that McPhee couldn’t put a balanced team around Ovechkin, but rather blame coach Bruce Boudreau, whoever the goaltender du jour was, and Ovechkin himself. I’d place much of the blame on guys like Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and the defensively challenged, perpetually overrated Mike Green. Postseason failures of this core include falling to Philadelphia in the ’08 first round (7 games), Pittsburgh in the ’09 second round (7 games), Montreal in the ’10 first round (7 games), and an embarrassing sweep at the mercy of the little brother Lightning in ’11. With the exception of last year, they’ve been competitive, a break here or there away from advancing. But they regressed mightily in the regular season, leading to Boudreau’s ouster and and a potential franchise in flux. Only, they have as good a chance as any to pull off a first round upset. The talent of Ovechking, Backstrom, Semin, et al has not gone away, and if Dale Hunter can harness the talent and ingrain his guys with some much needed discipline, they could be on to something. Goaltending is tricky, as injuries may cause the inexperienced yet talented Braden Holtby to assume the role of starter. Of course, Holtby’s first career win came in November 2010 against…the Bruins

Washington beat Boston 3-1 in the season series, so the Caps will have no shortage of confidence. Plus, who doesn’t want to knock off the champs? I’m hoping we see what Washington is made off, as Ovie, Semin, and Backstrom should want to redeem themselves for last year’s stinkbomb and their overall failure to make a deep run. But it won’t be easy, as Thomas, Chara, Bergeron, and the rest of the champs try to duplicate their efforts of last year.

5. New York (#1) v. Ottawa (#8) – Eastern Conference
If we’re looking at trends, I think it’s safe to say the Western Conference has more exciting first round series this year. While some might give Bruins-Caps higher billing, the top seed is always of great interest. I hadn’t thought of this before, but if we’re declaring the Bruins ’11 title more relevant than the Blackhawks ’10 title, then the current regular season, dominated in the East by the Rangers, has to take precedence over Boston, right? Not necessarily, but in this case, I think it fits. The Rangers are similar to the Caps in that they haven’t broken out of second round in recent years and really need to. However, they’re the polar opposite of the Caps in the sense that they’ve been underdogs in recent years and are only now embracing the role of favorite. While a team like Washington has struggled as the favorite and is now an underdog, New York always put up a good fight as an underdog, but is now a favorite, with some high priced talent like Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards and some under the radar winners like Carl Hagelin, Brian Boyle, and Michael Del Zotto. The Rangers have been the cream of the crop in the East for the vast majority of the season, and fully expect to be playing into June. Some have compared them to the Bruins of last year: Four balanced lines that each contribute, disciplined defenders who know when to push up, a coach who demands the most out of his players, and top notch goaltending. Granted, Gaborik is flashier than anyone those Bruins had, and the Rangers had the top seed while the Bruins were 3rd, but the comparisons are pretty fair. And to hear it from my friends in New York, it’s Cup or bust for the ‘Gers.

Do I think they suffer the fate of the ’10 Caps? No. I think it’s fair to say that they’ll beat Ottawa. They have more talent and the superior goalie. But I’m not in the prediction business. I’m here to say that no matter what happens in the series, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza will be heard from. I was thinking of a comparison for Daniel Alfredsson. Within the NHL, I’d have to go with Dave Andreychuk. Many, many years in the league, over a thousand points, but no championship (though he finally got one in 2004). What makes Alfredsson so rare is that he’s spent his entire NHL career with the Senators and has been their captain for a long time now. He’s never been a top-5 player in the league, but he’s a yearly fixture at the All Star Game. Can’t compare him to Steve Nash because he doesn’t have the MVP trophies. Chipper Jones would be a good comparison if Chipper weren’t an MVP and World Series champion. He’s not as prolific as a guy like Charles Barkley or Curtis Martin, so that doesn’t work either. What Alfredsson is, is a franchise-first guy, unafraid to commit to a single franchise for nearly 20 years, always making his teammates better, willing to do whatever it takes. The closest he’s come to winning the Cup was when the Sens lost the ’07 finals to Anaheim, and he may not get there again. What he will do is win over some casual observers during this series with New York. And while the captain is the marquee player for Ottawa, guys like Jason Spezza and defensive stud Erik Karlsson shouldn’t be overlooked as matchup problems for New York coach John Tortorella.

Ultimately, this series comes down to New York taking the first step towards greatness. If they want to establish themselves as a premier team this season and possible future powerhouse, they need to get out of the first round. If the Rangers fall behind in this one, the matchup quickly becomes more intriguing than I have it ranked here. It becomes one to monitor closely as the New York media will heap pressure on the team to win (again, like Boston in ’11), and the national experts will challenge the notion that New York is truly one of the perceived top four teams in the East along with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Boston. The Rangers have sacrificed and played a team-oriented game for 82 contests to get the top seed, and I cannot wait to see what they do with it.

4. St. Louis (#2) v. San Jose (#7) – Western Conference
I love having St. Louis back in the playoffs. They’re such an interesting franchise. Founded in the ’67-’68 season, they made the FINALS in their first three years…and got swept all three times. Between 1968 and 2004 (last season before the lockout), they made the playoffs every year except three, including a whopping 25 straight times from 1980-2004. Since the lockout, they’ve made it once, and got swept in the first round. Well, they’re back. I went to the Kings home opener back in October, and they absolutely destroyed the Blues. It wasn’t a contest, and looked like it’d be a long year for St. Louis. I said to the people I went with, “LA should be exciting, but the team they’re playing, the Blues, have some solid young players and should be fun to watch.” It was a massacre and the St. Louis coach was fired shortly thereafter. Enter Ken Hitchcock and his magic, and off go the Blues. They romped their way through the rest of the season, winning the aforementioned steel cage death match that was the Central Division. There are almost too many solid guys to name on the team (Oshie, Crombeen, Langenbrunner, Arnott, Jackman, Backes), so let’s talk about the goalies. Brian Elliott broke Tim Thomas’s record for save percentage in a season…and he won’t be starting in the playoffs. That honor will go to Jaroslav Halak, a guy who was excellent in the 2010 playoffs and will need to play at that level if the Blues want to advance to the second round for the first time in ten years.

To get past the first round, they only need to beat a team who’s coming off back-to-back conference finals appearances and four straight division titles. They regressed slightly this year, but they still have the horses to score with anyone in the form of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski (who doesn’t love Pav?). The Sharks have to be wondering if it will happen. They’re sort of like the Capitals in the sense that both won four straight division titles, underachieved in the playoffs, and now will assume the underdog role as the 7th seed. Like Washington, we’ll see how San Jose embraces being a lower seed. Will Todd McLellan get axed if they lose? Will any member of the old guard (Thornton, Marleau, Dan Boyle) get dealt? Thing about the Sharks is that because the Kings and Coyotes can’t seem to make the leap, they know they’ll be in contention for the division every year, and will very likely make the playoffs. Maybe this has taken some urgency out of their game in recent years, which would explain continued postseason failures. If that’s the case, maybe they will get the message this season. The window is not open forever. The conference is loaded, and even though the Kings and Stars have squandered opportunities to become the dominant Pacific Division team (Phoenix’s ownership conundrum prevents them from having such hopes), the Sharks have to play like that time is coming soon. Losing to St. Louis will just set the Sharks back further, not to mention give rise to yet another team that’s beaten San Jose in the playoffs.

Along with the top two in my rankings, this one should be bruising. The Blues are the most suffocating team in the league (more than the Bruins, Rangers, and Predators), and will pound San Jose. And while they’re built on the skill of Thornton, Couture, et al, the Sharks can bang with the best of them. It’s going to be an absolute bloodbath, with guys having to earn every inch of space on the ice. It’s the kind of series where both teams say “Oh shit” when they see who they’re matched up with. Blues, you’re finally back, you won your division, and you get stuck facing a team with immense talent that’s won four playoff series in the past two years. Sharks, you’re back for another shot, but instead of a first round cakewalk, you get paired with a team that will beat the crap out of you and run you ragged. The only people not saying “Oh shit” are the neutral fans, and maybe whichever team gets the winner in the second round.

3. Vancouver (#1) v. Los Angeles (#8) – Western Conference
While Vancouver is the prohibitive favorite in this one, it’s not as typical 1-8 matchup. If you asked people before the season where the Kings would finish, most would have had them right in the mix for a top 4 seed and maybe a division title. Poor offense, weak efforts, and inconsistent play forced the Kings to the bottom of the Western playoff heap, as they blew a shot at the Pacific on the final weekend of the season. I live in LA, and trust me, many people around here thought the Kings had a real shot this season to break through. And they still do, despite an underwhelming regular season. A win against the defending conference champions would be huge for the franchise. Jonathan Quick established himself as an elite goalie, up there with guys like Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist, and probably took a step above guys like Jimmy Howard, Carey Price, and Pekka Rinne. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards being reunited should give their offensive more of a punch than it had for the bulk of the season, but remaining consistent and generating opportunities against a wickedly talented Vancouver team will be difficult.

The Montreal Canadiens did not qualify for the playoffs. Who am I going to vitriolically root against this spring? Easy. The Vancouver Canucks. I think last spring’s embellishments, cheap shots, masticating, whining, and overall lack of respect for the sport ensure that I will hate the Canucks for a very, very long time. They’re right there as part of my holy trinity of NHL hatred, along with the Canadiens and Flyers, and at this point I think they’re more unlikable than Philly. But those southwestern Canadian scoundrels won yet another President’s Trophy this year for having the league’s best record, and will again be favorites to emerge from the West. Their skill, balance, and depth should be enough to defeat LA pretty handily, but there are a few issues in play. One, how healthy is Daniel Sedin after missing a string of games with a concussion? And two…is Roberto Luongo going to last? Bobby Lu was downright miserable during four of the seven Cup games last year, and was even held out of the Boston game this year because he’s so openly fragile. Backup Cory Schneider is one of the top two reserve goalies in the league along with Rask, and could step in for Luongo as soon as slick-haired Bobby falters. A Canucks goalie controversy in the middle of the playoffs? Sign me the hell up.

What’s really intriguing about this series is how close the regular season games were between the two. They split four games, with LA being the only team to win a game by more than a goal. The Kings can hang with the Canucks. They need to make some progress as a franchise. The Richards and Carter acquisitions will look foolish if they flounder yet again in the first round (especially if Wayne Simmonds lights it up in Philly). Quick has an opportunity to really cement his place as a perennial Vezina threat. And the Kings could keep growing. But the Canucks can’t allow that to happen. They’re too good to lose in the first round. It’d be a disaster. I don’t necessarily believe that it’d force them to try and trade Luongo (I said “try” because there’d be no takers: http://capgeek.com/players/display.php?id=683), but it’d make things mighty uncomfortable just north of the border. The Sedins, Burrows, and Kesler are a great foundation, but a loss here is a major setback. They’ve been lucky for the past few years, playing in a piss poor division (no other playoff teams this season). Eventually, Edmonton, Colorado, Minnesota, or Calgary is going to get better. The Canucks may have another couple years to cruise through the Northwest, but they can’t play like it. If they slip up in the first few games, on the heels of last season’s Finals meltdown, people in Seattle will be able to hear the screaming.

2. Pittsburgh (#4) v. Philadelphia (#5) – Eastern Conference
Some may find this to be the most interesting, but to me, it’s just barely, by the slightest, a notch below my top ranked series. Let’s chalk it up to the simple fact that I find the Central Division to be greater than the Atlantic Division, and leave it at that. There are endless amounts of potential oozing from this series. Inter-state, inter-divisional rivalry. A brawl just two weeks ago based on the premise that Pittsburgh’s, and perhaps the NHL’s best player, is a little rat who cheap shots other players knowing the referees and league will protect him. The Art Ross Trophy winner and presumptive Hart winner, Evgeni Malkin. A Cup-winning goalie who still has hoards of doubters in Marc-Andre Fleury. A recent Vezina-finalist goalie who thinks he’s Carl Sagan. Claude Giroux trying to prove he’s every bit as good as Malkin. Scott Hartnell somehow not being the biggest instigator in the series (looking at you Matt Cooke, you detestable piece of garbage). There are a couple of fantastic coaches who do not like each other, and rabid fan bases who want blood.

The story with the Penguins is of course, Sidney Crosby. He hasn’t been fully healthy in well over a year, and only recently came back from another concussion. If he can stay healthy, the Penguins are favorites here, not just because they have the higher seed. James Neal had a whale of a year, almost out of nowhere, and Malkin proved that he could carry the load offensively. This is a Penguins team that, after a confusing and shocking playoff loss to Montreal in 2010, dealt with injuries last year in the playoffs and blew a series lead in losing to Tampa Bay. Look for Crosby and Malkin to right the ship and once again become the juggernaut of the conference. They went to the Finals in both 2008 and 2009, winning a thriller in 2009 in the game of Marc-Andre Fleury’s life. It was also the game of Max Talbot’s life…only Talbot now plays for the Flyers. Pittsburgh is much more than Crosby and Malkin, and if they’d had Crosby for the bulk of the year, it’s possible that they would have won the division and not be stuck facing a brutal first round series against Philly.

I’m going to say that the regular season was a disappointment for the Flyers. After taking the division crown last year, they had a major upgrade in net and brought up a slew of rookies (Matt Read, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn) to replace the offense they lost when they shipped Carter and Richards out of town. The division was theirs for the taking, but they could never truly get rolling. A spectacular year from the top line of Giroux, Hartnell, and Jaromir Jagr (I still love Jagr even though he’s a Flyer) still couldn’t propel them to the top. Their shiny new goalie was an inconsistent headcase for the first two thirds of the season and only rounded into form well after his Winter Classic semi-meltdown. And with the emergence of the Rangers, they will now face the one team they probably wanted to avoid in the first round. Peter Laviolette will have his boys prepared, and they’ve won four playoff series in the past two years. It’s a deep, talented team that is a consensus top four team in the East. Logically, that’d put them as a favorite to advance to the second round. The hiccup, though, is that another of the “top four” Eastern teams lies in their path, and only one of them can win the series. As I write this, the puck drops in about an hour, and I think I can already hear the heavy breathing and anticipation coming from western Pennsylvania.

1. Nashville (#4) v. Detroit – Western Conference
For a second, ignore all the violence, grit, and physicality expected from the Keystone Clash. This is where the real drama lies. This series, to me, is the epitome of the Western Conference in this year’s playoffs. I’ve made it clear, by my rankings alone, that the West is likely to produce more intriguing battles. One of the major themes of such battles is the Big Brother v. Little Brother complex that permeates each series, and that concept is embodied in this matchup. Before we dig deeper, a brief note to explain why I view each West series that way. Phoenix, the league’s orphan, a team that’s fought hard to make three straight tournaments but hasn’t escaped Round 1, goes against a team one year removed from winning it all, who has established stars and the dying adoration of casual fans everywhere. I’d say the label fits for them. For the Blues, a fairly storied franchise with no recent playoff success returns after beating out a couple Big Brothers in its own division…only to face the Big Brother of the entire conference over the past few years. LA is another team dying to get out of the first round, and they get the reigning conference champs and the Big Brother of the Northwest Division.

All that brings us to this series. Nashville and Detroit. If San Jose has been the conference alpha dog for the past 2-3 years, Detroit has been the standard for the past 15 years, and counting. Finalists in ’08 and ’09, winning it all in ’08. They’ve made the postseason every year since 1991, and never seem to be low on talent. They have Pavel Datsyuk, who I can’t say enough about. Henrik Zetterberg. Johan Franzen. Tomas Holmstrom. Nick Lidstrom. And when it seems like those guys are all getting old, they throw out guys like Niklas Kronwall, Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm, and Jiri Hudler. They just always seem to keep chugging along, year after year. And now they have a very good goalie in Jimmy Howard to go along with their usual mix of skill, heart, toughness, and depth. The Red Wings are so stable that there never seems to be a looming threat of breaking up the band if things don’t go the way they want. Win or lose, one has to believe GM Ken Holland, Coach Mike Babcock, Howard, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and most others will be back. Yet, they hold themselves to such a high standard, that losing in the first round would be a major disappointment, because it’s just something the Red Wings aren’t accustomed to. There’s just so much to like about Detroit, and all you need to know is that if I wasn’t a diehard Bruins fan, the Wings would be my next favorite team.

You’re probably saying to yourself “How the hell is Nashville interesting?” And I get it. Not a household franchise with big name stars. Well, they have a few. Shea Weber is the odds on favorite for the Norris Trophy. Ryan Suter is an odds on favorite for a massive contract this summer. And Pekka Rinne is mutant-like in stature, ballerina-like in motion, and Brodeur-like in ability. He’s been an elite goalie for a few years now, but people don’t notice because he plays in Tennessee. Weber and Suter are as shut-down and bruising as they come on defense, but don’t get noticed by casual observers. Up front, stalwarts like Martin Erat, Jordin Tootoo, and David Legwand grind things out and put up enough goals to win games. But the Nashville intrigue is rooted in the franchise’s future. At the conclusion of this season, more than half of their team becomes either restricted or unrestricted free agents, including Tootoo, the Kostitsyn brothers, Paul Gaustad, Alex Radulov, and most importantly, Weber and Suter. I give Nashville all the credit in the world in not trading Suter and going for it this year, knowing very well that he might not sign as an unrestricted free agent. Even Weber, the captain, has said he’s basing his decision based on this year’s playoff run. Rather than establish a perennial contender, they are potentially holding out for bigger paydays in flashier markets, and that’s a terrifying prospect for Nashville fans. This series could become a battle for the entire Predators franchise. Win, and they knock off Big Brother and conference bully Detroit while advancing to the conference semifinals with some momentum. Lose, and the entire team could be disbanded, sending them in a downward spiral for the foreseeable future. No team, not Vancouver, nor New York, nor San Jose, has as much at stake this spring than Nashville. All they have to do to ensure a strong future is beat Big Brother, a Detroit team that doesn’t know the meaning of losing in the first round. This is the one to watch.

It’s the best postseason of any sport, and it starts tonight. Enjoy.