ARJUNA THIYANAVDIVEL

Put away your razors. That’s right; it is that time of year again.

As the cheesy NHL playoffs commercials have arrived once again, fans can forget about the shortened season, as the real challenge is coming.

Eastern Conference                                                

As expected, the Pittsburgh Penguins have dominated the regular season, but that might not be enough to ensure a Stanley Cup. With the additions of Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, the Pens will enter this year’s playoffs with more experience and poise. But the real issue has been the Penguins’ defense. Known for breaking down in the post-season, Kris Letang and other defensemen will feel a little more pressure than last year. But there is no doubt “Sid the Kid”, will be equal to the task.

One team that wasn’t expected to dominate the Eastern Conference was the Montreal Canadiens. A very different team last year, the Canadiens silenced the critics with a winning percentage above .600. However, some critics still have comments about their upcoming playoff performance. Outscoring their opponents on most occasions, can we expect the same against a powerhouse like the Boston Bruins? Who can we expect to score the game-tying goal in the third period? It’s questionable to consider them a top team in the league, but they sure won’t be going down without a fight.

There’s no doubt the Maple Leafs have been impressive, given their history. Entering the season, you probably didn’t expect the current Maple Leaf players to be in the lineup. Toronto is definitely one of the feistier teams in the league, but their defensive performance is what makes them a serious underdog in these playoffs. Yes, they have Phil Kessel coming down the right wing and Dion Phaneuf with a rocket, but is can they make a top penalty kill? That is a bet we all lost money on. Nearing their first playoff entry in nearly a decade, what else can we expect from the Leafs?

Just when you think they’re out of it, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are knocking on the door once again. One of the leaders in goals, Ovechkin has done the dirty work for his club, pulling them back into playoff contention. If they qualify for the post-season, they certainly won’t be the top team like before. But if their late season success can pull them into a playoff spot, expect them to be a contender.

Other teams who will scramble towards the finish line are the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers and New York Islanders. Their fate is yet to be written.

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks are definitely the strongest team entering the post-season. A team filled with superstars such as Patrick Kane, it’s hard to imagine them disappointing. Johnathan Toews has impressed as well, having reached the 20-goal mark in the shortened season. The only real issue this team carries is its goaltending support. With Corey Crawford and Ray Emery between the pipes, this team has put that issue to sleep. Whether they win the cup or not, Chicago is going to create big buzz across the league.

One of the Blackhawk’s biggest competitors are the Anaheim Ducks. Having locked up stars Ryan Getzlaf and Cory Perry for the next eight years, they are the only team that defeated Chicago in the regular season. Along with Getzlaf and Perry, this team has everything to be successful:  a Norris trophy candidate in Francois Beauchemin, two strong goaltenders in Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, and a strong power forward in Bobby Ryan. But one issue that has many scratching their heads is their consistency in the last few years. Jumping from the basement of the league last year to the top five in their conference this year, this is not a team you want to bet on. However, the New Jersey Devils proved us wrong last year, so why can’t the Ducks?

Another team in California is the Los Angeles Kings, the former Stanley Cup champions. Barely making the playoffs last year, the team crushed their opponents to win the cup. This involved two sweeps in a row. With Anze Kopitar and the underachieving Drew Doughty, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a Stanley Cup repeat, but this team has proved to be a party. Can they pull off another surprise?

The only competitive Canadian team in the West is the Vancouver Canucks. With a disappointing loss in the 2011 Finals, the team wasn’t able to redeem themselves in the following year. Their power play has been an absolute disaster at times. But this may soon come to an end with the return of Ryan Kesler. One of the best two-way forwards in the league, Kesler fills in that second line role that the Canucks were in dire need of. One place where Kesler will be required is on the back end of the power play, where he has been dearly missed. With the departure of Sami Salo and Christian Ehrhoff, this team is definitely missing the spark they once had. But with the expectations lowered for this club, we can expect a more realistic push from them.

Other teams in need of points are San Jose, St. Louis, Minnesota, Dallas, Detroit and Columbus. What the future has in for these teams? Only time can tell.