Ah, that most wonderful time of year has come around again. It may be spring-type weather outdoors but it remains the dead of winter in one crucial place - the hockey rink. Yes, the NHL playoffs have arrived.
For fans in Montreal, this is the be all, end all of existence. A federal election debate has actually been postponed in the city so as not to interefere with game one of the Canadiens first-round series against Boston.
Nashville Predators fans are no doubt buzzing with nervous anticipation. This is the Predators sixth appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs since their inception in 1998, but they have yet to win a playoff series or even play in a game seven. As the fifth seeded Predators face off against the Anaheim Ducks, the Nashville faithful ask, could this be the year?
But while the Predators would be thrilled just to win one playoff series, the Red Wings fan base has come to mark playoff time on the calendar as an annual event. This is Detroit's 20th consecutive postseason appearance, extending its NHL record. To put that into perspective, the Persian Gulf war was in its beginnings the last time the Red Wings were on the golf course this time of year.
So as one might expect, Red Wings fans have gotten somewhat complacent over the years. The typical Red Wing fan says 'wake me when it's the conference finals' and perhaps for good reason. The regular season has long been rendered virtually meaningless for Red Wings fans. Some seasons have seen Detroit finish with the regular season's best record only to fall in the first round of the playoffs. Other years, the Red Wings finished in fourth place of the conference yet won the Stanley Cup.
So it's understandable that some Red Wings fans may not want to emotionally invest themselves in the team until it's do or die time. However, if there was a time to pay attention to Detroit in the first round, it's this year.
This Red Wings team is not a group of world beaters that you would expect to roll into the conference finals unhindered. They aren't a beat up, tired team that necessarily seems primed for an early exit either.
For the first time since the NHL lockout, the Detroit Red Wings are a mystery.
The third place Western Conference finish saw Detroit surpass the 100 point mark yet again, but this year it's a bit deceiving. The majority of Detroit's victories came in the first half of the season with the team steadily in decline since the all-star break.
The 104 point season seems great, until you go down the list and find that No. 8 seed Chicago is just seven points (or 3.5 wins) back, rendering any perceived advantage in higher seeding virtually meaningless.
On one hand, with some subtle changes, this is the same Red Wings team that made back to back Stanley Cup Finals appearances before fizzling out in the second round last season. They're just more rested now.
On the other hand, the goaltending isn't quite as strong with second year goaltender Jimmy Howard as it was with veteran Chris Osgood, and the defense has been prone to massive breakdowns at key points.
No one wants to point to 40-year-old, Nick Lidstrom for the brunt of the blame. While Lidstrom's offensive numbers are as good as ever, his defense has in fact suffered notably. If plus-minus is the telling defensive stat, check out Lidstrom's minus 2, a career worst and the first time in the future hall of famer's career he has had a negative plus-minus number.
Detroit's goal scoring is as good as ever, but no team has ever won the Stanley Cup by simply having a hot offense. Red Wings fans should know that better than anyone. Miikka Kiprusoff ring a bell? How about Dwayne Roloson or Jean-Sebastien Giguere? All were able to shut down the NHL's best offense in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
It should also be noted that Detroit's leading scorer, Henrik Zetterberg, is out for at least game one with an unspecified lower body injury.
The Phoenix Coyotes are Detroit's first round opponent for the second consecutive year. Ilya Bryzgalov isn't a world beater in goal, but he's formidable nonetheless and the Coyotes muck-it-up style of play proved frustrating last year and likely will again this year.
So why should Red Wings fans pay attention in the first round?
Given how Detroit has played the last couple months, despite the quality of players on the ice, this could be a quick exit year. So yes, this may be our last glimpse of this team as we know it. Lidstrom's contract is up at the end of the season and he may decide to hang up the skates. That's huge. When Lidstrom goes, general manger Ken Holland may decide it's time for a massive change and push for a youth movement.
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg may become the veterans on a team seeking to rebuild through the draft and young free agents.
When Lidstrom hangs up the skates, Detroit will no longer be annual championship contenders.
So pay attention this year, and take the time to appreciate what the Red Wings have accomplished these past 20 seasons.
Before Lidstrom, the Red Wings were known better as the 'dead things'. Now they are the envy of the league. Can they continue that reign without him? Now that will be cause to pay attention to the regular season.