NEW YORK, N.Y. - The Vancouver Canucks carry the NHL's best record into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second year in a row. The New York Rangers are on top of the Eastern Conference for the first time since they won it all in 1994.
But the team many are picking to carry the Cup this year is the Pittsburgh Penguins—the No. 4 seed in the East that is supremely dangerous with healthy stars Sidney Crosby and league scoring champion Evgeni Malkin roaming the ice.
Judging by how the Philadelphia Flyers and the Rangers have been sniping with their divisional foe, they clearly have taken notice of the powerful Penguins.
Just in the final week of the season, the Penguins have gotten into scraps with their two biggest rivals that have ended with hefty fines for the opposing coaches.
Philadelphia's Peter Laviolette was hit with a $10,000 fine for his actions on the bench that nearly led to a fight with his Pittsburgh counterparts, and then for calling Penguins coach Dan Bylsma "gutless."
John Tortorella of the Rangers was docked $20,000 for remarks he made after New York's loss on Thursday in which forward Derek Stepan was injured by a knee-to-knee hit from Penguins forward Brooks Orpik.
Tortorella's costly rant featured shots directed toward Crosby and Malkin.
"I wonder what would happen if we did it to their two whining stars over there," he said. "They whine about this stuff all of the time, and look what happens? It's ridiculous. But they'll whine about something else over there, won't they?"
The playoffs begin Wednesday night with three games.
Not often is a sport's biggest star also its biggest target, but Crosby has become that. Even commentator Mike Milbury, a former NHL player, coach and general manager, didn't hold back in ripping Sid the Kid.
Back for this year's playoffs after a concussion kept him out of last year's post-season and 60 games this season, Crosby is dealing with criticism and griping that Michael Jordan never experienced in his NBA heyday.
"The level of passion, emotion and gamesmanship can never be overestimated," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "People who follow the game closely understand it's just noise.
"My guess is Sidney Crosby is still the most popular player, and has legions of fans of all ages in multiple countries. The fact that somebody may take a pot shot is a price of greatness."
The Penguins are counting on that greatness being on full display when they take on the Flyers beginning Wednesday night in the most anticipated first-round matchup and beyond. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in points in the overall NHL standings, but they are locked in a 4 vs. 5 matchup just to get out of the first round in the East.
The top-seeded Rangers lost their final two games of the regular season, missing an opportunity to claim the Presidents' Trophy for first overall in the league, and ending up in a first-round best-of-seven meeting with the Ottawa Senators, who won three of four from them (1-2-1).
"They're a very talented team," Rangers forward Brad Richards said. "I know we played them twice early in the season. The regular-season schedule ... lots of teams can beat anybody on any certain night.
"We plan on making it different for them when we start on Thursday."
The New Jersey Devils are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence following 13 consecutive appearances, and will face the Southeast Division-winning Florida Panthers, who are in after a league-worst 10 straight seasons on the outside.
Despite having an eight-point edge over the Panthers, the sixth-seeded Devils will cede home-ice advantage to Florida, which is seeded third because of its first division title. New Jersey had the misfortune of finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division despite posting 102 points (48-28-6).
Almost forgotten are the Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions who managed to stay under the radar this season and coast to a 10-point win over Ottawa in the Northeast Division.
The Bruins have been overshadowed by the resurgent Rangers, who went from the No. 8 seed a year ago to the top this time, and the high-powered Penguins. But Boston is still a major threat.
With six 20-goal scorers in addition to star defenceman Zdeno Chara and leading goalie Tim Thomas, last year's playoff MVP, a repeat by the Bruins is hardly out of the question. They will start with the usually powerful Washington Capitals, who needed a late surge just to get in as the No. 7 seed.
"We've learned enough from the experience from last year," said Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins' second-leading scorer. "It was a battle. It was a grind for two months. I think we're ready to start that all over again. It starts from square one.
"It's all about the first game and the first series, thinking about that, nothing else. I think it's pretty much the same as last year."
Perhaps having low expectations will help the Capitals, who were swept in the second round of last year's playoffs by upstart Tampa Bay after coming in as the No. 1 seed in the East.
Vancouver nearly made the most of its top seeding last spring, falling just short of its first title with a Game 7 loss to Boston in the finals.
The Canucks were every bit of a force in their run to another first-place finish in the West with an NHL-high 111 points. They grabbed a second straight Presidents' Trophy on the final night of the season by beating Edmonton after the Rangers had lost to Washington.
Now they want to take that last step and bring the Cup to western Canada.
"We know we're going to be judged kind of how we do in the playoffs," Canucks forward Ryan Kesler said. "Now the real season begins. It's going to be a good test, this first round, for us."
The Canucks will take on Los Angeles, which got through a logjam in the Pacific Division to claim the final spot out West.
Vancouver would get a major boost if Daniel Sedin is able to play from the get-go. Sedin, out since March 21 because of a concussion, practiced with his teammates on Monday but then didn't on Tuesday. He instead chose to skate after practice was over, and then didn't speak to reporters.
"It's a unique injury, and he will continue the protocol," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday. "When he's ready to play, he'll address you. Until that time, he won't talk to you."
The St. Louis Blues are hoping to make plenty of noise to cap off their stunning season.
After a 6-7 start led to the firing of coach Davis Payne, the Blues took off under veteran bench boss Ken Hitchcock, went 43-15-11 the rest of the way, and flirted with No. 1 status until the season's final days.
St. Louis won the Central Division, claimed the No. 2 seed that came with it, and will face off with the disappointing San Jose Sharks in the first round.
Like the Capitals, the Sharks have had many unfulfilled playoff seasons when so much was expected with little payoff. San Jose is another team that had to claw just to get in, but now that the Sharks have made it, perhaps their experience will finally pay off.
The Blues did their damage in a tough division that includes perennial powerhouse Detroit, and the ever-improving Nashville Predators. The Red Wings will take on the Predators in a 4 vs. 5 series, and will be hard-pressed to advance. Nashville is a threat to make a run because of No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne.
Although the Red Wings amassed 100 points for the 12th straight season, the perception is they have had a down year.
"It seems like a normal season for us," captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "We had a real streak going with home wins, but we didn't play as well on the road as we would like.
"We're in a strong division, having Nashville and St. Louis that are two teams ahead of us."
The remaining Western series pits No. 6 Chicago, another Central Division club, against the Phoenix Coyotes, who won a division title for the first time since relocating from Winnipeg in 1996. The Coyotes haven't won a playoff series since their move to the desert.