To borrow an NHL slogan from seasons past, the biggest question heading into this year’s post-season can be simply summed up as: Is this the year?
Is this the year the Detroit Red Wings and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins give other teams a chance to play for the Stanley Cup?
If so, will the San Jose Sharks finally step up in the Western Conference and live up to their lofty regular-season marks and shake their underachieving reputation?
If not, will the upstart Chicago Blackhawks or surprising Phoenix Coyotes unseat the Red Wings, who won the Cup in 2008 against the Penguins and then fell in seven games a year ago in the rematch.
The answers will begin to unfold Wednesday night when the 16-team Stanley Cup tournament gets under way with four games. Three other series will start Thursday, and the Central Division-champion Blackhawks will host the Nashville Predators on Friday in Game 1 of that Western matchup.
San Jose finished first in the West last year and was knocked out in the first round by No. 8 Anaheim. The Sharks (51-20-11) finished on top again with 113 points and will try to advance against Colorado, back in the playoffs after a one-year absence.
“I don’t think we can look at any numbers because for the past so many years we supposedly have been better than anybody in the league and we came short,” goalie Evgeni Nabokov said. “All the numbers, all the talk does not really matter. We have to come out and win the hockey games. That’s the only way we can get away from all those talks.”
If the Sharks do get past the Avalanche, they could face Detroit in the second round.
“You’ve got to catch fire,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said of the recipe for success. “Sometimes you’re not great in the early rounds, but you’ve got to catch fire. There’s got to be a belief system, and you need role players to step up and your best players to be good.
“It’s a great, great trophy. It’s the summer of your life when you get to touch that thing and get your name put on that thing and share it with your family. It’s a prize worth chasing. It’s hard to win, which makes it so special.”
The Red Wings will face the Coyotes in the first round. Phoenix hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2002, joining the Los Angeles Kings for the longest gap between appearances for this year’s qualifiers. The No. 6 Kings will meet the No. 3 Vancouver Canucks, who won the Northwest Division.
The Penguins should face serious challenges out East as they begin their quest for a third straight trip to the finals. The most obvious threat to fourth-seeded Pittsburgh on paper appears to be the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, who posted an NHL-best 121 points.
Pittsburgh entered the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to win the Atlantic Division and the No. 2 seed, but a loss to also-ran Atlanta on Saturday ruined those hopes. Now the Penguins are assured of home-ice advantage in only the first round against the Ottawa Senators.
“We just know what is expected of each other,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who scored a career-high 51 goals this season. “Everyone gets a pretty good idea when you go through that many games and adversity and all those things together. The expectations are high within this room, and having that familiarity with what we need to do is important.”
Don’t write off the Penguins just yet. Pittsburgh was the No. 4 seed in 2009 and took out No. 2 Washington in the second round.
“I’m certainly not looking forward to playing them,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I hope they lose in the first round. If we have to play them, we have to play them. I think the road has to go through them. They’re the champions. No reason to think they can’t do it again. They got the same cast of characters.”
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin ceded his hold on the Maurice Richard Trophy, given each season to the NHL’s top goal scorer, after a two-year reign. Ovechkin, the league MVP the past two seasons, finished one goal behind Crosby and Tampa Bay youngster Steven Stamkos.
Ovechkin trails Crosby in several areas, most importantly in the championship department. In the past 12 months, Crosby has captured the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal — two things that have eluded the Russian star.
“I think he’s like any other player, he gets excited for the playoffs and will ramp it up a little bit,” Boudreau said of Ovechkin.
With a loaded offensive lineup that includes high-flying forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, and top-scoring defenceman Mike Green, Washington is primed to make a long run. The Capitals’ path starts Thursday against the No. 8 Montreal Canadiens, who didn’t secure a playoff spot until Saturday.
The final three places in the East weren’t decided until the last two days of the season. The Boston Bruins, last year’s top-seeded team, nabbed sixth place on Saturday and earned a first-round meeting with the Northeast Division-winning Buffalo Sabres.
The No. 7 Philadelphia needed even more time — a shootout win on Sunday over the New York Rangers in win or go home game. The Flyers jumped over Montreal with that victory and into a first-round matchup with the second-seeded New Jersey Devils, who edged the Penguins for the Atlantic title.
The Devils are in the playoffs for the 13th straight season, the second-longest current streak in the league to Detroit’s 19 consecutive appearances.
Philadelphia played poorly down the stretch and nearly missed the playoffs after being considered an early Stanley Cup contender. The Flyers should carry confidence and momentum into the series with the Devils, a team they beat in four of six meetings this season.
“We’re going to have to pay attention and look at the tapes to see how they gave us such a tough time,” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said.