NHL playoffs are anybody's game under salary cap

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Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane are as good as hockey players get. Their teammates are pretty good, too.

Coach Darryl Sutter and the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last season as a eighth seed. Tonight, as a fifth seed, they open the playoffs against St. Louis.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Coach Darryl Sutter and the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last season as a eighth seed. Tonight, as a fifth seed, they open the playoffs against St. Louis.

In the NHL playoffs, that guarantees nothing.

Superstars and teams that were successful in the regular season get sent home regularly because seedings are relatively irrelevant. Los Angeles proved that last year, becoming the first No. 8 seed to hoist a Stanley Cup. Since the salary cap became part of the league’s landscape after a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, seven teams have won NHL titles and no franchise has done it twice.

“The salary cap makes it an even playing field,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter, whose team begins its quest to repeat tonight in St. Louis. “Everybody has a chance.”

Crosby, Pittsburgh’s star forward, might not be cleared to help the top-seeded Penguins on Wednesday night at home against the New York Islanders, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Crosby practiced Monday, but he hasn’t played in a month because of a broken jaw.

The Penguins have proven they can win without Sid The Kid, especially with Brenden Morrow, Jossi Jokinen and Jarome Iginla on their loaded roster.

The Penguins closed the season strong, but they weren’t as successful as the Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals.

After a slow start with rookie coach Adam Oates, the Southeast Division champions won 11 of their past 13 games to earn the third seed in the East and a first-round matchup with the sixth-seeded New York Rangers.

Ovechkin finished the season with an NHL-high 32 goals after scoring a league-record 14 times in April to become the first player to win the Richard Trophy three times in the 13 seasons it has been awarded to the season leader in goals.

Chicago hopes to change its fortunes in the playoffs after following up its first Stanley Cup in 49 years with back-to-back first-round exits.

The Blackhawks were the best team in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season. They started with an NHL record 24-game points streak and closed with a league-high 77 points – five more than Pittsburgh – by rolling four lines, three pairs of defensemen and two goaltenders who were tough to beat.

“We knew we had to get off to a hot start with the short season,” Kane said. “It went by pretty fast, that’s for sure. It seems like it’s January or February still.”

The top-seeded Blackhawks open the playoffs tonight against eighth-seeded Minnesota, which hopes its
$98 million free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter can provide a quick return to the franchise’s investment.

For the first time since 1996, each of the NHL’s Original Six teams – Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and the Rangers – are in the playoffs.

Toronto earned a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and fifth-seeded Maple Leafs will match up with fourth-seeded the Bruins. The second-seeded Canadiens will face seventh-seeded Ottawa in the East.

In the West, Detroit extended its franchise record postseason streak to 22, the fifth-longest in league history. The Red Wings finished well enough to avoid a first-round matchup with the Blackhawks to perhaps move into a winnable series against second-seeded Anaheim, who they beat in their last two meetings by a combined score of 7-2.

Vancouver, the only team to repeat as a division champion, is the West’s third-seeded team and is matched up with sixth-seeded San Jose.

While the Kings showed if you get in, you can win, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said it takes more than good fortune to survive perhaps the most grueling postseason in professional sports.

“You don’t win in the end without talent, don’t kid yourself,” Babcock said. “They had a great team.”


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