The puck deflects over the net as Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller, of Switzerland, and Vancouver Canucks' Alex Burrows look on during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 25, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
VANCOUVER - At the start of this lockout-shortened NHL season, fans were told repeatedly to expect the unexpected.
The same advice could hold true in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Chicago Blackhawks earned top contender status on the basis of their season-opening 24-game point streak and a first-overall finish, but there is no shortage of teams in the West good enough to make the Stanley Cup final.
"I don't think there's three teams where you can say these are the favourites," said Vancouver Canucks defenceman Keith Ballard.
He was talking about the NHL as a whole, but might as well have been discussing the West.
"People like Chicago, but L.A.'s a good team," said Ballard. "St. Louis is a real good team. There's a lot of teams that, I think, that are just about the same as everybody else."
The standings back up his claim.
A total of 17 points separated the Blackhawks and eighth-place Minnesota Wild, who will be their first-round opponent. The second-place Anaheim Ducks bettered the seventh-place Detroit Red Wings, their opening-round opposition by 10 points, but only four points separated the teams seeded third through seventh.
The Ducks rated as one of the biggest surprises this season, grabbing the No. 2 seed in the West a year after missing the playoffs with the same core group.
"I don't like to brag, but I expected us to make the playoffs," said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. "I thought the team was going to make the playoffs from Day 1."
Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks, who reached the Stanley Cup final two years ago, have been tagged as underdogs because of an inconsistent season and first-round elimination a year ago. But Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, whose team will face the No. 6 San Jose Sharks, thinks the description fits.
"If we play (Chicago or L.A.) in the conference final or something like that, then maybe we're going to be underdogs," said Sedin.
"I think, in the first round, (prognosticators) are still going to talk about us as favourites. We know it's a tough conference. You could have 10, 11 teams in this conference winning the whole thing, but there are only eight of us who can make it, and they're all really good teams."
Sedin added that while the Canucks might be viewed differently in other cities, the club still faces high expectations at home.
"In Vancouver, people still look at us as having a shot at it," said Sedin.
The expectations are particularly high in Vancouver's dressing room, even though they fell well short of a third consecutive Presidents' Trophy title.
"Those expectations have been there for the last few years, and they're not going to change this year," said winger Alex Burrows. "We're healthy compared to last year. We've got guys that are coming back here (from injuries.) So, hopefully, we'll be having a really good run in the spring."
Goaltender Cory Schneider status has been the biggest health-related question in Vancouver, but he returned to practice Monday after missing a week with an undisclosed ailment.
If Schneider can't go, Roberto Luongo will get the start in Game 1 on Wednesday, adding another chapter to an intriguing season after an anticipated trade last summer, and during the season, did not come through.
"We've got two really good goalies," said Ballard. "I don't know we really can sum it up any more than that. People like to call it a controversy, and what have you, all season, and we like to think of it as a distraction, not as an issue."
And then there are the Sharks, who have a red-hot goalie of their own in Antti Niemi and a renewed sense of confidence after a first-round exit in 2011-12 following two consecutive trips to the Western Conference final.
"I think we've got more of an identity right now," Sharks winger Tommy Wingels said. "We really do. In the past 15, 20 games we found what really made us successful and that's playing the north-south game."
"The (team's) makeup is different," added Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "We're playing a bit of a different game than we did back then, a game that is more suited to the type of lineup we have. The confidence level is better than it was last year at this time.
"Last year, we had to do the same thing, we really had to play well down the stretch. But we've been playing a better game for a longer period now. We've had more unity for our team as far as lines and pairings than last year."
Only one point separated the fourth-place St. Louis Blues and fifth-place Los Angeles, who will face each other in the first round.
The Blues, who pride themselves on grit and strong defensive play, have quietly posted 29 wins, the third-highest total (shared by Montreal) between Chicago and Pittsburgh (both 36) and Anaheim (30).
The Ducks struggled down the stretch, when they had little to play for after securing the No. 2, and only went 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. But Ducks winger Andrew Cogliano believes such struggles were typical of many teams at the end of the shortened season.
"I think when it comes to playoffs, everybody is going to be on the same page," he said. "And whoever's ready will be off to a good start."