Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler (17) celebrates a Daniel Sedin, not visible, goal against Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Wednesday, March 23, 2011. Vancouver won 2-1. (AP Photo/ Paul Sancya)
NEW YORK, N.Y. - The Detroit Red Wings know what it's like to carry such expectations into the post-season. The Vancouver Canucks do not.
That's what makes the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs as wide open as can be.
While the top of the NHL standings seems settled, much is to be decided at the bottom of the Eastern and Western conferences. It promises to be a frantic final 2 1/2 weeks that will determine who gets the first crack to knock off the Canucks, Red Wings and other prime contenders.
"Obviously, if we're going to wind up on top of the conference, we should be the favourites," said NHL leading scorer Daniel Sedin of the Canucks. "If we can play this good for 82 games, we should be able to do it in the playoffs."
The Canucks stretched their lead over the Red Wings to 10 points Wednesday night with a 2-1 win at Detroit. Vancouver is up by eight points on Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia, looking to wrap up its first Presidents' Trophy.
However, finishing first overall doesn't guarantee playoff success—especially for a team that isn't used to a target on its back.
"You see their record, you don't win every night by accident," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, a Stanley Cup champion and three-time finalist. "But what the measure is going to be for them is what they do in playoff time—just like it is for us."
The Red Wings have captured the Presidents' Trophy, given to the team with the best regular-season record, six times since it was created for the 1985-86 season. They went on to win the Stanley Cup only twice.
There have been just seven teams in 24 seasons to win both trophies. The Red Wings have as many titles—two—in years they didn't nab the Presidents' Trophy as those in which they did.
In the East last year, the conference finals featured the seventh-seeded Flyers, who didn't secure a playoff spot until winning a shootout on the final day of the season, and the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
The Flyers aren't facing anywhere near that kind of drama this year. Their only concern is staying in first over the hard-charging Washington Capitals, who were just one point back Thursday with eight games remaining—two fewer than Philadelphia.
Washington, and star captain Alex Ovechkin, know all too well about playoff pitfalls following a stellar regular season. The Capitals had the NHL's best record this time last year before being bounced out by the Canadiens in the first round despite holding a 3-1 series lead.
The Canadiens are trying to hold off the New York Rangers for sixth in the East. New York has opened a bit of a cushion as it looks to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. The Rangers started Thursday three points behind Montreal, but only three points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres and six in front of the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes, who are on the outside looking in.
New York lost that season-ending shootout to Philadelphia last year and missed the playoffs by that scant point. The Rangers carried a season-best, five-game winning streak into Thursday night's game against Ottawa.
"Continuing to get points will lock down that playoff spot, and everything else is a bonus," forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "We knew we had to get on a bit of a roll to create separation and solidify our playoff spot."
The Sabres have played well down the stretch. With star goalie Ryan Miller leading the way, they easily could be this year's eighth-seeded upstart to scare—and even beat—the powerhouses.
"The playoff race is great. It's been great for hockey, it's been real good for us," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "The compete level inside the games has been awesome because there hasn't been a team that's been out of it. Every team is right there."
With teams having anywhere from eight to 10 games left before the season ends April 10, only six of 30 entered Thursday more than 10 points out of a playoff spot. There were 20 teams within five points.
In the West, 10th-place Calgary was only 10 points behind No. 2 Detroit and three points out of fifth. None of that will matter if they can't get over the hump into the top eight.
"You look at that three through eight and that can really change the next two weeks," said forward Dany Heatley of the third-place San Jose Sharks. "You want to have the highest seed as possible, obviously, for home ice and things like that.
"As far as who your matchup is going to be, it's going to be a tough series no matter who it is."
How the playoff contenders stack up in order of the standings:
Philadelphia—The Atlantic Division-leaders have been on top for a long time. Despite a swoon in recent weeks, the Flyers seem safe to hang on for the division title and should be no worse than the No. 2 seed.
Washington—After an up-and-down stretch, the Capitals have found their stride and have barely lost at all recently. Ovechkin has found his scoring touch, and with a chip on their shoulders, the Capitals could be poised for a long post-season run.
Boston—The Bruins are looking back at the Canadiens, who are trying to catch them for the Northeast Division title. Tim Thomas is a serious contender to be the NHL's top goalie for the second time in three seasons. He will have to be that good if Boston hopes to make noise in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh—The injury-depleted Penguins could be the most intriguing club down the stretch. Already without Evgeni Malkin for the rest of the season and playoffs, Pittsburgh has done an amazing job maintaining a solid playoff position despite the absence of Sidney Crosby since Jan. 5. If Crosby can shake off the effects of his concussion, the Penguins might be a No. 5 seed on paper but a legitimate title threat.
Tampa Bay—The Lightning are limping to the finish line. Their playoff spot isn't in danger, but they have seen the Capitals blow past them for first place in the Southeast Division. If they can get it together in time, the Lightning have enough offensive firepower to make their first playoff appearance since 2007 a good one.
Montreal—The Canadiens' playoff seeding should be better than last year, but they don't really seem to have the same juice to be the same surprising threat.
New York Rangers—Playing their best hockey of the season, the Rangers seem poised to hold off the teams behind them and get back into the playoffs.
Buffalo—Will need to keep up their recent good play to edge out the Hurricanes.
Carolina—Withstood the threat of upstart New Jersey, which had only a handful of losses since December, to stay in the thick of the race. But the Hurricanes seem to be running out of steam as they chase Buffalo and New York.
Vancouver—Has been solidly on top for weeks. Now the Canucks will try to carry Canada's hopes. The last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was Montreal in 1993.
Detroit—Totally comfortable entering the playoffs as the No. 2 seed. The Red Wings would surprise no one if they reached the Stanley Cup finals for the third time in four years.
San Jose—Perennial playoff disappointments look to change their image with Antti Niemi in goal. Niemi backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks' to the title last year, and the Sharks hope he is the difference for them this time around.
Phoenix—Despite unsettled ownership issues, the Coyotes aim to be a solid playoff team again. Like every team in the middle of the Western pack, their position is tenuous. Still, Phoenix could create a scare as it did to Detroit last year.
Chicago—With a lot of the guts from last year's title team spread out around the NHL because of salary cap issues, the Blackhawks hope to reclaim the magic with new faces. The core remains, but an injury to leading goal-scorer Patrick Sharp could derail hopes of a repeat.
Los Angeles, Nashville, Anaheim—Only one point separated the three teams entering Thursday. Pekka Rinne has had a Vezina Trophy-like season for the Predators, and that kind of goaltending is often what separates playoff hopefuls down the stretch. Anaheim has Jonas Hiller back in goal after a bout with vertigo. He can spell Ray Emery, who became an unlikely helpful understudy.
Dallas—Took a big hit, in the standings and emotionally, when they gave up the tying goal to Anaheim in the closing seconds of regulation and the winning goal in overtime on Wednesday. Instead of being two points ahead of the Ducks and in eighth place, the Stars dropped one point behind into ninth.
Calgary—With only six games remaining, the Flames must figure they need to win them all to get in even though their deficit was only two points.