Race to Stanley Cup one of the most wide open in years

Tue Apr 14, 2015 1:17pm EDT
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By Frank Pingue

(Reuters) - The two-month Stanley Cup playoff race begins this week boasting one of the most wide open fields in recent memory, with some perennial powerhouses having failed to qualify and very little separating the contenders.

The absence of the Los Angeles Kings, who became the first Stanley Cup champions to miss the playoffs in their defending season since 2007, and Boston Bruins, who won it all in 2011 and had the best record last year, has given hope to many others.

Playoff teams were separated by a mere 16 points during the regular season, which is the smallest gap since the NHL adopted a 16-team postseason format for the 1979-80 season.

Not only will the tournament feature seven teams that missed the cut last year, it will also include five of Canada's seven teams, representing the most from the hockey-mad nation since 2004.

The race to capture hockey's ultimate prize requires a team to win four best-of-seven playoff series. The action begins on Wednesday with Montreal, Washington, Nashville and Vancouver hosting the openers of their respective series.

The New York Rangers have earned home-ice advantage for the playoffs after finishing first overall in the regular season. But that guarantees them nothing more than a first-round date with reigning league MVP Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Anaheim Ducks, powered by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, are the top seed in the Western Conference, but could be in tough versus a physical and fast Winnipeg Jets team that finished 10 points below them in the standings.

The Ottawa Senators put together a late-season surge behind the storybook play of goalie Andrew Hammond, earning a wild-card playoff berth and a matchup with the rival Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price, the NHL's top netminder.   Continued...

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup winners Los Angeles Kings and the 2014 MLS Cup champions Los Angeles Galaxy in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 2, 2015.       REUTERS/Larry Downing