(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.
Two of the NHL’s best players will go head-to-head when Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, coming off a league-high 53-goal campaign, faces New York Islanders counterpart John Tavares, who missed the league scoring title by one point.
Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, who spent his playing career with the Detroit Red Wings before joining the Tampa Lightning as a general manager, will get a chance to topple his former team, which is appearing in the playoffs for a 24th consecutive year.
The Minnesota Wild have been the best team since goalie Devan Dubynk made his debut for the franchise in January, and will face the St. Louis Blues in a matchup featuring a pair of teams built for the playoffs.
The Chicago Blackawks, who last won a Stanley Cup in 2013, will face the Nashville Predators, the same team they opened their Stanley Cup-winning playoff drive against in 2010.
The Predators boast Finnish goalie Pekka Rinne, while Chicago got a huge boost when forward Patrick Kane, who broke his collarbone in February, was cleared this week to return for the series opener.
The Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames both missed the playoffs last year, but one is guaranteed to reach the second round as they are set to meet in a series that is expected to be close. Each team won two of the four regular season games played against each other, one on the road and one at home.
Winnipeg, Nashville, Ottawa, Washington and the Islanders are the other five teams back in the playoffs after missing out last year.
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Cameron French