(Reuters) - With the sprint for Olympic gold over, the marathon run for the Stanley Cup begins this week with the opening round of the National Hockey League playoffs.
While the Sochi Games was a two-week gold rush, the quest for the Stanley Cup is an ultimate test of endurance requiring the eventual champions to persevere through four best-of-seven series before lifting the NHL’s top prize.
The first round gets underway on Wednesday in what will be as much a battle of survival as a sporting contest for the 16 teams that qualified after an 82-game regular season.
Such is the ferocity of the postseason that Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron played through torn rib cartilage, a broken rib, a separated right shoulder and a punctured lung in last year’s final against the Chicago Blackhawks before spending three days in a hospital.
Still stinging from last season’s loss, the Bruins are back in the playoffs, this time as the NHL’s most complete team and with the added benefit of home-ice advantage in each series they play after finishing first overall during the regular season.
No team knows more about the postseason grind than Boston’s first-round opponent, the Detroit Red Wings, who are back in the playoffs for a remarkable 23rd consecutive year after sneaking in as the Eastern Conference’s second wild card.
The Bruins and Red Wings, two of the NHL’s Original Six franchises, will clash in the playoffs for the first time since 1957 when their series opens on Friday.
“We’re team oriented,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien. “We focus on the big goal and what it takes to get there and our guys have bought into that.”
Swept from the East final last year by Boston, the Metropolitan Division champion Pittsburgh Penguins are looking for a measure of revenge as they launch their Cup bid against a Columbus Blue Jackets team competing in their second playoffs.
Once again Pittsburgh will be led by captain Sidney Crosby, who finished the regular season as the NHL’s leading scorer.
Canadian attention will be fixed on the Montreal Canadiens, who will carry the hopes of a nation into the playoffs and try to bring the Stanley Cup to its spiritual home for the first time since 1993, when they won their record 24th championship.
The Canadiens open on Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have sniper Steven Stamkos back at full fitness after missing a large chunk of the season with a broken leg.
The other East matchup is a mouth-watering one between the New York Rangers and arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers.
The Anaheim Ducks took the top seed in the Western Conference and will open against a Dallas Stars team returning to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Anaheim is led by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who finished in second and fifth, respectively, in league scoring and have plenty of depth and experience with evergreen forward Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and gritty Dustin Penner.
The speedy Stars can counter with young talents Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn but will need something special from netminder Kari Lehtonen if they are to pull off a first-round shocker.
The Colorado Avalanche have been one of the season’s big surprises going from 29th place last year to taking top spot in the Central Division, earning them a first-round meeting with the Minnesota Wild.
First year head coach and former Colorado goaltending great Patrick Roy is sure to be a contender for NHL coach of the year honors while Semyon Varlamov has been one of the NHL’s best netminders and could be in line for a Vezina Trophy nomination at the league’s top goalie.
The West’s two other matchups are also intriguing with the Blackhawks opening defense of their Stanley Cup crown against the fading St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks taking on the rival Los Angeles Kings in an all-California series.
The old saying goes that defense wins titles and the Kings have the best defense in the league and a playoff tested netminder in Jonathan Quick.
The Sharks have reached the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons, including three trips to the conference finals, but have never been able to get over the hump and get to the Cup finals.
The Blackhawks received good news on Monday that captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are both expected back in the lineup for Thursday’s Game One against the injury-ravaged Blues, who enter the postseason mired in six-game losing skid.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue