The Vancouver Canucks carry the NHL’s best record into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second consecutive season. The New York Rangers are on top of the Eastern Conference for the first time since they won it all in 1994.
But the team many are picking to carry the Cup this year is the Pittsburgh Penguins – the No. 4 seed in the East that is supremely dangerous with healthy stars Sidney Crosby and league scoring champion Evgeni Malkin roaming the ice.
Judging by how the Philadelphia Flyers and the Rangers have been sniping with their divisional foe, they clearly have taken notice.
Just in the final week of the season, the Penguins have gotten into scraps with their two biggest rivals that have ended with hefty fines for the opposing coaches.
Philadelphia’s Peter Laviolette was hit with a $10,000 fine for his actions on the bench that nearly led to a fight with his Pittsburgh counterparts, and then for calling Penguins coach Dan Bylsma “gutless.”
John Tortorella of the Rangers was docked $20,000 for remarks he made after New York’s loss Thursday in which forward Derek Stepan was injured by a knee-to-knee hit from Penguins forward Brooks Orpik.
The playoffs begin tonight with three games.
Not often is a sport’s biggest star also its biggest target, but Crosby has become that. Even commentator Mike Milbury, a former NHL player, coach and general manager, didn’t hold back in ripping Sid the Kid.
Back for this year’s playoffs after a concussion kept him out of last year’s postseason and 60 games this season, Crosby is dealing with criticism and griping that Michael Jordan never experienced in his NBA heyday.
“The level of passion, emotion and gamesmanship can never be overestimated,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “People who follow the game closely understand it’s just noise.
“My guess is Sidney Crosby is still the most popular player. … The fact that somebody may take a pot shot is a price of greatness.”
The East’s top-seeded Rangers lost their final two games of the regular season and ending up in a first-round best-of-seven meeting with the Ottawa Senators, who won three of four from them.
Almost forgotten are the Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
With six 20-goal scorers in addition to star defenseman Zdeno Chara and goalie Tim Thomas, last year’s playoff MVP, a repeat by the Bruins is not out of the question.
The Canucks were every bit of a force in their run to another first-place finish in the West with an NHL-high 111 points. Now they want to take that last step and bring the Cup to western Canada.
“We know we’re going to be judged kind of how we do in the playoffs,” Canucks forward Ryan Kesler said. “Now the real season begins.”
The Canucks will take on Los Angeles, which got through a logjam in the Pacific Division to claim the final spot in the West.
Philadelphia at Pittsburgh: 4:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network
Detroit at Nashville: 5 p.m., CNBC, CBUT
Los Angeles at Vancouver: 7:30 p.m., CBUT, NBC Sports Network