Stanley Cup chase a wide-open affair

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NEW YORK (AP) – You won’t find any true bracket busters in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

There are 16 teams in the hunt for the silver chalice, and from top to bottom every club can make a case that it can skate off with North America’s oldest sports trophy.

Ottawa clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday, the final night of the regular season, which gave the Senators the right to play the weakest playoff team. Except this year that happens to be the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, the guys who won the title the last time it was on the line two years ago before the lockout.

In the new NHL, anything is possible and parity is king thanks to the $39 million salary cap. Only eight teams were more than 11 points out of a playoff spot.

“It’s been one of those years,” said Lightning forward Brad Richards, the MVP of the 2004 playoffs. “We feel now that finally we got in, we can start over here hopefully and try to do something.”

They aren’t alone.

The New Jersey Devils finished the season on a league-record closing run of 11 straight victories. That put them one point ahead of the New York Rangers and into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers atop the Atlantic Division. The Devils won the tiebreaker and earned the No. 3 seed.

“I think this is as open a year as ever in the NHL for a number of teams to win the Cup,” San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. “The most important reason is because the rules aren’t going to change in the postseason. It will be the same hockey, called by the same rules.”

The Sharks also fought much of the season just to qualify for the playoffs. The early addition of scoring champion Joe Thornton from Boston after the Sharks started slowly made all the difference. He turned linemate Jonathan Cheechoo into the top goal-scorer in the league by assisting on 38 of his 56 tallies.

San Jose is fifth in the Western Conference and will face the No. 4 Nashville Predators in the best-of-seven series opener on Friday.

Also starting that night in the West is the series between No. 1 Detroit and No. 8 Edmonton, along with No. 3 Calgary hosting No. 6 Anaheim. The remaining Western series is No. 7 Colorado at No. 2 Dallas, beginning Saturday.

In the East, the Lightning and Senators will start Friday. The other three series: the New York Rangers at New Jersey; No. 7 Montreal at No. 2 Carolina; and No. 5 Philadelphia visiting No. 4 Buffalo get under way on Saturday.

The Predators are a story in themselves as they get set to make the second straight playoff appearance in their seventh NHL season.

Paul Kariya has been everything Nashville hoped he’d be when the club inked him before the season. Kariya, who helped lead Anaheim to the Cup finals in 2003, scored 85 points – tops on the Predators.

Offense won’t be the focal point for Nashville, however. The Predators are still dealing with the news that they will be without leading goalie Tomas Vokoun, who is sidelined by a blood-clotting problem. That leaves Chris Mason with the pressure to succeed.

Goaltending is always key in the playoffs but more so this year with many clubs relying on young and inexperienced players.

“You see what the CBA did,” New Jersey forward Patrik Elias said. “I think we all are aware that there is no one team that can just run away with it and that everybody has a chance.”

A big reason why Tampa Bay is eighth and not the NHL’s top team in this first post-lockout season is the Lightning are trying to advance with the inconsistent goalie tandem of Sean Burke and John Grahame instead of Nikolai Khabibulin, who bolted the champs for Chicago last summer.

Yet, they’ll get no sympathy from the Senators. Ottawa hasn’t had its stellar netminder Dominik Hasek since he got hurt during the Olympics. But rookie Ray Emery has been terrific in his absence by winning 23 games and posting a 2.82 goals-against average.

Whether he can do it with the postseason spotlight on him remains to be seen. Hasek hopes to come back soon but his recovery has been slowed.

So it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility that the playoff-tested Lightning could pull off a seeding upset in the first round.

And up and down the Eastern Conference there is much the same.

“Both conferences, really every team going in thinks they have a shot,” Philadelphia captain Derian Hatcher said. “Whoever ends up to be in the Stanley Cup final, it really wouldn’t surprise me.”

The Carolina Hurricanes are putting their trust in Martin Gerber, who has a total of two NHL playoff games under his belt from his days as a backup with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. They will face Montreal and untested goalie Cristobal Huet, whose emergence made it possible for the Canadiens to deal former No. 1 netminder Jose Theodore to Colorado for backup David Aebischer.

Henrik Lundqvist has been the top goalie in Sweden and an Olympic gold medalist, but as an NHLer he is an absolute novice. The New York Rangers rookie missed seven straight games because of a hip injury and his teammates faltered without him, dropping the final four.

He made it back Tuesday against Ottawa but his presence wasn’t enough to stop the skid. One win would’ve clinched the Atlantic Division for the Rangers, instead they fell to sixth in the East but are in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

The Devils can scare any team. They enter as the hottest team in the league with the one goalie that clearly stands out above the rest. Martin Brodeur has already won three Stanley Cups.

“We know that the key to win championships … you’ve got to have good goaltending, and to play solid defense, which we’ve been playing the last few weeks,” Elias said.

Buffalo features young goalie Ryan Miller and Philadelphia sports Olympic silver medalist Antero Niittymaki, who will be Robert Esche’s backup at least at the start.

Out West, the Calgary Flames will look to repeat as conference champions. They are in the playoffs for the second straight season after a seven-year absence.

Just as in 2004, the Flames have their sights set on the Detroit Red Wings, who earned an NHL-best 124 points. Calgary shocked Detroit two years ago by ousting the Wings in the second round. With Miikka Kiprusoff in goal with a full run of playoff experience behind him, the Flames could make another run.

That is if they can oust Anaheim in the first round.

“Whoever is the team that gets things going the quickest and playing together and plays the right way, is going to have success,” Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer said. “I don’t think it really matters what you did in the regular season.”

AP-ES-04-20-06 1513EDT

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