NHL

NHL playoffs wild and wide open in salary-cap era

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Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane are as good as hockey players get. Their teammates are pretty good, too.

In the NHL playoffs, that guarantees nothing.

Superstars and teams that were successful in the regular season get sent home, regularly, in the wild and wide-open postseason because seedings are relatively irrelevant. Los Angeles proved that last year, becoming the first team seeded eighth to hoist a Stanley Cup. Since the salary cap became part of the league's landscape after a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, seven teams have won NHL titles and no franchise has done it twice.

Los Angeles' quest to repeat, as the fifth-seeded team in the Western Conference, begins Tuesday night in St. Louis.

''The salary cap makes it an even playing field,'' Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. ''Everybody has a chance.''

Crosby, Ovechkin and Kane hope that's not the case.

Pittsburgh's star forward may not be cleared to help the top-seeded Penguins try to win the first of 16 games Wednesday night at home against the New York Islanders, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Crosby practiced Monday, but he hasn't played in a month because of a broken jaw. For a change, concussion-like symptoms aren't keeping him off the ice as they did for much of the last two years.

The Penguins have proven they can win without Sid The Kid, especially with Brenden Morrow, Jossi Jokinen and Jarome Iginla - all of whom were acquired before the trade deadline - on their loaded roster.

''It's been great to see the guys come in and adjust the way they have,'' Crosby said. ''Think it says a lot about the players they are and I think it says a lot about our team. Guys are all willing to adjust their roles and do what it takes to win. You don't get an easy transition like that if that's not the case. We're playing good hockey when we want to be and I think we should be happy and know that we're ready to come into the playoffs.''

The Penguins did close the season strong, but they weren't as successful as the Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals.

Following a slow start with rookie coach Adam Oates, the Southeast Division champion won 11 of its last 13 games to earn the third seed in the East and a first-round matchup with the sixth-seeded New York Rangers.

Ovechkin finished the season with an NHL-high 32 goals after scoring a league-record 14 times in April to become the first player to win the Richard Trophy three times in the 13 seasons it has been awarded to the season leader in goals. He also won it in 2008 and 2009.

''I didn't win personal awards a couple years in a row, so it's nice to come back,'' Ovechkin said.

Having success as a team in the NHL playoffs would be something new in the nation's capital. Despite Ovechkin's talent, he hasn't led the Capitals past the second round of the playoffs in the first seven seasons of his career and the franchise that hasn't advanced further than that since getting swept by Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.

Chicago is hoping to change its fortunes in the playoffs after following up its first Stanley Cup in 49 years with consecutive first-round exits.

The Blackhawks were the best team in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season. They started with an NHL-record, 24-game points streak and closed with a league-high 77 points - five more than Pittsburgh - by rolling four lines, three pairs of defensemen and two goaltenders who were tough to beat.

''We knew we had to get off to a hot start with the short season,'' Kane said. ''It went by pretty fast, that's for sure. It seems like it's January or February still, and we've got a couple of months left in the regular season before we head out to play in the playoffs. It's going to be a quick turnaround.''

The top-seeded Blackhawks open the playoffs Tuesday night against eighth-seeded Minnesota, which hopes its $98-million free agents - Zach Parise and Ryan Suter - can provide a quick return the franchise's investment.

For the first time since 1996, each of the NHL's Original Six teams - Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and the Rangers - are in the playoffs.

Toronto earned a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and fifth-seeded Maple Leafs will match up with fourth-seeded the Bruins. The second-seeded Canadiens will face seventh-seeded Ottawa in the East.

In the West, Detroit extended its franchise record postseason streak to 22, the fifth-longest in league history. The Red Wings finished well enough to avoid a first-round matchup with the Blackhawks to perhaps move into a winnable series against second-seeded Anaheim, who they beat in their last two meetings by a combined score of 7-2.

Vancouver, the only team to repeat as a division champion, is the West's third-seeded team and is matched up with sixth-seeded San Jose.

While the Kings showed if you get in, you can win, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said it takes more than good fortune to survive perhaps the most grueling postseason in professional sports.

''You don't win in the end without talent, don't kid yourself,'' Babcock said. ''They had a great team.''

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AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh, Howard Fendrich in Washington and freelance writer Timothy Cronin in Chicago contributed to this report.

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Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/larrylage

Tagged: Blackhawks, Penguins, Capitals, Wild, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane

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