NEW YORK – As familiar as warm weather and rain in the spring is an appearance by the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For the past 13 seasons, they have been joined by the New Jersey Devils, but that has changed because the one constant team in the Eastern Conference didn't measure up this year. Detroit's dominance dates even further: Not since 1990 have the Red Wings sat out the race for the Cup.
Captain Nicklas Lidstrom, in his 19th NHL season, has seen it all. Throughout his surely Hall of Fame career, Lidstrom has only worn a winged wheel sweater and has never missed the playoffs.
He got a bit of a scare last year when Detroit qualified as only the No. 5 seed. But Lidstrom and the Red Wings still managed to reach the second round with a tough, seven-game series win over the Phoenix Coyotes — their first-round opponent again.
"Having been with such a good organization for 20 years, and being part of a winning tradition here, you almost take it for granted," Lidstrom said of being a playoff staple. "Last year was the hardest one where we really had to focus and get some wins and had our backs up against the wall for pretty much the whole season.
"It's always been fun going into the playoffs. People are always waiting for April to come around for the playoffs."
And why not?
Not only have the Red Wings made it a habit to be in the playoffs, they are always a threat to win it all. During this 20-season run, Detroit has captured the Cup four times and been to the finals in two other years.
The Central Division champions own the No. 3 seed this time. If they advance past Phoenix again they could pose a serious threat to the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks and the second-seeded San Jose Sharks, who despite being a dominant regular-season team in recent years are still seeking their first trip to the finals.
The Canucks, who topped the NHL with a team-record 117 points, have been knocked out in the second round by Chicago in two consecutive years. The Blackhawks rode last season's win all the way to the Stanley Cup title and will likely have confidence again when they take on Vancouver in the first round.
Don't think that the Canucks haven't taken notice.
"We took a very hard look at the end of the playoffs organizationally about where we were, and we analyzed every element of this team from training staff, medical staff, coaching staff, players, how we handled things as managers," Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis said.
"The experience of losing two years in a row to the same team was one that was very difficult for a lot of people to accept. However, we did it with a team that we don't think is as competitive as the team we have this year. Overall, we feel more confident this year."
The Blackhawks might be sensing a new lease on life, too, given their fortunate road to the playoffs. Chicago could've made it an easy Sunday for the team and its fans by beating the Red Wings at home, but Detroit showed why it is so good this time of year and left with a 4-3 victory.
That opened the door for the Dallas Stars to sneak in at No. 8, but with their season on the line they were beaten by already-eliminated Minnesota. The Wild won one more for their home fans and for coach Todd Richards, who was fired Monday.
So, what does this second chance mean for the Blackhawks? The Canucks certainly would like to make their title defense end early.
"They definitely got in not the traditional way, but at the end of the day they got in," said Montreal defenseman Brent Sopel, a member of the Blackhawks last season. "It doesn't matter how you get in. Good for them. Now you've got 16 great teams that are battling, and it's anybody's ballgame."
In the other Western matchups, the Sharks will take on the Los Angeles Kings in a rare all-California series, and the Anaheim Ducks will face the Nashville Predators.
Back in the East, the Devils had one last thing to play for in their second-to-last game when they took on the New York Rangers with a chance to take their biggest rival out of the playoff picture with them. New Jersey grabbed a pair of one-goal leads, but faded and lost 5-2.
That set up New York to get some help that came in the nick of time when Tampa Bay won at Carolina on Saturday night, denying the Hurricanes a chance to lock up the last spot with a home win. So the Rangers will face top-seeded Washington in the first round, hoping to avenge a series loss from two years ago in which New York led 3-1.
"We've been in playoffs," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of the late-season grind. "It's been a great experience for the youth of our club. Some of the experiences we've gone through I think will help us. This is the next round of the playoffs for us."
The Philadelphia Flyers will look to start a second consecutive run to the Cup finals, this time from the No. 2 position instead of last year's seventh seeding. The quest starts against Buffalo, one of the hottest teams heading into the playoffs.
Boston is back in after winning the Northeast Division and will face No. 6 seed Montreal for the 33rd time and third in four years. The Bruins and Canadiens split the previous two meetings, with Boston winning in a sweep in 2009. But Montreal owns the overall edge, taking 24 of 32 series.
Spicing up the already hot Original Six matchup is bad blood created when Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara seriously injured Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty with a hard check that knocked Pacioretty into a padded stanchion supporting a glass partition between the benches.
"Everybody in the room knows how we match up," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. "It's not about all the other stuff that's taken place or what's happened this year. It's about who can win the four games. It should be a pretty good battle."
The Bruins will be looking to erase memories of last year, when they blew a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia in the second round and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 at home.
"It was a tough situation, but we learned from it and moved on," veteran Bruins forward Mark Recchi said. "You've got to grow from those experiences, and I really believe we did as a team. The guys have the right attitude and hopefully we can continue that way."
The Pittsburgh Penguins might still be without captain Sidney Crosby (concussion) in their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have played without him and Evgeni Malkin (knee), but could feel the pinch if they have to face the playoffs with this dynamic duo out of action.