Penguins look to be first repeat champions since 1998

By Frank Pingue

TORONTO (Reuters) - Led by captain Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins will begin their bid to become the National Hockey League's first back-to-back champion in 12 years when they open the playoffs this week.

The Penguins, who beat the Detroit Red Wings last year after losing to them in the 2008 finals, open their best-of-seven series against Ottawa on Wednesday.

Pittsburgh packs a potent offense led by 22-year-old Crosby, who finished tied for most goals in the regular season with 51 and scored the winner to claim the gold medal for Canada at the Vancouver Winter Olympics earlier this year.

The Penguins will also have the luxury of experienced goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, one of only two netminders in this year's playoffs who have won a Stanley Cup. None of Ottawa's goalies have any NHL post-season experience.

If Pittsburgh can repeat as Stanley Cup Champion, they will be the first team to achieve the feat since Detroit in 1998.

President's Trophy winners the Washington Capitals, who had the best regular season record, will host the Montreal Canadiens when their first-round series begins on Thursday.

Led by Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals were the league's top scoring team and scored 101 more goals than the Canadiens. The Capitals lost 15 times in the regular season, but two of those were against Montreal.

The Buffalo Sabres return to the post-season for the first time since 2007 and will be counting on Ryan Miller, who backstopped the United States to a silver medal at Vancouver, to give them at shot at the franchise's first Stanley Cup.

The Sabres open their series against the Boston Bruins on Thursday. Boston are one of the league's lowest-scoring teams and are missing their top player, Marc Savard, who is still out after suffering a concussion earlier this year.

Another first round match-up features the San Jose Sharks, the Western Conference's top team, against an inexperienced Colorado Avalanche side that few expected would make the playoffs.

The New Jersey Devils and Martin Brodeur, the leader for most wins by a goaltender, meet the Philadelphia Flyers, who qualified for the post-season with a shoot-out win on the last day of the regular season.

The Phoenix Coyotes, a team that filed for bankruptcy last year, had no coach at the start of training camp and faced the possibility of being moved to Canada, return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 when they face the Red Wings on Wednesday.

The Chicago Blackhawks will open their first-round series at home on Friday versus the Nashville Predators while the Vancouver Canucks will host the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday.

(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)