The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs will kick off with five games Wednesday night, including a pair of rematches from last spring and a redux of one the most entertaining opening-round series of 2009. One of the fiercest rivalries in the sport and a rare battle between California teams highlight the three series that will begin play Thursday.
Vancouver claimed the Presidents' Trophy and could be the favorite to capture the Stanley Cup for the first time in the franchise's history, but the Canucks will have to eliminate their nemesis -- the Chicago Blackhawks -- in the opening round beginning Wednesday at Rogers Arena. Not only are the Blackhawks the defending Cup champs, but Chicago has dispatched Vancouver from each of the past two postseasons.
The Canucks have won Game 1 in each series, but the Blackhawks have rallied to win Game 2 both years and have had Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo under siege. Chicago scored a total of 40 goals in Games 2 through 6 in the two series, including seven in one contest each year.
Detroit and Phoenix will meet Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena in another rematch from a year ago. The Red Wings, two-time defending Western Conference champions at the time, needed seven games to move past the pesky Coyotes. Phoenix will be trying to win a postseason series for the first time since moving to Arizona from Winnipeg.
The Washington Capitals are the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight season, but they will hope to avoid the same fate this spring after being upset by eighth-seeded Montreal in 2010. Washington will face the New York Rangers at Verizon Center on Wednesday. The Capitals defeated New York in seven games in 2009 for the franchise's lone playoff series victory since reaching the Cup Final in 1998.
New York missed the playoffs on the final day of the season last year, but a win and a Carolina loss in game No. 82 has the Rangers back in the postseason.
Boston and Montreal will meet in the postseason for the 33rd time in the two storied franchises' histories, including the third in the past four years. Game 1 will be Thursday at TD Garden and the Bruins will hope to improve on their 64-99 record in playoff contests against the Canadiens.
Montreal was able to advance to the conference finals last season despite being the No. 8 seed while Boston will be trying to forget a second-round collapse against Philadelphia after taking a 3-0 series lead and holding a 3-0 advantage in Game 7.
The three California teams are in the postseason for the first time and there will be a Golden State series as San Jose squares off against Los Angeles beginning Thursday at HP Pavilion. Anaheim defeated the Sharks two seasons ago in the only other all-California matchup.
CONSOL Energy Center, the NHL's newest arena, will host its first Stanley Cup playoff game Wednesday night when the Pittsburgh Penguins welcome the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Penguins are expected to start the series without captain Sidney Crosby, but the team went 23-13-5 in his absence.
The Lightning will be looking to win a playoff series for the first time since defeating Calgary in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone will not only be playing his former team, but also will be back in the city he grew up when his dad was a player and later a scout for the Penguins.
Anaheim faced the prospect of missing the playoffs if the Ducks didn't win one of their final two games against rival Los Angeles. Not only did they win one, the Ducks swept the home-and-home and captured the No. 4 seed and home-ice advantage in a series that begins Wednesday night at Honda Center against Nashville. The Predators have yet to advance to the second round in the franchise's history but they are back in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. Goalie Pekka Rinne and a talented defense corps could make that happen.
Buffalo has defeated Philadelphia each of the last three times the two teams they have met in the first round, but the Sabres have a daunting challenge against the second-seeded Flyers. Goaltender Ryan Miller hasn't played a full game since missing time at the end of the season with an upper-body injury, but he should be in net Thursday for Game 1 against the defending conference champions.