NEW YORK (AP) — The Vancouver Canucks carry the NHL's best record into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second year in a row. The New York Rangers are on top of the Eastern Conference for the first time since they won it all in 1994.
But the team many are picking to carry the Cup this year is the Pittsburgh Penguins — a supremely dangerous No. 4 seed in the East with healthy stars Sidney Crosby and league scoring champion Evgeni Malkin roaming the ice.
Judging by how the Philadelphia Flyers and the Rangers have been sniping with their divisional foe, they clearly have taken notice of the powerful Penguins.
Just in the final week of the season, the Penguins have gotten into scraps with their two biggest rivals that have ended with hefty fines for the opposing coaches.
Philadelphia's Peter Laviolette was hit with a $10,000 fine for his actions on the bench that nearly led to a fight with his Pittsburgh counterparts, and then for calling Penguins coach Dan Bylsma "gutless."
John Tortorella of the Rangers was docked $20,000 for remarks he made after New York's loss on Thursday in which forward Derek Stepan was injured by a knee-to-knee hit from Penguins forward Brooks Orpik.
Tortorella's costly rant featured shots directed toward Crosby and Malkin.
"I wonder what would happen if we did it to their two whining stars over there," he said. "They whine about this stuff all of the time, and look what happens? It's ridiculous. But they'll whine about something else over there, won't they?"
The playoffs begin Wednesday night with three games.
Not often is a sport's biggest star also its biggest target, but Crosby has become that. Even commentator Mike Milbury, a former NHL player, coach and general manager, didn't hold back in ripping Sid the Kid.
Back for this year's playoffs after a concussion kept him out of last year's postseason and 60 games this season, Crosby is dealing with criticism and griping that Michael Jordan never experienced in his NBA heyday.
"The level of passion, emotion and gamesmanship can never be overestimated," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "People who follow the game closely understand it's just noise.
"My guess is Sidney Crosby is still the most popular player, and has legions of fans of all ages in multiple countries. The fact that somebody may take a pot shot is a price of greatness."
The Penguins are counting on that greatness being on full display when they take on the Flyers beginning Wednesday night in the most anticipated first-round matchup and beyond. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in points in the overall NHL standings, but they are locked in a 4 vs. 5 matchup just to get out of the first round in the East.
The top-seeded Rangers lost their final two games of the regular season, missing an opportunity to claim the Presidents' Trophy for first overall in the league, and ended up in a first-round best-of-seven meeting with the Ottawa Senators, who won three of four from them.
"They're a very talented team," Rangers forward Brad Richards said. "I know we played them twice early in the season. The regular-season schedule ... lots of teams can beat anybody on any certain night.
"We plan on making it different for them when we start on Thursday."
The New Jersey Devils are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence following 13 consecutive appearances, and will face the Southeast Division-winning Florida Panthers, who are in after a league-worst 10 straight seasons on the outside.
Despite having an eight-point edge over the Panthers, the sixth-seeded Devils will cede home-ice advantage to Florida, which is seeded third because of its first division title. New Jersey had the misfortune of finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division despite posting 102 points (48-28-6).
Almost forgotten are the Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions who managed to stay under the radar this season and coast to a 10-point win over Ottawa in the Northeast Division.