- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 5, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Forget about celebration hangovers and short summers, the biggest threat to the Chicago Blackhawks’ hopes to repeat as Stanley Cup champion might be the salary cap.

The cloud that has hung over the NHL since the end of the lockout in 2005 literally shadowed the Blackhawks’ parade just days after they claimed their first title since 1961 with a six-game win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Gone is 25-year-old postseason hero Dustin Byfuglien, who scored a team-high 11 playoff goals _ including five game-winners, top goalie Antti Niemi, and others who provided key roles in the run to the championship. In all, the Blackhawks sent away eight players to get under this season’s salary ceiling of $59.4 million.

“Everybody was talking about players getting traded and what the team was going to look like next year, while at the same time we’re trying to enjoy what we just did,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “It’s not easy for those guys and it’s not easy for the rest of our team. Now we’re at that point where it’s all behind us: the salary cap, the trades and this and that. We’re ready to move forward with the guys we do have.”

While Chicago was clearly the best team in June, the Blackhawks certainly will face strong claims to that distinction as hockey gets rolling again Thursday when the regular season opens with a five-game slate.

“That’s the worst part about it, seeing some of your best friends leave,” star forward Patrick Kane said. “Not that they were some of our best players, but they were obviously instrumental in what we did.

“If you look at our team this year, it’s kind of a new team. It’s a new challenge. Of course you want to keep that team together, but it’s just not the way the NHL works anymore. You’ve got to make changes.”

And the rest of the league has noticed.

The Detroit Red Wings, the NHL’s last repeat champion in 1997 and 1998, might be poised to reclaim the Western Conference title they held the two previous years. They also might have an advantage with a less condensed schedule instead of last season’s jam-packed one that accommodated the long break for the Vancouver Olympics.

With Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and ageless defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom healthy and hungry, the Red Wings are happy to slip under the radar and let the Blackhawks carry the burden of the bull’s-eye. Detroit was knocked out in the second round by regular-season Western champion San Jose and now seems to have lost some of the intimidation factor.

“I don’t know. I was reading the other day that we’re not that good,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said with a smile. “We are good. I just know that we’re going to end up with a lot of points.”

That will be necessary again in the wide-open West, where it took 95 just to qualify for the postseason.

Seventh-place Nashville got in with 100 points, and clubs such as the Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes that finished at the bottom of the standings in 2009 all made surprise trips to the playoffs.

“It’s not a whole lot of point differential between eighth and fifth,” Kings forward Anze Kopitar said. “It’s one of those things where we can all thrive on it and take it to our advantage because everything is so close in the West. Pretty much anybody can win.”

Out East, the Flyers and Montreal Canadiens nabbed the final two places with only 88 points _ one more than the ninth-place New York Rangers _ but then surged all the way to the conference finals over overwhelming favorites such as the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins.

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