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Montreal knocked out powerhouses Washington and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds. Philadelphia ousted Boston to reach the conference finals after trailing the series 3-0, and then 3-0 in Game 7.

The Penguins reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, splitting the final series with the Red Wings in those seasons, but were stunned in the second round by the upstart Canadiens. The only thing that kept that from being the most surprising result in last season’s playoffs was Montreal’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit to Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington in the first round.

“I think teams are still hunting us down during the regular season,” Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. “We did well in the regular season, but once the playoffs came around for whatever reason we couldn’t succeed. That might play into our advantage come playoffs. Maybe they’ll underestimate us and you never know.”

Not likely with Alex Ovechkin still lurking in the nation’s capital.

Ovechkin might have the individual statistical edge over Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby _ the Washington star’s biggest rival _ but he hasn’t turned that into playoff success.

The Capitals have won the Southeast Division for two consecutive years, including posting the NHL’s best mark last season for the first time, but they haven’t gotten as far as even the Eastern Conference finals since Ovechkin came to town after the lockout _ the same year Crosby landed in Pittsburgh.

Ovechkin and Crosby will be the featured stars in this year’s Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day. The buildup will be even bigger this time with a multipart HBO reality series in advance of the outdoor game at Heinz Field.

“We have the motivation we need in the organization. We have to realize it’s time to move forward,” Ovechkin said of the Capitals. “We have to improve our mentality. We know we can play good offensively, but we have to play good defensively if we want to win.”

The want to win is always there. The belief that any team can is stronger than ever.

Five teams have new hope with new coaches, including four clubs that missed the playoffs; Atlanta (Craig Ramsay), Columbus (Scott Arniel), Edmonton (Tom Renney) and Tampa Bay (Guy Boucher). John MacLean, the Devils’ career leader in goals, was promoted by New Jersey from the AHL to take over for the retired Jacques Lemaire.

The Tampa Bay Lightning dipped into Detroit’s deep pool of success and hired Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman to be their general manager. That move can only help the development of 20-year-old forward Steven Stamkos, who in his second NHL season tied Crosby for the league lead with 51 goals.

With hulking youngster Victor Hedman anchoring the defense, and veteran forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis still providing offensive punch, the Lightning might not be too far away from getting back to an elite level.

“The hiring of Steve Yzerman has definitely made our team more popular,” Stamkos said. “Tampa is not your traditional hockey market, but having won the Cup in ‘04 and having guys like Vinny and Marty there as well as myself, we are a fun team.”

For the fourth straight year, the NHL regular season is opening on two continents. This time a record six teams are getting started with two games outside of North America: Carolina is taking on Minnesota in Helsinki, Finland; Columbus faces San Jose in Stockholm, Sweden; and Phoenix and Boston are playing a set in Prague, Czech Republic.

Everyone will be getting used to a pair of new rules.

Story Continues →