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Playoff outlook remains murky in wide-open NHL

- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2011

NEW YORK | The Detroit Red Wings know what it's like to carry high expectations into the postseason. The Vancouver Canucks do not.

That's what makes the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs as wide open as can be.

While the top of the NHL standings seems settled, much is to be decided at the bottom of the Eastern and Western conferences. It promises to be a frantic final 2 1/2 weeks that will determine who gets the first crack to knock off the Canucks, Red Wings and other prime contenders.

"Obviously, if we're going to wind up on top of the conference, we should be the favorites," said NHL leading scorer Daniel Sedin of the Canucks. "If we can play this good for 82 games, we should be able to do it in the playoffs."

The Canucks stretched their lead over the Red Wings to 10 points on Wednesday night with a 2-1 win at Detroit. Vancouver is up by eight points on Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia, looking to wrap up its first Presidents' Trophy.

However, finishing first overall doesn't guarantee playoff success - especially for a team that isn't used to a target on its back.

"You see their record. You don't win every night by accident," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, a Stanley Cup champion and three-time finalist. "But what the measure is going to be for them is, what they do in playoff time - just like it is for us."

The Red Wings have captured the Presidents' Trophy, given to the team with the best regular-season record, six times since it was created for the 1985-86 season. They went on to win the Stanley Cup only twice.

There have been just seven teams in 24 seasons to win both trophies. The Red Wings have as many titles - two - in years they didn't nab the Presidents' Trophy as those in which they did.

In the East last year, the conference finals featured the seventh-seeded Flyers, who didn't secure a playoff spot until winning a shootout on the final day of the season, and the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.

The Flyers aren't facing anywhere near that kind of drama this year. Their only concern is staying in first over the hard-charging Washington Capitals, who were just one point back Thursday with eight games remaining - two fewer than Philadelphia.

Washington, and star captain Alex Ovechkin, know all too well about playoff pitfalls after a stellar regular season. The Capitals had the NHL's best record this time last year before being bounced out by the Canadiens in the first round despite holding a 3-1 series lead.

The Canadiens are trying to hold off the New York Rangers for sixth in the East. New York has opened a bit of a cushion as it looks to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. The Rangers started Thursday three points behind Montreal, but only three points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres and six in front of the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes, who are on the outside looking in.

New York lost that season-ending shootout to Philadelphia last year and missed the playoffs by that scant point. The Rangers carried a season-best, five-game winning streak into Thursday night's game against Ottawa.

"Continuing to get points will lock down that playoff spot, and everything else is a bonus," forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "We knew we had to get on a bit of a roll to create separation and solidify our playoff spot."

The Sabres have played well down the stretch. With star goalie Ryan Miller leading the way, they easily could be this year's eighth-seeded upstart to scare - and even beat - the powerhouses.

"The playoff race is great. It's been great for hockey; it's been real good for us," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "The compete level inside the games has been awesome, because there hasn't been a team that's been out of it. Every team is right there."

With teams having anywhere from eight to 10 games left before the season ends on April 10, only six of 30 entered Thursday more than 10 points out of a playoff spot. There were 20 teams within five points.

In the West, 10th-place Calgary was only 10 points behind No. 2 Detroit and three points out of fifth. None of that will matter if they can't get over the hump into the top eight.

"You look at that three through eight and that can really change the next two weeks," said forward Dany Heatley of the third-place San Jose Sharks. "You want to have the highest seed as possible, obviously, for home ice and things like that. As far as who your matchup is going to be, it's going to be a tough series no matter who it is."

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