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“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.

The Bruins have been overshadowed by the resurgent Rangers, who went from the No. 8 seed a year ago to the top this time, and the high-powered Penguins. But Boston is still a major threat.

With six 20-goal scorers in addition to star defenseman Zdeno Chara and leading goalie Tim Thomas, last year’s playoff MVP, a repeat by the Bruins is hardly out of the question. They will start with the usually powerful Washington Capitals, who needed a late surge just to get in as the No. 7 seed.

“We’ve learned enough from the experience from last year,” said Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins’ second-leading scorer. “It was a battle. It was a grind for two months. I think we’re ready to start that all over again. It starts from square one.

“It’s all about the first game and the first series, thinking about that, nothing else. I think it’s pretty much the same as last year.”

Perhaps having low expectations will help the Capitals, who were swept in the second round of last year’s playoffs by upstart Tampa Bay after coming in as the No. 1 seed in the East.

Vancouver nearly made the most of its top seeding last spring, falling just short of its first title with a Game 7 loss to Boston in the finals.

The Canucks were every bit of a force in their run to another first-place finish in the West with an NHL-high 111 points. They grabbed a second straight Presidents’ Trophy on the final night of the season by beating Edmonton after the Rangers had lost to Washington.

Now they want to take that last step and bring the Cup to western Canada.

“We know we’re going to be judged kind of how we do in the playoffs,” Canucks forward Ryan Kesler said. “Now the real season begins. It’s going to be a good test, this first round, for us.”

The Canucks will take on Los Angeles, which got through a logjam in the Pacific Division to claim the final spot out West.

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