The last time Sidney Crosby appeared in the playoffs, it was May 2010. The Pittsburgh Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions. They were shocked in the second round by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
It was the first time in the Crosby era the Penguins had taken a step backward. They had gone from missing the playoffs, to losing in the first round, to losing in the Cup final, to winning the Cup, to that.
Crosby scored only once in seven games against the Habs.
"You have high expectations," Crosby said as he prepared for the 2010-11 season. "You expect to be in the finals every year. But if anything, I think you appreciate how tough it is to get there, probably what it takes, even more so."
Even more so now.
We all know what has happened since. Crosby elevated his game to a new level, separated himself from his peers, then suffered a concussion. He missed the second half of last season. He missed the playoffs last year - along with Evgeni Malkin, who had a knee injury - as the Penguins fell in the first round to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He came back this season, played eight games and disappeared again.
But he's back again, and so are Malkin, and Jordan Staal, and Kris Letang. The Penguins are healthy, and if they can stay healthy, they can reclaim their status as the NHL's best team. Coach Dan Bylsma finally has all of his personnel at his disposal: his stars - which also include James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury – and an excellent supporting cast.
"They're incredible," said one NHL scout in late March, not long after the Penguins won 11 consecutive games. "They've got the two best players in the world, [Crosby] and Malkin, and the rest of them aren't bad, either. I think their coach does an outstanding job because he gets them to play every night.
"The bad news is, I bet you they're poised to be that way for about four or five years. All the guys are still pretty young. They got real lucky with their drafts for a couple years in a row, and then they've done the right things and put everything in the right place."
As we unveil our playoff power rankings - listing the teams in order of their odds to win four rounds - the Penguins have got to be at the top:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Of course, the Penguins have to get out of the first round, first.
And in one piece.
Thanks to the NHL's seeding system - which gives the top three spots in each conference to the division winners - the Pens' reward for earning the East's second-best record is a matchup with the team that earned the conference’s third-best record.
That team is the Philadelphia Flyers, their cross-state rivals. The Flyers were 5-0-0 at the Penguins' new arena before Saturday's meaningless season finale. They have enough nastiness to throw the Pens off their game, and they have plenty of starpower themselves - including Jaromir Jagr, who flirted with coming back to Pittsburgh in the summer but signed with Philly instead. If the Pens have shown a weakness, it's that they can be loose defensively.
2. Vancouver Canucks
If Daniel Sedin recovers from his concussion, the Canucks have every ability to return to the final. They came within a game of winning the Cup last season, and even though they knew nothing would matter but the playoffs, they still won their second consecutive Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team.
Goaltending is not the biggest concern. The Canucks wisely laid the groundwork for Cory Schneider to replace Roberto Luongo, playing Schneider in big games, giving him experience. If and when Luongo falters, the Vancouver market will still freak out, but not as much as last year, maybe, and the team itself should be fine.
The biggest concern is the officiating and the power play. Will the Canucks draw penalties like they did in the regular season, and will they cash in when they do? Turning the other cheek and failing on the power play cost the Canucks in the final last year.
[ Puck Daddy: 2012 Stanley Cup playoff prognostications ]
3. Boston Bruins
The defending champions are still deep, tough and strong on both sides of the puck. We saw how dominant they could be in November and December, when they shook off their hangover and went on a 21-2-1 run.
But they were inconsistent in the second half, and remember: They won the Cup by becoming the first team to win three Game 7's. Their goaltender was so good that he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player. Nathan Horton, who scored the winner in two of those Game 7's, is out with a concussion. Tim Thomas has not been Tim Thomas.
If you doubt Thomas at this point, you're a fool. But if you don't understand how difficult it is to repeat, know this: Only one team has won back-to-back Cups in two decades, and no one has since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and '98.
4. Nashville Predators
The Predators have one of the best goaltenders in the game in Pekka Rinne. They have the best defensive pair in the game in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. They have an underrated offense and the league's top power play. And general manager David Poile added four important pieces - Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad and Alexander Radulov.
This is their chance, and they have to take advantage of it, because they could be gutted by defections this summer. The problem is that all those changes have affected their chemistry, they've never played under this kind of pressure before, and their first-round opponent is brutal.
The Preds won their first first-round series last year; the Red Wings haven't lost a first-round series since 2006. Fall in the first round, and it could be disastrous in Nashville. Survive, and the Predators could be over the hump, headed for big things.
5. St. Louis Blues
Defense wins championships, and the Blues were the best defensive team in the league in the regular season. They allowed the fewest shots against (26.7). They allowed the fewest goals against (1.89).
So why aren't they the favorites? Scoring and experience.
The Blues ranked 21st offensively during the regular season and had no one among the top 70 scorers. That's deceiving, because David Perron, Alex Steen and Andy McDonald missed significant amounts of time. This team is stronger now that it's healthy. But it remains to be seen how well the Blues will put the puck in the net in the playoffs.
[Related: NHL playoffs: Underdogs, upsets and first-round predictions]
Outside of coach Ken Hitchcock, goaltender Jaroslav Halak and veteran role players Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, the Blues really haven't been here before. None of their top six scorers have played more than four playoff games. If you believe a team needs to go through the grind before it can win it all, then this is the year the Blues make a little noise, learn a little something and set themselves up for the future.
6. New York Rangers
The story is similar in New York. After Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards - a former Conn Smythe winner - the offense drops off considerably. The Rangers are going to need secondary scoring to go deep. Where are they going to get it?
Coach John Tortorella had his guys playing hard all season. They blocked shot after shot in front of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and that's why they won the East. That's why they might be ready for the playoffs. That's also why others might catch up to them. Everybody plays hard in the playoffs. Everybody blocks shots. Can the Rangers raise their level, or have they already maxed out?
The Rangers are a young team that hasn't won a round since 2008. Do they have to learn how to win before they can go all the way?
7. Detroit Red Wings
People keep saying the window is closing, and the Red Wings keep propping it open. They have made the playoffs 21 seasons in a row. They haven't lost in the first round since 2006. Their injured stars are healthy again - Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Jimmy Howard. They are still skilled, still experienced, still capable of winning the Cup.
What's uncharacteristic about this team is its special teams. The Wings ranked 18th on the penalty kill and 22nd on the power play in the regular season. What's maddening about this team is its home-road dichotomy. In Detroit, the Wings were a dominant 31-7-3. On the road, they were 17-21-3. They effectively lost home ice on March 30, when they lost a home game to the new-and-improved Predators.
8. Philadelphia Flyers
The bizarre thing about Ilya Bryzgalov isn't his penchant for goofy quotes. It's that he was the guy the Flyers figured would solve their chronic goaltending problems. Frustrated by the latest goalie-go-round in last year's playoffs, ownership ordered general manager Paul Holmgren to find a solution.
Bryzgalov was the best goaltender available and scored a nine-year, $51-million deal. But he was coming off two first-round losses with the Phoenix Coyotes - the last one an especially awful sweep - and Phoenix ain't exactly the Philly pressure cooker.
The first half was an adventure. The second half was better, even spectacular at times. But this is what Bryz is getting paid for, and it remains to be seen whether the Flyers will get another adventure or excellence.
9. New Jersey Devils
The Devils are back. After last year's disaster - the Ilya Kovalchuk contract, the horrible first half, the coaching change, the great second half that wasn't great enough to make the playoffs - the Devils earned 102 points and did it in the brutal Atlantic Division.
Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias are producing. Zach Parise and Travis Zajac are healthy. Goaltender Martin Brodeur is hot. The Devils closed the regular season by winning six straight games, and they ended up with the cushiest seed in the East - the sixth.
Although they don't have home-ice advantage, they get to play the Florida Panthers. The Panthers, who fired current Devils coach Pete DeBoer after last season. The Panthers, who earned eight fewer points in the weak Southeast Division and stumbled down the stretch. Asked about the league's playoff format, DeBoer said: "I'm fine with it." Translation: Woo-hoo!
10. Phoenix Coyotes
The Coyotes won a division title for the first time in team history. Wouldn't it be something if they won a playoff series for the first time since the franchise moved from Winnipeg in 1996, especially as the team's future in Glendale, Ariz., remains in limbo?
Coach Dave Tippett has made the Coyotes hard to play against. They have some offensive pop - Radim Vrbata scored five goals in his last five games, giving him 35 this season - but more importantly they grind along the wall and have a difference-maker in goal. Mike Smith posted eight shutouts this season - three of them down the stretch, as he stopped 190 of 192 shots during a five-game winning streak. He can steal a series.
11. Chicago Blackhawks
The 'Hawks have tremendous top-end talent, but they have a lot of question marks.
Captain Jonathan Toews is coming off a concussion. If he plays, how well will he play? Patrick Kane, who already has moved from right wing to center, might move to left wing on the first line with Toews and Marian Hossa. How will Kane handle yet another position switch at such a critical time? And why has the power play been such a mess despite all that skill? The 'Hawks ranked fourth last season; they ranked 26th this season.
The good news for the 'Hawks is that goaltender Corey Crawford's up-and-down sophomore season ended on an up note. He went 8-1-2 in his last 11 starts, allowing only one goal five times.
12. San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are the only team that went to the conference finals each of the past two years. After they lost to the Canucks in five games last year, they made some changes - swapping Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi for Brent Burns and Martin Havlat in two trades with the Minnesota Wild.
But they also blamed burnout. They floundered for much of last season, forcing themselves to finish strong. They coughed up a 3-0 lead in the second round against Detroit, forcing the series to go long. They had little left for Vancouver.
[Related: NHL awards: Malkin's gotta have the Hart, Karlsson deserves Norris]
And now look what they've done. They screwed around for much of this season. They had to fight hard just to make the playoffs. Then they drew the Blues - a team they went 0-4-0 against in the regular season, a team that hits and skates and wears you down. Not a good matchup.
The Sharks have disappointed as favorites. Their best hope is that they surprise as underdogs.
13. Washington Capitals
Nicklas Backstrom has returned from a concussion. Alexander Ovechkin has returned to form, scoring 11 goals in his final 13 games. In danger of missing the playoffs, the Capitals played some of their best hockey of the season down the stretch. Had they drawn the Rangers in the first round, they might have been a trendy upset pick. They beat the Rangers in the first round last year.
But they drew the Bruins, the defending champions. They don't play the disciplined, systemic game that frustrates the Bruins' four-line attack, and they don't have either of their top two goaltenders. Tomas Vokoun has a groin injury. Michal Neuvirth apparently has a leg injury. So across the ice from Tim Thomas, the reigning Conn Smythe winner, will be Braden Holtby, a 22-year-old with 21 games of NHL experience.
14. Ottawa Senators
There is hope that the Senators can keep surprising. Picked to finish as low as last in the league, the Senators made the playoffs by skating and scoring, and they played well against their first-round opponent, the Rangers. But this isn't a team that has won the kind of tight-checking games it will face in the playoffs.
The Senators have a couple of leaders who once went all the way to the Cup final: Jason Spezza and captain Daniel Alfredsson. But much will depend on two players with little playoff experience: defenseman Erik Karlsson, who posted an eye-popping 78 points in the regular season, and goaltender Craig Anderson, who has returned from a freak finger injury. Both have played only six playoff games.
15. Los Angeles Kings
Jonathan Quick is a good enough goaltender to steal a series. He led the NHL with 10 shutouts in the regular season. But he didn't steal a series the last two years - losing to Vancouver and San Jose - and even if he leads the Kings past the Canucks this time, can he carry the Kings for four rounds if they can't score?
The Kings were the second-worst offensive team in the league this season. It's hard to believe with some of the talent on the roster, but it's true. And the center they acquired to give them a boost, Jeff Carter, has an injured ankle. He probably will play but won't be at full strength.
After Quick and Carter, the key is Anze Kopitar. He missed the playoffs last year because of an injured ankle. He looked hungry down the stretch, with 11 points in his last six games, 25 in his last 20.
16. Florida Panthers
They're the third seed in the East, but that's deceiving. They played in the weak Southeast Division. They accumulated 18 points from overtime and shootout losses, the most in the league. They had a minus-24 goal differential, by far the worst among the playoff teams. Worst of all, they crawled to the finish line, going 2-3-5 in their last 10 games.
They have several players with playoff experience, several with championship rings. But generally those players are playing greater roles than they did before, or they're past their prime. They have a lot to prove.
At least they have an opportunity to prove it. In the playoffs for the first time since 2000, the Panthers ended the longest playoff drought in the league. No matter what they say, no matter how much they insist they're not just happy to be here, their season is already a success.
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