With the sprint for Olympic gold over, the marathon run for the Stanley Cup begins this week with the opening round of the National Hockey League playoffs.
While the Sochi Games was a two-week gold rush, the quest for the Stanley Cup is an ultimate test of endurance, requiring the eventual champions to persevere through four best-of-seven series before lifting the NHL’s top prize.
The first round gets underway tonight in what will be as much a battle of survival as a sporting contest for the 16 teams that qualified after an 82-game regular season.
Such is the ferocity of the post-season that Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron played through torn rib cartilage, a broken rib, a separated right shoulder and a punctured lung in last year’s final against the Chicago Blackhawks before spending three days in a hospital.
Still stinging from last season’s loss, the Bruins are back in the playoffs, this time as the NHL’s most complete team and with the added benefit of home-ice advantage in each series they play after finishing first overall during the regular season.
No team knows more about the post-season grind than Boston’s first-round opponent, the Detroit Red Wings, who are back in the playoffs for a remarkable 23rd consecutive year after sneaking in as the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card.
The Bruins and Red Wings, two of the NHL’s Original Six franchises, will clash in the playoffs for the first time since 1957 when their series opens on Friday.
“We’re team oriented,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien said. “We focus on the big goal and what it takes to get there and our guys have bought into that.”
Swept from the East final last year by Boston, the Metropolitan Division champion Pittsburgh Penguins are looking for a measure of revenge as they launch their Cup bid against a Columbus Blue Jackets team competing in only their second playoffs.
Once again, Pittsburgh will be led by captain Sidney Crosby, who finished the regular season as the NHL’s leading scorer.
Canadian attention will be fixed on the Montreal Canadiens, who will carry the hopes of a nation into the playoffs and try to bring the Stanley Cup to its spiritual home for the first time since 1993, when they won their record 24th championship.
The Canadiens open tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have sniper Steven Stamkos back at full fitness after missing a large chunk of the season with a broken leg.
The other East matchup is a mouth-watering one between the New York Rangers and archrival Philadelphia Flyers.
The Anaheim Ducks took the top seed in the Western Conference and will open against a Dallas Stars team returning to the post-season for the first time since 2008.
Anaheim are led by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who finished in second and fifth, respectively, in league scoring and have plenty of depth and experience with evergreen forward Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and gritty Dustin Penner.
The speedy Stars can counter with young talents Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, but will need something special from netminder Kari Lehtonen if they are to pull off a first-round shocker.
The Colorado Avalanche have been one of the season’s big surprises, going from 29th place last year to taking top spot in the Central Division, earning them a first-round meeting with the Minnesota Wild.
First year head coach and former Colorado goaltending great Patrick Roy is sure to be a contender for NHL coach of the year honors, while Semyon Varlamov has been one of the NHL’s best netminders and could be in line for a Vezina Trophy nomination at the league’s top goalie.