PITTSBURGH (AP) - Staal vs. Staal. The coaches who were somewhere else when the season started. Erik Cole going against the player who broke his neck. The NHL's two best teams down the stretch meeting in the playoffs for the first time.
The subplots are intriguing as the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins begin the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night, a series in which the winner returns to the Stanley Cup finals for at least the second time in four seasons.
For the first time in 35 years, brothers are opposing each other in a conference final - Carolina's Eric Staal and Pittsburgh's Jordan - and Carolina's Paul Maurice and Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma each could become the first coach since New Jersey's Larry Robinson in 2000 to win the Cup after taking over during the season.
Amid these story lines that will play out over as many as 16 days, the one likely to decide whether the Hurricanes go for a second Stanley Cup title since 2006 or the Penguins reach the finals for the second consecutive season is this:
'Canes vs. Crosby.
Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' 21-year-old kid captain, is dominating the playoffs with 12 goals and 21 points in 13 games, including eight goals and 13 points during a second-round duel with Washington's Alex Ovechkin that is likely to be talked about for the rest of their careers.
"For what he did this series, they should build a monument for him," Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov said of Crosby.
They are, sort of - the Penguins' new arena is rising across the street from Mellon Arena. For now, Crosby is carrying his team the way only elite athletes do, and the low-scoring Hurricanes might struggle to survive if they can't find a way to slow him down.
"He seems to crank it up another notch," linemate Bill Guerin said.
The Hurricanes are a fast team but admittedly aren't Crosby and Company fast, and Crosby's relentlessness and speed were unnerving at times to the Flyers and Capitals.
"If you sit back against this team, they're just going to tear you apart," Maurice said Sunday. "So we have to find a way to establish our game."
That game, good enough to produce comeback wins in road Game 7s against the third-seeded Devils and top-seeded Bruins, is to pressure the puck, play tight defense, lean on goalie Cam Ward (6-0 in playoff series) and get just enough goals to win.
That's another worry Carolina has on its mind: Pittsburgh is averaging 3.46 goals to the Hurricanes' 2.36, and Carolina leading scorer Staal has only one more point (13) than Crosby has goals.
Crosby is playing so well, it's reminiscent of Mario Lemieux scoring 16 goals each spring during the Penguins' Stanley Cup runs in 1991 and 1992.
"I don't think I've changed a whole lot," Crosby said. "I've tried to improve my game a little bit and make sure I was better."
Perhaps this best measures Crosby's impact: The previous 11 losers in the Stanley Cup finals won a single playoff round among them the following season; the Penguins have already won two rounds.
Pittsburgh surged by going 18-3-4 after Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien in mid-February, while the 'Canes - whose coaching change came in December - were 13-1-2 from March 3 through April 7. Carolina's 3-2 overtime win over Pittsburgh on April 4 was played at a playoff-like intensity that both teams could feel.
"To a man, though our lineup, we laid it on the line," Bylsma said.
Or as Maurice expects his team to do in Game 1, which the Hurricanes lost against New Jersey and Boston. Scoring on the power play would help; they are 5 for 48 with the man advantage (10.4 percent) compared to Pittsburgh's 13 for 66 (19.7 percent).
"We've got to get to our game early and have a little extra edge, have a little extra snarl," Maurice said. "And I think if we have that, we're going to get our chances and get a better result."
Returning to Pittsburgh always means something for Cole, who broke two vertebrae in his neck during a hit from behind by Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik on March 4, 2006. Cole returned in time for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals that season, and the two fought the following season. Orpik remains in Pittsburgh's lineup.
"I'm always going to have thoughts about it, for sure," said the slumping Cole, who doesn't have a goal in 14 playoff games.
The Penguins, with Crosby, NHL leading scorer Evgeni Malkin (19 points) and their own Staal, are favored to return to the finals, but Carolina wasn't supposed to beat Boston, either.
"We're probably not getting picked to win the series, but that's fine with us," Eric Staal said. "We've got an inner confidence in this room. We've got a lot of experience, we've got a lot of guys who will compete right until the end and we're ready to go. It doesn't matter who we're up against."
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.