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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 4:37 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Bruins vs. Capitals series blog

Boston perfect spot for Aucoin to make playoff debut

ARLINGTON Va. -- Washington Capitals forward Keith Aucoin was a high school sophomore when he realized a dream that was shared by most hockey players growing up in the Boston area.

With Boston Garden only months from closing, Aucoin and his teammates from Chelmsford High School took celebratory laps around the legendary rink as the 1995 Division I Massachusetts state champions.

"That place was pretty cool," said Aucoin, a native of Waltham, Mass. "I was watching a lot of games there when I was younger and it was a lot different experience going there than it is to the [TD] Garden now, but both are fun places to play."

Seventeen years after that memorable night at Boston Garden, Aucoin is set to experience another lifelong dream when he makes his NHL Stanley Cup Playoff debut Thursday when the Capitals face the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC). It just happens to be at TD Garden against the team he grew up watching.

"It's exciting," Aucoin said of facing the Bruins. "Obviously a lot of family and friends. … I've been getting a lot of calls and text messages. I told everyone to get their own tickets -- they're too expensive. But it's awesome. Obviously growing up a Bruins fan and growing up the goal is to win the Stanley Cup and now [to have] the chance to beat them to get to that goal -- it's going to be a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to getting it going."

It's hard to blame Aucoin if he's chomping at the bit to get Game 1 started. The 33-year-old entered the 2011-12 season having played 75 NHL games spread over six seasons and two organizations. However, he's played 88 games alone in the American Hockey League playoffs.

"It's my first time," Aucoin said of the NHL playoffs. "My last chance was with the [Carolina] Hurricanes [in 2008]. We lost the last game of the year [against Florida] and then Washington beat Florida the next night to make the playoffs and knock us out. So it's my first experience and I'm really looking forward to it. Obviously it makes it a little more special playing Boston."

At 5-foot-8 and 171 pounds, Aucoin went undrafted after four years at Norwich University and began his professional career in 2001 with the now-defunct Broome County Icemen of the United Hockey League.

Since then, Aucoin has spent the better part of the last decade developing into one of the AHL’s all-time greats. He's No. 15th all-time in scoring in AHL history with 777 points in 673 games, a two-time Calder Cup winner with the Hershey Bears and a six-time postseason all-star.

But success in the NHL has been hard to come by for Aucoin, who now has 11 goals and 37 points in 102 NHL games with the Hurricanes and Capitals.

Finding the appropriate role for the offensive-minded Aucoin in the NHL has been a challenge. While he has seen time late this season playing alongside Alex Ovechkin and on the Caps' No.1 power-play unit, Aucoin is expected to begin the playoffs on the fourth line, with Mathieu Perreault and Joel Ward. It's a role Aucoin is ready to embrace.

"I think whenever you play in the playoffs, the game gets a little quicker and it's a lot more physical, but other than that, it's the same type of game," Aucoin said. "You just have to go out there and play your systems and play the way you're capable of playing. Obviously it gets a little more physical, but at the same time I like the physical play, so I'm going to go out there and be a little more physical myself."
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 4:16 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Canucks vs. Kings series blog

Kings' Carter ready for Game 1

VANCOUVER -- Their playoff series hasn’t started yet, but already the Los Angeles Kings are leading the Canucks 1-0 when it comes to welcoming back key forwards from injury.

While the Canucks were talking about missing top goal scorer Daniel Sedin for Game 1 of the playoffs Wednesday night because of a concussion, the Kings were preparing to welcome back Jeff Carter from a bone bruise that kept him out the last five games of the regular season.

“Good to go,” Carter said after joining teammates for a third straight day Wednesday.

That’s welcome news for a Kings team that has improved offensively since his arrival in a blockbuster trade with Columbus that reunited Carter with fellow former Flyers forward Mike Richards.

The Kings were dead last in scoring before Carter arrived, but averaged more than three goals in the 21 games after his arrival, which would be top-four in the NHL for the entire season. Carter only has six of them, and just nine points overall, but he balanced out the top six and created more room and less checking pressure for Anze Kopitar’s top line.

“I think I filled a hole, kind of balance things out maybe, shifted guys into roles that probably suit them well,” Carter said. “Just a little bit of balance.”

That balance will be important after the Canucks created a shutdown line with the trade deadline addition of center Samuel Pahlsson, who is expected to go head-to-head with Kopitar.

"[Carter] definitely adds a threat all over the ice at all times and we all know he can score some big goals and we need him to do that for us," Kopitar said. "It spreads everything out and maybe those guys can't; just key on the top line because it spreads the scoring around and that's what you need in the playoffs if you want to go deep."

Here are the rest of the expected lines as the Kings, who are missing Brad Richardson after undergoing an appendectomy Monday, try to avenge a six-game, first-round loss to Vancouver two years ago:

Dustin Brown - Anze Kopitar - Justin Williams
Dwight King - Mike Richards - Jeff Carter
Dustin Penner - Jarret Stoll - Trevor Lewis
Kyle Clifford - Colin Fraser - Jordan Nolan
 
Rob Scuderi - Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell - Slava Voynov
Matt Greene - Alec Martinez

Likely Vezina finalist Jonathan Quick is in goal, with Jonathan Bernier backing up.   
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 4:08 PM

By Dave Lozo -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Senators series blog

Tortorella preaching discipline as key to series

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Rangers coach John Tortorella rarely addresses the opposing team. On Wednesday, however, he talked openly about how his team needs to prepare to face the Ottawa Senators in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series that starts Thursday.

The eighth-seeded Senators took three of four from the Rangers in the regular season and boast a power play that finished 11th in the regular season with offensive stars Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson.

Staying out of the penalty box, Tortorella said, is paramount against the Senators.

"They have a very good power play," Tortorella said. "We need to stay within ourselves as far as just going about our business, not getting involved in any antics and keeping our discipline. Discipline is a huge part of the game in the regular season -- it's two-fold come playoffs. We've had many conversations about how we have to handle ourselves."

"They have a great power play," captain Ryan Callahan said. "The key for us is going to be staying out of the box. Our penalty kill is going to have to come up big when needed.

The Senators can also be dangerous at even strength, possessing the ability to capitalize on neutral-zone turnovers. Those mistakes plagued the Rangers in their losses to the Senators this season, and it's something they know they need to remedy starting Thursday.

"We know they beat us, we know they have great players," forward Brian Boyle said. "They have a great offensive lineup. They can transition the puck well and burn you if you turn it over. We know that. I think everybody knows that."

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is familiar with the abilities of fellow Swedes Alfredsson and Karlsson and isn't exactly enthusiastic about having to face them.

"I don't know if I'm looking forward to it," Lundqvist said. "They're great players and I skate with them a lot. I know what type of players they are. They have a lot of skill. I think we're feeling good in here. We're excited to start."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 3:22 PM

By Dave Lozo -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Senators series blog

Richards' concern winning, not proving himself

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Brad Richards signed a nine-year, $60 million contract this summer to play for the New York Rangers because he wanted a chance to have success in the spring.

The 31-year-old spoke Wednesday about how he doesn't want to prove himself in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- he just wants another chance to win, an opportunity that's been a rarity since winning a Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004.

"I don't know if it's prove my worth, I just want to win," Richards said. "I'm in my 30s now. The window is slowly closing. I got to win when I was very young, and I thought I'd get some more shots at it by now. I kind of thought, this will happen more often. It makes you appreciate it. It's nothing to do with the worth -- I want a chance to win.

"You don't know how many shots you've got. We've got a great team and have done a lot of great work this year. You don't know and can't say next year we'll be right back where we are. You don't know. Tons of things can happen over the summer. It's an opportunity for me. But I look at it like that."

When the Rangers face the Ottawa Senators in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series on Thursday, they will do so with a team that doesn't boast much in the way of postseason experience. Richards said that this team reminds him of the young Lightning team that beat the Calgary Flames in seven games in 2004, and that youth and inexperience don't matter much today.

"This team basically got a look at it last year, some of the young guys," said Richards, who was referring to the Rangers' five-game loss to the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round. "Some of the other guys have been in it more than that. So they've probably got a little more than we had in Tampa. There's a lot of young teams in the League that win now. Experience is great, but you have to gain it by winning and getting to the playoffs."

Coach John Tortorella, who was behind the bench in Tampa when Richards also won the Conn Smythe Trophy, likes his team's "innocence" coming into the playoffs.

"I think that's a positive for us," Tortorella said. "I'm really trying to allow the team to not overthink a bunch of stuff and continue to go on with our business. The thing I like about this group here is we've had a lot of different things go on with our club right from the get-go and they have handled themselves very well. We're ready to play. I think they've handled themselves very well the past few days."

Tortorella also warned that this could be the best chance for some of his players to win a Stanley Cup.

"You just never know if you'll have an opportunity again to do it," Tortorella said. "That's why we tell our guys when you get into these type of situations, you need to try to enjoy it, too. Who knows what goes with your career. You may never get another whack at it. We're going to be ready to play. There's no question about that. But I want these guys to enjoy this time of year."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

 
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 3:04 PM

By Dave Lozo -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Senators series blog

Having a healthy Callahan huge for Rangers

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The only person who is happier about Ryan Callahan being healthy for this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs than the man himself is probably coach John Tortorella.

"It's nice to have him with a uniform on and not watching," Tortorella said Wednesday, as the Rangers had their final full practice before Thursday's game against the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

It was in Game 80 last season when Callahan blocked a slap shot by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. Callahan suffered a broken foot and could only watch as the top-seeded Washington Capitals blitzed the Rangers in five games.

This time around, Callahan is healthy and looking forward to contributing after he was unable to last year.

"This is what you play 82 games for, is this time of year," Callahan said. "Last year was hard for me, missing the playoffs not being able to be part of it. I'm excited for it this year."

In his first year as Rangers' captain, Callahan had a career-best 29 goals and 54 points. He's a fixture on the penalty kill and is a leader when it comes to hitting and blocking shots.

"I look up and down the bench for him all the time, all situations, and now he had developed into quite a leader as far as his next progression that he's gone through this year," said Tortorella, who also praised Callahan's job performance as a captain.

"I think when you get into that type of situation, and he's still a young man, wearing the 'C,' I wasn't sure how he was going to be coming to me as far as our relationship and communicating through that," Tortorella said. "I've gotten to know him better. I think that's very important with your leaders. It's a bit of a conduit from coaching staff to player. That's gone along really smoothly. He doesn't say much. It's gone really well that way."

Defenseman Dan Girardi is happy to have a team that's entirely healthy, and admitted it was a big loss last season to play without Callahan.

"Losing a guy like that going into the playoffs is not good, but I thought we did a good job rallying around it," Girardi said. "I think this year having him, that's going to be awesome."

"He's a big piece," forward Marian Gaborik said. "We're glad he's there and with us and have a healthy team going in. It's very important to have that. We missed him last year. This is a different situation going into the playoffs as a healthy team."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 2:58 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Canucks vs. Kings series blog

Raymond to start in Sedin's spot for Game 1

VANCOUVER -- With Daniel Sedin sitting out Game 1 of the Canucks' Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Kings on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC), the Canucks will do a bit of line-juggling.

Mason Raymond, who missed the last regular-season game to witness the birth of his first child, will take Sedin's spot on the top line, alongside Henrik Sedin and Alexandre Burrows, while Maxim Lapierre, who played well in Daniel's place on the top line, shifts to the second line.

Here is how the Canucks likely will look when they hit the ice Wednesday for Game 1, including Zack Kassian's return after missing two games with a shoulder injury:
 
Mason Raymond - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Maxim Lapierre - Ryan Kesler - David Booth
Chris Higgins - Samuel Pahlsson - Jannik Hansen
Manny Malhotra - Byron Bitz - Zack Kassian
 
Dan Hamhuis - Chris Tanev
Alexander Edler - Kevin Bieksa
Aaron Rome - Sami Salo
 
Roberto Luongo
Cory Schneider
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 2:42 PM

By John Manasso -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Predators vs. Red Wings series blog

Red Wings welcome Helm back to lineup

NASHVILLE -- Red Wings center Darren Helm, who missed the regular season's final 10 games with a sprained knee, will return to the lineup on Wednesday for Game 1 of his team's Western Conference Quarterfinal series with the Predators at Bridgestone Arena.
 
Detroit coach Mike Babcock gave an emphatic, "Helm's playing" after his team's morning skate. Helm -- who had nine goals and 17 assists in 68 games -- provides Detroit with some speed and a helpful penalty-killer up front.
 
Earlier in the week, Helm said he would not be at 100 percent effectiveness if he played, but Babcock put those ideas to rest on Wednesday.
 
"Well, if he was 50 percent effectiveness, he wouldn't be playing; let’s get that straight," Babcock said. "We sat down and we talked about that specifically and I said I have lots of guys on deck ready to go and he assured me he's ready to go, so there's no issue there."
 
Before Babcock spoke, Helm said he would have to consult with the doctors and trainers before getting the OK to play.
 
"I want to make sure I'm helping my team, not hurting them," he said. "This has always been everyone's favorite time of year, but it's a chance for me to play the way I want to play all the time. It's hard to play this style of game 82 games a year, but it's focus on one game at a time now. I can play with lots of energy, speed and finishing checks, and I hope I can be out there and make a difference."
 
Babcock said he has ruled out forwards Jan Mursak, Riley Sheahan and Chris Conner. The final decision on Detroit's lineup will come down to forwards Justin Abdelkader or Cory Emmerton. Babcock said Helm's presence in the lineup helps to align the Red Wings' bottom two lines and will help to provide them more scoring depth. Then he seemed to engage in some gamesmanship.
 
"Well, Helmer puts everybody in the right spot," he said. "We had a great bottom six all year long and then we lost our people [to numerous injuries] and we had no bottom six, we had no support scoring. You know, it's amazing when you put people in the right spot. When I look at their team, I see [Nick] Spaling and [Paul] Gaustad in the three-four holes [at center], those are good matchups for us. They weren't without [Helm]."
 
Babcock seemed to continue the theme of trying to turn up the competitive pressure on Nashville, saying he and general manager Ken Holland have often talked about how they would prefer to start the playoffs on the road instead of their status as a perennial high seed. He said starting on the road makes his team looser.
 
"Just play the game," he said. "Just get out and get after them. You don't have to worry about anything. You just play, nice and simple and just put as much pressure on the opposition as you can and just watch them tighten up."

Here is the Red Wings' projected lineup for Game 1:
 
Johan Franzen - Pavel Datsyuk - Todd Bertuzzi
Valtteri Filppula - Henrik Zetterberg - Jiri Hudler
Drew Miller - Darren Helm - Danny Cleary
Gustav Nyqvist - Justin Abdelkader/Cory Emmerton - Tomas Holmstrom
 
Nicklas Lidstrom - Jonathan Ericsson
Niklas Kronwall - Brad Stuart
Kyle Quincey - Ian White
 
Jimmy Howard
Ty Conklin

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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 2:32 PM

By Dan Rosen -  NHL.com Senior Writer /NHL.com - Penguins vs. Flyers series blog

Flyers expect rookies to do their jobs

PITTSBURGH -- Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette offered a hint Wednesday morning, albeit in a round-about way, that he already has spoken to the six rookies expected to be in his Game 1 lineup about playing in the playoff pressure-cooker for the first time.

"We didn't go, 'Oh my god it's your first playoff series,'" Laviolette said with a laugh. "I don't think that would have helped them."

No, probably not. But, the message seems pretty clear.

Laviolette said he expects forwards Matt Read, Brayden Schenn, Eric Wellwood, Sean Couturier and Zac Rinaldo, and defenseman , Marc-Andre Bourdon, to be themselves and to play their roles, just as they have all season long.

"Our younger players have been utilized in every situation imaginable to this point," he said. "They got the opportunity to be part of HBO, part of the Winter Classic, and never once has there been any lack of confidence from the organization, our staff and their teammates for that matter. They are contributing factors.

"For me this is not a roll the dice and hope they make it through. This is, 'We need you to do your job, the job you've done all year.' And, they've done it well. This is their first opportunity in the playoffs, but they give us no reason to believe life will be any different than it was yesterday. We count on them for our success."

While the Penguins likely will try to find a way to exploit the rookies, Philadelphia veteran center Danny Briere said he thinks they will give the Flyers an energy boost.

"I know people are probably thinking there are a lot of rookies on this team and you don't know how they're going to answer, but I think these guys will be excited to prove themselves just like they did at the beginning of the year [when they had] to prove they had a place on this team," Briere said. "I think our youth is going to give us energy and take us a long way."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 2:29 PM

By John Manasso -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Predators vs. Red Wings series blog

Gill to be a game-time decision

NASHVILLE -- Predators coach Barry Trotz re-iterated that defenseman Hal Gill, who leads his team in averaging penalty-killing time on ice, will be a game-time decision Wednesday for Game 1 of the team's Western Conference Quarterfinal series (8 p.m. ET, CNBC, CBC).
 
The Predators held an optional skate Wednesday and the 6-foot-7, 241-pound Gill (lower-body injury) did not participate. Trotz said the Predators would skate seven defensemen in warm-ups.
 
If Gill cannot play, then Jack Hillen or rookie Ryan Ellis likely would take his place in the lineup. Trotz described the 21-year-old Ellis, last year's Ontario Hockey League player of the year, as someone who is poised and does not get rattled on the big stage, as he has played in high-profile tournaments such as the World Junior Championship.
 
Hillen, 26, has played more than 200 NHL games, but, like Ellis, would be making his playoff debut. Hillen is a sturdy 5-10 and 190 pounds and Trotz seemed to trust his penalty-killing ability, which could be the team's need if Gill can't play.
 
"Jack's one of those guys who is really sort of one of those under-the-radar guys," Trotz said. "He's really efficient. He skates real well. He's really strong on his feet and therefore he's got leverage skills. He's a good penalty-killer and you know what you're going to get with Jack. He's a little older; he's 26, so he's a little more mature than other players."
 
Hillen had two goals, four assists, 20 penalty minutes and a plus-6 rating in 55 games. He was a mainstay in the lineup for much of the first half of the season, but once Ellis was called up after the League's two-day December holiday break and Gill was acquired in February, he played sparingly.
 
Hillen sounded like someone who had been told to be ready to go.
 
"I slept well, but I was really excited," he said. "I definitely went to bed thinking about it, woke up thinking about it. Just went over it in my head -- if I'm in there, what I need to do -- so, definitely excited about it."
 
While Gill's presence in the lineup is the major issue for Nashville going into Game 1, Trotz also has some decisions to make in terms of his fourth-line forwards. Matt Halischuk and rookie Craig Smith seem to be the likely choices to play with center Paul Gaustad, although Brandon Yip also is a possibility on the right side instead of Smith. Colin Wilson, Jordin Tootoo and Brian McGrattan were among the final players coming off the ice and seem less likely to crack the lineup.
 
Smith ranked among the League's top rookie scorers during the first part of the season, but hit something of a wall in the second half. Trotz said he thinks it's not unusual for that to happen for first-year players who have come out of college. (Smith played at the University of Wisconsin.)
 
But on Wednesday, Trotz said Smith is "flying around," and that looks like the explosive player he was earlier in the season. Smith had a goal and two assists in the Predators' regular-season finale Saturday against Colorado.
 
In the season finale, Smith skated on a line with Wilson at center and Halischuk on the other wing. Smith was asked if he thought his performance on Saturday gave Trotz reason to play him in the playoffs.
 
"I think our whole line did," he said. "I thought our line played exceptionally well. I think we were playing simple and doing the right things and had success. At this point, anyone who's in the lineup is going to be ready to go."
 
Here is the lineup the lineup the Predators likely will put on the ice for Game 1:
 
Sergei Kostitsyn - Mike Fisher - Martin Erat
Andrei Kostitsyn - David Legwand - Alexander Radulov
Gabriel Bourque - Nick Spaling - Patric Hornqvist
Matt Halischuk - Paul Gaustad - Craig Smith
 
Ryan Suter - Shea Weber
Roman Josi - Hal Gill
Francis Bouillon - Kevin Klein
 
Pekka Rinne
Anders Lindback

Brandon Yip could replace Smith on the right side of the fourth line.

If Gill can't play, Bouillon likely would slide into his spot with Josi, and Jack Hillen would play on the third pair with Klein.
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 2:20 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Panthers vs. Devils series blog

Predictions favoring Devils don't bother Panthers

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers may have home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, but that doesn't change the fact they're considered underdogs in their series against the New Jersey Devils.

It wouldn't even be a stretch to call them heavy underdogs.

When NHL.com unveiled its first-round predictions of 16 writers, international staff members and NHL Network analysts, all but one went with New Jersey over Florida.

Only one of the other seven first-round series matched that kind of consensus, with the New York Rangers getting all 16 votes in their matchup against the Ottawa Senators.

"We can't worry about all the predictions," coach Kevin Dineen said. "You can sit there and watch the NHL Network or MSG, whatever it is, there’s lots of people out there that are looking to fill air time. There's areas we really can't control."

The NHL changed its alignment to three divisions in each conference in 1998-99 and started giving the division winners the top three seeds.

Before this year, only four No. 3 seeds finished with fewer points than the sixth seed. It's happening in both conferences this year, with third-seeded Phoenix facing No. 6 seed Chicago in the Western Conference.

It's impossible to draw conclusions from past results because the previous four series matching a No. 6 seed with more regular season points than the No. 3 seed were split.

• No. 6 Boston (91 points) beat No. 3 seed Carolina (86) in six games in 1999.

• No. 3 seed Carolina (91) beat No. 6 seed New Jersey (95) in six games in 2002.

• No. 3 seed Vancouver (105) beat No. 6 seed Dallas (107) in seven games in 2007.

• No. 6 seed Philadelphia (95) beat No. 3 seed Washington (94) in seven games in 2008.

"I really don't believe that there's any underdog or favorite," Panthers goalie Jose Theodore said. "Yes, there might be upsets sometimes, but you look at the standings, how tight it was, anybody could win games. That's what's fun. Even if you're the eighth seed, you still have a chance to win and I was in a lot of playoffs where we  were seventh or eighth and we were able to win. That's what's fun. That's what fans want to see, a lot of good teams, and it's really hard to predict."

In finishing with 102 points and becoming the first team to finish fourth in its division with at least 100, New Jersey ended up with eight more points than the Panthers.

That's the biggest differential yet in favor of a sixth seed against a No. 3 seed.

And it's a large reason for the overwhelming sentiment favoring the Devils.

Not that Panthers players are really concerning themselves with prognosticators.

"Well, they predicted us to not even make the playoffs this year," center Shawn Matthias. "It's nice being underdogs. I'm not going to give any bulletin-board stuff. Well, we didn't listen to that all year, why would we start now?"
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