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NHL-best Sharks set playoff sights on Red Wings

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NEW YORK (AP) -The Detroit Red Wings find themselves in a familiar position - the favorite.

The defending Stanley Cup champions dropped to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference this year, behind the Presidents' Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks, but they are again the team to beat as the postseason gets going Wednesday.

"Detroit is the defending Stanley Cup champion and they earned that," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said Monday. "They are the defending team, and we look at them that way with that respect until there is a new champion."

The Sharks, along with the other 15 teams to reach the postseason, certainly hope to be lifting the Cup in about two months. After several disappointing early ousters, that led to the dismissal of coach Ron Wilson last year, San Jose has its eyes on the prize.

Expectations are even higher now that the Sharks (53-18-11) posted the NHL's best record for the first time in team history. They added several players who captured the Cup in other places - including defensemen Rob Blake and Dan Boyle - and put the squad in the hands of rookie coach Todd McLellan, who had been an assistant with the champion Red Wings.

"Pressure is on all the teams in this league," Wilson said. "Every season is a new season and, if anything, you embrace your past because the experiences our players have gone through are very positive.

"They've played in probably more playoff rounds than just about anybody other than Detroit the last four or five years. That is a positive experience."

The Red Wings will open defense of their title Thursday when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are in the playoffs for the first time. San Jose will welcome the Anaheim Ducks that night, and No. 5 Calgary will visit the No. 4 Chicago Blackhawks, who haven't been in the postseason since 2002.

"It's exciting now we're finally there," 20-year-old Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "Everything kind of steps up a notch. Every little mistake, every little play is a little bit more in focus at this point. It's time to come together and try to limit those mistakes and play as a team and do it for each other."

The St. Louis Blues also make their return after three failed seasons that followed 25 consecutive trips to the playoffs. By moving up to sixth-place Sunday, they earned the right to play the Vancouver Canucks - who surged down the stretch behind All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo and won the Northwest Division.

"They play very well on defense and that's not even talking about their goaltender. We know how good he is," Blues coach Andy Murray said. "We respect them and I think they have a level of respect for us, as well."

That series begins Wednesday night, along with three Eastern Conference matchups.

The Washington Capitals bring the NHL's leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin, and a year's worth of experience into their series against the No. 7 New York Rangers, who are in the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Washington captured the Southeast Division for the second consecutive season and hopes lessons learned in a first-round, seven-game loss to Philadelphia a year ago will help them make a long run this time.

New Jersey seemed to be heading for another long run when it raced to the top of the Atlantic Division, even when record-setting goalie Martin Brodeur was sidelined for 50 games due to injury. The Devils held off Philadelphia for the division crown, but a late-season slump cost them the No. 2 seed.

Now they will have to deal with the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes, perhaps the hottest team in the playoff field. It is the fourth postseason meeting between the clubs, with Carolina winning two. Each time they have faced off in the playoffs, the winner has reached the Stanley Cup finals.

"When you think about it, there is so much parity," Devils coach Brent Sutter said. "People look at upsets because of seedings. But what is it that separates us from them? Nine points?"

Philadelphia blew a chance to have home-ice advantage by losing Sunday to the Rangers, so the Flyers will start the Battle of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh in a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference finals. The Penguins ousted the Flyers in five games before falling to Detroit in six with the Cup on the line.

The remaining East series kicks off Thursday when top-seeded Boston faces familiar foe Montreal. The teams also met last year in the first round when the seedings were reversed. It is the 32nd time these Original Six teams have been pitted against each other, with Montreal holding a 24-7 edge. The Canadiens took out the Bruins in 2008 in seven games.

Boston (53-19-10) finished first in the East just two seasons after consecutive last-place finishes in the Northeast Division.

"It's going to be interesting, it's going to be fun," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. "You work hard all season to get yourself into the playoffs, and to get yourself in the battle against a rival team like the Canadiens makes it that much more fun.

"We have to be up for this challenge. We've got to be mentally prepared and take it from there."

After reaching the Western Conference finals in 2004, just before the yearlong NHL lockout, the Sharks were knocked out in the second round three straight times. They begin their latest quest for the Cup against California and Pacific Division rival Anaheim, the No. 8 seed.

The Ducks finished second to the Sharks in the division race, but were 26 points behind. Anaheim's physical nature and postseason experience could make them more dangerous than the typical No. 8 seed.

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