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No easy stops on road to Stanley Cup

by Dan Rosen
Washington's road to the Stanley Cup again could run through Pittsburgh. If San Jose wants to reach the Stanley Cup Final, it may have to go through the Detroit Red Wings.

It won't be easy for the top-seeded teams to get to the Stanley Cup Final, but when is it?

Since the NHL went to the Eastern and Western Conference systems in 1993-94, only eight top seeds have reached the Stanley Cup Final, and only once, in 2000-01, did both top seeds get to the championship round.

Washington begins what it hopes to be a marathon to the finish line against the Montreal Canadiens, who faltered down the stretch -- only three wins in their last 11 games -- to finish eighth. San Jose starts against Colorado, which is tied with Chicago as the youngest team in the playoffs (average age: 27.4).

Should the seeds hold true, the Caps again will face the Penguins in the second round, and depending on your viewpoint, that could be seen as the best- or worst-case scenario.

Best case because it would give the Caps a chance to slay their biggest rival on an international stage. Worst case because the Penguins would be the best possible opponent Washington could face and obviously has a history of beating the Caps in the playoffs.

Washington and Pittsburgh have squared off eight times in the postseason, with the Caps having won only one of those series (1994). They are 19-29 overall against Pittsburgh in the postseason, including 3-4 last season.

Should the Sharks get past the first round -- something they couldn't do last season as the top seed in the West -- the Red Wings could be lurking.

Detroit would have to knock off fourth-seeded Phoenix and the other seeds would have to hold for that to happen. Either way, San Jose could face Phoenix, Detroit, L.A. or Nashville in the second round, and the Sharks were a combined 11-6-3 against those teams. But, they were 1-2-1 against the Red Wings, and that one win came in a shootout.

If you're hoping for a rubber match in the Final between Pittsburgh and Detroit, the odds are not in your favor.

The Red Wings, who split their season series with the Coyotes, would be a good bet. They could see San Jose, Chicago or Vancouver unless all the lower seeds win, and combined against the Sharks, Hawks and Canucks they were 9-3-2 this season.

The Penguins, who split the season series against Ottawa, didn't fare as well against the teams they could potentially face in the second round.

They were 3-1 against the Sabres (each win by one goal), but a combined 0-8-2 against the Capitals and Devils.

Looking for Chicago to get there? It's not a bad bet.

The Blackhawks were 4-2 against the Predators this season and a combined 10-5-1 against their four potential second-round opponents (Phoenix, Vancouver, Detroit and Colorado). They were 3-1 against the Sharks.

What about the New Jersey Devils and their chances of winning a fourth Stanley Cup?

Right off the bat it doesn't look so good considering they were just 1-4-1 against the Philadelphia Flyers this season. However, against Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Montreal -- their four potential second-round opponents -- the Devils were 14-3-1.

They went 6-0 against the Penguins and 3-1 against Washington.

Could the No. 3 seeds get there?

Buffalo could have some difficulty with Boston considering it won only two of six meetings in the regular season, but Vancouver should be confident against L.A. after winning three of four in the season series.

Vancouver, though, was just 13-9-4 against the rest of the Western playoff teams. Buffalo had even more problems with the rest of the Eastern teams, going 12-13-3 against Washington, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Philadelphia.

So who has the easiest road?

Nobody -- that's why the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all of sports.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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