Rangers G.M. Glen Sather has anointed them the Stanley Cup favorite, an honor the Penguins would just as soon decline. "Glen's been around a lot longer than I have," Pittsburgh G.M. Ray Shero says. "There's a method to his madness." At a time when the most basic forms of communication in the NHL are accusation and recrimination, Shero was intimating that Sather was trying to ramp up the pressure—as if there could be more pressure on Sidney Crosby (above) and Evgeni Malkin than they already put on themselves.
Although the Canucks won the Presidents' Trophy with 111 points, Pittsburgh is the favorite—even if it's hardly certain to escape the first round. The Penguins are meeting intrastate cousin Philadelphia, whose assistant coach, Craig Berube, has publicly accused Crosby and Malkin of being Pittsburgh's dirtiest players. If the Penguins survive the Flyers—who entered the playoffs having lost just once in six games in Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center—their path to the finals likely goes through the defending champion Bruins and the Rangers, who have also joined the I Hate Pittsburgh club. After Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik's knee-on-knee hit to New York's Derek Stepan on April 5, Rangers coach John Tortorella ranted, "They whine about this stuff all the time and look what happens. It's ridiculous. But they'll whine about something else over there, won't they, starting with their two f------ stars."
"This is the way the league is," Shero says, referring to parity and not vitriol. "You have to be lucky, and you have to be healthy. Every team in the East can give you problems."
The West is just as murky. Says Predators coach Barry Trotz, "In my 13 years here I've never seen the playoffs this wide open." Conference champs have met just once for the Stanley Cup since 1990. There is no apparent reason this spring will buck that trend. Assuming winger Daniel Sedin returns from his concussion during the first round and goalie Roberto Luongo doesn't melt under pressure, Vancouver should return to the finals. And if the Penguins are not debilitated by their tiptoe through the Eastern Conference minefield, their depth should carry them to their second Cup of the Crosby era.