Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane are as good as hockey players get. Their teams are good, too. But in the NHL playoffs, that guarantees nothing.
Superstars and teams that were successful in the regular season get sent home, regularly, in the wild and wide-open postseason because seedings are relatively irrelevant. Los Angeles proved that last year, becoming the first team seeded eighth to hoist a Stanley Cup. Since the salary cap became part of the league's landscape after a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, seven teams have won NHL titles and no franchise has done it twice.
L.A.'s quest to repeat, as the fifth-seeded team in the Western Conference, begins tonight in St. Louis.
"The salary cap makes it an even playing field," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "Everybody has a chance."
Crosby, Ovechkin and Kane hope that's not the case.
Pittsburgh's star forward may not be cleared to help the top-seeded Penguins try to win the first of 16 games Wednesday night at home against the New York Islanders, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Crosby practiced Monday, but he hasn't played in a month because of a broken jaw.
The Penguins have proven they can win without Sid The Kid, acquiring Brenden Morrow, Jossi Jokinen and Jarome Iginla before the trade deadline.
"It's been great to see the guys come in and adjust the way they have," Crosby said.
The Penguins did close the season strong, but they weren't as successful as the Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals. After a slow start with rookie coach Adam Oates, the Southeast Division champion Capitals won 11 of their last 13 to earn the third seed in the East and a first-round game against the No. 6 New York Rangers.
Ovechkin finished the season with an NHL-high 32 goals after scoring a league-record 14 times in April to become the first player to win the Richard Trophy three times in the 13 seasons. He also won it in 2008 and 2009. Still, he hasn't led the Capitals past the second round of the playoffs in the first seven seasons of his career.
Chicago, which followed up its first Stanley Cup with two straight years of first-round exits, was the best team in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season with 77 points by rolling four lines, three pairs of defensemen and two goaltenders who were tough to beat.
"We knew we had to get off to a hot start," Kane said.
The No. 1 Blackhawks open the playoffs tonight against No. 8 Minnesota. For the first time since 1996, each of the NHL's Original Six teams - Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and the Rangers - are in the playoffs.
Colorado, meanwhile, won the NHL draft lottery on Monday and will pick first in June's draft, followed by Florida and Tampa Bay. Defenseman Seth Jones is the top-ranked North American prospect.