The Phoenix Coyotes ride a five-game winning streak into the playoffs for the franchise's first division title, and their reward is facing Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and, likely at some point, Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The St. Louis Blues battle all season for a Presidents' Trophy, come up a hair short and their reward is playing Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle and the San Jose Sharks.
The Vancouver Canucks, almost under the radar, win their second consecutive Presidents' Trophy and their reward is a date with Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, arguably the stingiest goalie in the league, Jonathan Quick, and the Los Angeles Kings.
And the Nashville Predators do everything in their power before the trade deadline to prime themselves for a potential Stanley Cup run, and their reward is a first-round matchup with ... the mighty Detroit Red Wings.
"There's always been a team or two that you say they're the cream of the crop, but in the West this year, April 11 when everybody's set to play, [seeds] one through eight can go to the Cup finals without a doubt," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "I've never seen it this close before in my time in the league.
"It wouldn't surprise me if [seeds] five, six, seven and eight win their series. It wouldn't surprise me one bit because there's not very much difference between first and eighth."
The action ramps up
If you're a die-hard hockey fan, there's no more scintillating time than the next two months. Almost every night, hockey, and the most exciting kind, will be televised nationally.
Compared with the regular season, games are faster, more intense and more hard-hitting. Anybody can beat anybody, normally-unsung players become folk heroes and a hot goaltender can ruin another's Cup dream.
"Going into it, I don't know if you can pick a clear-cut favorite," Coyotes veteran Ray Whitney said. "There may be some teams you may favor. Not too many people are picking us [against Chicago], but look at the California teams. Vancouver and St. Louis may be 1-2, but think they're overly excited to play [Los Angeles and San Jose]?
"It'll be who cracks first in a series. There may be a lucky bounce here, a lucky bounce there, an injury here or injury there. In the West, there were 21 different scenarios going into the last day, so I think there's quite a bit of parity in the conference, which makes it hard to pick."
But, as Blackhawks veteran Andrew Brunette says, "Never mind the conference. How about our division? Our division's ridiculous. It's like the American League East in baseball, but I like our chances as good as any to win the Stanley Cup, which is pretty exciting."
Like the Northwest Division a few years back when every team competed for a playoff spot, St. Louis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago went neck-and-neck all season in the Central. The sixth seed, Chicago, especially if it gets Toews back from a concussion, arguably drew the best matchup in Phoenix. The Blues have to face the Sharks and the Predators have to face the Red Wings.
"St. Louis is dangerous," Brunette said. "They have some players built around [coach Ken Hitchcock's] type of hockey with the David Backeses and T.J. Oshies. They have really good puck movers from the back end.
"It's a winning formula."
Fear the Preds
Nashville secured home-ice advantage, which could prove big against Detroit, which was a pedestrian 17-21-3 on the road this season.
Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom never has missed the playoffs. He's also rarely been considered an underdog heading into a series, but many are picking Nashville to beat Detroit in what could be Lidstrom's last hurrah.
"We don't mind that at all," Lidstrom said. "Nashville had a real strong regular season, finished ahead of us in points. I think they're the team to be the favorites right now."
The Predators, after getting past the first round for the first time last year, also acquired Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad in February. But theoretically, the second-best trade deadline pickup besides Pittsburgh getting Sidney Crosby back from a concussion was Nashville adding the ultra-skilled Alex Radulov, who bailed on the Predators for the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008.
"Whether you're one or whether you're eight, you knew you were going to get a hard team to play against," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Going into a series where you used think it's lopsided, I don't know if that's the case in today's NHL."
The Canucks are trying to make amends for last year, when they blew a 3-2 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins. The Canucks won eight of nine heading into the playoffs, and those games were played without Daniel Sedin, who appears ready to return from a concussion.
"We have most of the same guys back, and falling one game short last year was hard," center Ryan Kesler said. "We know what it takes. ... We're amped up and ready to go."
The big question for Vancouver is how big a leash Roberto Luongo will get. The goalie always will have his naysayers, and down the stretch, Canucks fans were calling for Cory Schneider to get the playoff nod.
Luongo will start, but will it be only until he flounders?
"We have a lot of faith in Lou. He got us to a Game 7 last year," Kesler said.
The drama begins Wednesday.
Michael Russo • email@example.com