NHL PLAYOFFS: ‘It’s wide open’ is the theme as the race to the Stanley Cup begins. Panthers host Tampa Bay Sunday 3 p.m. ESPN

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Kucherov Makes History In Lightning Win
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov, right, celebrates after assisting on a goal by center Brayden Point, left, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Tampa, Fla. The assist was Kucherov's 100th of the season. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

General manager Don Waddell likes how his Carolina Hurricanes finished the season, winning 16 of their final 21 games. He knows it means nothing now.

“Your points get erased and you all start with zeroes,” Waddell said. “Playoffs are a different time. That’s what’s great about the NHL. Once you get to the playoffs, it’s wide open.”

This year more than many in the recent past.

Unlike last year, when Boston broke league records for the most wins and points in a season, there is no clear favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup. Carolina, Florida, defending champion Vegas, Dallas, Winnipeg, Edmonton and the league-best New York Rangers are among the many contenders who could be the last team standing in June.

“I don’t think there’s that separation,” former player-turned-TNT analyst Ed Olczyk said. “I think that there is eight or nine or 10 teams that I really feel could win the Stanley Cup.”

Carolina, which opens against the New York Islanders, are 13-2 Cup favorites, according to BetMGM Sportsbook, followed by Florida (7-1), Dallas (15-2), Colorado, Edmonton and the Rangers (all 8-1), Boston (11-1), Vegas (12-1 to repeat) and Toronto (14-1). The Canucks and Jets are listed at 15-1. and 2020- 21 Cup-winning Tampa Bay is 25-1, even with top goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy rounding back into form.

“He’s at his best when the games are on the line, and we look for that once again this year,” 2020 playoff MVP Victor Hedman said. “It’s obviously so fun to have the best goalie in the world behind you when the playoffs start.”

EASTERN CONFERENCE

The conversation starts with the Rangers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy, have home-ice advantage throughout the postseason and open Sunday against eighth-seeded Washington. Igor Shesterkin, like Vasilevskiy, has won the Vezina as the league’s best goalie, and this season winger Artemi Panarin has been one of the most productive and valuable players on any team.

What could set New York apart? Maybe its depth, which comes in handy in the playoffs when unlikely players become heroes.

“It might not be the headliners — it might be somebody you go, this guy just got four goals in a series and that was the turning point,” said former player Ray Ferraro, now an ESPN analyst.” You know who I think of? It could be Kaapo Kakko. It could be a guy like that, who had a trying year.”

Or, Ferraro wondered, it could be someone like Boston’s Jake DeBrusk. The Bruins are a year removed from being stunned by Florida in the first round after their record-setting season and begin their redemption tour Saturday against Toronto.

Coach Jim Montgomery hopes his team learned “how to handle adversity when it smacks you in the face. … We know there’s a way we need to look on the ice and what we should look like, to ourselves most importantly. And when we look like that, we think we can play with anyone in the league.”

The East is no cakewalk. As Lightning coach Jon Cooper pointed out ahead of his team’s first-round series against the cross-state Panthers, more than a decade on the job has led to just two championships.

“That’s a lot of times not being able to get through the gauntlet,” Cooper said. “It’s hard. It’s really hard to do.”

WESTERN CONFERENCE

The West has what Ferraro called a “beast” of a first round. Among the intriguing matchups are Winnipeg vs. Colorado and Vancouver opening against Nashville. Dallas finished first in the conference, but are the Stars the team to beat?

“I think five out of the eight are contenders for the Cup that are legitimate that could win,” said former defenseman Jason Demers, now an NHL Network analyst. “It really is going to come down to a matchup that you get in the first round to get the ball rolling and then whoever stays the healthiest.”

The top-seeded Stars, who open against either Vegas or Los Angeles, will try to outrace opponents to the Cup, using their speed and skill and relying on Jake Oettinger and a stacked blue line behind an elite group of forwards. But they know it won’t be easy.

“It’s going to be a hard run to get through everything,” winger Mason Marchment said. “It’ll be exciting, but I think we’ll be ready for it.”

Reigning and three-time MVP Connor McDavid could put the Oilers on his back and carry them through the playoffs like Nathan MacKinnon did when the Avalanche won the Cup in 2022. A lot will depend on Edmonton goalie Stuart Skinner.

With a first-round matchup against the Golden Knights or Kings, Demers said “Edmonton just needs to exorcise those demons.”

So do the Jets, who haven’t made it to the West final since 2018. Winnipeg has this season’s best goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck and a big, tough lineup full of players who can also score but think first about their end of the ice.

“Defend first,” assistant coach Scott Arniel said. “We don’t give teams very much time and space to do anything, and we grind people out and we kind of frustrate them by kind of smothering them to death.”

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AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver and Stephen Hawkins in Frisco, Texas, contributed

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl