Sidney Crosby climbs over the boards in front of Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma during the first period of an intrasquad scrimmage in Pittsburgh Wednesday.
The New York Rangers made a big push in trading for Rick Nash to improve their chances of winning a championship for the first time since 1994.
“It’s the right time for him to be here with us,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
On the opposite side of the continent, the Vancouver Canucks can’t wait to resume the franchise’s quest for its first Cup when the lockout-delayed season starts Saturday night at home against Anaheim.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins are also feeling a sense of urgency to win it all again.
And advancing one round in the playoffs isn’t enough anymore for the Nashville Predators, who raised the stakes by matching a 14-year, $110-million contract to keep star defenseman Shea Weber.
Even though the Predators don’t have the best defensive pair in the league anymore with Ryan Suter joining fellow free agent Zach Parise in Minnesota, Nashville expects to try for more than just a third straight trip to the Western Conference semifinals.
“Without a doubt, the ultimate goal is the Stanley Cup,” said Weber, who was wooed by the Philadelphia Flyers with a long and lucrative offer sheet as a restricted free agent last summer.
“And to do that, you have to make the postseason. Anything can happen as we all witnessed with Los Angeles last year.”
The Kings, seeded eighth, started by knocking off the top-seeded Canucks in the West and finished with a 6-1 rout of the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the finals.
That’s why Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who is hoping to help the franchise extend its postseason streak, said it’s not realistic for there to be a lot of pressure on any one team to win it all.
“The Cup contenders will be the 16 teams that make the playoffs,” Holland said while watching his team prepare on the ice earlier this week for a 48-game regular season.
“The eighth seed won the Stanley Cup against the sixth from the East. The days in the 1990s and early 2000s when the top teams had easier runs in the early rounds are over.
“It’s wide open, and that’s the beauty of the league.”
It won’t be pretty, though, in some cities if the results are anything short of a championship.
The Rangers made a long run in the postseason, six games into the Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey.
The Rangers also played in the Eastern Conference finals in 1997. Those two postseasons are the team’s longest since beating the Canucks in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals. That was the year before the last lockout-shortened season.
New York led the East with 109 points last season with Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards leading up front and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist having the best year of his career.
Not content to make another run with the same lineup, the Rangers acquired Nash, a former NHL goal-scoring champion, in exchange for three players — Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Tim Erixon — along with a first-round pick in the 2013 draft.
Nash might be good enough to put the Rangers over the top.
The 28-year-old, five-time All-Star has scored 40 goals twice, including the 2003-04 season when he had an NHL-high 41 goals a year after being drafted No. 1 overall.
Nash, though, lifted Columbus to the playoffs only once.
Now, he’s on a team that’ll only be satisfied by a Cup. And, he’s also makes a transition from playing in one of the league’s smallest markets to its largest.
“I think it’s a little bit different for him,” Tortorella said.
It’ll also be different for Roberto Luongo to be on the bench — if he’s still with the Canucks when the season starts — while Cory Schneider is in net. Schneider signed a three-year, $12 million contract extension last summer while Luongo heard about trade rumors.
Luongo lost his job after giving up seven goals over the first two games of the playoffs, a 0-2 deficit Vancouver couldn’t overcome after leading the NHL in points for a second straight season.
The Canucks have a chance to do it three years in a row with a stacked roster led by the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, who combined for 148 points last season.
Pittsburgh, though, probably has the best duo with the reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin and the return of Sidney Crosby. Concussion-like symptoms limited Crosby to 22 games last season and 41 the previous regular season.
Crosby said he puts more pressure on himself than anyone else could to win the Stanley Cup again after he helped the Penguins beat Detroit in a Stanley Cup finals rematch four years ago.
“I have high expectations and our team has high expectations,” he said. “I don’t think that ever really changes.”
Hopes changed in Chicago when the Blackhawks broke through and reinvigorated their fan base with a Stanley Cup run in 2010 — the franchise’s first title since 1961 — only to dash them with consecutive first-round exits.
“After winning the Cup a couple of years ago, I think everyone was on top of the world,” said Patrick Kane, who couldn’t match the production he had during the championship season in the past two years.
“You realize that two other teams have done it. It’s one of those things where you want to get it back, but it’s a long road ahead. It’s definitely a goal for the season to go as far as possible and win it.”
And in Detroit, a Cup-or-best culture has been cultivated with four Stanley Cups since 1997 and a postseason streak that last lasted two-plus decades.
The Red Wings insist they’re still a championship contender without Nicklas Lidstrom on the roster for the first time since the 1990-91 season.
The seven-time Norris Trophy winner retired last summer and turned down a chance to come back for the 48-game season.
Brad Stuart left another void on the blue line when he was traded to San Jose instead of leaving to sign with the Sharks in free agency.
Henrik Zetterberg, the new captain, still likes his team’s chances with talented teammates such as Pavel Datsyuk up front, Niklas Kronwall on the back end and Jimmy Howard in net.
“We still have a good enough team to go all the way,” Zetterberg said. “But to win the Cup, you have to make the playoffs. In the Western Conference, it’s hard to look at all the good teams and say what teams aren’t going to make it. The last few years, more and more contenders have been popping up and more and more teams believe in themselves.”
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