By limping into the playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings have made a first-round series win over the eighth-seeded Vancouver Canucks seem far from automatic.
''I think we might have some advantage against the Wings,'' Vancouver's Markus Naslund said Monday. ''They haven't played their best hockey of late and we have. We're playing totally without pressure. They are the best team in the league and everyone expects them to win.''
Detroit and Vancouver begin their series Wednesday, one of four NHL playoff openers that night. Four other series begin Thursday.
Detroit clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference on March 23, and guaranteed itself the NHL's best overall record five days later.
After that, the team rested its many veterans and at times it appeared the Wings were just killing time until the postseason. They finished the regular season with just one win in their last 10 games.
''We're feeling really good about ourselves,'' Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios insisted Monday. ''We had all the excuses imaginable over the last couple of weeks, now it's time to get back to where we were.''
Teammate Darren McCarty said: ''Maybe it's a good thing to not go into the playoffs like a fat cat riding high. Maybe this will give us more focus.''
The Canucks enter the postseason on a nine-game unbeaten streak (8-0-1). Naslund and teammate Todd Bertuzzi also finished the season as the second and third leading scorers in the league, behind Calgary's Jarome Iginla.
''This team is destined for greatness and I hope it's going to come soon,'' Naslund said. ''We've shown that when no one believed in us we still stuck together and have got the job done in really some troubled times. We're going to face a tough opponent but we're coming in with lots of confidence and we feel good about ourselves.''
In other games Wednesday, the No. 3 Carolina Hurricanes play the No. 6 New Jersey Devils, the No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers welcome the No. 7 Ottawa Senators and the No. 3 San Jose Sharks play host to the No. 6 Phoenix Coyotes.
The Devils eliminated Carolina in the opening round last season and New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens did his own personal damage, leveling hits on Shane Willis and Ron Francis, who both left the series with concussions.
New Jersey also is in the curious position of having more points than Carolina (95-91), which earned the third seed because it won the weak Southeast Division. The Devils won the season series 2-1-1
''The games that we played against Carolina were very competitive games, very spirited games,'' New Jersey coach Kevin Constantine said. ''The teams are starting to get familiar with each other, and that breeds a rivalry, so I think it will be a very emotional series.''
The Flyers have just three wins over Ottawa in the last 11 games. This season, the Senators won the series 2-1-1.
''We've played some pretty good games against them and we can skate with them,'' Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said.
The Sharks, who have a five-game home winning streak, play host to a first-round series for the first time, and won't be satisfied with anything less than advancing.
''We're at the point where we have a chance to make an impact in the playoffs beyond the first couple of weeks,'' San Jose's Mike Ricci said.
On Thursday, the four other first-round series begin.
In Eastern Conference play, the top-seeded Boston Bruins welcome No. 8 Montreal and the fifth- seeded New York Islanders, in the playoffs for the first time in eight years, travel to No. 4 Toronto.
In the West, No. 4 St. Louis, which is in the playoffs for a 23rd straight season -- the best streak of any team in the four major sports -- plays host to the fifth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks. The defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, the No. 2 seed, will be visited by No. 7 Los Angeles. The Kings played spoiler last season, bumping Detroit in the first round.
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