In the Eastern Conference, just 14 points separated the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in the regular season. The gap between the league-leading Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference was only 22 points.
The series between the Red Wings and Canucks begins Wednesday night in Detroit, as do the Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes in San Jose, two-time defending conference champion New Jersey Devils open on the road against the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Philadelphia Flyers entertain the Ottawa Senators.
After cruising to another Presidents' Trophy, the Red Wings were viewed as prohibitive favorites to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1998.
But Detroit closed the season with an eight-game winless streak, its longest since 1991, and is facing a Canucks team that has one of the best forward lines in hockey.
There is plenty at stake for a veteran-laded Detroit team that has stumbled in the playoffs each of the last three years. In year's conference quarterfinals, the Red Wings won the
first two games before losing four straight to underdog Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the Canucks enter the postseason with a nine-game unbeaten streak. A year ago, they battled Colorado in every game of a four-game sweep, a series Vancouver played without Markus Naslund and Andrew Cassels. Both are healthy this time around and join Todd Bertuzzi on a potent No. 1 line.
"They've been the hottest team in the league since Christmas and they've got the hottest line in the league," said Detroit left wing Brendan Shanahan. "It'll be a test. They're young and excited, and the way they've played the last few months, they've gained a lot of confidence."
Few expected the Coyotes to reach the playoffs after dumping salary in the offseason. But goalie Sean Burke played like a Hart Trophy candidate and Coach Bob Francis relied on scoring by committee to nail down the sixth seed in the West. Phoenix has not won a playoff series since 1987.
"It's where everything is judged, we had a great year, we surprised a lot of people," Burke said, "but they now know what we can do. We're not going to surprise anyone."
The series between the Devils and Hurricanes is one of two playoff rematches. New Jersey is seeded sixth, but a win by the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions would not be considered an upset since they went 14-3