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(DANNY MOLOSHOK)
(DANNY MOLOSHOK)

Two Stanley Cup favourites on the brink Add to ...

If you're in a playoff pool, chances are your team is about to be missing some of its key bodies here in the next week.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks are both on the verge of being wiped out in Round 1, as they sit down 0-3 despite being picked by many pundits and fans as this year's two finalists.

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That's illustrated nicely over at CupPick.com, where out of the 18,350 brackets submitted prior to the playoffs starting, the Penguins were the top choice to win the Stanley Cup this season with 24.4 per cent of the votes.

Vancouver wasn't far behind, in third behind only the Pens and New York Rangers, picking up 12.3 per cent of the vote.

(One gambling site tweeted Monday morning that had you bet $100 on the underdogs in every game so far, you'd be up $800 after 19 games.)

So why was there so much optimism around these two teams coming in?

For the Penguins, that's easy, as they went 18-4-1 heading into the playoffs and had only recently gotten Sidney Crosby back from a concussion. They were being hailed as the league's top team by many, getting a lot of good press for a late run that certainly looked a bit like when they won it all back in 2009.

Vancouver, meanwhile, was a finalist last year and hasn't really changed the composition of its team a great deal. Add in their Presidents' Trophy win and a Western Conference that's fairly wide open and, well, that's a good reason why they were a top pick for many.

So where did it all go wrong?

For Pittsburgh, goaltending has obviously been a huge part of the problem, as they've set a franchise record for goals allowed in the first three games of a series and Marc-Andre Fleury has a god awful .798 save percentage.

He has been terrible, and his team has unravelled in front of him, losing their composure when it was believed that the Philadelphia Flyers would be much more prone to that.

That all would have been hard to predict, especially considering Fleury leads all goalies with the most playoff wins since the lockout.

For Vancouver, it's been at the other end of the ice where they've struggled, scoring just four goals in the three games without Daniel Sedin after leading the Western Conference in goal production all season.

But both series illustrate just how close teams in the postseason are these days and also how the many, many shootouts can skew the standings.

In the playoffs, shootouts are pretty well irrelevant, but during the season, they contribute a great deal to where teams sit in the standings. Consider that if we wiped out all of the extra points for winning the skills competition, the Flyers would have the exact same number as the Pens with 99.

That's part of what made that series, in many ways, a coin flip from the beginning – especially with questions over Daniel Briere's health and Ilya Bryzgalov's playoff history on the Flyers side.

That same remove-the-shootouts trick doesn't work with Vancouver and LA, but consider that both teams had strong goal differentials and excellent goaltending during the year, and this really wasn't your typical one-versus-eight seed without Sedin in the Canucks lineup.

Only three teams in league history have come back from down 0-3, with more than 98 per cent of teams moving on, which makes it a fairly safe bet that the Flyers and Kings will advance at some point in the next week or so.

What's really interesting about this whole scenario is how it opens up both conferences, giving room for a team like Boston or Philly or Nashville to go on a run.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford last week, when he talked about his team's run to the Cup in 2006 and how several favourites that he had been worried about before the postseason were knocked out early.

"When we got in, we thought about Detroit and Ottawa [both first in their conferences with 124 and 113 points during the year]and we were like 'boy those guys are going to be tough to get by,' " Rutherford said. "But as it turned out, we never had to play those teams.

"So teams that get in shouldn't look at teams they may have trouble with. They may never see them. Because there's other teams that may match up better than can eliminate them."

Who are the favourites minus Pittsburgh and Vancouver? I'd go with the Bruins near the top of the list, if they get past Washington, and whoever comes out of the Nashville-Detroit series.

Then you've got teams like the Rangers, Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Jose that, in the right situation, with potentially an easy second round opponent, could catch lightning in a bottle like the Hurricanes did and go all the way.

Maybe the real lesson from all of this is there really aren't three or four "favourites" so much anymore in the NHL – just teams with better seeds and better regular seasons who can be knocked off as easily as anyone.

That's bad for your pool – but it's been good for the intrigue factor watching these playoffs.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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