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eric duhatschek

It started back in January. Everywhere you turned, the smartest hockey people on the planet were saying the same things about parity and the coming NHL season. Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland probably put it best when asked who might contend for the Stanley Cup in the shortened 48-game schedule.

"The Cup contenders are the 16 teams that make the playoffs," Holland said. "If you make the playoffs, you've got a chance to win the Stanley Cup."

For that line of reasoning, you can thank your defending champion Los Angeles Kings, who were the 11th-best team in the Western Conference at Christmas last year, hovered outside the playoff picture for most of the season, just made it to the playoffs as the eighth seed, then ended up in the winner's circle two months later.

The Kings' unexpected rise to the top provided new hope and inspiration to even perennial bottom-feeders, and may explain how five of the seven worst teams in the league last year all qualified for the playoffs this time around. As Holland noted, the thinking in 16 different markets, including Detroit, is if the Kings can do it, so can we.

Now, parity has indisputably changed the NHL landscape, and created a middle class where it is virtually impossible to distinguish from among 20 or so teams that are roughly on par with one another. But there were also two unforeseen developments this year, as opposed to others in recent memory – the emergence of one exceptional team in the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and one exceptional team in the West, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chicago went 24 games in a row to start the season without a regulation loss, which broke the record of 16 established by the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks. Thirteen different players scored a game winner, and Ray Emery, the nominal backup, became the first goaltender in history to start the season 10-0.

Pittsburgh powered its way through the middle portion of its schedule by reeling off 15 consecutive victories between March 2 and March 30, matching the 1981-82 New York Islanders for the second-longest win streak in league history. The Penguins were the first team to post a perfect calendar month that featured a minimum of 10 games, and team captain Sidney Crosby had 25 points during that streak, just before he fractured his jaw and missed the final month.

No team is perfect and every team is subject to injuries, or to running up against a hot goaltender, or to hitting a flat spot at precisely the wrong time of the season, or to simply getting a bad playoff matchup.

But the cream occasionally does rise to the top.

Unquestionably, Pittsburgh will need to keep Crosby and Evgeni Malkin healthy, and goaltender Marc-André Fleury has to stop more pucks than he did a year ago against the Philadelphia Flyers, a series in which his goals-against average was an ugly 4.63.

Unquestionably, Chicago will need to keep Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith healthy, and goaltender Corey Crawford has to stop more pucks than he did a year ago against the Phoenix Coyotes, when he gave up weak overtime goals three times in the series. But the Blackhawks lost just seven games in regulation and won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team. Historically, this can also be a mixed blessing.

The Presidents' Trophy was created in 1985-86, and since then, only seven teams have gone on to win the Stanley Cup after finishing as regular-season champions. The last to do so was Detroit, in 2007-08.

Detroit was also the last team to win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years (1997-98), which is the challenge facing Los Angeles this spring. The Kings had an up-and-down time of it again this year, and most perplexing was their inability to win on the road (eight victories in 24 games). This after going 9-1 on the road in last year's playoffs.

The Kings also didn't get the same level of goaltending from Jonathan Quick, who had off-season back surgery and struggled with his consistency early in the year, forcing head coach Darryl Sutter to deploy his backup, Jonathan Bernier, more than he normally would.

But Quick was 5-1-1 in his last seven games with a goals-against average of less than two per game, and the Kings closed out the season with seven consecutive home victories. Overall, they were 24-11-3 after Feb. 1, slowly rounding into form the same way they did last year. So they'll pose a challenge, but whether they can challenge Chicago is another matter altogether.

The Blackhawks haven't won a playoff round in two years after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010. The Penguins haven't won a playoff round in two years after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. Both had to tweak their lineups to make the salary-cap numbers work, but both have done so in clever and savvy ways. Whatever Stanley Cup hangovers they might have endured, they are over with. They are hungry and motivated. The urgency to win, after consecutive failures these past couple of springs, seems high in Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Wouldn't it be something if this year's big surprise is that there are really no surprises at all, and the best teams actually do win?