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Stanley Cup playoffs set to open Wednesday

<p>The NHL playoff schedule is out and the grueling battle for the Stanley Cup begins Wednesday.</p>

New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - The NHL playoff schedule is out and the grueling battle for the Stanley Cup begins Wednesday.

The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks are aiming to become the first team since the 1997-98 Red Wings to claim back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, while the path back to the Finals for the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Bruins, was made easier after winding up with the best record in the NHL for the first time since 1990.

The Blackhawks are expected to have captain Jonathan Toews and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Patrick Kane back from injury when they open their series against the reeling St. Louis Blues on Thursday.

St. Louis is trending the wrong way into the playoffs, as a late-season swoon cost them the Central Division title. The Blues lost six straight to conclude the regular season, totaling only five goals and being shut out three times.

One season after finishing in the Western Conference basement, the Colorado Avalanche captured the Central crown, the franchise's first division title since 2003.

The Avalanche finished second in the West to Anaheim and will take on the Minnesota Wild starting on Thursday. The Wild clinched the first wild-card spot in the West.

The Pacific Division champion Ducks will face the Dallas Stars, who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2008 after securing the West's second wild-card spot. That series starts Wednesday.

San Jose and Los Angeles will battle in the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. The all-California series between the Pacific foes is slated to begin Thursday in San Jose.

The Bruins, winners of the Atlantic Division and Presidents' Trophy with a league-high 117 points, will open their series against the Detroit Red Wings on Friday. It's the first time since 1957 that Boston and Detroit will meet in the postseason, ending the second-longest playoff matchup drought among Original Six teams.

The Red Wings, the second wild-card team in the East, are making their 23rd consecutive playoff appearance despite a spate of injuries to key players.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were also frequently bitten by the injury bug, but still finished with a healthy lead atop the Metropolitan Division standings. Pittsburgh will face the Columbus Blue Jackets beginning on Wednesday.

The Blue Jackets are in the postseason for only the second time in club history after locking up the East's first wild-card spot. Columbus was swept by Detroit in the opening round back in 2009.

A Metropolitan Division clash between two long-term rivals finds the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers meeting up in the postseason for the first time since 1997. The 11th playoff gathering between the clubs will also mark the first time since 1982 that the Blueshirts hold home-ice advantage, as the series begins on Thursday at the renovated Garden.

The Tampa Bay Lightning clinched second place in the Atlantic, giving them the home-ice edge in a matchup against the Montreal Canadiens that gets underway on Wednesday.

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