Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins took so long to clinch a playoff berth, they almost missed the postseason altogether.
And the consequences are daunting for their tardiness in securing the Eastern Conference's final spot on the last day of the season. The Penguins are back in New York for a second straight year in a rematch against the defending conference playoff champs and this year's Presidents' Trophy winners, the Rangers.
"We know them well, they know us well," Crosby said. "So there shouldn't be any surprise there."
Surprise might a relative term given what happened in their second-round meeting last year. The Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead by scoring once in each of the final three games, including a 2-1 loss at Pittsburgh in Game 7.
The Rangers and Penguins open at New York on Thursday in one of four compelling East first-round matchups.
Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman faces his former team, the Detroit Red Wings, in a series that opens Thursday. There's a provincial border battle brewing in Canada, with Ottawa facing Montreal, starting Wednesday.
And two of the NHL's top scorers meet starting Wednesday, when Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals play John Tavares and the New York Islanders.
Here's a glance at each of the four series:
RANGERS (53-22-7) VS PENGUINS (43-27-12)
The Rangers have plenty of momentum following a season in which they set team records for wins (53) and points (113). The last time New York broke those records was 1993-94, when the Mark Messier-led Rangers last won the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers have speed, depth and offense. And Henrik Lundqvist is on top of his game by showing no after-effects of a throat and neck injury that sidelined him for much of February and March. New York didn't fall apart without Lundqvist, going 18-4-3 in his absence.
The Penguins limped in to the postseason, meanwhile, finally advancing with a 2-0 win over last-place Buffalo on Saturday.
"We've always been in there, and never cut it so close," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said of the Penguins extending their playoff streak to nine seasons.
Reinforcements are on the way for a banged-up Penguins blue-line. Derrick Pouliot is set to return after missing two games with a lower-body injury. And Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington were called up to fill in for Christian Ehrhoff and Kris Letang, who are both out indefinitely with concussions.
CANADIENS (50-22-10) VS SENATORS (43-26-13)
Montreal's Carey Price led the NHL with a 1.96 goals-against average, a 93.3 save percentage and 44 wins.
And yet, Price's accomplishments were overshadowed somewhat of late by Ottawa goalkeeper Andrew Hammond, who sparked the Senators' monumental 23-4-4 run to make the postseason.
Hammond joined the team from the minor leagues in mid-February after starters Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner were sidelined.
"I've never had a stretch of hockey like this in my life," said Hammond, who went 20-1-2.
He'll need to keep it up against a balanced Canadiens team that's strong on defense and featured six players with 15 or more goals. Max Pacioretty had a team-best 37 goals, but his status remains uncertain after missing the final two games with an upper body injury.
LIGHTNING (50-24-8) VS RED WINGS (43-25-14)
The Steven Stamkos-led Lightning generated plenty of excitement this season by setting team records in wins (50) and points (108).
Stamkos led with 43 goals on a team that had nine players score 12 or more. General manager Steve Yzerman, Detroit's iconic former captain, deserves credit for assembling a team that features a mix of young talent, including Tyler Johnson, and veteran leadership, such as Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula.
The Red Wings are back in the playoffs for a 24th consecutive year, but face several big questions. Goalie Petr Mrazek will make his postseason debut in place of Jimmy Howard, who has struggled since being sidelined by a groin injury in January.
CAPITALS (45-26-11) VS ISLANDERS (47-28-7)
Alex Ovechkin led the Capitals back to the playoffs following a one-year absence by scoring 53 goals to win his fifth scoring title.
Now the Russian is seeking something far more elusive: Playoff success. The Capitals have won just three postseason series, and failed to advance past the second round since Ovechkin arrived in Washington in 2005-06.
"For one of the better players in the league -- he's won a lot of individual awards -- a team award, the Stanley Cup, would be pretty high on his priority list right now," Capitals first-year GM Brian MacLellan said.
Washington faces an Islanders team that has enjoyed even less playoff success over the past 20 years. New York reached the playoffs for only the third time in nine years, and hasn't won a first-round series since 1993.
AP Sports Writers Will Graves, Howard Fendrich and Noah Trister contributed to this report.