NHL playoff preview

Posted

A capsule look at the first round of the NHL playoffs (all times EDT):

EASTERN CONFERENCE

WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

REGULAR SEASON: Capitals went 56-18-8 (120 points) to win Metropolitan Division and Presidents' Trophy. Flyers went 41-27-14 (96 points) to get second wild-card spot.

SEASON SERIES: Capitals won 2-0-2, with two wins in regulation.

STORY LINE: The Capitals clinched the Presidents' Trophy two weeks ago, though they struggled to get into playoff mode by losing five of their final seven games with nothing at stake. Goalie Braden Holtby is in a groove, and the skill at center and on the wings is tough to top. This ought to be a bruising opener, though, against a Flyers team that finished coach Dave Hakstol's first season 15-5-3. Rallying behind Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, they rose from 12th place in the Eastern Conference to reach the playoffs on the second-to-last day of the schedule.

WASHINGTON'S KEY PLAYER: Alex Ovechkin. The "Great Eight" is good as they get with the puck, having secured his fourth straight and sixth overall NHL title with 50 goals. He's the third player in league history to reach that mark seven or more times, following Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky (nine each). Ovechkin, in his 11th season, has never surpassed the second round of the playoffs.

PHILADELPHIA'S KEY PLAYER: Shayne Gostisbehere. The 22-year-old with the powerful shot from the point scored 17 goals, the most by a rookie defenseman since Dion Phaneuf scored 20 times for Calgary in the 2005-06 season.

GAME 1: Thursday at Washington, 7 p.m.

PREDICTION: Capitals in 7.

FLORIDA PANTHERS VS. NEW YORK ISLANDERS

REGULAR SEASON: Panthers went 47-26-9 (103 points) to win Atlantic Division. Islanders went 45-27-10 (100 points) to get second wild-card spot.

SEASON SERIES: Panthers won 2-1, with one win in regulation.

STORY LINE: The long-languishing Panthers have reached the playoffs for only the fifth time in the franchise's 22 seasons, still without a series win since the 1996 run to the Stanley Cup finals. They're fueled by unique mix of young (Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov) and old (Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Brian Campbell). The Islanders had a solid first season in Brooklyn, reaching the playoffs for the third time in four years behind John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, the leaders of a talented young forwards corps. They've dealt with lots of injuries down the stretch, but defensemen Travis Hamonic should be back for the start of the series.

FLORIDA'S KEY PLAYER: Nick Bjugstad. The 2010 first-round draft pick's third full season was underwhelming, until a solid finish with five goals and seven assists over his last 17 games while helping fill the void left by Vincent Trocheck's injury.

NEW YORK'S KEY PLAYER: Thomas Greiss. The 30-year-old goalie appeared in a career-high 41 games, playing as the regular after Jaroslav Halak was hurt March 8. Greiss hasn't been at his best since, giving up three or more goals in six of his 12 starts, but his 23 wins and .925 save percentage for the season were also career bests.

GAME 1: Thursday at Florida, 8 p.m.

PREDICTION: Panthers in 6.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. NEW YORK RANGERS

REGULAR SEASON: Penguins went 48-26-8 (104 points) to finish second in Metropolitan Division. Rangers went 46-27-9 (101 points) to finish third in Metropolitan Division.

SEASON SERIES: Penguins won 3-1, with two wins in regulation.

STORY LINE: The Penguins, who've won four total playoff series over the last six years since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, have lost seven of their last eight postseason games against the Rangers and were ousted by them each of the last two years. But they've been on quite the roll. The Rangers are still stacked with experience and talent from the last two seasons that have ended in the Stanley Cup finals and Eastern Conference finals, respectively.

NEW YORK'S KEY PLAYER: Henrik Lundqvist. The 34-year-old Swede has 39 postseason wins over the last four years. How much does he still have left?

PITTSBURGH'S KEY PLAYER: Sidney Crosby. The two-time MVP broke out of a year-long funk right around the time the Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan. Crosby finished third in the league in points, despite being outside the top 100 in mid-December, and along with defenseman Kris Letang fueled Pittsburgh's 14-2 stretch to close the regular season even with Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined by injuries.

GAME 1: Wednesday at Pittsburgh, 8 p.m.

PREDICTION: Rangers in 7.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VS. DETROIT RED WINGS

REGULAR SEASON: Lightning went 46-31-5 (97 points) to finish second in Atlantic Division. Red Wings went 41-30-11 (93 points) to finish third in Atlantic Division.

SEASON SERIES: Tied 2-2.

STORY LINE: With center Steven Stamkos out because of a blood clot and defenseman Anton Stralman absent due to a broken leg, the Lightning stumbled down the stretch but still managed to snag home-ice advantage for the first round. The Red Wings have reached the playoffs for the 25th straight year to stage this rematch of last year's Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

TAMPA BAY'S KEY PLAYER: Jonathan Drouin. The third pick in the 2013 draft was suspended in January for failing to report to the team amid his camp's trade request. Upon his return, he had nine goals and one assist in 10 games for his AHL club and then scored in each of the last two regular-season games for the Lightning.

DETROIT'S KEY PLAYER: Jimmy Howard. When Petr Mrazek faded in March, the 31-year-old stepped up down the stretch. Howard allowed two goals or fewer in six of his last seven games.

GAME 1: Wednesday at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.

PREDICTION: Lightning in 7.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

DALLAS STARS VS. MINNESOTA WILD

REGULAR SEASON: Stars went 50-23-9 (109 points) to win Central Division and Western Conference. Wild went 38-33-11 (87 points) to get second wild-card spot.

SEASON SERIES: Stars won 4-1, with one win in regulation.

STORY LINE: The Stars are in the playoffs for just the second time in the past eight years, the top seed for the first time since 2003. All-Star forward Tyler Seguin's status is uncertain after he missed most of the last month with a cut on his left Achilles tendon, but this is a high-powered team that led the league during the regular season with 267 goals. The Wild, facing the franchise that used to call Minnesota home for the first time in the playoffs, have the worst record of a playoff team since the shootout era started in 2005. They're hurting, with forwards Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek iffy for the series.

DALLAS' KEY PLAYER: Jamie Benn. Benn fell four points shy of Mike Modano's Dallas record of 93 points a year after winning the Art Ross trophy as the NHL's leading scorer. He joined Modano as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993, finishing with 41 goals and a career-high 89 points, two more than last season. The Stars captain had four goals in the only playoff series of his career, a six-game loss to Anaheim in 2014.

MINNESOTA'S KEY PLAYER: Ryan Suter. The stalwart defenseman was second in the league in ice time and finished with a career-high 43 assists to go with eight goals. He'll be a big factor against Benn and the other Stars skill players.

GAME 1: Thursday at Dallas, 9:30 p.m.

PREDICTION: Stars in 5.

ANAHEIM DUCKS VS. NASHVILLE PREDATORS

REGULAR SEASON: Ducks went 46-25-11 (103 points) to win Pacific Division. Predators went 41-27-14 (96 points) to get first wild-card spot.

SEASON SERIES: Predators won 2-1, with two wins in regulation.

STORY LINE: The Ducks have advanced one round further in each of the last three postseasons, only to lose Game 7 at home. Can they take the next step? They became the first team to lead the NHL in both power play and penalty kill since the 1984-85 Islanders. Filip Forsberg and James Neal topped 30 goals for the Predators, who have reached the playoffs for the ninth time in 12 seasons but have won only two series in that span.

ANAHEIM'S KEY PLAYER: John Gibson. The rookie All-Star is likely to be the starting goalie after sharing the net all season with Frederik Andersen, who had a late-season concussion. Gibson ranked second in the NHL with a 2.07 goals-against average, posting four shutouts in 40 games.

NASHVILLE'S KEY PLAYER: Pekka Rinne. He finished second in voting for the Vezina Trophy when he tied for second in the league with 41 wins last season, but in the first-round series with Chicago he posted a 2.68 goals-against average while the Predators lost in six games. After rebounding in the World Championship, where he was voted the tournament's top goaltender, Rinne was a catalyst of a stretch this season when Nashville had the NHL's best record, going 12-1-2 himself.

GAME 1: Friday at Anaheim, 10:30 p.m.

PREDICTION: Ducks in 7.

ST. LOUIS BLUES VS. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

REGULAR SEASON: Blues went 49-24-9 (107 points) to finish second in Central Division. Blackhawks went 47-26-9 (103 points) to finish third in Central Division.

SEASON SERIES: Blues won 3-2.

STORY LINE: The Blues are coming off another strong regular season but have been stung by three consecutive first-round exits, including 2014 when they led Chicago 2-0 before losing four straight. They expect to be at full strength after weathering injuries to several key players, including both goalies, during the regular season. The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, who've taken the trophy in three of last six seasons, might not be as dominant as they've been recently. But they still have Patrick Kane, who finished with a career-high 46 goals and 60 assists for his first career Art Ross Trophy.

ST. LOUIS' KEY PLAYER: Brian Elliott. Elliott won 11 consecutive decisions, including three shutouts, before stumbling along with the rest of the team in the regular-season finale against Washington. He was one of the NHL's best goalies during the last half of the season. Elliott will start Game 1 over Jake Allen.

CHICAGO'S KEY PLAYER: Corey Crawford. Back in the lineup after missing a month with an upper-body injury, Crawford knocked off some rust while making 20 saves in a 5-4 overtime loss at Columbus in the season finale. He was outstanding when Chicago eliminated St. Louis in the 2014 playoffs, recording a 1.98 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage in that six-game series. The Blackhawks will need a similar effort to advance this year.

GAME 1: Wednesday at St. Louis, 9:30 p.m.

PREDICTION: Blues in 7.

LOS ANGELES KINGS VS. SAN JOSE SHARKS

REGULAR SEASON: Kings went 48-28-6 (102 points) to finish second in Pacific Division. Sharks went 46-30-6 (98 points) to finish third in Pacific Division.

SEASON SERIES: Sharks won 3-1-1, with three wins in regulation.

STORY LINE: Both teams are back in the postseason after missing out last year, meeting in the playoffs for the fourth time in the past six seasons. The Sharks won the first series in 2011. The Kings won in 2013 and 2014, when the Sharks became the fourth NHL team to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games. That defeat lingered for an entire season, but San Jose is back with more depth and former Kings backup goalie Martin Jones leading the way. Whether a strong regular season translates into a third Stanley Cup in five seasons for a core Kings group that has always been better in the playoffs remains to be determined.

LOS ANGELES' KEY PLAYER: Drew Doughty. Everything the defense-minded Kings do revolves around the Norris Trophy candidate and his massive amounts of ice time. Doughty had 14 goals, 37 assists and a plus-24 rating during the season.

SAN JOSE'S KEY PLAYER: Joe Thornton. The former captain is coming off one of his best all-around seasons even at age 36, thriving on a line with Joe Pavelski. Thornton averaged a point per game and tallied at least one in each of San Jose's final 33 wins, the second-longest streak in the NHL over more than 25 years. The Sharks dominated all season with Thornton on the ice, scoring a league-best 70.7 percent of the even-strength goals during that time.

GAME 1: Thursday at Los Angeles, 10:30 p.m.

PREDICTION: Sharks in 6.


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions