NEW YORK RANGERS vs PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
REGULAR SEASON: Rangers went 53-22-7 (113 points) to win Metropolitan Division, Presidents' Trophy. Penguins went 43-27-12 (98 points) to get second wild-card spot.
SEASON SERIES: Rangers won 3-0-1, with two wins in regulation.
STORY LINE: After losing in the Stanley Cup finals to the Los Angeles Kings last year, the Rangers came roaring back with a franchise record for wins and points, topping the 1993-94 mark. That's the last time they won the title, and this team has been poised to end that 21-year wait. The Rangers had the NHL's best road record this season, too. The Penguins held a 3-1 lead in the second round last year against the Rangers before losing three straight games. They've stumbled into the playoffs this time with only four wins in their last 15 games, scoring only 25 goals. That was just enough to earn them their ninth straight post-season appearance.
NEW YORK'S KEY PLAYER: Rick Nash. After leading the Rangers with a career-high 42 goals this season, the NHL's ninth-leading active scorer will try to reverse his personal trend of quiet post-season performances. In 41 playoff games, Nash has only five goals and 13 assists. In the 25-game playoff run last year, Nash scored just three times. But the 30-year-old had four goals and three assists in four games against the Penguins this season.
PITTSBURGH'S KEY PLAYER: Marc-Andre Fleury. He led the league with 10 shutouts this season, but Fleury has had more shaky playoff performances than sharp ones lately. He has given up 121 goals in 44 post-season games over the last five years with a 21-22 record.
GAME 1: Thursday at New York, 7 p.m.
PREDICTION: Rangers in 5.
MONTREAL CANADIENS vs OTTAWA SENATORS
REGULAR SEASON: Canadiens went 50-22-10 (110 points) to win Atlantic Division. Senators went 43-26-13 (99 points) to get first wild-card spot.
SEASON SERIES: Senators won 3-1, with three wins in regulation.
STORY LINE: The Canadiens finished with the NHL's second-best record, bringing a stifling defence, the game's most dominant goalie and an elite scorer in Max Pacioretty to the tournament. But the Senators went 23-4-4 over their final 31 games and outscored the Canadiens 13-5 while winning their three most recent matchups. Pacioretty ominously missed the last two games of the regular season with a concussion, too.
MONTREAL'S KEY PLAYER: Carey Price. The William M. Jennings Trophy co-winner, who shared the NHL lead in goals against average with Chicago's Corey Crawford, set a franchise record for victories by going 44-16-6. Price was the first goaltender to lead the league in the three major statistical categories since Ed Belfour with the Blackhawks in the 1990-91 season. He also posted the third-highest save percentage since the NHL began tracking the stat 38 years ago.
OTTAWA'S KEY PLAYER: Mark Stone. The rookie right wing was a driving force in the Senators' late surge, along with fellow first-year forward Mike Hoffman. Stone finished with 26 goals and 38 assists to lead NHL rookies and finished the season on a nine-game point streak with eight goals and five assists.
GAME 1: Wednesday at Montreal, 7 p.m.
PREDICTION: Senators in 7.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs NEW YORK ISLANDERS
REGULAR SEASON: Capitals went 45-26-11 (101 points) to finish second in Metropolitan Division. Islanders went 47-28-7 (101 points) to finish third in Metropolitan Division.
SEASON SERIES: Tied 2-2. Capitals won only game decided in regulation.
STORY LINE: These old Patrick Division rivals will face off in the post-season for the first time in 22 years, fittingly in the final days of the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island that will be vacated by the Islanders for Brooklyn next season. John Tavares leads a talented young core of Islanders forwards. For all the brilliance displayed by Alex Ovechkin over his 10 years with the Capitals, they've never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
WASHINGTON'S KEY PLAYER: Evgeny Kuznetsov. Coach Barry Trotz experimented with the 22-year-old centre down the stretch, putting him on Ovechkin's line with obvious success. He had 37 points in his first full NHL season and could be a big help for Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 53 goals for his third straight year and fifth time overall.
NEW YORK'S KEY PLAYER: Jaroslav Halak. The All-Star goalie set an Islanders record with 38 wins, but he wasn't at his best after the break. Halak gave up three or more goals in five of his last seven starts.
GAME 1: Wednesday at Washington, 7 p.m.
PREDICTION: Islanders in 6.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING vs DETROIT RED WINGS
REGULAR SEASON: Lightning went 50-24-8 (108 points) to finish second in Atlantic Division. Red Wings went 43-25-14 (100 points) to finish third in Atlantic Division.
SEASON SERIES: Lightning won 3-1, with two wins in regulation.
STORY LINE: Former Red Wings great Steve Yzerman is now the Lightning general manager, hopeful the Steven Stamkos-led team he assembled can build off the franchise-record 108 points. The Red Wings made the playoffs for the 24th straight year, one of the most remarkable streaks in professional sports, but their goaltending situation is unsettled.
TAMPA BAY'S KEY PLAYER: Tyler Johnson. Stamkos was second in the NHL with 43 goals, but the second line of Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov is a major asset. Each player boasts a rating of plus-30 or better, putting all three of them in the top four in the league.
DETROIT'S KEY PLAYER: Petr Mrazek. Jimmy Howard, who has had plenty of past playoff success, missed a month this winter with a groin injury and didn't return to his All-Star form. Mrazek, who has never played in the post-season, had his growing pains but posted a 35-save shutout in the regular season finale. Coach Mike Babcock was noncommittal about his starter for the playoffs, but seeing both of them in the net in the series wouldn't be a surprise.
GAME 1: Thursday at Tampa Bay, 7:30 p.m.
PREDICTION: Lightning in 7.
ANAHEIM DUCKS vs WINNIPEG JETS
REGULAR SEASON: Ducks went 51-24-7 (109 points) to win Pacific Division, get top seed. Jets went 43-26-13 (99 points) to get second wild-card spot.
SEASON SERIES: Ducks won 3-0, with one win in regulation.
STORY LINE: The Ducks won the rugged Western Conference for the second straight season, but despite their success they ranked just 28th in the league power play and 15th in penalty kill, a potential warning sign of post-season trouble. The Jets made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons since the franchise moved from Atlanta, playing in front of raucous capacity crowds in the NHL's smallest market.
ANAHEIM'S KEY PLAYER: Ryan Getzlaf. The star centre had 25 goals, tied for the second-most of his career, and led the Ducks with 70 points.
WINNIPEG'S KEY PLAYER: Dustin Byfuglien. The burly defenceman returned to the ice on Saturday after a four-game suspension for a cross-check to the head. His Stanley Cup championship with Chicago in 2010 ought to be a benefit for an inexperienced team, and the 30-year-old's plus-5 rating was his best in six seasons.
GAME 1: Thursday at Anaheim, 10:30 p.m.
PREDICTION: Ducks in 7.
ST. LOUIS BLUES vs MINNESOTA WILD
REGULAR SEASON: Blues went 51-24-7 (109 points) to win Central Division. Wild went 46-28-8 (100 points) to get first wild-card spot.
SEASON SERIES: Wild won 2-1-1, with two wins in regulation.
STORY LINE: The Blues, after collapsing down the stretch last year to fall out of first place and lose a first round series with Chicago, won five of their last six games this time. They finished with the second-most wins in franchise history, one behind last season. Their well-balanced lines boasted seven forwards with at least 40 points. The Wild were the Western Conference's best team after the All-Star break, including a franchise-record streak of 12 straight road wins that ended on Saturday in, coincidentally, St. Louis.
ST. LOUIS' KEY PLAYER: Kevin Shattenkirk. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock must decide whether to ride Jake Allen or Brian Elliott in the net, but the key to this balanced team is on the blue line. Shattenkirk missed 25 games with an abdominal injury but returned last month to a defence that ranked in the top five in the league in shots against and goals against.
MINNESOTA'S KEY PLAYER: Devan Dubnyk. After arriving in a mid-January trade with Arizona, Dubnyk saved the Wild's season by starting 39 of the 40 games and guiding the team to a 28-9-3 record. Their plus-45 goal differential during that span led the NHL by far.
GAME 1: Thursday at St. Louis, 9:30 p.m.
PREDICTION: Wild in 7.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS vs CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
REGULAR SEASON: Predators went 47-25-10 (104 points) to finish second in Central Division. Blackhawks went 48-28-6 (102 points) to finish third in Central Division.
SEASON SERIES: Blackhawks won 2-1, with one win in regulation.
STORY LINE: The Predators have returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence, having played well enough under new coach Peter Laviolette to withstand a late slump. Coach Joel Quenneville has guided the Blackhawks through the absence of star Patrick Kane to a broken collarbone and into the post-season for the seventh straight time. One of their two titles under Quenneville was in 2010, when they beat a Laviolette-coached Philadelphia team. Goalie Corey Crawford is in peak form, sharing the William M. Jennings Trophy with Montreal star Carey Price after posting a .924 save percentage.
NASHVILLE'S KEY PLAYER: Filip Forsberg. The rookie from Sweden led the team with 26 goals and 63 points.
CHICAGO'S KEY PLAYER: Patrick Sharp. Kane could return for the playoffs, but he hasn't been cleared yet to return. Sharp has been a streaky scorer, including in the post-season, but he had six goals in the last 15 games.
GAME 1: Wednesday at Nashville, 8:30 p.m.
PREDICTION: Blackhawks in 6.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS vs CALGARY FLAMES
REGULAR SEASON: Canucks went 48-29-5 (101 points) to finish second in Pacific Division. Flames went 45-30-7 (97 points) to finish third in Pacific Division.
SEASON SERIES: Canucks won 2-1-1, with two wins in regulation.
STORY LINE: The Canucks returned to the post-season despite a knee injury in late February by goalie Ryan Miller, who returned to action on Saturday. The Flames, who reached the playoffs for the first time in six years, are seeking their first post-season series victory since 2004. The Flames had the fewest points of the 16 playoff teams, but that was just 16 points behind the Rangers, the narrowest gap between the top and bottom of the field in 35 years since the 16-team format began.
VANCOUVER'S KEY PLAYER: Radim Vrbata. The linemate for much of the season to twin stars Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, Vrbata had 31 goals in his first season with the Canucks, the second-most of his 13-year NHL career.
CALGARY'S KEY PLAYER: Johnny Gaudreau. One of the top contenders for the Calder Trophy, given to the league's top rookie, the 21-year-old Gaudreau had 24 goals and 40 assists on a potent line with Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan.
GAME 1: Wednesday at Vancouver, 10 p.m.
PREDICTION: Flames in 7.