BOSTON BRUINS VERSUS DETROIT RED WINGS
The Bruins advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year and they're the popular favorite to represent the East again for the NHL's top prize this season. Boston captured the Presidents' Trophy for the first time since 1989-90 and they did it on the strength of an excellent offensive and defensive team.
The Bruins finished first in the league with a plus-84 goal differential. They registered 3.12 goals for per contest, which ranked them third in the NHL, and they finished with 2.08 goals against per match, which placed them second.
Boston scores by committee which helps explain why their leading scorer, David Krejci, finished 23rd in the league with 69 points in 80 games. His linemates Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic had superb seasons as well, while Patrice Bergeron anchors the second line alongside pesky point producer Brad Marchand. Captain Zdeno Chara had one of his better offensive seasons at the age of 37, with 17 goals and 40 points, while goaltender Tuukka Rask emerged as a Vezina Trophy contender with a terrific performance this year. He led the league with seven shutouts, finished second with a .930 save percentage and ended up fourth with a 2.04 goals-against average.
Detroit has faced an uphill battle all season en route to qualifying for the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive time. Injuries have hampered them throughout the year and the absences of Henrik Zetterberg and Jonathan Ericsson could especially hurt them now.
The red hot play of Gustav Nyquist, who led the Wings with 28 goals in just 57 games, along with former Grand Rapids Griffins Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan helped the Red Wings push past their infirmary woes. Only Nyquist has NHL postseason experience, with 18 contests, of the three and his role with the team will be significantly higher than it was during the lockout-shortened season.
Pavel Datsyuk returned from a wonky knee earlier this month and he's still working his way back into the fold. He could require off-season surgery. If he cannot help out offensively then more pressure will fall on Nyquist, Daniel Alfredsson and Niklas Kronwall.
The Bruins have a deep, battled-tested squad which should prove to be too much for the Red Wings to handle in this series. They also have a decided advantage in goal where Rask has been solid all year after backstopping his team to the Stanley Cup Final a season ago. Jimmy Howard has struggled with consistency throughout the 2013-14 campaign. Every game in this series could be close, but don't be surprised if it's short. Boston in five.
Patrice Bergeron recorded 11 goals and six assists in his last 13 games. He also sat a couple of games with an undisclosed ailment, which was said to be very minor in nature. David Krejci picked up three goals and three assists in his past four appearances
Reilly Smith was a great surprise for the Bruins this season, but he's gone cold since the Olympic break with two goals and seven assists in his last 25 matches.
Daniel Paille could be ready for Game 1 after it was originally feared that he might've been concussed against Buffalo on Saturday. Patrice Bergeron (undisclosed) and Chris Kelly (back) are also expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs.
Boston made some tweaks to their power play this season and finished third in the league with a 21.7 success rate. Chara was used as a front-net presence much more often and Torey Krug added some offensive punch as an emerging quarterback from the point. The Bruins also possessed the league's eighth-ranked penalty kill at 83.6 percent.
The Bruins finished the 2013-14 season with a Corsi for percentage of 55 percent, which put them third in the league behind Los Angeles and Chicago.
Gustav Nyquist has accounted for 12 goals and four assists in his last 16 contests. However, he showed some signs of cooling down before the playoffs with no goals and two helpers in his final six outings.
Johan Franzen has scored one goal in his past 18 games. He has contributed six assists during that span. Franzen used to be a superb playoff performer, but he has struggled to produce in Detroit's last three postseason appearances.
Daniel Alfredsson should be ready to go in the Wings' playoff opener after missing the last game of the regular season with a back issue. Jonas Gustavsson is also expected to return from a shoulder injury to back up Jimmy Howard.
Henrik Zetterberg (back) and Jonathan Ericsson (broken finger) aren't projected to be ready until Round 2 of the playoffs at the earliest. Daniel Cleary (knee), Mikael Samuelsson (shoulder) and Stephen Weiss (groin) likely will not be available at all during the postseason.
Detroit posted the 12th-best penalty kill unit in the league during the regular season at 83 percent and they owned the 18th-ranked power play, which finished with a 17.7 percent efficiency rating. Special teams will have to be better for them if the Bruins control the puck at 5-on-5 like they are expected to.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VERSUS MONTREAL CANADIENS
Tampa Bay overcame plenty of adversity in 2013-14 to claim home ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Steve Stamkos missed 45 games with a broken tibia and when he was finally ready to return the team traded away heart and soul player Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers. The Lightning also had to deal with some injury concerns for starting goaltender Ben Bishop along the way.
The Bolts were aided significantly by the play of rookie forwards Ondrej Palat (59 points) and Tyler Johnson (50 points), who concluded the year second and third respectively in scoring among first-year skaters. Valterri Filppula was also a great addition to the team's roster after the difficult decision to buy out the remainder of Vincent Lecavalier's contract was made in the off-season. Filppula notched 25 goals and 58 points in 75 matches. Victor Hedman, who was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, enjoyed the best season of his career with 13 goals and 55 points in 75 games.
Ryan Callahan could be an X-factor for Tampa Bay in the playoffs after he was acquired from the Rangers as part of the Martin St. Louis deal. He's a gritty forward who has picked up 11 points in 20 games with his new club.
Montreal's trade deadline acquisition, Thomas Vanek, was impressive as well while playing for his third team this season. He skated with leading scorer Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais on the top line after his arrival from the New York Islanders. Vanek recorded 15 points in 18 games with the Canadiens.
The team's offense lives and dies with Pacioretty , though. He amassed 39 goals and 60 points in 79 games. Defenseman P.K. Subban was the next best scorer on the team with 53 points (10 goals, 43 assists) in 82 contests.
At first glance, the battle between the pipes sways dramatically in Montreal's favor if Ben Bishop is unable to play in the series because of a suspected elbow injury. However, Anders Lindback was great for the Lightning after Bishop got hurt. He was selected as the first star of the week after he posted a 3-0-0 record with a 0.67 goals-against average, a .975 save percentage and one shutout to close out the regular season. Carey Price may finally be ready to take the next step in the NHL postseason after gaining some confidence at the Winter Olympics when he helped guide Canada to a gold-medal victory. But it's still hard to get 100 percent behind him when he's struggled so much throughout his career during the playoffs.
This series will be very close and it has the potential to go down to the wire. Tampa Bay took three of the four meetings against the Canadiens this season, but three of those matches were decided in shootouts or overtime at 2-1 scores. Home ice and Montreal's difficulty scoring at 5-on-5 could be the difference, so I like Tampa Bay in seven games.
Ondrej Palat was rolling along before he got injured last Friday. He had a six-game point streak going over which he had four goals and four assists. Victor Hedman has been solid this month with a goal and seven helpers in seven contests.
Teddy Purcell hasn't scored a goal in his last 11 games and he's collected just two assists during that time. Alex Killorn will enter his first playoffs on the cold side as well with one assist in his past six outings.
Ben Bishop missed three games at the end of the regular season and his status for the start of the playoffs is unclear. He has returned swiftly before this year from injuries, so it isn't out of the realm of possibility that he could be absent for very little of the series. Lindback will open the series if he is still sidelined.
Tampa Bay posted an 18.5 percent success rate on the power play in 2013-14, which placed them 13th in the league. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the unit saw improvement once Stamkos returned to the lineup. The penalty kill will have to be better after it finished 23rd in the league (80.7 percent), but they did manage to score 10 times shorthanded. That total placed them in a tie for third in the NHL, with Tyler Johnson leading the way with five.
Carey Price recorded 11 wins in his last 14 outings, while earning three of his six shutouts. He picked a great time to elevate his play, as Montreal will need him in fine form to defeat Tampa Bay. Max Pacioretty tallied nine markers and six assists in his past 13 games, while linemate Thomas Vanek registered two goals and eight helpers in his last nine matches.
P.K. Subban hasn't scored a goal since March 3, a span of 19 straight games. He has also gone pointless in his last six appearances. Brendan Gallagher has generated one goal and three points in 11 contests going into the playoffs.
Brandon Prust might be available to play when the Canadiens play Game 1 in Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. He missed 12 straight games at the end of the regular season with an upper-body injury.
Alex Galchenyuk won't play in the first round of the postseason because of a knee injury. There's no set timetable for his return. Travis Moen suffered a concussion during a fight on March 24 and he hasn't played since. His timetable is also uncertain.
Montreal finished fourth in the league with an 85.1 percent efficiency rating on the penalty kill, but their power play struggled down the stretch and ended up in 19th place (17.2 percent).
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VERSUS COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Pittsburgh claimed the top spot in the Metropolitan Division thanks in large part to Sidney Crosby's Art Ross Trophy-winning season. He led the league in scoring with 104 points, including 68 assists, in 80 games.
The Penguins had to deal with plenty of injuries to key players this year and the availability of some of them for the start of the playoffs remains a question mark with the series set to begin on Wednesday. Most notably is Evgeni Malkin, who has been limited to 60 appearances this season and he has missed the last 11 games with a foot injury. He still managed to rack up 72 points.
Chris Kunitz was a little banged up down the stretch as well, but he didn't miss much playing time. He had the best offensive showing of his career in 2013-14 with 35 goals and 68 points in 78 matches. James Neal skated in just 59 contests, but he was very productive when he dressed with 27 goals and 34 assists.
Pittsburgh did receive a boost when they got blueliners Kris Letang and Paul Martin back from the sick bay this month. Letang has a goal and three assists in three contests since his return, while Martin has a goal and two helpers in 10 appearances. Uniting them with surprise successes, Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta, gives the Pens plenty of offensive options from the back end.
The Penguins should be considered the favorites to defeat Columbus, but it might not be as easy as some may think. Pittsburgh won all five meetings against the Blue Jackets this season, but number one goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky played in just one of those contests.
Columbus is a rugged group that could drive Pittsburgh crazy if they aren't careful. They also take the score-by-committee approach, which was led by Ryan Johansen's breakout year. He tallied 33 goals and 63 points in 82 games. Defenseman James Wisniewski finished second on the team in scoring (51 points) and Brandon Dubinsky was right behind him (50 points).
Sergei Bobrovsky followed up his Vezina Trophy-winner season with another gem of a season in 2013-14. He has the potential to steal games and could keep Columbus within striking distance of Pittsburgh if he can translate his regular season success into playoff success.
The Blue Jackets will be making the second postseason appearance in their franchise's history after they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 2008-09. If Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury doesn't give away games like he's done in the past few playoffs then the Penguins should be able to make quick work of Columbus. They have much more postseason experience and more talent than their first-round opponent. Look for Pittsburgh to win this series in five games.
Jussi Jokinen has been skating regularly in the top-six group with Evgeni Malkin injured and he's recorded three goals and two assists during a five-game point streak. He has 10 points in his past 13 outings. Sidney Crosby notched five goals and 16 points in his last 13 contests, while James Neal posted four goals and added four helpers over eight matches.
Lee Stempniak has been relatively quiet despite getting ice time with Crosby. He had two goals and two helpers in 13 games to close out the year. Beau Bennett picked up a goal and an assist in seven regular season games this month.
Evgeni Malkin is considered questionable to play in Game 1 Wednesday night. He hasn't played since March 23 because of a hairline fracture in his foot, but he has been skating.
Pittsburgh had the most efficient power play in the NHL this season at 23.4 percent. They also went 5-for-19 with the man advantage against Columbus. The Penguins' success on special teams extended into their penalty kill, where they finished fifth in the league with an 85 percent success rate.
Ryan Johansen finished the season with a six-game point streak. He collected three goals and five assists over that span. James Wisniewski picked up at least one point in all but two of his last 11 outings. He amassed one goal and 11 helpers in that time.
Matt Calvert hasn't scored a goal in his last eight contests. He has contributed just two assists in that stretch.
Nathan Horton underwent abdominal surgery last week. His recovery time was set at six weeks, so he won't be available unless the Blue Jackets go deep in the playoffs.
The Jackets had the 11th-best power play in the league in 2013-14 with a 19.3 percent efficiency rating. The penalty kill ranked 14th in the NHL at 82.1 percent.
NEW YORK RANGERS VERSUS PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
The Rangers played nine straight road games before they played in their first home contest on October 28. They overcame a tough start to claim home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs once they grew accustomed to coach Alain Vigneault's system.
Mats Zuccarello surprisingly led the team in scoring with 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) and Derek Stepan finished right behind him with 57 points. Rick Nash played in 65 games due to injuries, but he still had an off year for his standards. Despite that, he finished first on the Rangers with 26 goals. Brad Richards had his ups and downs over the course of the year, but he rebounded from last season with 51 points in 82 contests.
Henrik Lundqvist had a sluggish start, but he regained his form just prior to the Olympic break and ended up with strong numbers. He posted 33 wins with a .920 save percentage, a 2.36 goals-against average and five shutouts.
The Flyers had a difficult time out of the gate as well in 2013-14 and coach Peter Laviolette was fired after just three games. Former assistant bench boss Craig Berube took over and he eventually helped the team right the ship.
More importantly for Philadelphia, their star producers finally started producing. Claude Giroux didn't score a goal in his first 15 contests, but he rebounded nicely as the season progressed. He wound up with 28 goals and 86 points in 82 games. Jakub Voracek (62) and Wayne Simmonds (60) reached the 60-point plateau for the Flyers, while Scott Hartnell posted 52 points in 78 matches. Philadelphia also received 44 points from the blueline from new addition Mark Streit. Steve Mason established himself as the team's starting goaltender and he nearly mirrored the season he had when he won the Calder Trophy in 2008-09 with Columbus.
This will be an intense and physical match-up, as these two teams have built up a bitter rivalry over the years. Home ice advantage could be the deciding factor in the series after Philadelphia and New York each won two games apiece in their own arenas during the regular season. The Rangers have won eight straight contests versus the Flyers at Madison Square Garden. The Flyers are probably due to end that streak, but it may not be enough. I'm looking for the Blueshirts to win in six games, but this series could very well go the distance.
Mats Zuccarello has produced four goals and five assists in his last seven games. His six-game point streak was snapped in New York's regular season finale against Montreal. Benoit Pouliot's seven-game scoring spree was also ended in Saturday's finale. He generated three goals and four helpers over that span.
Carl Hagelin hasn't found the back of the net in his past 11 matches. He also didn't have a point in seven games to end the year. Brad Richards has two goals, which both came in one game, in his past seven outings.
Ryan McDonagh will be back in the lineup for the Rangers after sitting out five games with a shoulder injury. He's the team's top offensive and defensive blueliner, so he'll be welcomed back with open arms.
Chris Kreider underwent surgery to repair a broken hand in late March. A timetable for his return is unclear, but he probably won't be ready to go when the playoffs begin for the Rangers on Thursday night.
The Rangers were third overall on the penalty kill, with an 85.3 percent success rate, in 2013-14. The team also racked up 10 goals while shorthanded. New York also concluded the year with the 15th-best power play (18.2 percent).
Mark Streit had a goal and nine helpers during a six-game point streak to end the regular season. Claude Giroux registered three goals and four helpers in his last four games to finish the regular season on a high note as well.
Nicklas Grossmann sat out three games at the end of the regular season with a foot injury, but he could be ready to return for Philadelphia's playoff opener.
Philadelphia scored on 58 of their 294 power-play opportunities (19.7 percent) to finish eighth in the league. They also allowed 11 shorthanded markers, which was the third most in the league. The Flyers possessed the seventh-best penalty kill at 84.8 percent.