For the first time in 21 years, the New York Rangers will enter the Stanley Cup playoffs as the hunted.
The Rangers are the reigning Eastern Conference champions and this season’s Presidents’ Trophy winner. Couple those facts with the Los Angeles Kings’ absence from the postseason – just the third time since 1970 a reigning Stanley Cup champion has missed the playoffs – and it would seem the Rangers are the team to beat.
But if they are to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time since 1994, they will be tested. With the tournament to open Wednesday, there wil be new teams, old faces in new places and five Canadian teams involved – the most since five qualified in 2004.
No. 1 New York Rangers (113 points)
vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins (98)
The Rangers ended the Penguins’ season a year ago, prompting a major reshuffling in Pittsburgh’s organization. Both teams were ravaged by injuries this season, yet New York somehow finished with the best record and the Penguins sneaked in as the East’s No. 8 seed.
Pittsburgh will be without the stalwart defenders Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, and because of salary-cap constraints, it was able to dress just five defensemen at times late. Still, there is no cap in the postseason, and the Penguins still have a collection of skilled forwards, including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist, David Perron and Brandon Sutter, who can wreak havoc on defenses.
The Rangers are as healthy as they have been in months, as defenseman Kevin Klein expects to be available for Game 1.
No. 2 Washington Capitals (101 points)
vs. No. 3 New York Islanders (101)
The final postseason at Nassau Coliseum will open with the Islanders facing off against a familiar playoff foe. The Capitals and Islanders have met six times in the playoffs – most recently in 1993, the Islanders’ last playoff series win.
It has been more than 30 years since New York enjoyed a season like this one. The Islanders sent their venerable home rink out with their first 100-plus-point season since 1983-84, thanks to John Tavares’s career campaign. Tavares, 24, finished just a point shy of the Art Ross Trophy, which is awarded to the points leader, posting 86 points.
But under its first-year coach, Barry Trotz, Washington is a popular dark horse to reach the Stanley Cup final. Alex Ovechkin netted an NHL-best 53 goals – his sixth 50-goal season – and goaltender Braden Holtby played a league-high 73 games and won 41 times.
No. 1 Montreal Canadiens (110 points)
vs. No. 4 Ottawa Senators (99)
Two seasons ago, the Canadiens met the Senators, and Ottawa rolled to a five-game series win. Led by goaltender Andrew Hammond, Ottawa enters the playoffs as the hottest team, posting a 23-4-4 record in its final 31 games to sneak into the postseason.
Whereas Hammond and the Senators are the underdogs, Carey Price will backstop Montreal. Price is the favorite for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s best goaltender, and the Hart Trophy, given to the player most valuable to his team, having registered a franchise-record 44 wins.
Still, Montreal will have to score, and if its leading goal scorer, Max Pacioretty, is affected by a lingering upper-body injury, the team could be in trouble. Pacioretty had 37 goals and 67 points in 80 games.
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning (108 points)
vs. No. 3 Detroit Red Wings (100)
On paper, these teams do not have a shared playoff history. The Red Wings are in only their second year in the Eastern Conference, and Tampa Bay could be considered one of their least likely rivals.
Still, there is some familiarity. Steve Yzerman, the Lightning’s general manager, enjoyed a Hall of Fame tenure in Detroit, leading the Wings to three Stanley Cups as captain between 1997 and 2002. Forward Valtteri Filppula was a third-round draft pick for Detroit and spent the first seven full seasons of his career with the Red Wings.
This series boasts two of the sport’s most skilled centers, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. The Lightning scored an NHL-best 262 goals during the regular season, and that could be problematic for the Red Wings, who have toggled between inconsistent goalies Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek during the past month.
No. 1 St. Louis Blues (109 points)
vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild (100)
The Wild is the West’s hottest team and one of its best stories. Since moving over from Arizona in a January deal, Devan Dubnyk started all the subsequent 39 games in goal, posting 27 wins, five shutouts and a .936 save percentage.
Still, many believe the Blues are the West’s team to beat this season. St. Louis boasts a tough and tenacious defense led by Kevin Shattenkirk.
The Blues can beat opponents with their offense as well. Nine player netted at least 10 goals, led by Vladimir Tarasenko’s 37, and Dallas was the only Western Conference team to score more than the Blues’ 248 goals. Backstopped by Brian Elliott much of the way, St. Louis tied Minnesota for fewest goals allowed in the conference, with 201.
No. 2 Nashville Predators (104 points)
vs. No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks (102)
The Predators and Blackhawks have met only once in the playoffs, in 2010, and the Blackhawks claimed a six-game series win on the way to the Stanley Cup.
Led by their first-year coach, Peter Laviolette, Nashville earned home-ice advantage for the first round. Pekka Rinne, who missed all but 24 games last season with a variety of hip ailments, posted 41 wins, a .923 save percentage and a 2.18 goals-against average.
Despite their No. 3 seeding and Patrick Kane’s broken clavicle, the Blackhawks are widely considered one of the more dangerous squads in the tournament. Chicago is the Las Vegas favorite to win the West, as the Blackhawks have reached the past two Western Conference finals and won the Cup in 2013.
No. 1 Anaheim Ducks (109 points)
vs. No. 4 Winnipeg Jets (99)
In Paul Maurice’s first full season behind the bench, the Jets are one of the youngest teams in the postseason, and they warded off the defending champion Kings and the midseason distraction of Evander Kane’s trade to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007, when they were the Atlanta Thrashers. Winnipeg has not hosted a playoff game since 1996.
Anaheim claimed the Pacific Division’s regular-season crown for a third straight season. Coach Bruce Boudreau boasts a .678 regular-season record but still is in search of his first appearance in a conference finals. The Ducks have goaltending concerns, as John Gibson and Frederik Andersen have struggled lately.
No. 2 Vancouver Canucks (101 points)
vs. No. 3 Calgary Flames (97)
The Flames are among the NHL’s best stories, having improved by 20 points from last season, and are making their first playoff appearance since 2009. They have a stunning ability to rally. Calgary’s 99 third-period goals led all Western Conference teams.
The Canucks also are a terrific story. Willie Desjardins is the team’s third coach in three seasons, but Vancouver improved by 18 points since last season.
Although neither team is considered a favorite to advance from the West, Vancouver nor Calgary have played entertaining series in the past. The past three times they have met (1989, 1994, 2004), the series went to seven games, and the winner of each series advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.
Stanley Cup playoffs
(All series best-of-7; x-if necessary)
Montreal vs. Ottawa
Wednesday: at Montreal, 7
Friday: at Montreal, 7
Sunday: at Ottawa, 7
April 22: at Ottawa, 7
xApril 24: at Montreal, TBA
x-April 26: at Ottawa, TBA
x-April 28: at Montreal, TBA
Tampa Bay vs. Detroit
Thursday: at Tampa Bay, 7:30
Saturday: at Tampa Bay, 3
April 21: at Detroit, 7
April 23: at Detroit, 7
x-April 25: at Tampa Bay, TBA
x-April 27: at Detroit, TBA
x-April 29: at Tampa Bay, TBA
N.Y. Rangers vs. Pittsburgh
Thursday: at New York, 7
Saturday: at New York, 8
April 20: at Pittsburgh, 7
April 22: at Pittsburgh, 7
x-April 24: at New York, TBA
x-April 26: at Pittsburgh, TBA
x-April 28: at New York, TBA
Washington vs. N.Y. Islanders
Wednesday: at Washington, 7
Friday: at Washington, 7
April 19: at New York, noon
April 21: at New York, 7:30
x-April 23: at Washington, TBA
x-April 25: at New York, TBA
x-April 27: at Washington, TBA
St. Louis vs. Minnesota
Thursday: at St. Louis, 9:30
Saturday: at St. Louis, 3
April 20: at Minnesota, 8
April 22: at Minnesota, 9:30
x-April 24: at St. Louis, TBA
x-April 26: at Minnesota, TBA
x-April 29: at St. Louis, TBA
Nashville vs. Chicago
Wednesday: at Nashville, 8:30
Friday: at Nashville, 9:30
April 19: at Chicago, 3
April 21: at Chicago, 9:30
x-April 23: at Nashville, TBA
x-April 25: at Chicago, TBA
x-April 27: at Nashville, TBA
Anaheim vs. Winnipeg
Thursday: at Anaheim, 10:30
Saturday: at Anaheim, 10:30
April 20: at Winnipeg, 9
April 22: at Winnipeg, 9:30
x-April 24: at Anaheim, TBA
x-April 26: at Winnipeg, TBA
x-April 28: at Anaheim, TBA
Vancouver vs. Calgary
Wednesday: at Vancouver, 10
Friday: at Vancouver, 10
April 19: at Calgary, 10
April 21: at Calgary, 10
x-April 23: at Vancouver, TBA
x-April 25: at Calgary, TBA
x-April 27: at Vancouver, TBA