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By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor - Archive - Email
Stanley Cup Playoff Primer
Vancouver Canucks enter the playoffs as the NHL's top-seeded club.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Another NHL regular season has come and gone, meaning it's time to get a closer look at the teams that will battle for Lord Stanley's Cup.

For a second straight season, the Vancouver Canucks enter the playoffs as the NHL's top-seeded club after claiming another Presidents' Trophy. Owning the league's best regular-season record had been a kiss of death for many clubs in recent playoffs, but the Canucks came within one victory of winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup last spring. The defending Western Conference champions hope they have another deep run in store this year.

The Boston Bruins, the team that won a road Game 7 over the Canucks to win its first Cup since 1972, is the second seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the postseason. The New York Rangers are the No. 1 seed in the East, as they claimed the top spot in the conference for the first time since their Stanley Cup title season of 1993-94.

The 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs will also feature a rare appearance by the Florida Panthers, who won their first-ever Southeast Division title this season to end the longest playoff drought in league history. When Florida hosts sixth-seeded New Jersey in Game 1 of the best-of-seven conference quarterfinals on Friday, it will mark the Panthers' first playoff game since April 20, 2000, when the Devils finished off a four-game opening-round sweep with a win in South Florida.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, who are the East's fourth-seeded team, lost in the first round last season to Tampa Bay, but the Pens figure to be better equipped for a long postseason run in 2012. This time last year the Penguins were entering the playoffs without the services of their two biggest weapons on offense, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are ready to go this time around, making Pittsburgh a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. First, however, the Pens will have to get past their cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the marquee matchup of the opening round.

That's just a few of the storylines heading into the playoffs, but let's take a glance at each series to see what the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs have in store.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) NY Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa

The Rangers signed prized free agent Brad Richards over the summer and while adding the veteran playmaking centerman via a lucrative contract was a wise investment, New York already had a strong core group before inking Richards to that nine-year, $60 million deal. Even with Richards and star winger Marian Gaborik, who led New York with 41 goals this season, the Rangers are still known more for their ability to stop the opposition from scoring than their own offensive prowess. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is the leader of New York's stingy back end and the Swedish goaltender is coming off a 2011-12 regular season that could land him his first Vezina Trophy as the league's best puck- stopper. However, Lundqvist has failed to lead New York past the opening round in the club's last three trips to the playoffs.

Lundqvist and the Rangers figure to end that trend against an Ottawa team that not many folks picked to make the playoffs before the season began. The Senators are led by budding star Erik Karlsson, who made the jump this season from highly-touted prospect to one of the most feared offensive defensemen in the game. The Swede combined to post 18 goals and 71 points in 140 games through his first two campaigns before leading all NHL blueliners with 78 points (19g, 59a) in 81 games this season. Jason Spezza leads a forward group that also includes longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson, who at 39 years of age could be playing in his final games as an NHLer. Alfredsson is signed with Ottawa through 2012-13, but has hinted that this could be his final season. Elsewhere, the Senators hope Craig Anderson has a strong playoff run in him after a surprisingly solid performance by the journeyman goaltender during the 2011-12 regular season.

Ottawa played New York well during this year's season series, winning three of the four encounters, but the Rangers should be able to get past the Sens in this first-round series.

Rangers in 6

(2) Boston vs. (7) Washington

Boston's quest to become the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cup titles since Detroit pulled off the feat in 1997 and '98 will begin against a Washington Capitals club that managed to make the playoffs despite struggling mightily with consistency throughout the season. Boston also had an up-and- down regular season, but a 25-4-1 run that lasted from the beginning of November until early January was ultimately enough to land the Bruins their second straight Northeast Division title. On paper, Boston looks a lot like the championship squad from last spring. Zdeno Chara still looms large on the blue line and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas remains one of the league's best goaltenders. The Bruins did improve their scoring this season, as sophomore forward Tyler Seguin led the way for Boston's offense with a breakout campaign. Boston finished sixth in defense this year with 199 goals allowed this year, 10 more than it surrendered during the 2010-11 campaign. On offense, the Bruins went from 244 goals last season to 260 goals in 2011-12.

Washington failed to win the Southeast Division this year for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign. As a result, the seventh-seeded Caps enter this postseason with their lowest seeding since they were also No. 7 in the 1996 playoffs. The Caps are still led by star winger Alex Ovechkin, but the Russian sniper is coming off the two-worst point totals of his NHL career over the past two seasons. After posting 32 goals and 85 points in 79 games for Washington in 2010-11, the 26-year-old Ovechkin had 38 goals and 65 points in 78 contests this year. An even bigger concern for Washington than Ovechkin's inconsistent play is the current situation in goal. The Caps will likely be forced to use their third string goaltender Braden Holtby at the start of this series thanks to injuries to both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. Vokoun is out indefinitely, while Neuvirth is considered "day-to-day" according to head coach Dale Hunter.

Whether or not the Bruins can regain the form that made them Cup champions last year remains to be seen, but Boston shouldn't need its "A" game to get past the Capitals. A squad with Boston's dedication to team defense should be able to make quick work of a Washington club that has little secondary scoring to complement Ovechkin. Add in an uncertain situation in net for the Caps and this could wind up being the most lopsided series of the opening round.

Bruins in 5

(3) Florida vs. (6) New Jersey

Seeing their team finally return to the playoffs is great news for Panthers fans, but they shouldn't get too comfortable. While Florida provides an interesting storyline as the franchise gets set to play its first postseason contest in 12 years, the truth is the Panthers are not a very impressive team. They won an extremely weak Southeast Division by two points over a Washington club that actually won four more games than the Panthers. Florida even finished the season allowing 24 more goals than it scored, making the Panthers and Capitals the only two playoffs teams that posted a minus in scoring differential this season. Give Panthers GM Dale Tallon credit for bringing in some veteran help last summer in the form of players like defensemen Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski and forwards Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Scottie Upshall, but head coach Kevin Dineen and company will have their work cut out for them in the first round against New Jersey.

The Devils may have a lower seed than the Panthers and will not start this best-of-series with home-ice advantage, but Jersey has earned its favorites status in this matchup. New Jersey finished fourth in the highly-competitive Atlantic Division with 102 points, just seven less than the New York Rangers, who are division champs and the No. 1 seed in the East. The Devils have a pair of productive forwards in Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, but they still rely heavily on team defense and the goaltending of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. However, Brodeur, who will turn 40 years old in May, has struggled in recent postseasons and the Devils have lost four straight playoff series since beating Tampa Bay in the opening round in 2007.

New Jersey is not an overpowering team on offense, but the club will have enough firepower to get past the Panthers in the first round.

Devils in 6

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Philadelphia

Neither Crosby nor Malkin was able to play during Pittsburgh's seven-game loss to Tampa Bay in last spring's Eastern Conference quarterfinals, but the duo is ready to roll in Round 1 this year. Crosby missed the 2011 postseason with a concussion that would keep him sidelined until Nov. 21 of this season, while Malkin was out with torn ligaments in his right knee. Malkin rebounded with a Hart-caliber season in 2011-12, while Crosby, a former scoring champion and Hart Trophy winner, seems to be back to 100 percent after playing just 22 games during the regular campaign. Pittsburgh also has a strong third scoring option in winger James Neal, who is coming off a career-best 40-goal season. Top defenseman Kris Letang is also one of the most productive blueliners in the game and Marc-Andre Fleury is an experienced netminder who helped Crosby and Malkin lift the Cup back in 2009. This Pittsburgh team could be even better than the '09 club and just like that year, the Pens will have to get past the rival Flyers in the first round.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, is a much different team than it was a year ago when it was swept out of the second round of the playoffs by Boston. Flyers GM Paul Holmgren dished out nine years and $51 million to goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and then created cap space for the big netminder by trading away top offensive players in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Top forward Claude Giroux was able to make up for the loss of scoring, finishing third in the NHL this season with a career-high 93 points, placing behind only Malkin and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos. Scott Hartnell and former Penguin great Jaromir Jagr also add offensive punch, while forward Danny Briere, who has been an excellent playoff performer in the past, could help the Flyers cause and will likely play in this series despite missing the last few games of the season with a back injury.

This marks the sixth all-time playoff series between the Flyers and Penguins. Philadelphia won the first three matchups, but Pittsburgh has taken the last two postseason encounters, both of which came in the Crosby-Malkin era. The last series was in the opening round of the 2009 playoffs and Pittsburgh claimed that series in six games en route to a Stanley Cup title. Expect the Pens to rise to the top once again in the Battle of Pennsylvania.

Of course, there is a great deal of animosity swirling around this series between two bitter rivals. That genuine hatred could make this war of attrition the best series to watch in the opening round.

Penguins in 7

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Vancouver vs. (8) Los Angeles

After claiming another Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best team in the regular season, the Canucks seem on track to defend their Western Conference title. However, an injury to a key player has Vancouver first worried about making it out of the opening round.

Winger Daniel Sedin, who along with identical twin Henrik forms two-thirds of Vancouver's formidable top line, hasn't played since March 21 after he suffered a concussion after taking an elbow to the head from Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith. The good news is that Daniel was able to return to practice on Monday for the first time since the blow and could even be ready for Game 1 on Wednesday, however, he was unable to take to the ice the following day. If Sedin can return, it will completely shuffle the Canucks' lines. He should return to a line centered by Henrik that also includes Alexandre Burrows, a unit that represents Vancouver's top scoring threat. Even with the missed time Daniel Sedin was tops in the club with 30 goals and second with 67 points, so it's clear he means a great deal to the Canucks' offense. The other big question facing the Canucks is how goaltender Roberto Luongo will play after suffering through a rocky run to the Cup Finals last season. Luongo could be on a short leash considering how backup Cory Schneider consistently outplayed Vancouver's No. 1 netminder this season.

The Kings have no such reservations about their starting goaltender Jonathan Quick and Los Angeles would probably not even be in the playoffs if it wasn't for the play of its No. 1 backstop. Quick ranked fifth in the league in wins, but in fact could have ran away with the category as 23 of his 33 losses this season were by one goal. The Kings were just 18-5-4 in games in which he allowed one goal or less. Although LA finished 29th out of 30 NHL teams with just 188 goals this year, the offense did perform better down the stretch, partially due to the addition of sniper Jeff Carter in a trade with Columbus a week before the deadline. Carter joins former Philadelphia teammate Mike Richards and Kings leading scorer Anze Kopitar as the top forwards on an offensively-challenged club.

Even if Daniel Sedin is unable to go in this series, the Canucks should have enough firepower to get past the Kings. Quick is the key for Los Angeles in this series, as he'll likely need to steal a game or two to give his club a shot at advancing.

Canucks in 6

(2) St. Louis vs. (7) San Jose

The Blues have been stocking up young talent through the draft for years and it finally paid off with this year's surprising run to a Central Division title. Head coach Ken Hitchcock deserves a great deal of credit for getting St. Louis to realize its potential, as he took over for the fired Davis Payne in November and led the Blues to a 43-15-11 record over the final months of the season. St. Louis is stacked with talented youngsters like blueliners Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk and forwards David Perron and T.J. Oshie. The Blues also had the best goaltending tandem in the NHL this year with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott both making noise in the Vezina race. Meanwhile, Hitchcock has been playing his cards very close to his chest when it comes to tabbing a playoff goaltender and it's still unclear who will start Game 1.

As dominant a team as St. Louis was this year, especially at home where they were 30-6-5, the Sharks are a tempting upset pick in this series. The Sharks had a sluggish regular season, but played very well down the stretch and could be hitting their stride just as the playoffs get underway. In recent years, it's been the opposite story for San Jose, which has built a reputation for following up great regular seasons with disappointing playoff runs. Joe Thornton still leads a talent forward group that includes Martin Havlat, who was acquired over the summer in exchange for fellow winger Dany Heatley. Antti Niemi's inconsistent play is net is a reason for concern, but the goaltender has won a Stanley Cup title as a starter before, as he helped Chicago to the top of the mountain in 2010.

The Sharks are primed for an upset in this series and the odds of that happening are fairly high considering San Jose's advantage in the experience department. Expect the Sharks to move on in what should be a tightly-contested series.

Sharks in 6

(3) Phoenix vs. (6) Chicago

The Phoenix Coyotes flew under the radar once again thanks to playing in relative obscurity in the desert, but head coach Dave Tippett's club very quietly won an extremely tough Pacific Division title. The franchise's first- ever division crown was won in the final week of the season and the Coyotes could be ready to win their first postseason series since moving to Phoenix from Winnipeg following the 1995-96 season. Phoenix is a team without star players that, thanks to Tippett's system, is greater than the sum of its parts. The Coyotes, who were let down last year by some poor play in net, hope Mike Smith, who replaced Ilya Bryzgalov as the club's No. 1 goaltender, can hold on to the magnificent form he displayed down the stretch.

Like Vancouver, Chicago is a hard team to gauge heading into the playoffs due to a significant injury to one of its top forwards. Jonathan Toews missed the last 21 games of the regular season with a concussion, but has been cleared for contact and could play in Game 1. Toews, Chicago's captain and the Conn Smythe winner during Chicago's Stanley Cup title run in 2010, had 29 goals in just 59 games this season and, if healthy, will lead a strong group of forwards that includes Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Even with Toews, however, goaltender Corey Crawford had a rough season with a GAA of 2.72 and he could be the club's undoing in Round 1.

The Blackhawks have the pedigree and the star players, but Phoenix's disciplined team-first approach will allow the Coyotes to eventually survive and advance.

Coyotes in 6

(4) Nashville vs. (5) Detroit

The Nashville Predators will be looking for their first playoff series victory against the Red Wings in the third meeting between the clubs. The Central Division rivals also met in the first round in 2004 and '08, with Detroit taking both series in six games. This will mark Nashville's first time with home-ice advantage and this could be the best Predators team yet.

The Preds boast a world-class goaltender (Pekka Rinne), one of the top defensive pairings in the league (Shea Weber and Ryan Sutter) and they hope some key in-season additions (Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad and Alexander Radulov) will get them past the first round for only the second time in franchise history. The first time was last spring, when Nashville beat Anaheim in the opening before bowing out to Vancouver in the conference semifinals. Nashville was able to advance in last season's playoffs despite a subpar showing from Rinne, who went 6-6 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .907 save percentage after earning a Vezina Trophy nomination. Rinne could be in line for another nomination as he led the NHL with a career-high 43 wins, but Nashville needs him to improve his postseason play to get past Detroit.

Nashville added Gill to the defense and forwards Kostitsyn and Gaustad at the deadline, but the Predators also got a big boost outside of the trade market when Radulov decided to return to the NHL after leaving the Predators a few years ago to ply in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Now a more experienced and polished player, Radulov made a quick transition back to the NHL style and had seven points in nine games with Nashville. He could be an X-factor for Nashville in this series and the postseason as a whole.

Detroit still has superstar players like defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and a bevy of talented forwards that includes Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, but this year's Red Wings do not appear to be on the same level with the team that won it all in 2008 and came one win away from claiming back-to-back titles in '09. Home-ice advantage could also come into play in a big way in this series, as Detroit, which finished two points behind Nashville in the West standings, was just 17-21-3 on the road this season compared to a 31-7-3 mark in the Motor City.

Anybody who's seen these two Central Division foes go at it in the regular season knows this should be a close series. For once, the Predators are the team better equipped to win in the playoffs and they should finally be able to sneak past Detroit in the postseason.

Predators in 7


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