New teams, new faces highlight exciting opening to NHL playoffs
Detroit — What makes these NHL playoffs so intriguing are the amount of new faces.
Teams like the Carolina Hurricanes (first trip to playoffs since 2009), Dallas Stars (only third appearance in 11 years) and the New York Islanders (playing at refurbished Nassau Coliseum again, and missed the playoffs the last two years) are back this spring — and provide real excitement.
“Different teams getting opportunities to get exposed to the national spotlight,” said Pierre McGuire, NBC analyst, during a teleconference Monday previewing the playoffs. “It’s going to be a magnificent playoff for everyone that’s involved. The new teams that are in, and the different storylines that have the potential to be created.”
With five of the series set to begin Wednesday, many eyes will be on the Islanders’ match-up against the Penguins.
The Penguins have a star-studded cast led by forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, defenseman Kris Letang, and goalie Matt Murray.
But the Islanders have had a remarkable season despite the loss of star forward John Tavares to free agency last summer.
And having the first-round playoffs games at old Nassau Coliseum, should provide a distinct home-ice advantage.
“You have a boisterous crowd ready to raise the roof and they can do it,” said Mike Emrick, NBC play-by-play man. “This is a different Islanders team now in how they approach the game, and they’ve had wonderful success with it. It’ll be intriguing to see the contrasting styles and how it all plays out.”
Analyst Eddie Olczyk will keep an eye on the Vegas-San Jose series, as the Golden Knights attempt to duplicate last year’s storybook run to the Stanley Cup Finals as an expansion team.
“With this series, it’s which team is going to be able to defend better,” Olczyk said. “Both teams aren’t afraid to give up chances, and sometimes they leave their goaltenders out to dry, and maybe the numbers aren’t as glowing as both teams would like.
“It’s going to go back and forth because both these teams can come at you in waves. It’s going to be an awesome series. I could see this series being front and center six or eight weeks from now and you want to sell playoff hockey, all you got to do is just play the tape of this series.”
Here's a look at the eight first-round series:
(1) Nashville vs. (4) Dallas
RECORDS: Nashville 47-29-6 (100 points); Dallas 43-32-7 (93 points).
SEASON SERIES: Nashville won, 3-2-0.
STORYLINE: This is the first-ever playoff meeting between the Central Division rivals. Nashville clinched the division title the final night of the season, while Dallas went 5-1-1 down the stretch.
KEY: Nashville’s depth can be impressive, but injuries have rocked its lineup all season. Dallas has great team defense and the goaltending has been superb.
KEY PLAYER: Dallas C Jamie Been has been outstanding in his brief playoff career (20 points, 19 games).
PREDICTION: Nashville in 7.
(2) Winnipeg vs. (3) St. Louis
RECORDS: Winnipeg 47-30-5 (99 points); St. Louis 45-28-9 (99 points).
SEASON SERIES: Jets won, 3-1-0.
STORYLINE: Two teams seemingly going in different directions. Winnipeg finished 14-14-3, while St. Louis finished 23-6-4 from February 1.
KEY: Winnipeg had the NHL’s 4th best power play — St. Louis, the 9th best penalty kill. That will be an important match-up.
KEY PLAYER: St. Louis G Jordan Binnington — Since arriving from the minor leagues, Binnington went 24-5-1 with a .927 save percentage. Can he continue in the playoffs?
PREDICTION: Winnipeg in 7.
(1) Calgary vs. (4) Colorado
RECORDS: Calgary 50-25-7 (107 points); Colorado 38-30-14 (90 points).
SEASON SERIES: Calgary won, 3-0-0.
STORYLINE: It’s the first time these teams have met in the playoffs, in what could be a fast, entertaining series.
KEY: For as good as Calgary is, its goaltending has been an issue all season. Neither Mike Smith or David Rittich have secured the starting job. Colorado has mainly been a one-line — and it’s an incredible line — team.
KEY PLAYER: Calgary D Mark Giordano is a potential Norris Trophy winner, and can control the play at both ends.
PREDICTION: Calgary in 5.
(2) San Jose vs. (3) Vegas
RECORDS: San Jose 46-27-9 (101 points); Vegas 43-32-7 (93 points).
SEASON SERIES: Vegas won, 3-1-0.
STORYLINE: Vegas defeated the Sharks in six games last season on its run to The Finals. Both teams have bolstered their rosters with star-power since then.
KEY: San Jose seemed to have trouble with Vegas’ speed last year. The Sharks feel they’re better defensively this time around.
KEY PLAYER: San Jose G Martin Jones — On paper, the Golden Knights have a big edge with G Marc-Andre Fleury. Jones hasn’t been great this season.
PREDICTION: San Jose in 7.
(1) Tampa Bay vs. (4) Columbus
RECORDS: Tampa Bay 62-16-4 (128 points); Columbus 47-31-4 (98 points).
SEASON SERIES: Tampa Bay won, 3-0-0.
STORYLINE: Tampa Bay tied the 1995-96 Red Wings’ for most wins in a season (62) and the 128 points were the fourth most in NHL history. Now the Lightning have to win their first Stanley Cup.
KEY: Tampa Bay’s deep, prolific offense was led by likely NHL MVP RW Nikita Kucherov (128 points). Columbus squeaked into the playoffs, but did set a team record with 25 road wins.
KEY PLAYER: Columbus G Sergei Bobrovsky was 6-1-0 with a .947 save percentage the last several weeks of the season. Bobrovsky has yet to carry his regular season success into the playoffs.
PREDICTION: Tampa in 5.
(2) Boston vs. (3) Toronto
RECORDS: Boston 49-24-9 (107 points); Toronto 46-28-8 (100 points)
SEASON SERIES: Boston won, 3-1-0.
STORYLINE: This is the third time these teams have met since 2013 — Boston won both series in seven games.
KEY: Boston’s only allowed 2.59 goals per game, ranked 3rd in the NHL. Toronto’s offense ranked 4th (3.49 goals per game).
KEY PLAYER: Toronto C John Tavares did everything that could be expected of the big-name free agent with 47 goals.
PREDICTION: Boston in 6.
(1) Washington vs. (4) Carolina
RECORDS: Washington 48-26-8 (104 points); Carolina 46-29-7 (99 points)
SEASON SERIES: Washington won, 4-0-0.
STORYLINE: The defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals now know what it takes to win this time of year. Carolina was 31-12-2 since December 29, a remarkable turnaround.
KEY: Washington LW Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 51 goals, after winning the playoff MVP last spring. Ovechkin led seven Capitals who had at least 20 goals. The Hurricanes are largely playoff untested.
KEY PLAYER: Carolina G Petr Mrazek — remember him, Wings’ fans — was 11-2-0 with a .944 save percentage since February 16. Mrazek is on one of his rolls.
PREDICTION: Washington in 6.
(2) New York Islanders vs. (3) Pittsburgh
RECORDS: New York 48-27-7 (103 points); Pittsburgh 44-26-12 (100 points).
SEASON SERIES: Tied, 2-1-1.
STORYLINE: Nobody expected the Islanders to be here, especially after losing John Tavares to free agency. But they had an astounding season, and have home-ice advantage at venerable Nassau Coliseum.
KEY: The Islanders went from the most goals allowed (293) last season, to fewest allowed (191) this season. The core of Pittsburgh’s roster has won three Stanley Cups.
KEY PLAYER: C Sidney Crosby: Somewhat quietly, Crosby put together another 100-point season, and leads a Pittsburgh team that could be peaking.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh in 6.