Ted Kulfan breaks down NHL first-round matchups

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Alex Ovechkin

EASTERN CONFERENCE  

Atlantic Division

1 Florida vs. 4 N.Y. Islanders

Records: Florida 47-26-9 (103 points), N.Y. Islanders 45-27-10 (100 points)

Series: Florida 2-1-0

Story line: Florida hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996, but is a legitimate contender.

Key player — Panthers D Aaron Ekblad: He could be a breakthrough star if the Panthers win a few rounds.

Prediction: Panthers in six

2 Tampa Bay vs. 3 Detroit

Records: Tampa Bay 46-31-5 (97 points), Detroit 41-30-11 (93 points)

Series: 2-2-0

Story line: A rematch of last spring’s first-round series in which Tampa Bay rallied to win in seven.

Key player — Lightning G Ben Bishop: He has been the Lightning’s savior and most dependable player.

Prediction: Lightning in seven

Metropolitan Division

1 Washington vs. 4 Philadelphia

Records: Washington 56-18-8 (120 points), Philadelphia 41-27-14 (96 points)

Series: Washington 2-0-2

Story line: Washington was the NHL’s best team, while Philadelphia was tremendous after the All-Star break (20-9-6).

Key player — Capitals LW Alex Ovechkin: Will he win his first Stanley Cup?

Prediction: Capitals in five

2 Pittsburgh vs. 3 N.Y. Rangers

Records: Pittsburgh 48-26-8 (104 points), N.Y. Rangers 46-27-9 (101 points)

Series: Pittsburgh 3-1-0

Story line: The Rangers have eliminated the Penguins the last two seasons, and have won seven of the last eight between them in the playoffs.

Key player — Penguins C Sidney Crosby: He has been outstanding the second half and appears determined to carry this roster on a deep run.

Prediction: Rangers in seven

Joe Thornton

WESTERN CONFERENCE  

Central Division

1 Dallas vs. 4 Minnesota

Records: Dallas 50-23-9 (109 points), Minnesota 38-33-11 (87 points)

Series: Dallas 4-1-0

Story line: The first time Minnesota’s former and current teams meet in the playoffs.

Key player — Stars D Kris Russell: A deadline trade acquisition, he has made the Stars better, particularly the power play and penalty kill.

Prediction: Stars in five

2 St. Louis vs. 3 Chicago

Records: St. Louis 49-24-7 (107 points), Chicago 47-26-9 (103 points)

Series: Blues 3-2-0

Story line: This was a physical, downright dirty at times, series when the Blackhawks won in 2014.

Key player — Blackhawks D Duncan Keith: Suspended for Game 1, he will return and will be needed to shut down the versatile Blues attack.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six

Pacific Division

1 Anaheim vs. 4 Nashville

Records: Anaheim 46-25-11 (103 points), Nashville 41-27-14 (96 points)

Series: Nashville 2-1-0

Story line: A huge disappointment early, Anaheim won the Pacific Division for the fourth straight season, playing outstanding in the second half.

Key player — Predators D Shea Weber: He has to shut down a slew of dynamic Ducks forwards.

Prediction: Ducks in five

2 Los Angeles vs. 3 San Jose

Records: Los Angeles 48-28-6 (102 points), San Jose 46-30-6 (98 points)

Series: San Jose 4-1-0

Story line: The Kings eliminated the Sharks in 2013 and 2014, overcoming a 3-0 series deficit in 2014.

Key player — Sharks C Joe Thornton: At 36, he had one of his best seasons (82 points) but has to overcome his previous playoff failures.

Prediction: Sharks in six