NHL playoffs preview: Familiarity likely to fuel intense first-round action

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
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The NHL has made it through the regular season, with the exception of a few more North (Canadian) Division games.

It was rocky at times and games were rescheduled (see North Division), but in the end it got done and fans enjoyed some exciting hockey during the pandemic.

Now, the hockey gets stepped up another level.

The playoffs are set to begin this weekend, and this particular postseason could be as fascinating and thrilling as any in recent memory.

Former Red Wing Anthony Mantha and the Capitals will take on the Bruins in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

Because divisions were realigned due to the COVID-19 pandemic to limit travel, all regular-season games were intra-division. And that format will continue in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

That will surely fuel already heated rivalries and dislikes that were heightened during the regular season. 

Most of these teams have already played each other eight or nine times — and now face each other in a win-or-go-home series. 

After the division champions are decided, the final four teams will be reseeded Nos. 1-4 in a unique format, given there are no Western or Eastern Conferences this season.

But that's still weeks away. Right now, enjoy what should be a hard-hitting and intense smorgasbord of hockey.

Here are the first-round series:

East Division

(1) Pittsburgh vs. (4) New York Islanders

► Records: Pittsburgh 37-16-3 (77 points); N.Y. Islanders 32-17-7 (71 points)

Regular-season series: Pittsburgh 6-2

► Story lines: These are two teams heading in different directions heading into the playoffs. Pittsburgh went 8-2-0 down the stretch, while the Islanders went a wobbly 3-4-3. …The Islanders swept the Penguins in 2019, the last time these teams met in the playoffs. …Pittsburgh was sparked by trade deadline acquisition Jeff Carter (nine goals in 14 games). The Islanders have some key injuries, notably left wing Anders Lee, which has impacted goal scoring.  

► Key player: Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin. He missed 23 games this season, but he’s healthy and provides another offensive force the Islanders can’t match. 

► Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6

(2) Washington vs. (3) Boston

► Records: Washington 36-15-5 (77 points); Boston 33-16-7 (73 points)

Regular-season series: Tied 4-4

► Story lines: This is a quality first-round series, but these are two big, physical teams, with the winner likely limping into the next round. And Washington 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara will be facing his longtime Bruins teammates. …Interestingly, as successful and dominant as these teams have been, this will be the first time they’ll face in the playoffs since 2012. …Washington had won 16 of 18 games against Boston before this season.

 Key player: Washington right wing Anthony Mantha. The Capitals need the former Red Wing to be impactful in this series. 

► Prediction: Boston in 6

Goalie Juuse Saros is the biggest reason the Predators went from a potential NHL draft lottery team to their seventh straight playoff appearance.

Central Division

(1) Carolina vs. (4) Nashville

► Records: Carolina 36-12-8 (80 points); Nashville 31-23-2 (64 points)

Regular-season series: Carolina 6-2

► Story lines: The Hurricanes were a dominant team all season, with scoring depth throughout the lineup. …Nashville went 23-12-2 in the final 37 games to clinch and defeated Carolina in the final two-game series, creating some momentum. …Carolina likely needs to settle on one of its three goaltenders it has used regularly this season against Nashville, who scored the fewest goals (151) of any playoff team.

► Key player: Nashville goalie Juuse Saros was a key reason for the Predators’ resurgence and could trouble Carolina in this series.

► Prediction: Carolina in 5

(2) Florida vs. (3) Tampa Bay

► Records: Florida 37-14-5 (79 points); Tampa Bay 36-17-3 (75 points)

► Regular-season series: Florida 5-2-1

► Story lines: This will be the first all-Florida battle in the playoffs. …The Panthers won their last six games, while the Lightning lost three consecutive games (including two to Florida). …Tampa right wing Nikita Kucherov (hip) and center Steven Stamkos (lower body) are scheduled to return to the lineup. Kucherov has missed the entire season. …This is the type of series Florida signed goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to win.

► Key player: Florida left wing Jonathan Huberdeau. After a big season (61 points), he needs to show that elite form against the defending Stanley Cup champs.

► Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6

North Division

(1) Toronto vs. (4) Montreal

► Records: Toronto 35-13-7 (77 points, one game left); Montreal 24-21-11 (59 points)

Regular-season series: Toronto 7-3

► Story lines: Canada is going crazy as these legendary organizations meet for the first time in the playoffs since 1979. …Toronto had a superb season but some analysts point to the mediocre division for the Maple Leafs’ success. …Montreal is hoping goalie Carey Price (lower body) and defenseman Shea Weber (upper body) are healthy, while rookie right wing Cole Caufield was a revelation down the stretch (four goals in 10 games). …Toronto center Auston Matthews (41 goals) had an MVP-caliber season and leads a prolific offensive attack.

► Key player: Toronto goalies Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell. Whoever it may be, playing better than Montreal’s Price is not going to be easy but it's necessary for the Maple Leafs to win.

► Prediction: Toronto in 6

The Oilers will be playing Winnipeg in their first-round series, the team Connor McDavid had the most points against this season with 22 in nine games played.

(2) Edmonton vs. (3) Winnipeg

 Records: Edmonton 35-18-2 (72 points, one game left); Winnipeg 29-23-3 (61 points, one game left)

► Regular-season series: Edmonton 7-2

► Story lines: This is the first time this particular Jets franchise has met Edmonton in the playoffs (they met six times between 1983-1990 before the Jets moved to Atlanta). …Edmonton dominated the season series with Oilers center Connor McDavid posting 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in nine games. …McDavid (104 points) and center Leon Draisaitl (83 points) had otherworldly offensive seasons. …Winnipeg (2-8-0) was terrible down the stretch.

Key player: Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck. The Commerce Township native can tilt this series the Jets’ way if he plays to his level.

 Prediction: Winnipeg in 7

West Division

(1) Colorado vs. (4) St. Louis

► Records: Colorado 39-13-4 (82 points); St. Louis 27-20-9 (63 points)

► Regular-season series: Colorado 5-3

 Story lines: Colorado won the Presidents’ Trophy (best record), thanks in part to arguably the NHL’s best line with right wing Mikko Rantanen (66 points), center Nathan MacKinnon (65 points) and left wing Gabriel Landeskog (52 points). Goalie Philipp Grubauer (30-9-1, 1.95 GAA, .922 SVS) stabilized a position that was a question mark. …The Blues went 6-1-3 in the closing stretch to clinch a playoff spot. Center Ryan O’Reilly (54 points) is St. Louis’ leader on and off the ice, and goalie Jordan Binnington (18-14-8, .910 SVS) has to be better.

► Key player: Colorado defenseman Cale Makar. The possible Norris Trophy winner is a player who can break open a game at any moment.

► Prediction: Colorado in 5

(2) Vegas vs. (3) Minnesota

 Records: Vegas 40-14-2 (82 points); Minnesota 35-16-5 (75 points)

► Regular-season series: Minnesota 5-1-2

► Story lines: Colorado had more regulation/overtime wins, depriving Vegas of the Presidents’ Trophy. …Vegas has a deep, veteran lineup, but the Golden Knights have struggled against the Wild (5-10-1) so far as a franchise. …Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore (42 points) is vastly underrated. …Minnesota rookie left wing Kirill Kaprizov (27 goals, 51 points) is the likely Calder Trophy winner, but the playoffs are a different type of pressure.

► Key player: Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The veteran is 26-10-0 this season (1.98 GAA, .928 SVS) and just keeps rolling along in a prolific career.

► Prediction: Vegas in 7

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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