After a truncated 48-game regular season, the NHL post-season has arrived. Here’s a look at five storylines to watch as the quest for the Stanley Cup begins:
CANADIAN TEAMS FACE OFF
The Montreal Canadiens struggled down the stretch but still earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference thanks in part to a key victory over Toronto in the regular-season finale. The Habs will get a date with the surprising Ottawa Senators, who took the seventh seed despite injuries to several key players this season. With the cities just a two-hour drive apart, expect an electric atmosphere in both rinks as fans of both teams fill the seats. The pressure in this series seems to be squarely on Montreal. Making it to the post-season was a significant accomplishment for the banged-up Senators, who are playing with house money and have nothing to lose. With star defenceman Erik Karlsson now back on the blue-line, Ottawa could give Montreal all it can handle and then some.
As a No. 8 seed last year, the Los Angeles Kings went about their business and kept upsetting teams en route to their first Stanley Cup title. The pressure will be more intense this year as they go for back-to-back championships. Los Angeles was steady throughout the season and will be brimming with confidence entering its first-round series with St. Louis. The Kings swept the Blues last year and Los Angeles won all three regular-season meetings this year. In addition, Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick has shown he can thrive in the playoff spotlight. Los Angeles is looking to become the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings won a second straight title in 1998.
CANUCKS IN SHARK TANK
The lone Canadian team to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks have a few question marks entering their first-round matchup with the San Jose Sharks. Chief among them is the status of netminder Cory Schneider. Has he fully recovered from the undisclosed “body injury” he was nursing down the stretch? Will Roberto Luongo be in form to carry the load if needed? Luongo served in a limited role this season and is coming off a 7-2 shellacking in the regular-season finale at Edmonton. Vancouver is the third seed in the West but the two teams have virtually identical records. The Canucks had trouble with San Jose this season, losing all three of their regular-season games to the Sharks.
CLASS OF THE CONFERENCES
The Chicago Blackhawks showed early on that they are the team to beat in the West. The Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t fazed by injury issues and surged to top spot in the East. Both teams had comfortable leads in their respective conference standings and are good bets to meet in the Stanley Cup final. Will anyone come close to knocking them off early? Chicago opens against the eighth-seeded Minnesota Wild while Pittsburgh takes on the eighth-seeded New York Islanders. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby missed the final 12 games of the regular season after breaking his jaw but Pittsburgh has been strong without him. Hockey fans might just be treated to a couple of No. 1 seeds squaring off for the championship.
BUDS ARE BACK
It has been almost four decades since the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins last met in the playoffs. The two teams still have a strong connection though. The Original Six rivals hooked up for a major trade in 2009, which significantly changed the look of both teams. Boston gave up sniper Phil Kessel in exchange for three draft picks, including two first-round selections. The Bruins used the first-rounders to take Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton and both have been key contributors. Kessel, who has averaged over a point a game the last two seasons, is a big reason why Toronto is making its first playoff appearance in nine years. Expect the vocal fans at Boston’s TD Garden to give him the gears this series.