The Pittsburgh Penguins are the team to beat in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
The talent-stacked club, which finished first in the conference by nine points at 36-12-0, kept winning even though star centre Sidney Crosby suffered a broken jaw and missed the season’s final 12 games.
Looking primed for a run at their fourth Stanley Cup, the Penguins take on the inexperienced New York Islanders in their conference quarter-final opener Wednesday, the same night an Original Six battle gets going between the fourth-place Boston Bruins and the fifth-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
The first all-Canadian playoff matchup since 2004 starts Thursday with the No. 7 Ottawa Senators visiting the No. 2 Montreal Canadiens, while the No. 3 Washington Capitals play host to the No. 6 New York Rangers.
Crosby has been at practice in a no-contact jersey of late but there is no word yet on whether he’ll be ready to start the series. Ditto for the teammate whose shot hit him, defenceman Brooks Orpik, who missed the last two games with a lower-body injury.
But the Penguins have been winning without star players all season and won four of five meetings with the Islanders, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Crosby had nine assists against the Isles, who won the first meeting but were outscored 16-5 in the next four.
The Penguins, with many of the players who won the Cup in 2009, made it known they were going for it this season when they picked up gritty veterans Jarome Iglina and Brenden Morrow prior to the trade deadline.
A question is who will start in goal. Tomas Vokoun went 3-0-0 wit a 0.900 goals-against average against the Isles, while Marc-Andre Fleury was 1-1-0 with a 3.60 average.
They face an Islanders team that will rely on veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov and his 80 games of playoff experience. Star centre John Tavares, who emerged as a Hart Trophy candidate this year, and other key players like Matt Moulson and Travis Hamonic have never played an NHL playoff game.
The other three series promise to be tighter.
Montreal and Ottawa were each 2-1-1 against each other this season. Only a two-hour drive apart, the clubs’ may also add some hate to what has been a mild rivalry since the Senators joined the NHL in 1992.
“I love the passion of the Montreal fans and the excitement they bring,” said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, a long-time Canadiens-killer. “I haven’t been able to play them in the playoffs throughout my career so this is going to be a great opportunity and I expect a loud Bell Centre on Thursday night.”
One Canadien who knows about playing Ottawa is tough winger Brandon Prust, who was with the Rangers for a seven-game, first-round win over the Sens last spring.
“It’s a good rivalry for sure,” he said. “They’re right around the corner from us.
“It’s only a bus ride away, so it’s going to be a good playoff battle.”
The Leafs are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and will be looking for an upset against the 2011 Cup champion Bruins. Boston won three of four meetings between the two this season, but all were close. And the Bruins did not look ready while going 2-5-2 to end the season.
A lot of attention will be on Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, the kingpin in a 2009 blockbuster deal between the teams for first round draft picks that turned out to be gifted youngsters Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
Boston’s starting goalie Tuukka Rask, a likely Vezina Trophy candidate, also came from the Leafs in a 2006 deal for Andrew Raycroft. Rask goes up against untested James Reimer in the Leafs’ net.
The Leafs have a health concern about Tyler Bozak, who centres Toronto’s top line with Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, but they will have productive winger Joffrey Lupul on hand to support young centre Nazem Kadri in his first playoffs.
What may be the most entertaining series in the conference has two teams that struggled through large parts of the lockout-shortened campaign.
The Rangers went 10-3-1 in April, while the Capitals ended the season on a 15-2-2 binge during which star winger Alex Ovechkin caught fire. He had 23 goals in the last 23 games to finish atop the league with 32.
New York won the season-series 2-0-1 and were transformed at the trade deadline when they dealt away star forward Marian Gaborik to Columbus and picked up centre Derek Brassard. The move breathed life into a stagnant attack led by off-season pick-up Rick Nash.
Henrik Lundqvist has also been stellar in goal, which will be a key advantage against Washington. But they will have to figure out the Caps’ NHL-best power play, which has been shredding opponents down the stretch.