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NHL playoffs start with Penguins-Flyers on Wednesday night

The race to the Stanley Cup is on.

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins are set to take centre stage when they kick off the playoffs Wednesday night by hosting rival Philadelphia. It will be the first post-season action in two years for Crosby, who sat out the end of last season with a concussion.

Sixteen teams enter the week with a chance at a championship, including the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators.

Here's a look at how the first-round matchups stack up:

Eastern Conference

N.Y. Rangers (No. 1) vs. Ottawa (No. 8)

Game 1: Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

Season series: Ottawa went 3-1-0.

Lowdown: The Senators exceeded expectations by qualifying for the post-season and believe they're in position to pull off an upset.

Ottawa had some success this season against a Rangers team that was the class of the Eastern Conference from start to finish. New York is led by all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist, but boasts a less potent attack than the Sens.

That said, the Rangers do have some game-breakers, including 40-goal man Marian Gaborik, former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards and gritty captain Ryan Callahan.

Since the lockout, Senators forward Jason Spezza has been among the best offensive performers in the playoffs. He could be an X factor in this series.

Slick defenceman Erik Karlsson will also play a key role after a 78-point regular season.


Boston (No. 2) vs. Washington (No. 7)

Game 1: Thursday at TD Garden.

Season series: Washington went 3-1-0.

Lowdown: The Bruins begin their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions against an underachieving team that could be dangerous.

Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green returned to the Capitals lineup down the stretch after missing significant time with injuries—giving them two more weapons to go with captain Alex Ovechkin.

Goaltending remains a question mark for Washington after Braden Holtby was thrust into the position in the final week of the season when Michal Neuvirth suffered a leg injury.

Since going unbeaten in November, the Bruins have endured some ups-and-downs but should have confidence after last year's playoff run. The key players all remain—No. 1 goalie Tim Thomas, captain Zdeno Chara, centre Patrice Bergeron—and have been bolstered by the emergence of Tyler Seguin.

Ovechkin holds the NHL's best points per game average in the playoffs since the lockout, but has yet to lead his team on a long post-season run. Could that change this year?


Florida (No. 3) vs. New Jersey (No. 6)

Game 1: Friday at BankAtlantic Center.

Season series: Florida went 2-1-1.

Lowdown: The Panthers return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000, but are in danger of having it be a short stay.

Florida finished with eight fewer points than New Jersey despite claiming a higher seed by virtue of winning the Southeast Division title. The team also endured its share of struggles down the stretch.

On the flip side, veteran Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur won his final five starts of the regular season and is looking to get past the first round for the first time since 2007.

New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk is the most dynamic player in the series and could be a potential game-breaker. However, he has just nine games of previous playoff experience.


Pittsburgh (No. 4) vs. Philadelphia (No. 5)

Game 1: Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.

Season series: Philadelphia went 4-2-0.

Lowdown: It's being billed as the series to watch in the first round.

The storylines are virtually endless—from Crosby's playoff return to Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot returning to Pittsburgh as members of the Flyers to the question marks surrounding Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.

The only guarantee is that one Stanley Cup contender will be eliminated after the first round.

Philadelphia's biggest challenge will be finding a way to shut down Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who hit 50 goals for the first time in his career and won the scoring title. Pittsburgh's Pascal Dupuis also enters the playoffs on a hot streak after registering points in the last 17 games of the regular season.

The Flyers are awaiting the return of forward Danny Briere, who was injured late in the season.

Western Conference

Vancouver (No. 1) vs. Los Angeles (No. 8)

Game 1: Wednesday at Rogers Arena.

Season series: Vancouver went 2-1-1.

Lowdown: Regular season champions for a second straight year, Vancouver is looking to get one more victory this spring than last one.

If they manage to do it, they'll become the first Canadian team to lift the Stanley Cup since 1993.

The Canucks are heavily favoured in this series but have some question marks after watching Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and David Booth struggle offensively down the stretch. Of course, the Roberto Luongo-Corey Schneider goalie debate could surface again as well.

Arguably the only reason Los Angeles was able to get into the post-season is goalie Jonathan Quick, who registered 10 shutouts during the regular season and is likely to play a key role in this series.

Trade deadline pickup Jeff Carter could also be a player to watch for the goal-starved Kings if he returns from an ankle injury.


St. Louis (No. 2) vs. San Jose (No. 7)

Game 1: Thursday at Scottrade Center.

Season series: St. Louis went 4-0-0.

Lowdown: The jockeying started early in this series with Sharks coach Todd McLellan pronouncing his team the underdog and noting the pressure St. Louis is under.

While that's true based on the regular season, San Jose holds an undisputed edge in playoff experience after advancing to the Western Conference final the last two years.

The Blues rocketed up the standings after Ken Hitchcock was hired and are the league's best defensive team. Led by goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, St. Louis averaged 1.89 goals against this season.

San Jose will lean on its three 30-goal scorers—Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau—along with captain Joe Thornton, who had a standout performance during last year's playoffs.

A key for the Sharks will be finding success on the road. St. Louis went 30-6-5 on home ice this season.


Phoenix (No. 3) vs. Chicago (No. 6)

Game 1: Thursday at Arena.

Season series: Phoenix went 3-1-0.

Lowdown: The Coyotes are trying to win their first playoff series since moving to the desert from Winnipeg in 1996.

They came up short against Detroit the last two years and have drawn a Blackhawks team with plenty of question marks entering this series. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews—the Conn Smythe winner in 2010—remains sidelined with a concussion and top goalie Corey Crawford has struggled.

With the Coyotes ownership situation still up in the air, players are likely to face another round of questions about the franchise's uncertain future. Perhaps they've grown used to the distraction.

A key player for Phoenix is goalie Mike Smith, who had a career-best 38 wins with a .930 save percentage during the regular season.


Nashville (No. 4) vs. Detroit (No. 5)

Game 1: Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena.

Season series: Tied 3-3-0.

Lowdown: This series pits the up-and-comers (Nashville) against the wily veterans (Detroit).

Predators general manager David Poile was aggressive at the trade deadline and believes he's built a championship-calibre team. The first test is a steep one.

Detroit only lost one first-round series since the lockout and has recently welcomed a number of injured players back into the lineup. The Red Wings are well-balanced offensively, but have seen the goals dry up down the stretch.

Nashville's star defencemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter could have a major impact on the series.

It will be intriguing to see what Alexander Radulov can do as well. He had three goals and seven points in nine games after returning to Nasvhille from Russia last month.


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