NHL Playoff Preview

Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) watches from the bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche, Thursday, April 7, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)

Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) watches from the bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche, Thursday, April 7, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)

Western Conference

By Joseph Sykes | Sports Editor

Stars vs. Wild

Of all four first-round Western Conference matchups, this may be the easiest to predict.

The Minnesota Wild limped into the postseason after dropping five straight losses to some of the league’s more mediocre clubs. Add that to the fact that they’ll be facing the Central Division champion Dallas Stars, and you have a recipe for a quick and easy first round exit.

Minnesota’s late-season stumble can be attributed primarily to injuries. Down the stretch, the team lost some of its top scorers, including Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and Erik Haula. However, these three guys are considered “day-to-day,” which means they could be back by the start of the playoffs.

Even if the team is 100 percent healthy, the Wild will have a hard time containing an explosive Stars offense, which includes last year’s point leader Jamie Benn and two-time All Star Tyler Seguin.

Stars in 5

Blues vs. Blackhawks

After the Blackhawks won the Cup last year, many thought their recent dynasty may be on the downfall. However, the team now finds themselves eyeing a fourth title in seven years. With a core of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa, it’s always a challenge getting through the ‘Hawks.

It seems that the Blues, though, have all the right pieces to keep their adversaries from making it out of the first round. They’re extremely physical and have a fantastic netminder in Brian Elliott, who finished with an exceptional .930 save percentage during the regular season.

It’s always hard to bet against Chicago, but you might want to this year.

Blues in 6

Ducks vs. Predators

Every year, it seems as if the Nashville Predators are the team to beat in the Western Conference. They have arguably one of the best defensive corps in the NHL, three solid lines on offense and a former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in Pekka Rinne, but somehow they always fall short of making the conference final.

The thing is they don’t do well against great teams. Last year, they got knocked out by the Blackhawks and this year, they’re going up against a Ducks team, which owns two of the league’s most dynamic goal scorers in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. The Ducks also boast a strong blue line as well as an emerging star in net, Pittsburgh’s own John Gibson.
Ducks in 6

Sharks vs. Kings

Despite both California clubs missing the postseason last year, the winner of this matchup is already clear cut with the Los Angeles Kings making quick work of the San Jose Sharks.

Simply put the Sharks are old. Since postseason hockey is noticeably more physical than the regular season, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau won’t be able to handle the stout defense that the Kings own. They also have a weak backstop in Martin Jones.

The Kings are young and experienced, having won the Stanley Cup twice since 2012. After missing the playoffs last year, they seem well rested and capable of striking down their West Coast rivals in four games.

Kings in 4

WC Winner: Kings

The Kings are once again the cream of the NHL crop thanks to their well-roundedness. They have a lighting fast offense, a staunch defense and one of the greatest goalies to ever play the game in Jonathan Quick. All of these assets will give the Western Conference its fifth straight league championship.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, left, talks with goalie Jeff Zatkoff during a practice session for the NHL hockey playoffs against the New York Rangers, Monday, April 11, 2016, at their practice facility in Cranberry, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, left, talks with goalie Jeff Zatkoff during a practice session for the NHL hockey playoffs against the New York Rangers, Monday, April 11, 2016, at their practice facility in Cranberry, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Eastern Conference

By Bryanna McDermott | The Duquesne Duke

Capitals vs. Flyers

The President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals are taking on the Philadelphia Flyers in one of the better first round matchups. Their season series is tied at 2-0-2, with three of the four games decided by only one goal.

The Caps starting goalie, Braden Holtby, posted 48 wins during the regular season, tying Martin Brodeur’s record for most all-time. Spectacular goaltending combined with an offense that saw Alex Ovechkin score over 50 goals and five other teammates put up 20 goal seasons may be too much for Wayne Simmonds and the Flyers to handle.

Special teams may be the deciding factor, with Washington holding the fifth best power play and No. 2 penalty kill. The Flyers are ranked 20th in penalty killing and their power play was 11th.

Capitals in 5

Penguins vs. Rangers

For the third straight year, fans get to see the Penguins take on the Rangers. The Pens have been the best team in hockey since Mike Sullivan stepped in as head coach, winning 14 of their last 16 games.

The Pens won the season series 3-1-0 and look to build off their performance. Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist had a Vezina Award-worthy regular season, winning 35 games. However, the Pens’ goaltenders hold a .918 overall save percentage, tied for second in the league.

Injuries will hinder both teams, as the Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh has a broken hand, and the Pens still wait out injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Marc Andre Fleury. The difference is Pittsburgh’s depth. Filling in for Malkin, Nick Bonino scored 13 points in the last 10 games.

Penguins in 6

Panthers vs. Islanders

The Panthers are in the playoffs for only the second time in 15 seasons, led by veterans Jaromir Jagr and Shawn Thornton. At 44-years old, Jagr posted a 66 point season, including 27 goals.

It will be interesting to see if the Cats can keep up with the gritty Isles, who play a fast-paced game. They’re a good puck possession team and strong on face-offs, with John Tavares winning over 54 percent.

The Isles’ starting goalie, Jaroslav Halak, is still out with a lower-body injury, so backup Thomas Greiss will be in net. The Panthers need to attack Greiss and take advantage of the Islanders young defensemen who aren’t 100 percent healthy.

Panthers in 7

Lightning vs. Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings are making their 25th postseason appearance, but only because the Ottawa Senators managed to pull out a win against the Boston Bruins. The Tampa Bay Lightning are on a downward spiral, going 3-5-0 in each of their last eight games.

Ben Bishop, the goaltender for Tampa, has a .926 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average. He also recorded six shutouts during the regular season. He will be hard to score against for a Detroit team whose highest scorer was Henrik Zetterberg with 50 points in 82 games.

Red Wings in 7

EC Winner: Penguins

The Penguins are firing on all cylinders. Sidney Crosby is playing phenomenal hockey at both ends of the ice, while defenseman Kris Letang is continuing a Norris Trophy-worthy year. Phil Kessel has finally hit his stride, scoring 12 points in his last nine games. If Fleury can stay strong, something he hasn’t done the past few postseasons, then this team can do the unthinkable: win its fourth-ever Stanley Cup.

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