Pittsburgh (1) vs. N.Y. Islanders (8)
Penguins (36-12-0, 72 points)
Islanders (24-17-7, 55 points)
1. Much to the chagrin of John Tavares and the Islanders, the Penguins have become healthy just in time. Sidney Crosby has been cleared for practice after weeks on the sidelines with a broken jaw. James Neal, Paul Martin and Evgeni Malkin all missed time this month, but recently returned to the lineup. Now how good is this team with trade deadline deals that brought in Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen and full health?
2. The Penguins will attempt to exorcise their playoff demons of the past two years. In 2011, they had a 3-1 series lead in the first round with Game 5 at the Consol Energy Center against the Tampa Bay Lighting. But Pittsburgh blundered away the series by losing three straight. Last year, the Penguins were a defensive mess in the first round against the rival Philadelphia Flyers, yielding a whopping 30 goals in the six-game series won by the Flyers.
3. The Islanders haven't been in the post-season since 2006. There isn't much playoff experience on this team. More than half of the players in the Islanders lineup will make their Stanley Cup playoff debuts, including Tavares, Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas, Andrew MacDonald, Matt Martin, Travis Hamonic, David Ullstro and Thomas Hickey. The rest of the roster adds up to only 178 combined playoff games. Veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov leads the way with 62 games followed by Marty Reasoner (23), Lubomir Visnovsky (18), Keith Aucoin (14), Mark Streit (12), Brad Boyes (11), Matt Carkner (10), Michael Grabner (9) and Radek Martinek (9).
Season series: Penguins 4-1-0
Jan. 29 -- Islanders 4-1 at Pittsburgh
Feb. 05 -- Penguins 4-2 at Long Island
Mar. 10 -- Penguins 6-1 at Pittsburgh
Mar. 22 -- Penguins 4-2 at Long Island
Mar. 30 - Penguins 2-0 at Pittsburgh
Prediction: Penguins in 5
Montreal (2) vs. Ottawa (7)
Canadiens (29-14-5, 63 points)
Senators (25-17-6, 56 points)
1. These teams have built up quite a rivalry since the Senators came back into the league for the 1992-93 series, even though they have never met in the playoffs in the modern era. You have to go all the way back to 1927 to find the last time these rivals met in the playoffs. The Senators beat the Canadiens in a two-game, total-goal series.
2. Montreal's 25-year-old goalie Carey Price struggled late in the season. He won just two of his last eight starts and was pulled from three games in a row. Which Price will show up against the Senators? Regarded as a candidate to play for Canada at the Olympics next year, the young goalie has won world junior gold and an AHL Calder Cup with the 2006-07 Hamilton Bulldogs, but could use a lengthy playoff run to help his cause. His Stanley Cup playoff record is a mediocre 8-15. He can't afford to let Ottawa's Craig Anderson outplay him.
3. The Senators have been a remarkable story this season. They have persevered through long-term injuries to Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen, Anderson and Milan Michalek to make the playoffs. Everyone but Spezza is back in action. This also possibly could be captain Daniel Alfredsson's last hurrah. He loves playing at the Bell Centre in Montreal and you can't underestimate what this patient team is capable of.
Season series: Tied 2-1-1
Jan. 30 -- Senators 5-1 at Ottawa
Feb. 03 -- Canadiens 2-1 at Montreal
Feb. 25 -- Senators 2-1 at Ottawa (SO)
Mar 13 -- Canadiens 4-3 at Montreal (SO)
Prediction: Senators in 7
Washington (3) vs. N.Y. Rangers (6)
Capitals (26-18-3, 57 points)
Rangers (26-18-4, 56 points)
1. This is a rematch of the second-round series last year, when the Rangers required seven games to eliminate the Capitals. The last six games were decided by one goal and two of those outings needed overtime. But don't forget Capitals rookie head coach Adam Oates was part of the New Jersey Devils coaching staff that beat the Rangers in the next round in the conference final. Can Oates reach back into his notes to come up with a gameplan to beat the Blueshirts for a second consecutive year?
2. Can the Capitals continue their outstanding late-season run? Alex Ovechkin was at his best with a remarkable 23 goals in the final 23 games. Defenceman Mike Green made a triumphant return to action from his nagging groin problems with 19 games remaining in the regular season to score 10 goals and 19 points. The result was a terrific season-ending 14-4-2 run for Washington.
3. How will first-year Rangers sniper Rick Nash perform in his second playoffs? It was four years ago Nash made his first and only other foray into the playoffs with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He scored once and had two assists as the Detroit Red Wings swept Columbus in 2009. Nash had a solid first season with the Rangers. He scored 21 goals and 42 points in 44 games. But he can't afford to slump in the playoffs because only the Senators scored fewer goals among the eight playoff teams in the East.
Season series: Rangers 2-0-1
Feb. 17 -- Rangers 2-1 at New York
Mar. 10 -- Rangers 4-1 at Washington
Mar. 24 -- Capitals 3-2 at New York (SO)
Prediction: Capitals in 6
Boston (4) vs. Toronto (5)
Bruins (28-14-6, 62 points)
Maple Leafs (26-17-5, 57 points)
1. Wonder if Phil Kessel's name will be brought up much in this series? Of course, we jest. The former Bruin was traded to Toronto before the start of the 2009-10 season in a deal that landed Boston Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. Both teams have gone in different directions. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and have a 15-4-3 record versus Toronto since the trade. Kessel only has three goals in those 22 games and is a minus-22. But he will enter this post-season on a roll, having scored 10 times in the final 10 games of the regular season to reach the 20-goal mark.
2. This is the first meeting between the two Original Six clubs since 1974, when Bobby Orr was in his prime with the Bruins and Borje Salming was in his rookie season in Toronto. Boston dominated the Maple Leafs way back when with a sweep and not much has changed. But one good development for the Maple Leafs is that they broke the recent magical spell the Bruins appeared to have over them -- an eight-game win streak -- with a 3-2 victory at home on Mar. 23. Two nights later in Boston, the Maple Leafs played decent enough to gain a point in a shootout loss. These two results should give the Maple Leafs confidence going into this series.
3. Can the Bruins break out of their late-season funk? Out of the 16 teams that made the playoffs, no club had a worse final quarter (12 games) than the Bruins at 4-6-2. They've had difficulty scoring with only 18 goals in nine games and just seem to lack that dogged forecheck that helped make them one of the elite teams. Maybe the sight of the Maple Leafs will wake them up.
Season series: Bruins 3-1-0
Feb. 02 -- Bruins 1-0 at Toronto
Mar. 07 -- Bruins 4-2 at Boston
Mar. 23 -- Leafs 3-2 at Toronto
Mar. 25 -- Bruins 3-2 at Boston (SO)
Prediction: Bruins in 7
Follow Tim Wharnsby on Twitter @WharnsbyCBC
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