With the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs set to begin Thursday night with Game 1 of the Bruins-Canadiens series at 7 p.m. ET on Hockey Night in Canada, here's a look at the matchups in the Eastern Conference along with predictions for each series:
SCHEDULE: Hockey Night in Canada
Boston (1) vs. Montreal (4)
Bruins: 54-19-9, 117 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, defeated Detroit 4-1 in 1st round.
Canadiens: 46-28-8, 100 points, 3rd in Atlantic Division, defeated Tampa Bay 4-0 in 1st round.
1. The Canadiens and Bruins meet in the playoffs for the 34th time in their celebrated rivalry, but for the first time since Montreal stretched Boston to seven games in 2011. The Bruins prevailed and went on to win the Stanley Cup. It was arguably the most difficult series Boston encountered on its way to winning the championship. There are several different players on each side this time around, including Tuukka Rask in goal for Boston. In many ways, the latest chapter in this rivalry pits two of the game's best goalies against one another in Rask versus Montreal's Carey Price. Both enjoyed strong first-round showings. Of the goalies who made three-or-more starts in the 2014 post-season, Rask is tops with a save percentage of .961. Take away Price's tough start in Game 1 (four goals on 25 shots) and he has a solid .924 save percentage in his last three outings.
2. The Canadiens will face a playoff-hardened team in Boston that, as mentioned, won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and returned to the final last June, which is a far cry from the inexperienced Tampa Bay Lightning that, due to injury, were forced to employ their backup goalie. One area the Habs have to excel in is the special-teams battle. The Bruins went a league-best 6-for-16 in man-advantage situations in the first round and killed off 18 of 20 penalties, good for third in the NHL. The Canadiens, meanwhile, were a mediocre ninth (4 for 26) on the power play and 14th out of 16 clubs on the penalty kill (5 for 7).
3. The Canadiens have given the Bruins fits the past few seasons with their team speed and pesky play, as evidenced in Montreal's three wins in the four regular-season meetings this season. But did the Bruins profit from their tune-up in the first round against a similar team in the Detroit Red Wings? Boston was efficient and exhibited that it can, indeed, keep up with quick skating teams. The youth of defencemen Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski was a positive, not a negative. But against the Canadiens, the Bruins will see a better goalie in Price and more depth on the blue-line.
Season series: Canadiens, 3-1-0.
Dec. 5: Canadiens won 2-1 at Montreal.
Jan. 30: Canadiens won 4-1 at Boston.
March 12: Bruins won 4-1 at Montreal.
March 24: Canadiens won 2-1 (SO) at Boston.
Prediction: Bruins in 7.
Pittsburgh (2) vs. N.Y. Rangers (5)
Penguins: 51-24-7, 109 points, 1st in Metropolitan Division.
Rangers: 45-31-6, 96 points, 2nd in Metropolitan Division.
1. There remains immense pressure on this stacked team. But all eyes will continue to be on Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Even though Fleury played much better and won his first series since 2010 when he beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Penguins netminder still is in the hot seat. Crosby has not scored a goal in his last 11 post-season games. He has to start scoring if the Penguins want to advance.
2. Hands up those who thought 27-year-old Pittsburgh defenceman Matt Niskanen would be this much of a factor in the Penguins playoff run? How many thought through six games that he would have one more goal and seven more points than James Neal, the forward he was traded along with to Pittsburgh by the Dallas Stars in exchange for defenceman Alex Goligoski three years ago? Niskanen leads all Penguins in playoff scoring with two goals and eight points. As Kris Letang tries to find his game after his medical scare, Niskanen has been strong on the power play with two goals and six points in man-advantage situations. A steal by the Stars scouting staff late in the first round (28th overall in 2005), the former All-American from the University of Minnesota-Duluth wants to go to his third conference final. As a rookie, he helped Dallas get to the West final in 2008 and, obviously, was with Pittsburgh a year ago when it lost to the Bruins in the East final.
3. Rangers centre Dominic Moore has a history with both teams. He's too nice a person to be bitter about the Penguins trading him to the Minnesota Wild at the 2007 NHL trade deadline, but he is proud and he was a key performer for the Rangers in their first round win over the Philadelphia Flyers. The 33-year-old Moore has a history of strong playoff performances. He averaged only 11:17 in ice time in the series against Philadelphia, but he sees time on the penalty kill, often is used against top players when he's out there and has become the Rangers top face-off man at 56.9 per cent (41 of 72). The Rangers are going to be on the exhausted side with a stretch of six games in nine days after this Monday, so a tireless player like Moore will become all that more important.
Season series: Tied 2-1-1.
Nov. 6: Rangers won 5-1 at New York.
Dec. 18: Penguins won 4-3 (SO) at New York.
Jan. 3: Penguins won 5-2 at Pittsburgh.
Feb. 7: Rangers won 4-3 (SO) at Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Penguins in 6.
Wharnsby's first-round record: 3-1.
Follow Tim Wharnsby on Twitter @WharnsbyCBC
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