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NHL·Analysis

NHL playoffs: Eastern Conference preview

With the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs set to begin Wednesday night, here's a breakdown of the first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference, along with a prediction for each series.

Montreal meets Ottawa in all-Canadian matchup

Montreal and Ottawa will collide in an all-Canadian matchup in the opening round of the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

With the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs set to begin Wednesday night, here's a breakdown of the first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference, along with a prediction for each series.

For our Western Conference preview, click here.

Note: Chances of winning are implied probabilities derived from betting odds made available Monday morning by Pinnacle, with the bookmaker's vigorish removed, rounded to the nearest full percentage point.

MONTREAL VS. OTTAWA

Canadiens: 50-22-10, 110 points, won Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed

Senators: 43-26-13, 99 points, finished first in wild-card race

Regular-season series: Ottawa won 3-1-0 (Canadiens 1-3-0)

Series opener: Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET (CBC TV, CBCSports.ca)

Chances of winning: Montreal 59%, Ottawa 41%

2 things to know

"Patches" patched up? Habs sniper Max Pacioretty tied for fifth in the league with 37 goals despite missing the final two regular-season games with what the team called an "upper-body" after he hit his head on the boards during a game at Florida. Pacioretty returned to practice on Monday sporting a tinted visor, but it's uncertain whether he's fully recovered from what's likely a concussion [Update: Pacioretty has been ruled out for Game 1]. Montreal can ill afford to lose him. The Habs are a middling puck-possession team that sometimes leans too heavily on Pacioretty, star defenceman P.K. Subban and especially goalie Carey Price, who deserves to win not only the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie but the Hart as the league's MVP. Even if the Habs aren't at their best, Price is capable of stealing a series against anyone.

Sens rookies spark rally: From Feb. 18 on, Ottawa went 21-3-3, making a mad dash for the playoffs that went down to the season's final day. The start of the run coincided with the first career start of unheralded 27-year-old rookie goalie Andrew "the Hamburglar" Hammond. All he did was match a 76-year-old record by allowing two or fewer goals in his first 12 NHL starts and finish with a 20-1-2 record. Twenty-two-year-old forward Mark Stone caught fire too, racking up 10 points in six April games, including a pair of goals in the playoff-clinching win over Philadelphia, to win the rookie scoring title.

Prediction: Ottawa in 7


NEW YORK RANGERS VS. PITTSBURGH

Rangers: 53-22-7, 113 points, won Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed and Presidents' Trophy for NHL's best record

Penguins: 43-27-12, 98 points, finished second in wild-card race

Regular-season series: Rangers won 3-0-1 (Penguins 1-2-1)

Series opener: Thursday at 7 p.m. ET (CBC TV, CBCSports.ca)

Chances of winning: New York 67%, Pittsburgh 33%

2 things to know

Pens limp in: Pittsburgh nearly missed the playoffs for the first time since Sidney Crosby's rookie season, needing a win over Buffalo on the final day after losing each of their five previous April games. Blame injuries: On the blue-line Kris Letang is not expected to be able to play at any time in the playoffs after suffering another concussion, and Christian Ehrhoff's status is iffy as he tries to recover from a concussion of his own. Star forward Evgeni Malkin may not be 100 per cent either. He missed time down the stretch with an unspecified lower-body injury and did not record a point in his last five games. On a related note, the Pens averaged 1.67 goals per game in their final 15 after averaging 2.86 in their first 67.

Rangers good and lucky: Too bad about Pittsburgh's injury problems, because a few signs in this series pointed to the potential for an upset. Even though the Rangers had the NHL's best regular-season record and the top goal differential, they ranked in the bottom half in score-adjusted possession indicators while leading the league in combined shooting and save percentages, suggesting they had some good fortune. The Penguins, meanwhile, ranked near the top in possession, showing their ability to drive play.

Prediction: Rangers in 6


WASHINGTON VS. NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Capitals: 45-26-11, 101 points, finished second in Metropolitan Division

Islanders: 47-28-7, 101 points, finished third in Metropolitan Division

Regular-season series: Capitals won 2-0-2 (Islanders 2-1-1)

Series opener: Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET

Chances of winning: Washington 58%, New York 42%

2 things to know

Home not so sweet: The Islanders' days at rickety old Nassau Coliseum are numbered, and the crowd figures to be emotional and loud as it prepares to say goodbye to the place where the Isles won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s. But home-ice advantage doesn't appear to be a big factor in this series: New York and Washington earned just four points more combined at home than on the road this season.

Busy bodies: This series features some of the most active stars in the league. New York's John Tavares led all forwards in ice time by averaging 20:40 per game and finished second in the scoring race to Jamie Benn. Washington's Alex Ovechkin led the league in goals (53) for the third year in a row while averaging 20:19 of ice time — the fifth-highest mark among forwards. His teammate Braden Holtby played in a staggering 73 of 82 games to lead all goalies.

Prediction: Washington in 7


TAMPA BAY VS. DETROIT

Lightning: 50-24-8, 108 points, finished second in Atlantic Division

Red Wings: 43-25-14, 100 points, finished third in Atlantic Division

Regular-season series: Lightning won 3-1-0 (Red Wings 1-2-1)

Series opener: Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET

Chances of winning: Tampa Bay 63%, Detroit 37%

2 things to know

Wings go with young goalie: Detroit announced it will open with 23-year-old Petr Mrazek in net. He got the nod over veteran Jimmy Howard, the Wings' starter in the playoffs the last five years. This season, Mrazek produced a slightly better goals-against average (2.38 to Howard's 2.44) and save percentage (.918 to .910) while playing in fewer games (29 to 53).

Different approaches: These are the top two score-adjusted possession teams in the league, per NHL.com's numbers. But they do their scoring in different ways. Tampa Bay potted the most goals in the NHL thanks to its stellar even-strength play, leading the league in 5-on-5 scoring while finishing second in even-strength goal differential. That covered for a power play that ranked in the middle of the pack in success rate. Detroit ranked 10th in scoring while finishing only 14th in 5-on-5 differential but converting a higher percentage of its power plays than every team but Washington. The Lightning, though, may be able to neutralize that advantage: they ranked seventh in penalty killing.

Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6

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