By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Boston vs. Detroit
- Season series: Red Wings, 3-1.
- Difference makers: The NHL awards show in June could look like a Bruins team meeting: Goalie Tuukka Rask (Vezina) and forward Patrice Bergeron (Selke) appear to be heavy favorites and hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara will be in the mix for another Norris Trophy. Detroit survived a potentially devastating spate of injuries to key personnel like C Pavel Datsyuk and LW Henrik Zetterberg in part because prospects like Gustav Nyqvist (12 goals in one 10-game span) stepped into the breach.
- Special teams: Boston finished the regular season with the second-best power play among playoff qualifiers, with a 21.7 percent conversion rate, and its penalty-killers were successful 83.6 percent of the time. The Bruins, especially Brad Marchand, also are a threat to score while down a man. Detroit's power play (17.7 percent) and penalty-killing (83 percent) were mediocre, and the Red Wings rarely scored or allowed short-handed goals.
- Noteworthy: Drawing Detroit in Round 1 isn't much of a reward for the Bruins, who had the league's best regular-season record. ... These teams are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 1957. ... Detroit is the only team to beat the Bruins in regulation three times this season. ... Bruins had league-best goal differential of plus-84 and six of the NHL's 10 best individual plus-minus ratings; Detroit is the only playoff qualifier to have a negative goal differential (minus-8). ... Red Wings have started to get key injured players like Datsyuk back, although Zetterberg and D Jonathan Ericsson apparently still aren't available.
- Who will win: Bruins in six.
Tampa Bay vs. Montreal
- Season series: Lightning, 3-0-1.
- Difference makers: Lightning C Steve Stamkos missed 45 games because of a broken leg, but remains one of the game's most lethal goal-scorers. He got 11 in 20 games after returning to the lineup March 6. Montreal LW Max Pacioretty isn't quite Stamkos' equal as a goal-scorer, but he does have a knack for getting them when they matter most, leading the league with 11 winners.
- Special teams: Neither club had a strong power play -- Tampa Bay converted its chances at an 18.5 percent pace; Montreal, which finished the season in a 0-for-23 slump, scored on 17.2 percent -- but the Canadiens' penalty-kill (85.1 percent) was significantly better than the Lightning's (79.4 percent). Tampa Bay, though, generated 10 short-handed goals, half by rookie C Tyler Johnson.
- Noteworthy: Montreal G Carey Price led Canada to an Olympic gold medal and should get support in the Vezina Trophy voting. ... Lightning LW Ondrej Palat and Johnson finished second and third, respectively, in the NHL rookie scoring race. ... The first three games in the season series were settled in overtime or a shootout. ... If Lightning G Ben Bishop, who injured a wrist last week, can't play, it will be a huge break for the Canadiens. ... Montreal, led by former Penguins coach Michel Therrien, earned 100 points for the first time since 2007-08.
- Who will win: Canadiens in seven.
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia
- Season series: Tied, 2-2.
- Difference makers: New York D Ryan McDonagh had a season worthy of Norris Trophy consideration, and G Henrik Lundqvist can be the best in hockey when his game is in sync. Flyers C Claude Giroux overcame a sluggish start to have a stellar season and is one of the game's top offensive talents and teammate Sean Couturier has developed into an outstanding shutdown center.
- Special teams: Philadelphia's power play was more effective than New York's (19.7 percent to 18.2), and Flyers RW Wayne Simmonds, who is highly effective around the net, placed third in the league with 15 man-advantage goals. While New York owns a narrow edge in penalty-killing efficiency (85.3 percent to 84.8), the Rangers have a proven ability to score while down a man and the Flyers allowed 11 short-handed goals, most of any playoff team.
- Noteworthy: New York has home-ice advantage in the series, but how much will it matter? The Rangers' home record of 20-17-4 was the worst of any playoff team. Then again, Flyers haven't won at Madison Square Garden since Feb. 20, 2011. ... RW Martin St. Louis contributed little to New York's offense after being acquired from Tampa Bay (one goal, seven assists in 19 games). ... Flyers G Steve Mason had an undisclosed injury against the Penguins Saturday but is expected to be ready for Game 1. If Philadelphia would have to rely on Ray Emery, the course of the series could change radically.
- Who will win: Rangers in seven.
Anaheim vs. Dallas
- Season series: Stars, 2-1.
- Difference makers: Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf's offensive output was overshadowed somewhat by that of Sidney Crosby, but he and Corey Perry are one of the game's most formidable tandems. So, for that matter, are Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn of the Stars.
- Special teams: The Ducks earned the top seed in the West despite having an ordinary power play (16 percent) and penalty-killing unit (82.2 percent), although they can be dangerous while short-handed. Dallas, meanwhile, capitalized on only 15.6 percent of its power-play opportunities, despite having some high-end talent, and its penalty-killing (81 percent) was even less impressive.
- Noteworthy: Dallas G Kari Lehtonen didn't face Ducks this season, but went 11-0-3 against the other Pacific Division teams. ... Incentive never should be an issue at this time of year, but the Ducks have a little extra motivation with franchise icon Teemu Selanne planning to retire. ... Dallas LW Antoine Roussel had 197 regular-season penalty minutes, most of anyone in these playoffs. ... Perry scored 26 of his 43 goals on home ice. ... Seguin doesn't mind going on the road. He got 42 points there, more than anyone except Crosby (48). ... Ducks and Stars split two previous playoff series.
- Who will win: Ducks in five.
San Jose vs. Los Angeles
- Season series: Kings, 3-1-1.
- Difference makers: The Sharks have a number of offensive weapons, but none is more productive than LW Joe Pavelski, who placed third in the league in goals (41) and second in power-play goals (16). While goaltending is the critical variable in almost every series, Jonathan Quick is capable of almost single-handedly winning this series for the Kings.
- Special teams: San Jose's power play is surprisingly subpar, scoring 17.2 percent of the time, while its penalty-killers rank among the league's best (84.9 percent). Los Angeles had the least efficient power play among playoff teams, converting on 15.1 percent of its chances, but better-than-average penalty-killing (83.1 percent).
- Noteworthy: This series is Exhibit A of how a high-quality team in the West will be eliminated in Round 1. Both clubs are capable of competing for a Cup. ... Four of five regular-season meetings were decided by one goal. ... Kings allowed a league-low 168 goals during the regular season. ... The Sharks have put up 100 or more points seven times since 2004, but never have gotten past the conference final. ... San Jose is dominant on home ice, going 29-7-5. ... Teams are meeting in the playoffs for the third time in past four years.
- Who will win: Sharks in seven.
St. Louis vs. Chicago
- Season series: Blues, 3-2.
- Difference makers: The trainers for both sides just might be the key figures. St. Louis experienced a devastating run of injuries in the closing weeks of the regular season, losing C David Backes, RW T.J. Oshie and RW Vladimir Tarasenko, among others. Backes, one of the game's top defensive forwards, and Oshie are expected back for Game 1. So are high-impact forwards Jonathan Toews (concussion) and Patrick Kane (knee) of Chicago, both of whom participated in an optional practice Monday.
- Special teams: When its lineup is intact, St. Louis has an edge. Its power play scored at a 19.8 percent clip, compared to 19.5 for the Blackhawks, and its penalty-killing rate was 85.7 percent, clearly better than Chicago's 81.4 percent.
- Noteworthy: Despite setting a franchise record with 52 victories, the Blues stumble into the playoffs with a six-game losing streak. ... LW Brian Bollig, with 203 hits, was the only Blackhawks player to record more than 200. ... Blues LW Vladimir Sobotka was the NHL's top faceoff man in 2013-14, winning 61.9 percent of his draws. ... St. Louis was shut out in five of its final 14 games. ... Chicago has won two of past four Stanley Cups and will try to become the first repeat champion since Detroit in 1997, 1998.
- Who will win: Blackhawks in six.
Colorado vs. Minnesota
- Season series: Avalanche, 4-0-1.
- Difference makers: Colorado has a nice stable of gifted young forwards -- Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and the injured Matt Duchene, among others -- but C Ryan O'Reilly could have the greatest impact of any. He not only put up 64 points, but also had league-best 83 takeaways. Wild G Ilya Bryzgalov might be the biggest wild card in the NHL.
- Special teams: Colorado's power play (19.8 percent) should be able to exploit Minnesota's woeful penalty-kill (78.8) percent, and the Wild also gives up more than its share of short-handed goals. Minnesota's power play (17.9 percent) is average, which is more than can be said for the Avalanche's work when it has someone in the penalty box (80.7 percent).
- Noteworthy: The teams are meeting in Round 1 of the playoffs for the third time in 11 years. They split the previous two series. ... Avalanche C John Mitchell (concussion) is out, and the status of D Jan Hejda, who apparently injured his hand blocking a shot Sunday, is unclear. ... Minnesota finished the regular season on a 6-1-1 roll. ... Colorado had the second-worst record in the NHL last season. ... Wild C Jason Pominville became just the third player in franchise history to score 30 goals, joining Marian Gaborik and Brian Rolston.
- Who will win: Avalanche in six.
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