Playoff previews: Blues-Wild an intriguing Central showdown
Minnesota Wild (49-25-8) vs. St. Louis Blues (46-29-7)
Season series: St. Louis, 3-2-0.
The skinny: Less than two months ago, Minnesota looked like a lock for the top seed in the West and St. Louis looked destined for the draft lottery. But as Joel Quenneville always says, things change quickly in this business. The Blues went 22-8-2 after firing Ken Hitchcock and replacing him with former Wild coach Mike Yeo, and the Wild stumbled to a 4-10-2 stretch before a four-game win streak to close the season.
X-factor: Which Devan Dubnyk shows up? The one who led the league with a .931 save percentage through February? Or the one who’s been .895 since?
Prediction: Blues in 7.
Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13) vs. Calgary Flames (45-33-4)
Season series: Anaheim, 4-1-0.
The skinny: Just last week, these teams combined for 104 penalty minutes in the last 13 minutes of the third period of a 3-1 Ducks win, including five game misconducts and four fighting majors in the wake of a hit by Calgary captain Mark Giordano on Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler, which knocked Fowler out for at least the first round, possible much longer. There’s plenty of star power with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Giordano, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell. But this one could get ugly.
X-factor: Remarkably, Calgary has lost its last 25 regular-season games in Anaheim, and is just 1-3 at the Honda Center in the postseason.
Prediction: Ducks in 6.
Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9) vs. San Jose Sharks (46-29-7)
Season series: Edmonton, 3-1-1.
The skinny: Led by the spectacular Connor McDavid, who closed the season with 100 points and a 14-game point streak, the Oilers seized home-ice advantage over the Sharks, who dropped off a cliff at the end of the season, losing nine of their last 13 to fall out of the race for the top seed in the West and the Pacific. It’ll fall largely on superb defensive defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic to try to slow down McDavid.
X-factor: Joe Thornton suffered what looked like a serious knee injury on April 3, but insists he’ll be ready for the playoffs. If he’s not close to 100 percent, the Sharks could be in trouble.
Prediction: Oilers in 6.
Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9) vs. New York Rangers (48-28-6)
Season series: Montreal, 3-0-0.
The skinny: Goalie matchups don’t get much better than Montreal’s Carey Price vs. New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. Price’s aura of invincibility was punctured a bit during a lousy stretch from Christmas though mid-February, when he had a measly .897 save percentage. But he’s been back to his old self for two months, with a .937 save percentage since. But the Rangers are deep, they’re fast, and because of the top-heavy Metropolitan Division, are far better than the typical wild-card team.
X-factor: New York’s Chris Kreider injured Price during Game 1 of the Habs-Rangers series in 2014, and Bell Centre fans won’t let him forget.
Prediction: Rangers in 6.
Ottawa Senators (44-28-10) vs. Boston Bruins (44-31-7)
Season series: Ottawa, 4-0-0
The skinny: While most teams are copying the Blackhawks and Penguins and moving toward a modern, uptempo style of play, Guy Boucher’s Senators are doing their best to bring the 1990s back, with a plodding, conservative, defensive system. It’s not pretty, and it’s not fun to watch, but it’s been effective, with even Erik Karlsson blocking 201 shots. The Bruins surged into the playoffs by going 18-8-1 under Bruce Cassidy after firing Claude Julien.
X-factor: Bruins defenseman and power-play specialist Torey Krug was on crutches after getting hurt against Ottawa last week. If he can’t come back at some point in the series, Boston could be in trouble.
Prediction: Bruins in 6.
Washington Capitals (55-19-8) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (47-20-15)
Season series: Washington, 2-1-0.
The skinny: This might be the flashiest matchup of the first round, pitting one of the league’s elder statesmen, Alex Ovechkin, against the next big thing, rookie phenom Auston Matthews. Matthews, an Arizona native who was the top pick in the draft, scored 40 goals and helped the Leafs stave off the Lightning and the Islanders in the quest for the second wild card. Their reward? A date with two-time defending Presidents’ Trophy winner Washington, desperate to finally end its playoff misery.
X-factor: The Leafs are a “high-event” team, meaning they score a lot and give up a lot. It’s fun to watch, but it’s not a recipe for playoff success. They finished last in one-goal games, with a 14-8-15 record.
Prediction: Capitals in 5.
Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8)
Season series: Tied, 2-1-1.
The skinny: Kris Letang is out for the season. Olli Maatta is just coming back from a broken hand. Evgeni Malkin has missed 12 straight games but might be ready for Game 1. Carl Hagelin has missed 15 straight and his return date is unclear. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets had lost six straight before a season-ending win over Toronto. So a marquee matchup of two of the league’s top teams — two teams that really don’t like each other — has lost a little luster. But Pittsburgh’s speed and skill versus Columbus’ grit and physical play still make for an intriguing series.
X-factor: Columbus agitator Brandon Dubinsky, always will try to climb into Sidney Crosby’s head. Their battle will set the tone for who will dictate the tempo of the series.
Prediction: Penguins in 7.