1. Montreal (50-22-10) vs. 4. Ottawa (43-26-13)
The league’s best goaltender, Carey Price, vs. the league’s best story, Andrew Hammond. The “Hamburglar” went 20-1-2 with a .941 save percentage, coming out of nowhere to bring the Senators back from 14 points out of a playoff spot in February. He also got plenty of help from rookie-of-the-year candidate Mark Stone (26 goals). Price has been nearly as good all season, with a 1.96 GAA and .933 save percentage, and likely will win the Hart Trophy. But Price’s brilliance has masked an otherwise ordinary Canadiens team that is one of the worst possession teams in the league. Upset special.
Prediction: Senators in 6
2. Tampa Bay (50-24-8) vs. 3. Detroit (43-25-14)
The marquee matchup, Steven Stamkos vs. Pavel Datsyk and Henrik Zetterberg, is hard to top. But it’s the young supporting casts that make these two teams so exciting to watch. The Lightning’s second line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat is as dynamic as any — all three are plus-30 are better — and is a big reason Tampa Bay averaged a league-best 3.16 goals per game. Detroit, meanwhile, will turn to Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist for offense, especially with Erik Cole out with a back injury. If goalie Ben Bishop fares well in his playoff debut, the Lightning are a threat to win it all.
Prediction: Lightning in 6
1. N.Y. Rangers (53-22-7) vs. 4. Pittsburgh (43-27-12)
The Rangers are the most complete team in the league, with speed, skill, defense, goaltending (Henrik Lundqvist is the superstar, but Cam Talbot was brilliant in his absence) and experience, both on the ice (they went to the Final last year) and behind the bench (Alain Vigneualt has won nine playoff series in his career). The Penguins, meanwhile, nearly tumbled out of the playoffs with a five-game losing streak before salvaging a playoff spot in their season finale at Buffalo. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin make the Penguins as dangerous as ever, but the alternately brilliant and baffling Marc-Andre Fleury is an X-factor in goal.
Prediction: Rangers in 6
2. Washington (45-26-11) vs. N.Y. Islanders (47-28-7)
The league’s top non-goalie MVP candidates meet in Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (53 goals) and New York’s John Tavares (86 points). These are two of the top-six highest-scoring teams in the league, so expect some offensive fireworks. What separates the two teams are special teams and goaltending, and Washington has the edge in each. The Caps have the top power play in the league (25.3 percent), while the Isles have the 26th-ranked penalty kill (78 percent). Though, to be fair, New York has killed better than 92 percent since the trade deadline. This could be the swan song for ancient, but venerated, Nassau Coliseum.
Prediction: Capitals in 7
1. St. Louis (51-24-7) vs. Minnesota (46-28-8)
Taking the Blackhawks’ experience and expectations out of the equation, these might be the top two picks to come out of the west, and they’re playing in the first round. The Blues are as physical as ever, only deeper and more skilled up front with the star turn of Vladimir Tarasenko. The only question mark is in goal, where neither Brian Elliott nor Jake Allen has been able to seize the job. The Wild were the best team in the league over the past three months, going 28-9-3 since acquiring journeyman goaltender Devan Dubnyk, showing their strong effort in the second round vs the Hawks last spring was no fluke.
Prediction: Blues in 7
1. Anaheim (51-24-7) vs. 4. Winnipeg (43-26-13)
The playoffs return to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996, and the atmosphere is sure to be incredible. The Jets will be no pushover for the top-seeded Ducks, either. They’re big, physical and talented, with experienced winners such as captain Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Michael Frolik. The Ducks, meanwhile, earned their third straight division title and their second straight top seed, and hope to get out of the first round for the first time since their Cup run in 2007. Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are a great 1-2 punch at center, but like St. Louis, goaltending is a concern. Frederik Anderson is the likely choice.
Prediction: Ducks in 7
2. Vancouver (48-29-5) vs. 3. Calgary (45-30-7)
The Flames defied the odds all season. They’re the third-worst possession team in the league, controlling just 44.4 percent of shot attempts, yet they have an undeniable moxie that allowed them to win 10 times when trailing after two periods. Without their Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano, the odds are even longer. Like Colorado last season, the law of averages figures to catch up with them. The Canucks were a pleasant surprise this season, with Eddie Lack taking over for an injured Ryan Miller and leading them into second place in the tough Pacific. A finally healthy defense has helped the surge.
Prediction: Canucks in 5