Now that we got that pesky regular season out of the way, hockey season really begins this week with arguably the greatest playoffs in American (and Canadian) sports and certainly for the best trophy there is: the Stanley Cup. I am going to break down my previews into two parts. Today I look at the four series that start Wednesday, and on Tuesday I will preview the four that begin Thursday. The New York Rangers, who won the Presidents' Trophy, open the playoffs as 5/1 Stanley Cup favorites at Bovada followed by Chicago and St. Louis at 8/1. A Rangers-Blackhawks Finals matchup is the 14/1 favorite.
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Islanders vs. Capitals
Game 1 is Wednesday at 7 p.m. on the USA Network. I'm a bit surprised that Washington is the -150 series favorite at Sportsbook.ag with the Isles at +120. Both clubs finished with 101 points, but the Capitals own the tiebreaker and thus have home-ice advantage. Really, the Islanders were the better team most of the season but the Caps were down the stretch, so I suppose that line makes some sense. Rather amazingly, these teams haven't met in the playoffs since the 1993 Patrick Division semifinals. Washington's Alex Ovechkin won yet another Rocket Richard Trophy by leading the NHL with 53 goals, while the Islanders' John Tavares finished second to Dallas' Jamie Benn for the most points in the league as Tavares had 86. Ovechkin has largely been a playoff failure in his career. The teams split four regular-season meetings, each going 2-0 at home. Ovechkin had four goals in those games and Tavares had five points. Three of the four games went at least to overtime. The big injury question here is to Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic. He suffered a left knee injury in Pittsburgh on Friday. Hamonic (five goals, 28 assists) usually was deployed against Ovechkin's line at even strength when the teams played. Two of Hamonic's goals this season came against the Caps. Here's one interesting stat to keep in mind for the Islanders: They have surrendered a goal in the final 10 seconds of a period in three consecutive games heading into the postseason.
Senators vs. Canadiens
Game 1 is Wednesday at 7 p.m. on the NHL Network. Is this the year a team from north of the border finally brings home the Cup? Canada has five teams in the playoffs and Montreal, the Atlantic Division champion and No. 2 overall seed in the East, is clearly the best of them. The Habs are 10/1 to win the Cup and -170 to win this series with Ottawa at +140. No team enters the playoffs playing better than Ottawa. Behind rookie goalie Andrew Hammond, aka the "Hamburglar," the Senators were 21-3-3 in their final 27 games. They also won three of four this year against Montreal. Hammond's first career start was a 4-2 win over the Canadiens on Feb. 18. Two years ago, the Canadiens were division winners but were upset by the Senators in the opening round. Still, I don't know how you can pick against Carey Price, who will be your Vezina Trophy winner. While Caps-Isles has two of the best forwards in the game, this matches Norris Trophy candidates in Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban.
Blackhawks vs. Predators
Game 1 is Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network. The Hawks won't admit this, but I assure you they wanted this matchup in the first round over playing St. Louis. Why? The Predators went 6-12-3 in their final 21 games and closed the regular season on six-game losing streak. Despite not having the home-ice advantage, Chicago is the -155 series favorite with Nashville at +125. The Blackhawks and Predators met four times this season. The Blackhawks defeated the Predators 2-1 in overtime in Chicago on Oct. 18, 3-1 in Nashville on Dec. 6 and 5-4 in a shootout in Chicago on Dec. 29. The Predators defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 in Nashville on Oct. 23. The big story here is the likely availability of Chicago star forward Patrick Kane. When he fractured his collarbone on Feb. 24, it was thought he wouldn't be back until the Western Conference Finals if Chicago got that far. It's not a sure thing that he will play in Game 1, but it's now likely he's going at some point in this series. Kane was cleared to take full contact in practice Monday. Prior to the injury, Kane led the Blackhawks with 27 goals and 37 assists.
Flames vs. Canucks
Game 1 is Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on the USA Network. Calgary was supposed to be lousy again this season and hadn't been to the playoffs since 2009, so I'd call the Flames the biggest surprise of the 16 playoff teams. They are +125 underdogs in this series with the Canucks, who have the home-ice advantage, at -155. It's the first postseason meeting between the Western Canadian rivals since 2004, the year the Flames lost to Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was also the last year Calgary won a playoff series. The clubs split four regular-season meetings. The big question here is which goalie the Canucks will start. Ryan Miller was the No. 1 but was lost to an injury on Feb. 22. He did, however, return for the regular-season finale. Backup Eddie Lack was very good in his place but has never made a playoff start. Presumably the Flames will go with veteran Jonas Hiller. He and Karri Ramo platooned for much of the regular season, but Ramo suffered a late-season lower-body injury.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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