NHL Playoff Schedule 2012: Most Enticing Opening-Round Games

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NHL Playoff Schedule 2012: Most Enticing Opening-Round Games
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The puck will be dropped on the NHL playoffs tonight, and there are some must-watch matchups in the first round.

Five times in the past six seasons first- or second-seeded teams skated out of the Stanley Cup hunt picture in the opening round.

Will there be a surprise team this year? 

There hasn't been a repeat Stanley Cup winner since the 1998 Red Wings, so the Boston Bruins might have some trouble. But the two previous champions each face tough opponents.

Will the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks make it out of the first round alive?

It's time for Lord Stanley's tournament, where anything can happen.

 

New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)

When the Rangers and Senators faced off during the season, one team dominated—but it wasn't top-seed New York.

The Senators won three of four contests, with their only loss a one-goal Rangers victory in November. What's more, Ottawa won each of the last two games by three goals. That's particularly surprising considering New York boasts Vezina Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The Rangers allowed the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference and were the fifth best penalty killers in the NHL.

New York's strength was in overall team defense, with forwards contributing throughout an injury-ridden season to the defenseman core. However, the Blueshirts have their blueliners back. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are some of the league's best defenders, and the Rangers will need it against the Senators' offensive attack.

Ottawa's offense ranked fourth in the league, led by Jason Spezz and Milan Michalek (who each scored four times this season against New York). Michalek, however, has slumped since a hat trick on March 6. He'll need to find his stride for the Senators to pull off an upset.

Two -ssons are also key for a grand series. 15-year captain Daniel Alfrredsson's leadership is crucial, as is scoring defenseman Erik Karlsson. The 21-year-old's 78-point season made him the youngest blueliner to top 70 points since Rangers legend Brian Leetch in 1988-89.

New York has an impressive youngster of it's own. Carl Hagelin has stepped into the first shift, combining with fellow wing Marian Gaborik and center Brad Richards to score 14 goals in the last 14 games of the season.

New York will need to find more offense though. That might be tougher at home, as Senators netminder Craig Anderson is better on the road than in Ottawa (2.67 GAA away, 3.02 at home). Fortunately for the Senators, they start at Madison Square Garden.

 

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To knock off the top-seeded Rangers, Ottawa will have to score first —New York has as .814 record when it strikes first.

Neither team finished the season on any sort of hot streak, but that'll make for an intriguing match-up. 

 

St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)

Usually it's a high-seeded San Jose team which has trouble with an upstart lower-seed team, but this time, the upstart Sharks play near-President's Cup winning St. Louis.

In a different sense, the Blues are an upstart. After missing the playoffs the past two seasons and swapping coaches after 13 games this year, the Blues had an excellent season.

St. Louis was anchored by the best league's best goalie duo, as Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak each finished in the top five in scores allowed per game.

By allowing 1.89 goals a game, the Blues set a post-expansion record in the category (148 total).

Stabilizing the defense is Norris Trophy candidate Alex Pietrangelo, who must take the Sharks offensive power seriously.

While St. Louis didn't have a single 30-plus goal scorer, San Jose had a trio.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

 

First line forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski each topped the mark (as well as 30-plus assists), as did last year's Calder Trophy runner-up Logan Couture.

Marleau and Pavelski are joined by captain Joe Thornton on the top shift, and Couture shares second-line duties with enforcer Ryane Clowe and center Martin Havlat.

The Sharks are 9-4 after Havlat's return from injury, and the Blues are 4-5-4 in the same stretch.

With momentum in favor of San Jose, the offensive Sharks will be attempting to upset the defensive Blues in the fashion they usually crash.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

Anyone who saw how the players and coaches erupted in the Penguins and Flyers matchup on April 1 knows to expect quite a series in Pennsylvania.

These two in-state rivals went at it near the end of a 6-3 Philadelphia win. Following a big hit by Pittsburgh's Joe Vitale, all 10 players on ice clashed—and the two teams' coaches got involved as well.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette even smashed a stick over the glass, upset at how Penguins coach Dan Bylsma sent out his checking line with little time left in a decided game.

 

Tempers flared for both teams, with players and coaches tossed out of the game (and Laviolette later fined $10,000).

After that, all eyes in the Keystone State are on Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center to see what happens in this series.

Unfortunately for the Pens, Philly is 5-1 in the arena since it opened in October 2010.

But that lone loss came four days ago in the final game of the season. In that contest, center Sydney Crosby tallied a goal and an assist, and The Kid will be a key to defeating Philadelphia.

For the Flyers to win, they'll also have to quell NHL points leader Evgeni Malkin and third-line center Jordan Staal.

Philadelphia leans heavily on assist-man Claude Giroux, captain defenseman Chris Pronger and, especially, netminder Ilya Bryzgalov.

Pittsburgh on the other hand has their own stellar goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury.

Since these two Pennsylvania teams were tops in the league in goalscoring this year, whichever man in net performs better should come out with the series victory.

 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)

 

Favorite vs. underdog, the series between the Coyotes and the Blackhawks turns those roles on their heads.

Though Phoenix earned home-ice by capturing the Pacific Division, Chicago earned more points this season. 

Plus the Blackhawks have a thrilling offensive attack, are recent champions and an Original Six member whose owners have deep pockets. Meanwhile, the Coyotes rely on defense and opportunities, exited the playoffs early the last two years and are without an owner.

So sounds like the favored team?

The Blackhawks have tools to score, with Patricks Sharp and Kane, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews. The latter, however, is day-to-day with a concussion.

If the captain can't return immediately, Chicago will need Viktor Stalberg to step up. The second-year forward filled Toews spot at the end of the season, scoring three goals in the final four games.

For Phoenix, the end of the season brought a five-game winning streak. Key to that stretch was goaltender Mike Smith, who allowed just two scores. 

Which team has the best chance to pull an upset?

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The Coyotes will stay hot as long as Smith does because they aren't exactly threatening offensively. With just three 50-plus point players, it helps to have veteran Ray Whitney's 53 assists. As does his experience—The Wizard was a big reason the underdog Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006.

The team's lack of offense goes double on the power play, where were second worst at scoring in the league. Chicago should be glad it served the NHL's second-fewest penalties.

Fortunately for Phoenix, the Blackhawks aren't much better on the man-advantage (fifth worst). Furthermore, the Coyotes were eighth best at penalty kill.

The confounding special teams numbers only add to the establishment/proletariat dichotomy of this match-up.

Follow me on Twitter @DanielManoHerb

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