The NHL playoffs continue to foster some of the most entertaining games in all of sports, and Thursday's schedule features a trio of marquee showdowns that are sure to appease even casual fans.
Arguably the most exciting opening-round series has been the back-and-forth affair between the Pittsburgh Penguins and upstart New York Islanders, who are tied at two games apiece.
The puck drops at 7 p.m. ET for that contest, and the same goes for a battle up north between the Ottawa Senators, who lead 3-1, and shorthanded Montreal Canadiens.
Capping off the action at 9:30 p.m. ET are the President's Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks, who will look to continue rolling through their series with the No. 8 seed Minnesota Wild. The friendly confines of the United Center will help Chicago in its bid to close out the series in five games.
Below is a breakdown of those games, including predictions as to how each will play out as the road to the Stanley Cup becomes more clearly paved.
Note: For a complete playoff schedule, visit NHL.com.
(8) New York Islanders at (1) Pittsburgh Penguins
Making the playoffs alone was a struggle for the Islanders, but now that they're here, they are certainly making life difficult for top-seeded Pittsburgh.
After registering a 2.39 goals-against average in the regular season, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is letting up 3.4 scores per game thus far in this series. That means veteran Tomas Vokoun will man the pipes in Game 5, according to Stu Hackel of Sports Illustrated.
Every matchup has been high-scoring and fast-paced between two of the league's top-seven offenses.
New York has been in a perpetual struggle, having missed the playoffs six of the past seven years until now. ESPN Stats & Info broke down the significance of their 6-4 win in Game 4:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Islanders won their 1st home playoff game since April 28, 2002. NYI had lost their previous 7 home playoff games by combined score of 24-112013-5-8 16:02:12
Superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have eight and six points, respectively, for the Pens, but Pascal Dupuis leads the team with four goals, and recently acquired winger Jarome Iginla is tied with Malkin for the lead in postseason assists with six.
The lamp-lighting should continue on Thursday evening in the CONSOL Energy Center as the Islanders are apparently harnessing the energy that got the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Despite Fleury's immense playoff experience, he is simply in a funk. Look for the steady, veteran presence of Vokoun in the net to thwart the Islanders' dangerous attack and allow the Pens to return to New York not having to face elimination.
Prediction: Penguins 4, Islanders 2
(7) Ottawa Senators at (2) Montreal Canadiens
The Habs are in serious trouble and will have to rattle off three consecutive wins just to get out of Round 1 after a promising regular season.
That will be significantly difficult without Carey Price, who will not return for the rest of the series, according to ESPN. The fact that captain Brian Gionta is out with a torn left biceps tendon and that Montreal is missing another key contributor in center Lars Eller doesn't help the cause, either.
Dropping a crushing Game 4 by a score of 3-2 in overtime may be too much for the Canadiens to recover from.
For a team that finished 27th in the NHL in scoring prior to the playoffs, it's incredible that the Canadiens have allowed 3.5 goals per game—including six in Game 3 with Price in net.
Perhaps the insertion of Peter Budaj—who went 8-1-1 in the regular season—will give Montreal a lift and a player for fans to rally around.
Look for the Canadiens to get off the mat with a much better showing at home to cut the series to 3-2, overcoming the Senators' stout defense and league-leading penalty kill thanks to improved play from young-gun winger Max Pacioretty.
Prediction: Canadiens 3, Senators 1
(8) Minnesota Wild at (1) Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks haven't quite put everything together while the Wild have essentially been in playoff mode since the final 10 to 15 games of the already lockout-shortened season.
For Chicago, it seems the best has yet to come—yet the Blackhawks have still won three out of four games, showing how formidable of a contender they are.
This is a do-or-die affair for Minnesota, though the goalie situation is very much up in the air. Wild head coach Mike Yeo has said Josh Harding will be in goal, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago.
Rogers also highlights that Niklas Backstrom didn't even start Game 1 after injuring himself in warmups, and Harding was hurt when Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews crashed into him in Game 4's 3-0 loss.
If Harding's collision at all impairs his ability to stop pucks, it will be nearly impossible for the Wild to thwart Chicago's dangerous offense.
Great teams close the deal in these types of situations, and the last thing the Blackhawks want is to allow this to stretch to six and make another trip to Minnesota.
Look for the Wild to scrap and make it yet another extremely physical tangle, but Chicago will do enough to pull out a victory in a thrilling overtime win.
Prediction: Blackhawks 2, Wild 1 (OT)