New faces, big absences and plenty of Canada in NHL playoffs
The NHL's postseason dominoes tumbled throughout the regular season's wild final week. When the last ones fell Saturday night, they revealed that the league is set up for an extremely interesting spring.
This Stanley Cup tournament features seven teams that missed the playoffs last year. A whopping five Canadian teams earned berths, the most from hockey's heartland since 2004.
Defending champion Los Angeles won't be there, and neither will perennial power Boston. The New York Rangers and Anaheim landed atop the two conferences, but contenders with a tantalizing array of veteran talent and hungry youth are right behind them.
And expect fierce competition this season: The postseason contenders were separated in the standings by only 16 points, the smallest gap in the 16-team postseason era.
The puck drops Wednesday night in Montreal, Washington, Nashville and Vancouver. The action won't stop until a new champion raises the Cup in June.
Here's what to watch when the NHL postseason begins this week:
HOME COOKING: Sure, Canadian players and coaches are prominent on every NHL team. But when franchises based in the Great White North make the playoffs, there's an extra excitement - and this postseason will have plenty after a mad rush for position left five Canadian teams in the field and two all-Canadian first-round matchups.
Montreal was a no-doubt playoff contender, and remains a Stanley Cup favorite as long as Carey Price continues his unbelievable season in net.
Vancouver comfortably earned its postseason spot and second place in the Pacific Division with a remarkable bounce-back season under new coach Willie Desjardins.
Yet the Canucks' first-round opponent will be the upstart Calgary Flames, who defied expectations and the loss of injured captain Mark Giordano to end their five-year playoff drought.
The Winnipeg Jets also hung on late to earn their city's first home playoff games since 1996.
And then there are the Ottawa Senators, who went 23-4-4 over their final 31 games to earn a first-round showdown with Montreal. The Senators shocked the league with incredible play from Andrew Hammond, a mid-tier AHL goalie nicknamed "The Hamburglar" who has gone 20-1-2 since his February recall.
NEW BLOOD: The playoffs will go on without the teams that won three of the past four Stanley Cup titles - and for the first time in NHL history, the teams that won the previous season's championship and the team with the last Presidents' Trophy both missed the postseason.
The Los Angeles Kings struggled at midseason and flopped in the final week, finishing ninth in the West and ending their spectacular run of two championships, 10 playoff series wins and a record 64 postseason games over the past three years. For the first time since 2007, the playoffs won't feature the defending champion.
The Boston Bruins, who won the 2011 title and had the NHL's best regular-season record last year, joined the Kings on the golf course after seeing their hopes crushed in the final hours of the season.
NO REWARD: The top seeds in each conference drew tough matchups in the first round.
The Rangers emerged from a pack of top teams and streaked past Anaheim to claim the Presidents' Trophy in the final weeks, but their dubious reward is a perilous first-round matchup with superstar Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who squeaked into the postseason on the final day.
Anaheim led the overall league standings for much of the season before clinching the top spot in the West in its final game. Yet the high-powered Ducks' first opponent is the Winnipeg Jets, who made a late-season surge for their first playoff berth since the erstwhile Atlanta Thrashers moved north nearly four years ago.
The MTS Centre and the famed Portage and Main intersection in that prairie metropolis will be packed with white-clad, success-starved fans when the Ducks fly into town.
"I think they're going to be crazy," Jets forward Mark Schiefele said. "They've been with us all year and they've been unbelievable. I think playoffs will just hit that next level for sure."
DIVISIONAL RIVALS: The NHL realigned its postseason last year to create more matchups between divisional rivals, and the effect will be felt particularly by Central Division teams this year.
Division champion St. Louis drew a meeting with Minnesota, which finished with the Western Conference's sixth-best record. The other Central matchup is a brawl between high-powered Chicago and surprising Nashville, which held off the 2013 champion Blackhawks down the stretch for home-ice advantage.
STEADY ON: The Detroit Red Wings made the playoffs for the 24th consecutive season, and they've never had a postseason series against the Tampa Bay Lightning and general manager Steve Yzerman, who is a bit of a celebrity in Michigan. The Wings' playoff exploits could play a role in the future of coach Mike Babcock, who could be available to the highest bidder this summer.