Here’s a look at 10 things to watch when the NHL playoffs begin Wednesday with a new format, some stars returning from injuries and renewed rivalries:
New Look: Forget what you knew about how teams matched up in the playoffs. When the league went from having six divisions to four this season as part of its realignment, the plan for postseason was also altered. Two wild cards were added in each conference and at least half the first-round series were guaranteed to have teams face division opponents.
In the East: The Atlantic Division-winning and defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins will face the wild card Detroit Red Wings in the opening round. The team that advances will face the division’s second place Tampa Bay Lightning or third place Montreal Canadiens. The Metropolitan Division-champion Pittsburgh Penguins will play the wild card Columbus Blue Jackets and the winner moves on to face the division’s second or third-place teams, the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers.
Out West: The Pacific Division-champion Anaheim Ducks are set to match up with the wild card Dallas Stars, the fifth team in from the Central, in the only interdivision series. The winner will play the Pacific’s second place San Jose Sharks or Los Angeles Kings. The Central champion Colorado Avalanche face the wild card Minnesota Wild and the team that advances will match up with the division’s second- or third-place teams, the St. Louis Blues or defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks.
On the mend: The Blackhawks expect to have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the lineup when they play at St. Louis on Thursday after each had long layoffs to heal injuries. Kane has been out since hurting his left knee March 19 – against the hard-hitting Blues. Tampa Bay might have to get to the second round to have goaltender Ben Bishop on the ice. Bishop has been out since last week with an upper-body injury and isn’t going to be re-evaluated until early next week.
Buckle up: One of the many intriguing matchups in the opening round has the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Kings against the Sharks for the third time in four postseasons. The Kings eliminated the Sharks in Game 7 of the second round last year after being eliminated by them in Game 6 of an opening-round series in 2011. The Rangers and Flyers,have met many times in the playoffs in the past, but not since 1997 when Philadelphia got past New York in five games and went on to lose in the Stanley Cup finals.
Presidential Privilege: Boston had the best record in the regular season, giving the franchise its first Presidents’ Trophy since 1990. The Bruins can be pardoned for not being too cocky about their chances because they lost three of four matchups this season against the Red Wings, who are in a 23rd straight postseason. “All of the pressure is going to be on them,” Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard said.
Crosby’s chance: Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby won the Art Ross Trophy for the first time since he really was a kid, scoring a league-high 120 points during the 2006-07 season as a 19-year-old, second year pro. Crosby crushed the competition in scoring, reaching the 100-point mark for the fifth time in his career. “There’s so much more to his game than just scoring, but it is pretty amazing to see,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
Welcome back: The Stars are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Columbus is still playing for just the second time in its 13-season history and first since 2009. The Avalanche are playing among the league’s best after three years of missing the postseason. The Lightning are back in the 16-team tournament for the first time since 2011.
Selanne’s swan song: Ducks star Teemu Selanne plans to retire after this season, ending a 21-season run that includes a Stanley Cup in 2006. The 43-year-old “Finnish Flash” averaged less than half a point per game for the first time in a decade. Selanne has become a supporting player on a talented team that should advance for the first time since 2009.
Woe Canada: The hockey-crazed country north of the U.S. border is represented by only one team – Montreal – in the playoffs. It has been 41 years since that was true and back then, the Scotty Bowman-led Canadiens won one of their NHL-record 23 championships.