(1) PITTSBURGH VS. (8) New York ISLANDERS
Records: Penguins 36-12-0, 72 points; Islanders 24-17-7, 55 points.
Season series: Penguins won 4-1.
The skinny: Even with injuries the Penguins — first-round losers the past two years — went 23-4 at the finish. And now they’re getting healthier, with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal back. The big question is whether Sidney Crosby will return from a broken jaw. The Penguins are loaded up front, with scoring depth all down the lineup , augmented by late additions Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla, who had goals in four of his past six games. Former Wild winger Pascal Dupuis was a league-best plus-31 and native Minnesotan Paul Martin had his best per-game point production (.64). Penguins G Marc-Andre Fleury and Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov each had 23 victories. The Islanders, in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, haven’t won a playoff series since 1993. C John Tavares (28-19—47) and LW Matt Moulson (15-29—44) carry the offensive load while 37-year-old Nabokov (23-11-7) seems ageless. The Islanders were 14-6-4 on the road, third-best in the East.
(2) MONTREAL VS. (7) OTTAWA
Records: Canadiens 29-14-5, 63 points; Senators 25-17-6, 56 points
Season series: Both teams were 2-1-1.
The skinny: The Canadiens started hot but limped home, losing six of their past 10 games and giving up 29 goals in the six losses. Still, they went from last place in the Eastern Conference a year ago to Northeast Division champs with a combination of good defense and balanced scoring. LW Max Pacioretty (15-24—39) and D P.K. Subban (11-27—38) lead a lineup that had eight players with at least 10 goals but nobody with more than 39 points. G Carey Price has to rebound from a rocky finish. The Senators fought through a number of injuries to qualify for the playoffs. The worst was defenseman Erik Karlsson’s torn Achilles tendon. The Senators haven’t reached the second round since 2006, but Karlsson’s late return should be a boost. C Kyle Turris (12-17—29) leads a balanced Ottawa attack. But the key is G Craig Anderson, who came back from a mid-season injury to lead the NHL with a 1.69 goals-against average. Ottawa finished second in goals against (2.08).
(3) WASHINGtON VS. (6) N.Y. RANGERS
Records: Capitals 27-18-3, 57 points; Rangers 26-18-4, 56 points.
Season series: Rangers 2-0-1, Washington 1-2-0.
The skinny: This rematch of last year’s seven-game conference semifinals can be summed up in a word: Ovechkin. Capitals LW Alex Ovechkin started slowly — with only two goals in the first 10 games — but finished in a rush. His NHL-record 14 April goals gave him 32 for the season, earning his third Rocket Richard Trophy, and helped the Capitals go 11-1-1 in the month, surging to their fifth division title in six years. Washington moved from 14th in the East to third in April. C Mike Ribeiro had 13 goals and 49 points and Ovechkin linemate Nicklas Backstrom had 48 points. G Braden Holtby had a career-high 23 victories. The Rangers — who reached the conference finals last season — also are hot, having gone 10-3-1 in April. C Derek Stepan of Hastings had a team-high 44 points, and LW Rick Nash had two goals in the season finale to reach 20 for the ninth consecutive season. G Henrik Lundqvist tied for first in the league with 24 wins, was fifth with a .926 save percentage and seventh with a 2.05 GAA. The status of injured Rangers Marc Staal, Brian Boyle and Ryane Clowe is key.
(4) BOSTON VS. (5) TORONTO
Records: Bruins 28-14-6, 62 points; Maple Leafs 25-17-5, 57 points.
Season series: Boston 3-1-0, Toronto 1-2-1.
The skinny: Boston won only three of its final 10 games, blowing a shot at the No. 2. But this matchup of Original Six teams and conference foes should perk things up; it is the first time in 40 years these teams have met in the playoffs. Boston had six players with 10 or more goals, led by LW Brad Marchand (18-18—36) and C Tyler Seguin (16-16—32). G Tuukka Rask finished third with a .929 save percentage for Boston, which was third overall in goals against (2.21). The Maple Leafs are in the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Former Gopher Phil Kessel led the Leafs and was eighth in the NHL with 52 points (20-32—52); he has 15 points in 15 career playoff games. C Nazem Kadri and LW James van Riemsdyk each had 18 goals. But a key will be the play of G James Reimer, who finished with 19 wins despite a 2.46 GAA.
(2) ANAHEIM VS. (7) DETROIT
Records: Ducks 30-12-6, 66 points; Red Wings 24-16-8, 56 points.
Season series: Detroit 2-1-0.
The skinny: Neither team scored in bunches, at least relatively speaking. Anaheim was eighth in the NHL in goals per game (2.79), and Detroit was 20th (2.54). Anaheim was 11th in goals against (2.4), while Detroit was fifth (2.27). Still, the Ducks have a depth of firepower, with Ryan Getzlaf (15-34—49), Corey Perry (15-21—36) and Bobby Ryan (11-19—30) on one line and Teemu Selanne (12-12—24), Nick Bonino (5-8—13) and Kyle Palmieri (10-11—21) on another. And don’t forget about Saku Koivu. Ducks goalies Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth each had 15 wins. The Red Wings made it into the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive time by winning their final four games by a combined score of 15-3. Detroit is led by C Pavel Datsyuk (15-34—49) and LW Henrik Zetterberg (11-37—48). But, not being the high-scoring bunch of the past, Detroit will lean on G Jimmy Howard, who had 21 wins, a .923 save percentage and a 2.13 GAA.
(3) VANCOUVER VS. (6) SAN JOSE
Records: Canucks 26-15-7, 59 points; Sharks 25-16-7, 57 points.
Season series: San Jose 3-0-0; Vancouver 0-2-1.
The skinny: The Canucks were division champs for the fifth time in six seasons despite finishing 19th in the league in scoring (2.54 goals per game). San Jose proved nearly unbeatable at home despite scoring only 2.42 goals per game. Get the feeling this might be a defensive battle between two teams in the top 10 in fewest goals allowed? Henrik Sedin (11-34—45) and brother Daniel Sedin (12-28—40) led the Canucks in scoring, and Alex Burrows led the team with 13 goals. G Cory Schneider has emerged as the leader, going 17-9-4 with a .927 save percentage and 2.11 GAA, but his status for the opener is uncertain. The Sharks lost at home in regulation only twice but were only 8-14-2 on the road. In the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, San Jose is led by C Joe Thornton (7-33—40), C Logan Couture (21-16—37), LW Patrick Marleau (17-14—31) and C Joe Pavelski (16-15—31). G Antti Niemi finished tied for the league lead with 24 wins and was seventh in save percentage (.924).
(4) ST. LOUIS VS. (5) LOS ANGELES
Records: Blues 29-17-2, 60 points; Kings 27-16-5, 59 points.
Season series: Los Angeles 3-0-0.
The skinny: St. Louis surged into the playoffs with an 11-2 April, earning a first-round series against a Kings team they have had trouble beating. The Kings swept the Blues in the conference semifinals last season and were 3-0-0 vs. the Blues this season. In all, L.A. has won eight consecutive vs. St. Louis. Blues G Brian Elliott started slow but finished 14-8-1; he allowed 16 goals in the final 13 games. RW Chris Stewart (18-18—36) led the Blues in goals and points, while C Patrik Berglund (17-8—25) added scoring depth. The late additions of defensemen Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester stabilized the Blues blueline. The defending Stanley Cup champion Kings again will rely on G Jonathan Quick, the MVP of last year’s playoffs. It wasn’t until late in this season that Quick, who had offseason back surgery, returned to form. But he appears set. L.A. is led by C Anze Kopitar (10-32—42), RW Justin Williams (11-22—33) and C Jeff Carter (26-7—33).
Michael Russo’s predictions
Penguins over Islanders in five
Senators over Canadiens in six
Rangers over Capitals in seven
Bruins over Maple Leafs in six
Penguins over Senators in six
Rangers over Bruins in seven
Penguins over Rangers in six
Blackhawks over Wild in five
Red Wings over Ducks in six
Sharks over Canucks in six
Kings over Blues in seven
Blackhawks over Red Wings in five
Sharks over Kings in seven
Blackhawks over Sharks in six
STANLEY CUP FINAL
Blackhawks over Penguins in seven