WASHINGTON (AP) – It is the playoff format everyone loves to hate, but say this for the NHL’s divisional setup: It is serving up a tasty feast of rivalries in the second round.
For the second consecutive year, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will face Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals after they hadn’t met in the playoffs since 2009. Washington and Pittsburgh were the league’s top two teams in the regular season and are the two top Stanley Cup contenders left playing in the final eight. They get under way on Thursday instead of in early June.
“We’re ready,” Capitals forward Marcus Johansson said of facing the defending Cup champions who knocked them out a year ago. “We can’t wait to get going. We’ve worked hard for it. We’ve worked all year and all summer to get back into this position, and now we’re here.”
The Edmonton Oilers have waited 11 years to get back the postseason and they now face the Pacific Division rival Ducks, with Game 1 set for Wednesday in Anaheim. In the other West semifinal, the St. Louis Blues have home-ice advantage against the Nashville Predators after those teams pulled off first-round upsets.
St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong expects it to be far more physical series than anyone expects. That could also be the case for the Ottawa Senators against the New York Rangers, too, with two teams that don’t lack for big guys and a thirst for tension.
“When the NHL decided to go with division playoffs … you do get divisional hatred really quick, and that is exciting,” Armstrong said. “This is the benefit of having divisional playoffs is that you play teams right off the bat that you have a history with and you play them consistently in rounds 1 and 2. There are downsides to it, but this is the upside.”
Here are some things to watch in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs:
Pittsburgh and Anaheim are the only teams left that have won the Cup in the salary-cap era that began in 2005-06. Washington has been around but is trying to make the Eastern Conference final for the first time in the Ovechkin era in perhaps its best chance at a title, while New York is aiming to get back to the Cup Final for the first time since losing to Los Angeles in 2014.
In the West, the Blues have another opportunity to break through after losing in seven games to the San Jose Sharks in the conference final a year ago. Like former coach Barry Trotz now with the Capitals, Predators have never reached the conference final.
A year after no Canadian teams qualified for the playoffs, Ottawa and Edmonton give the Great White North two chances to end the nation’s Cup drought that dates to the Montreal Canadiens’ victory in 1993. The Senators and Oilers are underdogs in the second round, but there are reasons to believe they have a shot.
The Senators’ methodical style of play can frustrate opponents and at times lull them to sleep, and goaltender Craig Anderson has better numbers against the Rangers than any other opponent. The Oilers have league-leading scorer Connor McDavid, so enough said.
Norris Trophy finalist Erik Karlsson of the Senators played the entire first round with two hairline fractures in his foot that are almost healed. Ottawa could continue to be without injured defenseman Mark Borowiecki and forward Tom Pyatt early against the Rangers, who are healthy.
Defenseman Cam Fowler is on track to return for Anaheim while Edmonton could be dealing with the lingering effects of Oskar Klefbom’s illness.
A sweep of the Blackhawks has the Predators healthy against the Blues, who just got Paul Stastny back from injury.