Capitals are the team to beat as the NHL Playoffs begin

This time the Washington Capitals are the heavy favorites to win their first Stanley Cup

NEW YORK (AP) — Armed with playoff experience and facing a first-round opponent lacking it, the NHL-best Washington Capitals are again favored to come out of the East.

Of course, it won’t be easy.

Beyond the Capitals being in this position before and continually falling short, the path through the Metropolitan Division and rest of the Eastern Conference is a minefield. To reach the conference final, Washington would have to beat the rookie-heavy Toronto Maple Leafs and then either the Columbus Blue Jackets or defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins — and the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers are formidable on the Atlantic Division side.

“It’s still a heck of a road and teams can really heat up at this time,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Whoever comes out of the East is going to be well-deserving, and we hope that it’s us.”

Alex Ovechkin and linemates Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are clicking and the Capitals won 11 of their final 14 games. They lost seven of their last 14 games a year ago before the Penguins knocked them out in the second round.

“We definitely have improved from last year in that area,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “That was one of the areas we wanted to get better at. I think our ability to realize what we’re doing well and not well, even when we’re having success, has helped us throughout the year. I think we’ve put in the work to prepare for playoffs.”

It helped the Capitals that they had to play well to beat out the Penguins, Blue Jackets and West-leading Chicago Blackhawks for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

Pittsburgh dealt with its share of injuries down the stretch, and Columbus stumbled to the finish line with eight losses in its last 11 games. Those two teams needing to meet in the first round is one reason NBC Sports analyst Ed Olczyk thinks it’s the Capitals’ year.

“That Pittsburgh-Columbus series to me is going to be one of those where it’s going to go a long while and if it’s six games, then it’s going to feel like eight and a half or nine games,” Olczyk said. “If Washington could have their way with the Leafs fairly quickly, that six- or seven-game series might feel like 10 or 11 and end up taking its toll.”

Penguins vs. Blue Jackets

The Penguins will be without top defenseman Kris Letang and no team has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. But they still have 2016 playoff MVP Sidney Crosby and more.

“The potential we have is there,” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “We can’t go out and expect anything. We have to go out and work hard.”

The first-round rivalry series also features John Tortorella facing longtime assistant Mike Sullivan a year after his good friend and former understudy matched him with one championship.

Canadiens vs. Rangers

The Atlantic Division champion Canadiens and the Rangers are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 East final that featured tensions rising and suspensions getting handed out. New York’s Chris Kreider ran into Montreal goaltender Carey Price, injuring him and knocking him out of the series. Players have long memories, so expect it to be another physical series.

Maple Leafs vs. Capitals

The Capitals aren’t the perfect opponent for Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs’ first playoff series. Toronto has nine players who haven’t played in an NHL playoff game, but coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want anyone to wade into games this time of year.

“If you want to dip your toe into the water you’re going to find out its boiling,” Babcock said. “You might as well just jump in. Run down the dock and just jump right in.”

Bruins vs. Senators

Coming off shattering his career high with 85 points — and being suspended for spearing — Brad Marchand will have to be the key if the Bruins make a run. The suffocating Senators are up first and have home ice, but if Marchand can get on a roll and pile up the points, Boston won’t be an easy out for anyone.

WESTERN CONFERENCE 

The Chicago Blackhawks have been here so many times before. They’re 16 postseason wins away from a fourth Stanley Cup title in eight years, and their veteran core knows it has the talent and the experience to survive the two-month playoff grind.

Nobody else in the Western Conference playoff picture can say any of that.

None of the other seven teams has won a recent Stanley Cup. In fact, only three of those franchises have raised the Cup at all, and only two players were in their current uniform for it: Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who won their rings a decade ago.

So is it Chicago’s conference crown to lose when postseason play gets underway Wednesday?

The top-seeded Blackhawks have been around for too long to believe anything matters except Game 1 on Thursday night against Nashville.

“I think that energy, that ambition and motivation is back,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “We have that feeling again, that every single moment and every single game matters. It’s a lot of fun to play at this time of the year. It’s why we work all year to get to this point, and as we have said in the past, the real season begins. Obviously, we want to see what we are made of, and I think we are all pretty confident what we are able to do.”

The rest of the West is about to find out if it measures up.

Blackhawks vs. Predators

Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa are just part of the veteran group that propelled the Blackhawks down the stretch to the West’s top record and the NHL’s third-best performance since New Year’s Day (58 points).

Yet these Blackhawks have been refreshed by an infusion of youngsters hoping for their first taste of Stanley Cup glory, most notably Artemi Panarin. The high-scoring Russian is in only his second NHL season, and his first postseason run ended abruptly last year with Chicago’s first-round loss to St. Louis.

The Predators were Chicago’s first-round postseason opponents before the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup title runs in 2010 and 2015. Nashville’s record (41-29-12) was nearly identical to last season’s mark, but the Predators have made one big change: P.K. Subban replaced Shea Weber as their top defenseman this season, headlining a blue-line corps including Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis in front of goalie Pekka Rinne.

Chicago knows that if Rinne plays at his all-world best, even the Blackhawks could have trouble scoring enough to win.

Wild vs. Blues

Minnesota was cruising toward the Central Division title before a late-season slump, while the Blues surged into the postseason after firing coach Ken Hitchcock and trading top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Both teams are regular playoff qualifiers, but both are hoping for a breakthrough this spring after years of disappointment. Keep an eye on Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk, whose proficiency against Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues’ scorers could determine this series.

Ducks vs. Flames

Anybody who is aware of the Flames’ 25-game regular-season losing streak at Honda Center could be excused for thinking the Ducks have an astonishing home-ice advantage in this matchup of the five-time defending Pacific Division champions and the West’s top wild card.

The Flames are loaded with young talent, but this series rests heavily on Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan Kesler and the rest of Anaheim’s veteran core, which simply hasn’t been able to finish: The Ducks have lost a Game 7 at home in each of the last four postseasons.

The Ducks streaked into the postseason on an 11-0-3 roll, and they have more talent and experience. But after Anaheim’s first-round flop against Nashville last season, the Flames realize they might be facing some sitting Ducks in their quest for a playoff breakthrough.

Oilers vs. Sharks

Connor McDavid will make his Stanley Cup playoff debut at Rogers Place’s first postseason game on Wednesday night, and the hockey world can’t wait to see what he does next.

McDavid already won the NHL scoring title and led Edmonton back to the postseason after a 10-year absence. The Oilers even finished above the Sharks, who have much the same team that won the West last season.

San Jose might be far from full strength: Centers Joe Thornton and Logan Couture are out with injuries, and it’s unclear when they’ll return. But Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski are ready to apply their full range of playoff knowledge against the upstart Oilers and McDavid, who might be at the start of the best chapter yet in his remarkable story.

Video from TSN

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