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Blues face tough test from Wild, Dubnyk

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Blues vs Wild - 2015 SCP First Round

The St. Louis Blues are doing it the other way around this time, but winning in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs won't be any easier as a result.

The Blues finished the regular season winning five of their final six games to climb into first place in the Central Division. It was a near 180 from last season, when they lost their last six games and fell out of first place and into a first-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The reward for winning isn't much better than the price for losing was last season because the Minnesota Wild have been the best team in the NHL since Jan. 15.

The Wild are the first wild card from the Western Conference after going 28-9-3 since goalie Devan Dubnyk made his Minnesota debut on that date. Minnesota was eight points out of a playoff spot when Dubnyk debuted; they finished with a five-point cushion.

The Wild, who had 100 points for the second time in their history, were first in points among Western Conference teams with 59 from Jan. 15 through the end of the season.

Despite high expectations and strong regular seasons, the Blues have not advanced past the first round in each of the past two seasons and haven't gone past the second round since coach Ken Hitchcock was hired early in the 2011-12 season.

St. Louis' past two series losses followed the same script: The Blues won the first two games and then lost the next four to teams (Los Angeles Kings in 2013 and Blackhawks in 2014) that eventually lost in the Western Conference Final.

Why the Penguins will win the Stanley Cup

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Rangers vs Penguins - 2015 SCP First Round

Evan Sporer - Staff Writer

Though the Pittsburgh Penguins didn't make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the fashion most expected, the pieces are in place to make a deep run for their second championship since 2009.

Centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin give the Penguins arguably the two best players on the planet. Game-changing talents, Crosby and Malkin force coaches to decide which one to use their top defensemen against. When they're healthy (Malkin recently returned from a lower-body injury), Crosby and Malkin pace the offense. Malkin is a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner and has 111 points in 96 Stanley Cup Playoff games. If he's at or near 100 percent, things are completely different for Pittsburgh.

Senators can build on success against Canadiens

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Canadiens vs Senators - 2015 SCP First Round

The Ottawa Senators were rewarded for their incredible late-season surge toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs with what might have been the best possible matchup in the opening round.

The Senators won their past three games against the Montreal Canadiens by a combined score of 13-5, including a 4-2 win at home on Feb. 18, the first NHL start for goaltender Andrew Hammond.

He would go on to win a few more after that.

The only playoff series the Senators have won since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 was against the Canadiens in 2013.

That five-game series got nasty right away, with Senators defenseman Eric Gryba knocking Canadiens center Lars Eller out of the series with an open-ice hit in Game 1.

The teams had no real rivalry prior to that series despite Ottawa and Montreal being 125 miles apart. They did after that, and the Senators have given the Canadiens trouble ever since winning that series.

Aside from the history between the teams, this series will feature compelling matchups at key positions.

In goal, Hammond will continue his storybook ride by matching up against the favorite to win the Vezina and Hart trophies, Carey Price.

Versatile Stastny is Blues X-factor for playoffs

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Blues vs Wild - 2015 SCP First Round

Louie Korac - Correspondent

ST. LOUIS -- Center Paul Stastny was the hottest free agent commodity at his position last summer because he was viewed as a player who could add instant offense.

After losing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to teams with more depth at center each of the past three seasons, the St. Louis Blues signed Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract July 1 because they felt he would even the playing field. They needed a playmaking center, one who could help them match up against some of the Western Conference's best down the middle.

The 29-year-old, who finished with 16 goals and 46 points in 74 games this season, fit the bill.

The numbers may not indicate it, but the Blues have that experienced center they can use in all situations.

"I want to be out there. I'm not afraid to fail," said Stastny, whose father, Peter Stastny, finished his Hall of Fame career in St. Louis. "I think that's the most important thing. ... You want to be the guy that's a game-changer. Sometimes it won't go your way; it doesn't matter. As long as you go out there with that mentality where you know you're going to be a difference-maker, that's what you want."

Penguins save chance for revenge against Rangers

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Rangers vs Penguins - 2015 SCP First Round

The Eastern Conference First Round series between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins pits the Presidents' Trophy winners against a team that slumped to the finish line and didn't clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs until the last day of the season.

That's one way to look at it.

The other way is, it's a rematch of one of the most memorable series from last season's playoffs.

The Rangers rallied from 3-1 down against the Penguins to win the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round series in seven games.

The Penguins, who needed a 2-0 win Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres to get into the 2015 playoffs, have to be thinking about revenge.

Canadiens' Subban thrives in villain role

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Canadiens vs Senators - 2015 SCP First Round

Arpon Basu - Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- P.K. Subban doesn't understand where it comes from, but he's not complaining.

Almost every time the Montreal Canadiens defenseman plays in a visiting NHL rink he is booed, a phenomenon that grows in intensity during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

And Subban thrives on it.

Except if you ask him about the booing, Subban acts like an innocent victim.

An innocent, perfectly willing victim.

"We always use Boston because we have the most games against them in the playoffs, but I didn't go there and ask them to boo me," Subban said. "I didn't ask them to do that. They started doing that. I didn't ask them to hate me."

More mature Fleury X-factor for Penguins

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Rangers vs Penguins - 2015 SCP First Round

Wes Crosby - Correspondent

The Pittsburgh Penguins face plenty of questions entering the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But for once, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is not among those concerns.

Throughout a season filled with injuries, inconsistency and upheaval, Fleury has been arguably Pittsburgh's most consistent player. The Penguins, considered one of the NHL's more potent offensive teams, struggled to routinely score three or more goals following a hot first two months, which they finished 16-5-2. Pittsburgh dropped off considerably since that start but was able to hold on to a playoff berth thanks in large part to Fleury's impressive play.

"I think that [Fleury] is maybe the most talented goalie I've ever played with," said defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who was traded back to the Penguins from the Anaheim Ducks at the NHL Trade Deadline. "Incredibly athletic, fun to play in front of, works very hard. And he's a great teammate and guy. I think you can see his maturity level since I've been back. I don't want to say [he's] more focused, but I feel like he does a better job letting go if something goes wrong.

"The other team is trying really hard all the time. They really want to score on him. It's a hockey game. You're going to try to win 3-2 most nights, and I think he's realized other teams are going to get one. They might get two, and I think that he's much more stable and ready to bounce back."

Forward Eller X-factor for Canadiens

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Canadiens vs Senators - 2015 SCP First Round

Arpon Basu - Managing Editor

The snow in Montreal has thawed, and so has Lars Eller's game.

The Montreal Canadiens center completed a regular season remarkably similar to the previous one in terms of his disappointing offensive production.

Now Eller is hoping he also can perform as well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as he did last season. If he does, he could be the difference between an early exit and another deep run for the Canadiens.

Eller was ninth in scoring last season for the Canadiens with 26 points in 77 games but led their forwards with 13 points in 17 playoff games, helping to propel Montreal to the Eastern Conference Final.

This season, he finished ninth in scoring with 27 points in 76 games.

Coyle's physical play X-factor for Wild

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Blues vs Wild - 2015 SCP First Round

Dan Myers - Correspondent

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Minnesota Wild forward Charlie Coyle isn’t playing the way he’s supposed to, he knows he’s going to hear it from his coach.

That coach? His dad, Chuck, sitting on his couch back home in East Weymouth, Mass.

"He was my coach every team I played for up until high school," Coyle said. "Even now, he’s still my coach. I talk to him after every game. He likes to keep his distance and let me do my thing, but he likes to pitch in and I like it when he does. He knows the game, he watches every game and he sees what I’m doing out there. He helps me a lot."

When Coyle is at his best, he plays a grinding, physical style that suits his 6-foot-3 frame. That’s not to say he isn’t skilled. His goal on Jan. 27 against the Edmonton Oilers, when he raced down the left wall, around a defenseman and past the goaltender, only to reach back and tuck it inside the post from behind the net is one of the impressive goals scored all season.

But it all starts with physicality. If he’s using his body, the rest seems to fall into place.

"For some reason, when I do that, I just get engaged in the game," Coyle said. "Everything picks up after that."

Streaky Hoffman X-factor for surging Senators

Sunday, 04.12.2015 / 3:00 AM / Canadiens vs Senators - 2015 SCP First Round

Chris Stevenson - Correspondent

OTTAWA -- Rookie forward Mike Hoffman led the Ottawa Senators with 27 goals this season, and that was after being demoted to the fourth line at times down the stretch.

The Senators are going to need the 25-year-old, who was chosen in the fifth round (No. 130) of the 2009 NHL Draft, to give them scoring depth if they are going to have success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That might sound like a funny thing to write about Ottawa’s leading goal-scorer, but consistency and play away from the puck have been issues for Hoffman.

When he hasn't been going hard to the net or paying enough attention to defense, that's when coach Dave Cameron has shuffled the lines.

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Quote of the Day

I first met him when I was 19 years old and he coached me for 13 consecutive years. I don't know how many athletes who have had that pleasure. Al Arbour was a man that left us not only feeling like champions, but left us with a lot of great memories that we can carry on through life.

— Islanders Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin on former coach Al Arbour, who passed away Friday at the age of 82