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16 Stanley Cup Playoff storylines

Repeat bid by Penguins, first postseason for Connor McDavid among highlights

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway with five Game 1s on Wednesday and three more Thursday. Here are 16 storylines to follow at the start of the best time of the year:

 

1. A chance to repeat

On paper it looks like the Pittsburgh Penguins have as good a chance as any team since 1998 to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. But repeating is one of the greatest challenges in the sport. Since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998, three teams have returned to the Final the year after winning the Cup. None repeated.

The Penguins' challenge is greater when you consider they are in the toughest bracket.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, fourth in the League with 108 points, are standing in their way in the Eastern Conference First Round. Game 1 is at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVA Sports 3, ROOT, FS-O).

Get by Columbus and potentially the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals are up next. If not the Capitals, it will be the upset-hungry Toronto Maple Leafs.

Video: Penguins vs Blue Jackets First Round Preview

 

2. Penguins' health

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin missed the last 13 games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He said Tuesday that he will play in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets on Wednesday, but will he be 100 percent?

Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz have been out of the lineup with lower-body injuries. Hagelin was seen wearing a walking boot as recently as this past weekend. Kunitz has been seen on crutches. Can either play in the first round?

Losing star defenseman Kris Letang for the entire playoffs because of a herniated disc in his neck that requires surgery is a potentially crushing blow, even though Pittsburgh has a deep defense.

 

[RELATED: Pittsburgh-Columbus series coverage]

 

3. Washington's year?

If not now, when? That's the question the Capitals and their fans have to be asking entering their first-round series against the Maple Leafs. Game 1 is Thursday (7 p.m. ET; USA, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC).

It was the question they were asking last spring, though in fairness the Penguins went into the playoffs steamrolling toward a Stanley Cup championship.

This year it's the Capitals who are steamrolling; Washington finished its season by winning 10 of its final 12 games. However, the Capitals haven't gotten past the second round of the playoffs with Alex Ovechkin.

Video: Capitals vs Maple Leafs First Round Preview

 

4. Canada's quintet

Five teams from Canada made the playoffs after none of the seven got in last season, the first time since 1969-70 that the playoffs were contested without a team from Canada.  

There were also five teams from Canada in the playoffs in 2015; however, two (Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames) got out of the first round and none advanced past the second round.

A team from Canada hasn't won the Stanley Cup since Montreal defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games in 1993.

 

[RELATED: Washington-Toronto series coverage]

 

5. McDavid's debut

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid will make his Stanley Cup Playoff debut against the San Jose Sharks at Rogers Place on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET; USA, TVA Sports, SN, NBCS CA).

The 20-year-old center is must-watch television every time the Oilers play. He was the NHL's only 100-point player this season and has Edmonton enjoying playoff fever again for the first time since 2006. 

Video: Oilers vs Sharks First Round Preview

 

6. Matthews vs. Ovechkin

Until now, Ovechkin and Maple Leafs rookie center Auston Matthews had two things in common: Each can score breathtaking goals, and each was born on Sept. 17 (Ovechkin in 1985, Matthews in 1997).

Now they are the featured stars in what is arguably the most anticipated series of the eight in the first round because of the Toronto factor, which will lead to intense media coverage and scrutiny, and the question of what will happen when the Maple Leafs' rookies play against the two-time Presidents' Trophy winners.

 

7. Torts and Sully

Who wouldn't watch a reality show starring Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella and Penguins coach Mike Sullivan? Two New England hockey guys, close friends, coaches, former co-workers and Stanley Cup champions. It would be Emmy Award-winning stuff.

We'll get a dose of it in the first round.

Tortorella and Sullivan worked together for six seasons from 2007-14 in Tampa Bay, New York and Vancouver. Tortorella was the coach, Sullivan was his assistant, or apprentice. They probably know what each other is thinking when the other one is actually thinking it.

Video: Mike Sullivan on the Penguins' first-round matchup

 

8. Limping in

The Sharks lost nine of their last 13 games in regulation, including six in a row from March 16-25. It cost them the chance to finish first in the Pacific Division.

The Blue Jackets lost five in a row in regulation before defeating Toronto 3-2 on Sunday. It cost them a chance at having home-ice advantage against the Penguins in the first round.

San Jose dealt with injuries to centers Logan Couture (face) and Joe Thornton (knee). Couture missed the last seven games and Thornton the last three. The Blue Jackets were without defenseman Zach Werenski (upper body) for their final four games.

The good news is it appears all three could play in Game 1 of their respective series. But can the Sharks and Blue Jackets turn it back on quickly against teams that are hot entering the playoffs?

Edmonton was 12-2-0 in its last 14 games. Pittsburgh went 12-5-3 in its last 20.

 

[RELATED: Edmonton-San Jose series coverage]

 

9. Kreider and Price

New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider arrives in Montreal for Game 1 at Bell Centre on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, MSG) as an enemy because of what happened, or rather what the fans in Montreal perceive he did to goalie Carey Price three years ago.

The side you take on the infamous Kreider-Price collision in Game 1 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final depends on your vantage point.

If you're a Canadiens fan you probably believe that Kreider ran Price on purpose. If you're a Rangers fan you probably believe Kreider was tripped and accidently hit Price, who didn't play again in the series. New York won in six games.

Kreider will be in front of Price a lot in this series if he's doing his job.

Video: Canadiens vs Rangers First Round Preview

 

10. Lundqvist's kryptonite

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has had an up-and-down season, finishing with a .910 save percentage and 2.74 goals-against average, the lowest save percentage and highest GAA in any of his 12 NHL seasons.

Price and the Canadiens contributed to Lundqvist's troubling numbers. He was 0-2-1 with a .870 save percentage in three games against Price, who had a .922 save percentage in those games.

Lundqvist is 0-7-1 with a .887 save percentage in eight regular-season matchups against Price dating to Feb. 19, 2013. Price has a .956 save percentage in those games.

 

11. Bench shakeups that worked

The St. Louis Blues replaced coach Ken Hitchcock with Mike Yeo on Feb. 1, when they were barely hanging onto the second wild card from the West and allowing 3.12 goals per game. They responded by going 22-8-2 under Yeo to finish third in the Central Division. They were first in the League in goals against per game (1.87) and penalty kill (88.8 percent) from Feb. 1 to the end of the season.

The Boston Bruins turned to Bruce Cassidy to replace Claude Julien as coach on Feb. 7. They went 18-8-1 under Cassidy. Boston tied for first in the League in goals per game (3.37) and was third on the power play (27.8 percent) from Feb. 7 to the end of the season.

The Canadiens didn't let Julien sit on the sidelines for long. They brought him in to replace Michel Therrien on Feb. 14. Montreal went 16-7-1 with a League-best penalty kill (88.9 percent) in the final 8 1/2 weeks of the season.

 

[RELATED: Minnesota-St. Louis series coverage]

 

12. McLellan, Yeo facing old teams

Yeo and Oilers coach Todd McLellan had to know the chances of them facing their former teams in the playoffs were good when they took their new jobs. It's happening.

McLellan spent seven seasons as coach of the Sharks from 2008-15 and remained in the Pacific Division when he joined the Oilers before last season. He took San Jose to the Western Conference Final in 2010 and 2011.

Yeo spent almost five seasons coaching the Wild from 2011-16. He took them to the playoffs three times but was eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks each time.

Video: Wild vs Blues First Round Preview

 

13. Fallout from April 4

Game 1 of the first-round series between the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames at Honda Center on Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, Prime) has a chance to be overrun by animosity between the two teams because of what happened in Anaheim on April 4.

Flames captain Mark Giordano's knee-on-knee hit on Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler not only knocked Fowler out for the start of the playoffs with a sprained right knee (he was declared out 2-6 weeks), it sparked an eruption of emotions between the players that spread to the front offices.

Ducks general manager Bob Murray started it by accusing Giordano of going after knees in the past and saying he has no respect for anybody who targets knees. Flames GM Brad Treliving responded by calling Murray's comments "asinine" and defending Giordano as "a true pro."

 

14. Ducks 'D'

Losing Fowler is a blow to Anaheim's defense. He led the Ducks in ice time per game (24:50) and led their defensemen with 39 points (11 goals, 28 assists).

Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have to pick up some of the slack left behind by Fowler, who played 3:06 per game on the power play and 2:45 on the penalty kill. Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour also have to play more significant roles.

Video: Ducks vs Flames First Round Preview

 

15. Anaheim's home streak

The Ducks haven't lost a home game against Calgary since April 25, 2006. They have won 25 consecutive regular-season games against the Flames at Honda Center. They even won all three games against the Flames in Anaheim in the 2015 Western Conference Second Round.

 

[RELATED: Anaheim-Calgary series preview]

 

16. Subban's time

Defenseman P.K. Subban had a solid first season with the Nashville Predators, scoring 40 points (10 goals, 30 assists) in 66 games. The Predators need him to be a game-changer to upset the Blackhawks in the first round. Game 1 is Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2, CSN-CH, FS-TN).

Subban has already had some big, viral moments in Nashville, including singing Johnny Cash songs at the famed Tootsie's Lounge. This is his first chance to make a significant mark on the ice in Nashville.

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