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10 storylines entering Stanley Cup Playoffs

Three-peat bid by Penguins, first postseason for Hall, Laine among highlights

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The field of 16 is full, the matchups set, the tension building.

The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Wednesday. It's the start of what is always the best two-plus months of hockey anywhere on the planet every year.

To get you primed, here are 10 storylines to follow:

 

1. Pittsburgh three-peat

The Pittsburgh Penguins are trying to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup in three consecutive seasons since the New York Islanders won it four straight times from 1980-83. 

The Penguins last season became the first team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Cup champions.

The Philadelphia Flyers will be the first team to try to finally knock off the Penguins in the playoffs. Game 1 is at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday. It's the first time the Flyers and Penguins will meet in the playoffs since 2012.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Penguins clinch playoff berth

 

2. Welcome to the show

The Vegas Golden Knights must put their historic regular season behind them and focus on making more history in the playoffs. They open against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference First Round on Wednesday.

The Golden Knights became the first modern-era expansion team from any of the four North American professional sports leagues to finish first in its division in its inaugural season (excluding mergers and all expansion divisions).

Vegas is the NHL's first expansion team to make the playoffs in its first season at any level since 1967-68, when an entire division was comprised of six expansion teams, guaranteeing four of them entry into the playoffs.

 

3. Nashville's time?

The Nashville Predators were the equivalent of the 16th seed last season, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final. They are the top seed this season as the Presidents' Trophy winners and they open against the Colorado Avalanche, who are the equivalent of the 16th seed.

The Predators will try to become the first team to win the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season since the Chicago Blackhawks did it in 2013 after the lockout-shortened 48-game season. 

The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were the last team to win the Cup after winning the Presidents' Trophy in a full season.

 

4. A new narrative in D.C.?

The Washington Capitals are hoping to avoid Groundhog Day this year. 

The Capitals, who face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round, are in the playoffs for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons, but they haven't made it out of the second round since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, when Alex Ovechkin was 12 years old. 

Washington finished first in the Metropolitan Division, its eighth first-place division finish in Ovechkin's 13 seasons. Ovechkin has 90 points (46 goals, 44 assists) in 97 playoff games.

Video: The Washington Capitals clinch the Playoffs

 

5. Canada's hopefuls

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets represent Canada's chances of ending its longest drought without being home to a Stanley Cup champion, which has been ongoing since the Montreal Canadiens won it in 1993.

Canada's longest Stanley Cup drought prior to this one was six seasons, from 1936-41.

The Maple Leafs haven't won the Cup since 1967. The Jets have never won the Cup, including in their formative years (1979-95) before the franchise re-located to Arizona.

 

6. Hall, Laine making playoff debuts

Game 1 between the Jets and Wild also represents the Stanley Cup Playoff debut of Winnipeg forward Patrik Laine, who finished second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 44 goals, five fewer than Ovechkin, a seven-time winner.

Laine, with 80 goals in his first 155 games, is also second in the League in goals since the start of last season. Ovechkin is first with 82.

Laine is lucky he didn't have to wait as long as New Jersey Devils left wing Taylor Hall to make his playoff debut. Hall, in his eighth season, has played in 529 regular-season games. He led the Devils with 93 points (39 goals, 54 assists).

 

7. Stamkos' health

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos missed the final three games of the regular season because of a lower-body injury. He is expected to be back in time for the start of the playoffs.

Stamkos, who had 86 points (27 goals, 59 assists) this season, has played in one playoff game since the Lightning's run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. 

He played in Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final against the Penguins after missing Tampa Bay's first 16 playoff games and its final five regular-season games because of a blood clot issue that required surgery. 

The Lightning didn't make the playoffs last season largely because Stamkos missed the final 65 games with a knee injury. 

Video: TBL@NYI: Miller buries Stamkos' pass on rush

 

8. Bobrovsky's chance at redemption

The postseason hasn't been kind to Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner who might be a finalist this season.

Bobrovsky, who has a .920 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against average in 395 regular-season games, has an .887 save percentage and 3.63 GAA in 18 playoff games, including 14 starts. He is 3-10.

Bobrovsky allowed at least three goals in all five of Columbus' first-round playoff games against the Penguins last season, including 14 in the final three games.

 

9. Five deadline diamonds

Five of the highest profile players who changed teams prior to the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline could have a major impact on the playoffs.

Ryan McDonagh has become one of the Lightning's key shutdown defensemen since he was traded to Tampa Bay from the New York Rangers.

Evander Kane has filled the San Jose Sharks' need for a top-line left wing to play with center Joe Pavelski. He scored nine goals in 17 games after the Sharks acquired him from the Buffalo Sabres.

Paul Stastny has given the Jets the center depth they need to compete in the playoffs. Stastny had 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 19 games after being acquired from the St. Louis Blues.

Rick Nash, who gives the Bruins a net-front presence on their second line, missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a concussion, but the right wing is expected to play in Game 1. Prior to the concussion, Nash had six points (three goals, three assists) in 11 games with Boston.

The Penguins are hopeful center Derick Brassard will play in Game 1. He missed the last five games of the regular season with a lower-body injury. Brassard was adjusting to his role as the No. 3 center and key part of the second power-play unit before his injury.

 

10. Goalie shuffle

At least two and potentially more goalies who were No. 1s entering the season will start the playoffs in a backup role. 

Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer is expected to start Game 1 against Columbus with Braden Holtby as his backup. 

Grubauer won the No. 1 job from Holtby in the last quarter of the season, going 9-3-0 with a 1.98 GAA and .934 save percentage in 14 appearances, including 12 starts, since Feb. 24. He has appeared in two playoff games with one start and has allowed five goals on 30 shots.

Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid is expected to make his NHL playoff debut in Game 1.

Kinkaid took the No. 1 job from Cory Schneider, who struggled from Dec. 29-Jan. 23 before missing 16 games with an injury. Kinkaid is 19-6-1 with a .922 save percentage and 2.53 GAA in 27 appearances (26 starts) since Jan. 30.

In addition, Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson (upper body) might not be healthy for Game 1, meaning Ryan Miller will get the start against the Sharks.

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