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Eastern Conference playoff matchups set

by John Kreiser

The regular season still has one day remaining, but the four Eastern Conference first-round pairings are already set:

Series A
Washington Capitals (1) vs. New York Rangers (8)

Last time in playoffs: 2010 (Washington); 2009 (Rangers)
Playoff history: Washington leads, 3-2
Last meeting: 2009, Washington won conference quarterfinals, 4-3
Season series: Washington 1-2-1; Rangers 3-1-0

Series snapshot: The Rangers pummeled the Caps in two of their three victories, winning 7-0 at home in December and 6-0 at Washington in late February. After the loss to the Rangers, the Caps closed the season on a 16-3-1 roll. The Rangers made the playoffs by beating New Jersey on Saturday afternoon and having Carolina lose to Tampa Bay at night. The Caps are no longer the run-and-gun team of years past, but they still have a lot more offense than the Rangers, who will be without top forward Ryan Callahan. The Rangers' biggest advantage figures to be in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist led the NHL in shutouts; the Caps have to choose between youngsters Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.

Series B
Philadelphia Flyers (2) vs. Buffalo Sabres (7)

Last time in playoffs: Both teams qualified in 2010
Playoff history: Philadelphia leads, 5-3
Last meeting: 2006, Buffalo won conference quarterfinal 4-2
Season series: Philadelphia 2-1-1; Buffalo 2-2-0

Series snapshot:
The Flyers stumbled to the finish, going 8-8-7 in their last 23 games, falling out of first place in the conference and barely holding off Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division title. They hope to have All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger (broken hand) ready to go. In contrast, the Sabres have been one of the NHL's hottest teams, going 28-11-6 since Jan. 1 to charge into the postseason. Ryan Miller, last season's Vezina Trophy winner, returned Friday after missing four games with an upper-body injury and should be ready to go.

Series C
Boston Bruins (3) vs. Montreal Canadiens (6)

Last time in playoffs: Both qualified in 2010
Playoff history: Montreal leads, 24-8
Last meeting: 2009, Boston won 4-0
Season series: Montreal 4-2-0; Boston 2-3-1
Series snapshot: The latest renewal of the NHL's most-frequent playoff rivalry figures to be intense. Montreal won four of the six meetings, but the Bruins' two wins included a penalty-filled 8-6 victory in February and a 7-0 rout on March 24 that included a hit by Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara that knocked Max Pacioretty out for the regular season. The Canadiens are smaller but faster; the Bruins have more size and are among the NHL's best when playing 5-on-5. The Canadiens will need the kind of goaltending from Carey Price that they got from Jaroslav Halak during last spring's surprising run to the Eastern finals.

Series D
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (5)

Last time in playoffs: 2010 (Pittsburgh); 2007 (Tampa Bay)
Playoff history: Have never met
Season series: Both teams 2-2-0; home team won all four games
Series snapshot: The Penguins, under Dan Bylsma, have done a remarkable job of compensating for injuries that took away Sidney Crosby for the last three months of the season and Evgeni Malkin for the last two. Crosby has been taking part in morning skates but still hasn't been cleared for contact; Malkin is gone for the season after knee surgery. The Lightning started led the Southeast Division into February before slumping, but closed strong by winning seven of their last eight. They have plenty of firepower in 45-goal scorer Steven Stamkos and the duo of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, who led the Bolts to the 2004 Cup. The Lightning could use midseason pickup Dwayne Roloson to play up to the form that led Edmonton to the 2006 Final. 

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