Since rivalries drive interest, it's no surprise the NBC Sports Group is thrilled with the eight matchups it will broadcast in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"This is probably going to be the best playoffs we've had, and we've had it on NBC for nine years now," said Pierre McGuire, NBC's lead Inside the Glass analyst.
"This has got a chance to be one of the most memorable playoffs we've had in the last 20 years."
For the third straight year NBC will broadcast every game of the playoffs on its series of networks, using the main network plus cable outlets NBC Sports Network, CNBC and NHL Network. The matchups this season are dictated by the NHL's division-based playoff format and feature five regional rivalries and an Original Six clash.
NBC's coverage begins Wednesday when the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning play Game 1 at Tampa Bay Times Forum (7 p.m. ET, CNBC, CBC, RDS). The Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets begin their series 30 minutes later at Consol Energy Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC). Capping the night is Game 1 between the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars at Honda Center (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF X-FACTORS
Four more series start Thursday, including an all-California series featuring the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC), and the only matchup between 100-point teams, the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC). The only all-Original Six matchup of the first round, the Boston Bruins against the Detroit Red Wings, starts Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).
"It has been so much fun to say we're doing every game of every series," NBC lead play-by-play broadcaster Mike "Doc" Emrick said. "That was 87 games two years ago. That was 88 games last year. Who knows? It might hit 90 this year.
"I consider it entertainment for me on the nights I'm not working because I'm sitting there watching all the games until late at night."
He'll be watching to see if the Blues can snap out of their late-season slump. They lost their last six regular-season games by a combined 22-5 to fall to the 2-3 series in the Central Division against the Blackhawks, who for a long time thought they were locked into a first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche.
St. Louis had a seven-point lead on the Avalanche before their losing streak started and injuries to key players such as T.J. Oshie and David Backes set in. Chicago won its last two games against the Blues by a combined 8-2.
"The first game [March 19] was at a pace the Blues wanted to play and the first 10 minutes it wasn't even close. St. Louis had the Blackhawks on the run, if you can have a team on the run in the first 10 minutes of a regular-season game," lead color commentator Eddie Olczyk said. "All of a sudden Chicago started skating, they started picking their spots on when they were physical, and then it wasn't even close for the last 50 minutes. It was taking someone out to the schoolyard and showing them how it's done. The last game they played was a little bit closer, but Chicago just played a much faster game."
Noting the other 2-3 series in the Western Conference, the Sharks and Kings, McGuire said the team that dominates puck possession and has the better ability to withstand the physical part of the series should advance.
"As long as everybody can stay healthy, and I don't know how easy that'll be, this one has a chance to be the best series," McGuire said.
Goaltending obviously is important in each series, but in particular the analysts identified it as being a potential difference-maker in the first-round series between the Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.
Olczyk said Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov should be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy after posting a League-high 41 wins, a 2.41 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. McGuire credited Avalanche goalie coach Francois Allaire for Varlamov's development into an elite goalie. Allaire trained Patrick Roy, who became a four-time Stanley Cup champion and now is the coach of the Avalanche.
"The job that he [Allaire] has done with Semyon Varlamov has been phenomenal," McGuire said. "The growth in that player's game from when he broke into the League with Washington until now, when he's a star in the League and a Vezina Trophy nominee, at least I think, has been phenomenal."
On the Wild's side it appears Ilya Bryzgalov has stabilized the position for now. He went 7-1-3 with a 2.12 GAA, .911 save percentage and three shutouts in 12 games after being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers at the NHL Trade Deadline.
Olczyk said Bryzgalov's confidence has spread throughout the Minnesota dressing room. He could sense it in a recent conversation he had with Wild defenseman Ryan Suter.
"I don't see [the series] as being over in four games. I don't see that at all," Olczyk said. "I think the Avalanche certainly have the upper hand, but not by a lot."
The Bruins have the upper hand against the Red Wings, but the analysts feel some coaching creativity and playing fast will give Detroit a chance.
McGuire used an example from the 2006 playoffs, Mike Babcock's first postseason as the Red Wings coach, as a reason why Detroit could pull the upset.
Detroit, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference in 2006, lost to the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in six games in the first round. The Oilers reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes.
"[Ex-Oilers coach] Craig MacTavish that year was probably the most creative coach of any coach in the National Hockey League," McGuire said. "The reason why they beat Detroit is they were the most creative. If Mike Babcock, who I personally believe is the most creative coach in the League now, can get creative he can cause the Bruins some problems. I still think the Bruins are the favorite, but Detroit can cause some problems."
In addition to worrying about goalie Ben Bishop's health, McGuire said the Lightning have to be leery of the Canadiens' top line of David Desharnais, Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty. He said they could be the biggest difference in the series.
Olczyk said the Lightning will have to have "a little more of a junkyard-dog mentality" to beat the Canadiens.
Emrick said the Blue Jackets can be a dangerous first-round opponent for the Penguins if goalie Sergei Bobrovsky swings the momentum early in the series. He also said the Flyers-Rangers series will be intriguing for reasons other than just the geographic rivalry. The Flyers have lost eight in a row at Madison Square Garden; their last win at MSG was Feb. 20, 2011.
"I liked a lot of what I saw out of the Rangers down the home stretch of the season," Emrick said. "The Flyers seemed to always rise to a challenge. Whenever it was necessary for them to come up with a big goal it seemed like their captain [Claude Giroux] was always able to do it. They have a string of real frustration inside Madison Square Garden, so it's always interesting to see whether that can be overcome. They get two cracks at it in the first four."