Be very aware of the wild-card teams when the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins Wednesday.
NBC Sports Group will provide extensive coverage of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs on NBC, NBCSN and NHL Network, and on NBC Universal's USA Network and CNBC. It is the fourth straight year NBC Sports Group will cover every playoff game.
"There's no better time in the year; it's that time when overtimes can go until 2 or 3 in the morning and the excitement just reigns supreme," NBC Sports Group executive producer Sam Flood said.
Flood and the broadcast team of play-by-play man Mike "Doc" Emrick and "Inside the Glass" analyst Pierre McGuire previewed the playoffs Tuesday.
"The storylines are tremendous," McGuire said. "Will Anaheim be able to hold serve against an unbelievably good story in Winnipeg? What about the Chicago Blackhawks, who a lot of people think now have some kind of energy going because of the addition of Patrick Kane? What about the Presidents' Trophy winner in New York and the greatness that the Rangers presented this year?
"What about the five Canadian teams that are now in the playoffs for the first time in a long time and the brilliant young players we're seeing around the League, whether it be Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary, Mark Stone in Ottawa or Filip Forsberg in Nashville? And how about Alex Ovechkin and his winning a fifth Rocket Richard Trophy; can he stand and deliver for the Washington Capitals against John Tavares and the New York Islanders?"
The Eastern Conference Game 1 matchups Wednesday feature the New York Islanders at Washington (7 p.m. ET; USA Network) and Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m. ET; NHL Network). Western Conference games are the Chicago Blackhawks at Nashville Predators (8:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN) and Calgary Flames at Vancouver Canucks (10 p.m. ET; USA Network).
One question entering this year's playoffs is, which of the four wild-card teams has what it takes to reach the Stanley Cup Final? In the East, the Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins are the wild cards. In the West, it's the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets.
The Wild were the only wild card to win their first-round series last season, defeating the Colorado Avalanche in seven games. Minnesota was eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in six second-round games.
This year, McGuire likes what he sees in the Jets.
"That building (MTS Centre in Winnipeg) is going to be electrifying," McGuire said. "The Jets are a big team and built for playoff success."
Winnipeg set a Jets record with 99 points but finished fifth in the Central Division. Some pundits believe they can pull off a first-round upset against the Anaheim Ducks, the top seed in the West for the second straight season. History is on the side of the Jets; the Ducks have lost a Game 7 at Honda Center in each of the past two postseasons.
"One of the biggest things that has to happen for them if they are going to have success is that goalie Ondrej Pavelec has got to stand on his head as he has the last five or six games of the regular season," McGuire said. "If he can do that they have a chance but it's not going to be easy against Anaheim. If the Jets could ever steal a game in Anaheim and then go back to Winnipeg, that would be hellacious for the Anaheim Ducks in the first round."
The Senators have a huge obstacle standing in their way, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who led the NHL in wins, goals-against average and save percentage. The Senators have thrived since coach Dave Cameron replaced Paul MacLean on Dec. 8, going 32-15-8 to qualify for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. Goalie Andrew Hammond and rookie forward Mark Stone each played a huge part in the rise in the standings.
Emrick said he believes the Penguins, the only former champion among this year's wild cards, could make a run if they pull together as they did in 2009. The Penguins played with five defensemen and without forward Evgeni Malkin at times in the final month of the season.
"You're probably going to laugh given what has happened in the last two weeks or so, and the fact they are playing the Presidents' Trophy winner [New York Rangers] but Pittsburgh has struck me as a team that when you walk into the dressing room it seems like a different culture [recently]," Emrick said. "But I've gone back 42 years of doing this and I've seen changes in teams that do have potential [that is] unused. Sometimes transformations take place."
The Penguins went 4-9-2 in the last 15 games of the regular season after going 39-18-10. Offense has been the biggest problem in the past two playoff exits.
"But if [Pittsburgh wins] one of the two games in New York, they might start thinking a little more together than they have been in the games that we've seen down the stretch," Emrick said. "Anything is possible. Given the talent base they have, the Penguins would be my favorite among the four to really shock."