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Stanley Cup Playoffs storylines

Lightning face pressure to win; Capitals eye repeat; Sharks need healthy Karlsson

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway with five Game 1s on Wednesday and three more Thursday. Here are 16 storylines for the first round: 


1. Pressure on the Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a season with 62. They had 128 points, fourth on the all-time list for most points in a season.

Nikita Kucherov had 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), the most by a Russian-born player in NHL history, the most by anybody in the salary cap era (since 2005-06) and the most by anyone since 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux had 161 and Jaromir Jagr had 149 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But now the Lightning, who won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time, have to make it all matter by winning in the spring. 

They have been knocked out by the eventual Stanley Cup champion three times since 2015, when they lost in the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks. They also lost Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins and again in Game 7 of the Conference Final last season against the Washington Capitals.

The Lightning play Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVA Sports). 

Video: TBL@BOS: Lightning beat Bruins to tie NHL wins record


2. Capitals going for the repeat

If Pittsburgh could do it, why not Washington?

You wonder if that's a rallying cry for the Capitals as they embark on an opportunity to repeat as Stanley Cup champions just like their rivals, the Penguins, did two years ago, when they became the first team to repeat since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.

Washington finished first in the Metropolitan Division and closed the season by going 14-5-1 in 20 games since Feb. 24. Alex Ovechkin won the Rocket Richard Trophy with 51 goals, marking the eighth time he's scored at least 50 goals in a season in his career.

The Capitals play Game 1 against the Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVA Sports).


3. Here we go again, Eastern version

The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs meet in the Eastern Conference First Round for the second straight season. Boston won in seven games last season. Game 1 is at TD Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports).

A year ago, the Maple Leafs fought back from 2-0 and 3-1 series deficits, but the Bruins won 7-4 in Game 7 at TD Garden. This season, the Bruins won three of the four games in the regular season. They haven't played each other since Jan. 12. 

Boston has won five straight series against Toronto since 1969.


4. Here we go again, Western version

To get back to the Stanley Cup Final, the Vegas Golden Knights will again have to go through the San Jose Sharks, this time in the Western Conference First Round. Game 1 is at SAP Center on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports).

The Golden Knights defeated the Sharks in six games in the second round last season. 

There are some new faces, with forwards Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny embarking on their first run with Vegas and defenseman Erik Karlsson expected to do the same with San Jose.


5. Karlsson's health key for Sharks

A groin injury kept Karlsson out of the Sharks' lineup for 17 straight games until he played in the regular-season finale against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday. He missed 27 of 33 games since Jan. 19. 

San Jose went 14-3-1 in its first 18 games without Karlsson, including the two he missed because of a suspension Dec. 23-27. The Sharks, though, went 2-8-1 with 45 goals against in the 11 games leading up to their regular-season finale. 

Hopefully, all the time he missed allowed his injury to heal, putting him at 100 percent for the playoffs because the Sharks clearly need Karlsson to beat Vegas.

Video: SJS@EDM: Karlsson's snap shot eludes Talbot


6. Carolina is back

The Hurricanes are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, ending what was the longest playoff drought in the NHL. That title now belongs to the Buffalo Sabres, who have missed eight straight seasons since 2012.

The Hurricanes have a history of making it count when they get into the playoffs. They've won nine series, including four to win the Stanley Cup in 2006, in their past three appearances. They also went to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009 and lost in the Cup Final in 2002.

Carolina has 11 players who will be making their first appearance in the playoffs. 


7. Tavares' first run in Toronto

John Tavares had career-highs in goals (47) and points (88) in his first season with the Maple Leafs. It's time now for him to experience the playoffs in Toronto for the first time.

Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with Toronto on July 1, appeared in the playoffs three times in his nine seasons with the Islanders. He had 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 24 games and helped them win one of four series.

Toronto hasn't won a series since 2004.


8. Three in the running for Canada's elusive Cup

The Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames represent Canada's hopes to end the country's 25-year Stanley Cup drought.

A Canadian team hasn't won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. Five Canadian teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final since (Vancouver Canucks, 1994; Flames, 2004; Edmonton Oilers, 2006; Ottawa Senators, 2007; Canucks, 2011).

The Flames are the top seed in the Western Conference. The last time a Canadian team was the top seed in either conference was in 2011-12, when the Canucks won the Presidents' Trophy before losing in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings in five games.

The Flames play Game 1 against the Avalanche at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Thursday (10 p.m. ET; SN, CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN). 


9. Playoff hockey back at the Coliseum

The Islanders will play a playoff game at Nassau Coliseum for the first time since April 25, 2015 when they face the Penguins in Game 1 on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). 

The Islanders thought they left Nassau Coliseum for good when they moved to Barclays Center full time for the 2015-16 season, but they returned to their renovated former home for 21 regular-season games this season and will play all of their first-round games there too.

New York went 12-7-2 at the Coliseum this season. If the Islanders advance to the second round, their home games will move to Barclays Center, where they were 12-6-2.

Video: NYI@WSH: Lehner propels Isles to victory with shutout


10. First time for these coaches

Four of the 16 coaches in the playoffs have never coached a Stanley Cup Playoff game before. 

Todd Reirden of the Capitals and Flames coach Bill Peters have playoff experience as assistants.

Reirden was a part of Barry Trotz's staff that helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup last season. Peters, who never got to the playoffs in his four seasons as Carolina's coach (2014-18), was with Detroit on Mike Babcock's staff when it went to the playoffs from 2012-14.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour and Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery are in their first seasons as coaches in the NHL.  


11. Rantanen's return?

Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen missed the final eight games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. The hope is that he'll be able to play in Game 1 against the Flames.

If he returns, Colorado will have its top line of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog intact for the first time since March 7. 

They were Colorado's top three scorers; MacKinnon had 99 points (41 goals, 58 assists), Rantanen had 87 points (31 goals, 56 assists) and Landeskog had 75 points (34 goals, 41 assists). 

The Avalanche went 5-1-2 in the eight games they played without Rantanen and 9-3-2 in 14 games since the top line was together. Landeskog missed nine games with an injury from March 9-27, including a three-game overlap with Rantanen's absence.

Video: ANA@COL: Rantanen goes top shelf with nice backhand


12. Columbus looking for first series win

The Blue Jackets clinched a playoff berth Friday, marking the third straight season and fifth time in their history (since 2000-01) they made the playoffs. Maybe this is the year they win a round.

The Blue Jackets have won five playoff games in their history, including Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round last season against the Capitals. They lost the next four games.

Columbus went 0-3-0 and was outscored 17-3 by the Lightning this season.


13. Binnington's big moment

Jordan Binnington established himself as a Calder Trophy candidate by going 24-5-1 with five shutouts, a .930 save percentage and 1.83 goals-against average in 30 starts from Jan. 7 to the end of the season. 

He was a key reason for why the Blues went from last in the NHL on Jan. 2 to third in the Central Division, one point shy of first place. They play Game 1 against the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports, NHL Network). 

The last rookie goalie to lead his team to a series win was Pittsburgh's Matt Murray, who had 13 games of NHL experience in 2015-16 before winning 15 playoff games and helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup. He was still a rookie in 2016-17, when he helped them win it again.


14. Last gasp for Jumbo?

Sharks center Joe Thornton didn't play in the playoffs last season because of knee surgery. He's back to take another swing at winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career. Could it be his last chance?

Thornton, who had 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 73 games this season, is playing on his second straight one-year contract, meaning he can again become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Thornton turns 40 on July 2 and it's fair to wonder if retirement is a possibility.

There also is uncertainty about Sharks captain Joe Pavelski's future in San Jose because he is at the end of a five-year contract and can also become a UFA on July 1. 

Video: SJS@VAN: Pavelski nets PPG, Thornton ties Yzerman


15. Deadline darlings

The Golden Knights are looking for big things from Stone, whom they acquired from the Senators on Feb. 25. Stone, who since signed an eight-year, $76 million contract with Vegas, had 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 18 games after the trade.

The Jets are banking on center Kevin Hayes to be a difference maker. He had 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 20 games after Winnipeg got him from the New York Rangers on Feb. 25.

The Blue Jackets need production from forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, whom they acquired in separate trades from the Senators. Duchene had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 23 games after Columbus got him on Feb. 22. Dzingel also had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 21 games after he arrived in Columbus on Feb. 23.

The Stars haven't been able to get much out of forward Mats Zuccarello because he broke his arm in his first game after they acquired him from the Rangers and had to sit out the next 17. He returned to play one game, April 2, but sat out the final two games.

The Predators are hoping forwards Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers and Minnesota Wild, respectively, can make an impact in the playoffs after making a minimal impact with Nashville in the regular season. 

Simmonds had three points (one goal, two assists) in 17 games after the trade. Granlund had five points (one goal, four assists) in 16 games.


16. Flames in 50

The Flames won 50 games, hitting the mark for the second time in franchise history. The other time was 1988-89, when they won 54 games and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

The most impressive stat for the Flames this season was their success in the third period, when they had a plus-54 goal differential. They scored a League-high 118 goals and allowed a League-low 64. 

The Flames went 3-0-0 against the Avalanche this season and outscored them 8-2 in the third period, including 5-1 in a 6-5 comeback win on Nov. 1.

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