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Watch out for Penguins, Ovechkin in first round

Who looks dangerous, who may be in trouble, as Stanley Cup Playoffs begin

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The games are about to begin. The Stanley Cup is waiting. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. The two weeks of first-round action in the Stanley Cup Playoffs typically are the most intense and exciting of the season, with 16 teams trying to get 25 percent closer to the ultimate goal.

Whom should you be watching when the games get under way Wednesday? Who needs to step up? Who's under pressure? Who's on the hot seat? Who's coming back from injury?

Check out celebrated sports cartoonist Ed Murawinski's colorful take on the quest for the Cup.

Here are some thoughts to consider…

IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE

You don't want to play … the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That's the draw for the New York Rangers, and it's a brutal one. The Penguins have won 14 of their past 16 games, scoring 63 goals in the 14 wins. They've done it mostly without Evgeni Malkin.

For the Rangers, this series is much different from the one last season, when these two teams met in the first round and New York won in five games.

Whereas last season the Rangers were probably thrilled to get the Penguins because of their injury-riddled lineup, Pittsburgh enters this series with the speed advantage thanks in part to former Rangers forward Carl Hagelin.

Hagelin has been a key part of one of the best lines in the NHL in the past month, with Nick Bonino at center and Phil Kessel on the right wing.

In addition, center Sidney Crosby might be the NHL's MVP since Christmas, with defenseman Kris Letang running close behind.

Video: PIT@WSH: Crosby nets breakaway for slick GWG in OT

You need to watch … Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr, 44, was arguably the Florida Panthers' MVP during the regular season. The veteran right wing had 27 goals and 66 points in 79 games. He scored .835 points per game, the most he's averaged since .865 in 2007-08, when he played for the Rangers.

Jagr is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, when he went without a goal in 22 games with the Boston Bruins. He still had 10 assists to help Boston reach the Stanley Cup Final. He has one goal in 33 playoff games since returning to the NHL from Russia in 2011.

Video: FLA@OTT: Jagr slams home Barkov's pass in front

The player with the most pressure on him is … Alex Ovechkin.

The Washington Capitals are entering their eighth consecutive postseason with Ovechkin, their top left wing and captain; they have never played beyond the second round in that span.

Ovechkin's production has dipped significantly in his postseason career, compared to his regular-season output. He's averaging .50 goals per game in his playoff career (36 goals in 72 games), and .626 goals per game in the regular season (525 in 839).

It's easy and fair to chalk that dip up to sample size, but the drop-off has been more severe in the past three seasons. Ovechkin has only six goals in his last 35 playoff games. He scored 50 goals this season, the third straight he has scored at least that many.

Video: WSH@STL: Ovechkin gets to 50 goals with hat trick

The coach who needs to win is … Jack Capuano.

Capuano, who is in his sixth season with the New York Islanders, enters the playoffs without No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak, forward Anders Lee and potentially defenseman Travis Hamonic, who plays 25 minutes per game in a shutdown role.

Those are big blows, but Capuano has to find a way to coach through it. If he can't, it's conceivable that he'd go right onto the coaching hot seat.

This is the third time Capuano has taken the Islanders to the playoffs, but the organization hasn't had a playoff series win since 1993. The Islanders lost to the Penguins in six games in 2013 and to the Capitals in seven games last season.

Video: New York Islanders 2015-16 season recap

The most important player returning from injury is … Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury, the Penguins' goalie, missed the last five games with a concussion, but he returned to practice on Monday. He's still questionable for Game 1 against the Rangers on Wednesday.

It's huge for the Penguins if Fleury can start not only because he's their veteran, their No. 1, but also because rookie backup Matt Murray sustained an upper-body injury Saturday and is considered day-to-day. The Penguins don't want to go with their third option, Jeff Zatkoff.

Fleury had a .921 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average this season. He had a 2.12 GAA and .927 save percentage in five playoff games last season.

Video: PIT@NYR: Fleury shuts down Stepan all alone in front

IN THE WESTERN CONFERENCE …

You don't want to play … the San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks are a dangerous first-round opponent for the Los Angeles Kings because they've been better on the road this season and their best players have been their best players since a 14-14-1 start.

The Sharks set a franchise record for road wins (28) and points (59), ranking first in the NHL in both categories. They start the series at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Joe Thornton had 82 points, his most since he had 89 in 2009-10. Thornton had at least one point in each of the Sharks' last 33 wins of the season.

Joe Pavelski had 38 goals and 78 points.

Brent Burns was first in the NHL among defensemen with goals (27) and second in points (75).

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who missed the last 12 games of the season with an injury, should be ready to go for Game 1. He's San Jose's best all-around defenseman.

Goalie Martin Jones gets to start his first playoff series against his former team. The usually cool Jones has to stay that way. He hasn't succumbed to any pressure in his career.

Video: SJS@VAN: Couture's hat trick leads Sharks to 4-1 win

You need to watch … Corey Crawford.

Crawford, the Chicago Blackhawks two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie, allowed five goals on 25 shots against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. It was his first start since March 14. He missed 11 games with an upper-body injury.

The Blackhawks felt Crawford needed that one start to shake the rust, but it wasn't pretty and he likely still has some left on him. He has until Wednesday to get rid of it before the Blackhawks open the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center.

Crawford finished the season with a 2.37 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in 58 games (all starts).

Video: CHI@CBJ: Crawford denies Atkinson and Bourque

The player with the most pressure on him is … Ryan Getzlaf.

Getzlaf, the Anaheim Ducks captain, won the Stanley Cup nine years ago. His team has been built to win it for at least three years.

The Ducks lost in the Western Conference Second Round in 2014 and in the Western Conference Final last season. In fairness, they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions both times. However, it doesn't take away from the fact that they could have and, in some opinions, maybe should have advanced in each series. Both series went seven games.

It's not as if Getzlaf has been bad. He had 20 points, including 18 assists, in 16 games last postseason. He had eight assists against the Blackhawks. But the Ducks didn't win, so he takes part of the blame.

Now the pressure is on Getzlaf to deliver another Stanley Cup victory to Anaheim so that the Ducks can match the Kings with two. He had a brutal start to the season, but when he started playing better so did the Ducks. He's the engine that makes them go.

Video: ANA@COL: Getzlaf wrists it by Varlamov for a PPG

The coach who needs to win is … Ken Hitchcock.

The Blues haven't won a playoff series under Hitchcock since 2012. They've lost in the first round each of the past three seasons; they haven't even made it to a Game 7. They have scored only 38 goals in 18 games.

Hitchcock is on a one-year contract with the Blues for a reason. If he can't get this team out of the first round and deep into the playoffs he might not return next season, even if the Blues had another stellar regular season despite a myriad of injuries.

Video: St. Louis Blues 2015-16 season recap

The most important player returning from injury is … Tyler Seguin.

Seguin, the Dallas Stars top center, is attempting to come back from an Achilles injury that kept him out for the last 10 games of the regular season. He practiced with the Stars on Monday, but his status for Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday is unclear.

The Stars went 8-2 without Seguin, and they may even be able to survive for a while against the Wild, but it's hard to see them going far without him. He had 73 points in 72 games this season.

Seguin's presence in the lineup bumps Jason Spezza into the No. 2 center spot and Cody Eakin onto the third line, giving Ruff the ability to roll his lines the way he wishes.

Video: CHI@DAL: Seguin pads Stars' lead in the 2nd

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