The Canadian Press takes a look at the NHL's first-round playoff matchups - InfoNews

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The Canadian Press takes a look at the NHL's first-round playoff matchups

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews, left, steps onto the ice as left wing Matt Martin looks on during a practice session in Toronto on Monday, April 9, 2018, as the team prepares for their opening playoff round against the Boston Bruins. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
April 09, 2018 - 8:51 AM

With the NHL playoffs set to begin Wednesday, The Canadian Press takes a look at all eight first-round series.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ATLANTIC DIVISION

(1) Tampa Bay Lightning versus (4) New Jersey Devils

The Lightning backed into the division's top seed when the Boston Bruins lost to the Florida Panthers on home ice in the final game of the regular season. That life line is good news — at least on paper — as Tampa avoids the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. The Lightning boast the league's No. 1 offence led by Nikita Kucherov's 100 points, while Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman anchors the blue line in front of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Devils are paced by Taylor Hall, who will be making the first playoff appearance of his eight-year career. The former Edmonton Oilers winger's 93 points this season were 41 more than New Jersey's second-leading scorer. Keith Kincaid took over the crease as the Devils pushed for the playoffs before securing the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, but veteran netminder Cory Schneider remains in the picture should he falter.

Head-to-head season series: Lightning 0-2-1; Devils 3-0-0

Pick: Lightning in five

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(2) Boston Bruins versus (3) Toronto Maple Leafs

All but locked into the division's No. 3 seed for weeks, the Leafs watched as the Bruins and Lightning jockeyed for first. Boston blew a chance to clinch top spot over the weekend with that loss to Florida, setting up a meeting between the league's fourth- and seventh-ranked clubs. Toronto's young lineup featuring Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander earned valuable experience in last spring's first-round loss to the Washington Capitals, while Boston's roster led by veterans Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara is battle-tested. The Leafs won three of four meetings this season, but there wasn't much to choose between the clubs. Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen and Boston counterpart Tuukka Rask have near identical save percentages at .918 and .917, respectively. While there's been plenty of turnover on each side since the teams' last post-season meeting in 2013, neither fanbase will soon forget how Toronto blew a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 that paved the way for Bergeron's dramatic overtime winner.

Head-to-head this season: Leafs 3-1-0; Bruins 1-2-1

Pick: Leafs in six

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METROPOLITAN DIVISION

(1) Washington Capitals versus (4) Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus had the fourth-best regular-season record in 2016-17. Their reward? A first-round matchup with the No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blue Jackets bowed out in five games, victims of the NHL's divisional playoff format. This year's test against Washington won't be any easier after Columbus grabbed the East's first wild-card spot. Alex Ovechkin's 49 goals led the league for the seventh time. The Capitals have not made it out of the second round in 20 years. Will Washington finally takes that next step in the Ovechkin era? The Capitals will have to get past the Blue Jackets first.

Head-to-head season series: Capitals 3-1-0; Blue Jackets 1-3-0

Pick: Capitals in 7

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(2) Pittsburgh Penguins versus (3) Philadelphia Flyers

The Penguins and Flyers combined for 56 goals, including scores of 10-3, 8-5 and 8-4, the last time they met in the playoffs back in 2012. While it's unlikely there will be that type of offensive deluge this time around, the series features four of the league's top-10 scorers — Claude Giroux (102 points) for Philadelphia, and Evgeni Malkin (98 points), Phil Kessel (92 points) and Sidney Crosby (89 points) for Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania rivals flat out don't like each other. Can the Flyers knock off the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins after consecutive gruelling springs? Or does Pittsburgh have enough gas in the tank to push forward on its quest for a three-peat?

Head-to-head season series: Penguins 4-0-0; Flyers 0-2-2

Pick: Penguins in six

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WESTERN CONFERENCE

CENTRAL DIVISION

(1) Nashville Predators versus (4) Colorado Avalanche

The Predators and Avalanche had very different goals heading into this season. Nashville was looking to get back to the Cup final after falling to Pittsburgh last spring, while Colorado was coming off a miserable 48-point season. The Predators took the first step on their mission by winning the Presidents' Trophy with 117 points. The surprising Avalanche finished with 95 points — 47 more than they earned in 2016-17 — to get back in the playoffs for just the second time since 2011. Colorado centre Nathan MacKinnon, who had 97 points this season, is a Hart Trophy candidate after helping to drag his team back to respectability. But the Predators' deep forward group and stud defence backstopped by Vezina Trophy contender Pekka Rinne is a difficult hill to climb.

Head-to-head season series: Predators 4-0-0; Avalanche 0-3-1

Pick: Predators in five

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(2) Winnipeg Jets versus (3) Minnesota Wild

The Jets will be making their second trip to the playoffs in their second incarnation after going out with a whimper to the Anaheim Ducks in four games back in 2015. Led by captain Blake Wheeler, sniper Patrik Laine, a tough blue line and Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg looks ready to give the city its first series win since the old Jets advanced to the second round in 1987. Paced by Eric Staal, Minnesota had a great start to the second half of the season, but has slowed a bit in recent weeks. A broken ankle suffered by star defenceman Ryan Suter will also be tough to overcome. This series could light the fuse for a heated geographic rivalry moving forward.

Season series: Jets win 3-1-0; Wild 1-3-0

Pick: Jets in six

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PACIFIC DIVISION

(1) Vegas Golden Knights versus (4) Los Angeles Kings

The Knights have exceeded expectations time and again. The first modern expansion team in North America's four major professional sports leagues to finish first in its division in its inaugural season, Vegas faces a tough challenge in the battled-tested Kings. The speedy Knights, accented by William Karlsson's 43 goals, were an offensive juggernaut, while the stingy Kings did it with league's best defence featuring 2016 Norris winner Drew Doughty. Another regional rivalry in the making, this one could go the distance.

Head-to-head this season: Knights 2-1-1; Kings 2-1-1

Pick: Kings in seven

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(2) Anaheim Ducks versus (3) San Jose Sharks

Both teams head into this series with question marks. Anaheim starter John Gibson hasn't played since suffering an upper-body injury on April 1. Veteran backup Ryan Miller, who has plenty of playoff experience, will get the call if the Vezina contender is unable to go. San Jose, meanwhile, heads into the playoffs after going 1-4-1 over its final six games. The Sharks made the Cup final two seasons ago, but were bounced in the first round by Edmonton last spring. The California rivals have only met once in the playoffs, with the Ducks winning in six games back in 2009.

Head-to-head this season: Sharks 3-0-1; Ducks 1-1-2

Pick: Sharks in six

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