Western Conference playoff field all set – Familiar faces get reacquainted

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After the Wild disposed of the Dallas Stars and put the Chicago Blackhawks into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed, it set the table for the Western Conference playoffs to have a familiar feel to it all. While there’s some new flavor in some of the pairings, there’s a couple match-ups that will look really familiar to fans from last year.

1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 8. Chicago Blackhawks

For the third straight season these two teams will meet in the playoffs. This time it’s in the first round and this time it comes with Vancouver in a much more dominant position. They’re the Presidents’ Trophy winners, they’ve been killing it all season long and now they have destiny set things up nicely for them so they can exorcise the demons of playoffs past right off the bat. Should Vancouver get over this psychological mountain in the form of a Blackhawks team living like they’ve been granted a new life, they’ll be very dangerous to deal with throughout the playoffs.

Chicago will instead hope to get in the Canucks heads like they have in the past and pull off a tremendous upset in their effort to retain the Stanley Cup. For Vancouver, this series has a Ric Flair feel about it: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

2. San Jose Sharks vs. 7. Los Angeles Kings

An all-California playoff series is something we’ve been rooting for to happen for all season long and with all three California teams in the playoffs, things broke down perfect to get these two to face off against each other. The Sharks have the “playoff choker” thing still following them around but that doesn’t apply to this team. Antti Niemi has been lights out, they’ve got a host of new blood in the form of Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski to go along with the quietly monstrous year from Patrick Marleau as well as his running crew of Joe Thornton, Devin Setoguchi, and Dany Heatley. The Sharks are firing on all cylinders now and very dangerous.

Los Angeles meanwhile is hurting without Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Their offense isn’t as lethal as it once was without them and it’ll be up to Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown to score goals while Jon Quick will need to be lights out to keep the Kings involved. One thing they’ll really need is for Drew Doughty to once again look like the Norris Trophy finalist he was last year. He’s been off a bit and they could really use big production at both ends of the ice from him.

3. Detroit Red Wings vs. 6. Phoenix Coyotes

They meet yet again. Last year it was Detroit ending Phoenix’s dream season in Game 7 in the desert during the first round of the playoffs. These two teams are more than familiar with each other and they’ll get to dance once again, this time with Detroit having home ice advantage. Detroit’s been a bit erratic to close out the year and they’ll start their series without Henrik Zetterberg. They’ll have a fully healthy defensive corps with Niklas Kronwall returning but they’ll need to be tough offensively to deal with the tough Coyotes defense.

Phoenix has been similarly hot and cold going into the end of the season and matching up against a skilled veteran squad like Detroit means they’ll have to be especially sharp. It’s a dangerous draw for both teams as they each have parts of their game that the opponent can struggle with. Phoenix’s physicality can give Detroit fits and the Wings’ savvy in big moments frustrates the Coyotes. If Shane Doan can break out his “DoanFace” a couple more times, the Coyotes might be able to finally make the second round.

4. Anaheim Ducks vs. 5. Nashville Predators

What a brawl this one should be. Both teams play overtly physical hockey. Anaheim comes in with offense to burn with Rocket Richard trophy winner Corey Perry and old man dominator Teemu Selanne scoring tons of goals. Not to mention Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan along with defensemen Cam Fowler and Lubomir Visnovsky, these Ducks aren’t like the Ducks from 2007 that won the Cup and would mug your grandmother to do it. The Predators are going to have to add that kind of snarl to the series if they’re going to win their first playoff series in franchise history.

Goaltender Pekka Rinne will need to be the best player for Nashville while they try to generate offense from Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist, and Steve Sullivan. The Preds have been here before and at some point they’re going to get through. Whether or not captain Shea Weber can rally his team to do it this time against a Ducks squad that’s been uber-dangerous the last two months should make for some great drama and even better hockey.

Devils sign d-man Michael Kapla

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The New Jersey Devils have signed UMass-Lowell defenseman Michael Kapla to a two-year, entry-level contract.

Kapla, 22, had three goals and 27 assists in 41 games this season. He’ll report to the Devils and likely burn the first year of his ELC by making his NHL debut sometime very soon.

The Devils host the Winning Jets tonight. They’re in Brooklyn Friday to play the Islanders.

Kapla spent four years in college. Per the Devils’ press release, he “most recently captained the River Hawks to the 2017 Hockey East Championship. He also received Hockey East All-Tournament Team honors and was named to the Hockey East Second All-Star Team.”

 

Report: Penn State sophomore Pedrie leaves school, signs with Rangers

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For the second straight day, the Rangers have landed an undrafted college free agent.

Vince Pedrie, a sophomore blueliner that just wrapped his sophomore campaign at Penn State, has reportedly agreed to terms with the Rangers on an entry-level deal, per the Collegian.

Citing a post from Pedrie’s Facebook account confirming the move, the Collegian reports the 23-year-old is the youngest Nittany Lion in program history to leave the team for the professional ranks.

It comes after Pedrie emerged as a “dominant offensive force” for the club last season, racking up 30 points in 39 games while helping Penn State qualify for its first NCAA championship appearance.

As mentioned above, this is the second intriguing prospect to join the Blueshirts in as many days. On Monday, University of Minnesota senior Vinni Lettieri agreed to join the team after an impressive four-year career with the Gophers.

Hjalmarsson says ‘Hawks are ‘too comfortable’ after rough trip through Florida

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When most people take trips to Florida, it’s to get away from the stress and struggle of everyday life. But it’s safe to say that this edition of the Chicago Blackhawks won’t want to remember their visit to the Sunshine State.

The ‘Hawks dropped an embarrassing 7-0 decision to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night before blowing a 4-1 lead in last night’s game against the Bolts (they eventually lost 5-4 in OT).

They still have a comfortable lead atop the Central Division (eight points up on the struggling Wild), but they aren’t satisfied with their play.

“It’s getting close to the end here and we’re getting a little bit too comfortable maybe,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said, per the Chicago Tribune. “As soon as you do that, you’re going to lose games … At the same time I’m glad that we were playing like this before the playoffs so we can make some adjustments.

“Eighty-two games is a long season. It’s a mental grind more than anything. As soon as you’re not there 100 percent, it’s going to show in the scoring.”

As Hjalmarsson said, six games is still enough time to figure things out for Chicago. They just won’t have the luxury of facing easy opponents when they do try to sort out their struggles.

They’ll play the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Wednesday before returning home to play Columbus and Boston. They’ll then head back on the road to close out the season in Denver, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

PHT Morning Skate: This season’s top five breakout performers

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Jake Allen wore a special U.S. Navy tribute mask during last night’s game against the Coyotes. It’s really a gorgeous mask. “The blue and yellow complements our colors well, and it’s a great tribute to the Blue Angel pilots who have the honor of flying and performing across the country.” (NHL.com/Blues)

–With every NHL season, there are surprises and disappointments. Rather than focus on the negatives, The Hockey News breaks down the top five breakout seasons in 2016-17. At the top of the list is Panthers forward Jonathan Marchesault, who is shockingly closing in on a 30-goal season. Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson and Boston’s David Pastrnak have also made names for themselves. (The Hockey News)

–It’s no secret that NHLers are forced to travel a lot, but each team makes the most of their road trips in different ways. For example, Kevin Shattenkirk and the Capitals enjoy fine dining when they’re away from home.  “It’s so easy to go to the top names or the ones that you hear of all the time, but when you go to a lot of these cities, the food scenes everywhere now are really starting to improve. A lot of my friends naturally are foodies. They bring me to some of their places. Even just a simple Google, most of the times, the first two things that come up are Yelp or TripAdvisor, and I usually go a couple down and look at a local newspaper, if they have the best spots to eat in 2017. I like to focus on those.” (Washington Post)

–The Tampa Bay Lightning found themselves down 4-1 in lasts night’s game against Chicago, but they were able to battle back and win in a thrilling overtime period. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Tonight will mark the first time that Jordie and Jamie Benn play against each other since the trade that saw the older Benn head to Montreal. The Canadiens took the opportunity to ask their Benn some questions about what it was like growing up with his brother. Here’s a sample question: “Of the two of you, which one is Peyton and who is Eli?” (NHL.com/Canadiens)

–This year’s rookie class with Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Zach Werenski, Mitch Marner and Matt Murray is one of the best in recent memory, but which other freshmen classes stand out? BarDown takes a look at the top five rookie classes since 2000. (BarDown)

–Capitals forward Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky had some fun during picture day. The two players showed up to the rink with some pretty poofy hair. There’s no point in me trying to explain it when you can see the pictures for yourself. (NHL.com)