Paul Mara, Gregory Campbell

Which of the first round series will be the most (and least) exciting?

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Now that we’ve gotten the more run-of-the-mill prediction posts out of the way, it’s time to get down to the more fun/arbitrary stuff. First things first, I thought I’d rank the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs’ first round series from most exciting to least exciting.

Note: Keep in mind that exciting doesn’t just mean “most intriguing stories.” The expected quality of the on-ice product means a lot, too. Also — and this isn’t just lip service — it’s important to note that all eight series have something going for them. This should be a fantastic first round.

1. Vancouver vs. Chicago

For the third consecutive year, the Canucks will try to beat the Blackhawks in a best-of-seven. Even without Dustin Byfuglien’s big body giving Roberto Luongo fits, this is about as interesting an eighth seed matchup as Vancouver can get. History isn’t the only reason this should be fun, though, as there’s plenty of talent on both sides of the ice.

2. Philadelphia vs. Buffalo

One underrated story going into this series is Danny Briere vs. Buffalo. Don’t forget, the Briere-led Sabres skated circles around Philly in a series that would eventually doom then-coach Ken Hitchcock and the Forsberg fueled Flyers. Along with that sneaky history comes two teams with plenty of variety on offense, with Philadelphia’s superior overall talent crashing head-first with Buffalo’s Ryan Miller trump card.

3. Boston vs. Montreal

Some people probably expected to see this series at No.1, but the one thing that holds me back is that both teams are defense-first clubs. In other words, the moments that aren’t hate-inspired and contentious could involve some really drab hockey. Hopefully the vitriol and raucous crowds (especially in Montreal) will help these teams transcend their yawn-inducing styles.

4. Washington vs. NY Rangers

This one would be higher if last year’s Capitals were involved, but believe it or not, the Rangers actually scored nine more goals than Washington this season. So on the negative side, this probably won’t be played a breakneck pace.

That being said, it should be a contentious series (the Caps cannot be happy about 6-0 and 7-0 losses from earlier this season) and might be evenly matched if Henrik Lundqvist plays like his all-world self.

5. Detroit vs. Phoenix

Hopefully this series will resemble 2010’s shockingly good (and surprisingly competitive) seven-game slugfest. One thing that points in the favor of solid series: Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is looking for a payday with his contract expiring in July. It probably won’t be enough for him to shut down the Red Wings’ high octane offense (even without Henrik Zetterberg), but it might motivate him to produce some inspired moments.

6. Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay

This would be great series with a 100 percent Sidney Crosby versus a full-strength Steven Stamkos, but Crosby probably won’t play and Stamkos seems a few strides short of his best work. With the Penguins low on ammo, they’ll probably try to make this a straight-forward series with little offensive artistry. On the bright side, Pittsburgh throws a lot of pucks on net so it shouldn’t be all bad.

7. Anaheim vs. Nashville

If the Ducks’ trio of top-end power forwards gets loose, this could be very entertaining. Simply put, watching Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan make music together is a pretty special thing. Heck, Teemu Selanne isn’t half bad himself.

Unfortunately, Predators coach Barry Trotz is too smart to let that happen, so these games could be a little dull at times. Then again, Nashville might show some serious fire because this might be their best chance to get to the second round for the first time ever.

8. San Jose vs. Los Angeles

These two teams hate each other, which should make for a spirited Battle of California.

Sadly, the two squads aren’t very evenly matched, which means the Kings might try to drag these games down to a slower, lower level. One cannot blame them since they’ll be skating without Anze Kopitar, but we don’t have to like it, either.

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So what do you think? Which series are you the most excited to see? Let us know in the comments.

NBC and NBCSN have you covered for Hockey Day in America

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With two games on NBC and then two more on NBCSN, your Sunday should be jam-packed with Hockey Day in America action. A look at the hockey hotbed of Warroad, Minnesota adds a delectable cherry on top, too.

If you need a guide to this party of pucks and patriotism, look no further than this post.

Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and the dominant Capitals take on Ryan McDonagh and the Blueshirts. The Metropolitan Division represents some of the NHL’s upper crust, so don’t be fooled by the Rangers being the first wild card while the Caps are tops in the East; both of these teams can go. Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will be there to call the action.

MORE: For Oshie, ties to Warroad run deep

Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins, 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC

Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk will be in the booth for this battle between teams that met in back-to-back Stanley Cup Final series in 2008 and 2009. Along with usual suspects like Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg, these teams feature American scorers such as Dylan Larkin and, of course, Phil Kessel.

Chicago Blackhawks at Buffalo Sabres, 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN

The action shifts to NBCSN as Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks hope to teach Jack Eichel and the upstart Sabres a lesson or two. The Blackhawks are in playoff position, as usual, while Buffalo is rallying to try to make a push of its own. Gord Miller and Joe Micheletti will be your guides.

MORE: Islanders forward Brock Nelson’s journey from Warroad to the NHL

Boston Bruins at San Jose Sharks, 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Hockey Day in America’s coverage closes off with this matchup between David Backes‘ Bruins and Joe Pavelski‘s Sharks. Randy Hahn, Andy Brickley and Bret Hedican will take you through this match between the Pacific Division’s top team and a Bruins team fighting to stick in the East playoff picture.

Barkov’s beautiful goal pushes Panthers into playoff position

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 26: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers circles the net with the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Blue Jackets 2-1 in a shoot out. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers just won’t be denied as they end the night in the East’s top eight.

It’s fitting, then, that Aleksander Barkov wouldn’t be denied on his game-winner against Los Angeles on Saturday.

Barkov bursts beyond multiple Kings, fights off what would have been an obstruction penalty and then beats Peter Budaj by the narrowest of margins to give the Panthers a 3-2 lead 15 seconds into the third period. They would never relinquish that edge to Los Angeles, winning their fourth game in a row.

In the process, the Panthers – a team that seemed to be fledgling when it fired Gerard Gallant – now find themselves in the East’s top eight. Heck, they’re actually above the wild card fray by a hair.

Before we get to that … just bask in the glow of this Barkov goal:

Again, it was such a small window to beat Budaj, too:

(If the Panthers’ place in the standings doesn’t sway you into taking them seriously, maybe note plays like that and the fact that Barkov has 20 points in his last 17 games.)

OK, so with this win, the Panthers did some serious leapfrogging. They now rank third in the Atlantic Division (thanks to a game in hand on Boston) and have more points than Toronto as far as wild card concerns go, anyway.

Atlantic Division rankings

1. Canadiens – 70 points in 59 games
2. Senators – 68 points in 56 games
3. Panthers – 64 points in 57 games

Bruins – 64 in 58
Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Sabres – 62 in 59
Lightning – 58 in 57
Red Wings – 56 in 58

From a wild card perspective

Third in Atlantic – Panthers – 64 points in 57 games
Second wild card – Bruins – 64 in 58

Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Islanders – 62 in 57
Sabres – 62 in 59
Flyers – 61 in 58
Devils – 60 in 58
Lightning – 58 in 57
Hurricanes – 56 in 54
Red Wings – 56 in 58

Everything’s so close that the Panthers can’t pop champagne bottles, but they’re also very much in control over their hopes. While it never hurts to see your competitors stumble, the Panthers can take care of business. They “control their own destiny,” to use silly sports parlance.

And considering how they’ve been playing lately, they might be as tough to handle in the playoffs as Barkov was to stop on that outstanding 3-2 goal.

Stars made Dave Strader’s return to the booth special

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It was a special night as the Dallas Stars beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in overtime, but the most memorable moment wasn’t the win or Antoine Roussel‘s hat trick.

Instead, it was how the team embraced Dave Strader’s return to the broadcasting booth as he continues to fight cancer.

Don’t be ashamed if his comments to the Dallas Morning News leave you emotional:

“This is the first time, to be honest with you, that for four hours I didn’t feel like I was sick at all,” Strader said after the game. “Maybe it was the adrenaline high, but I really, really feel great right now.”

Again, the team really did some great things to welcome him back, but the highlight was saluting him after the game. Incredible stuff.

“What a gesture by the boys … meant so much to me and my wife! Thank you.” Strader tweeted after the game.

As this post notes, Strader is expected to do play-by-play for four more Stars games.

Add allowing center-ice goal to Brian Elliott’s rough season

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So far, there’s just one goal in tonight’s Calgary Flames – Vancouver Canucks game. And it wasn’t a good one.

The Canucks couldn’t manage a shot on goal for more than half of the first period, maybe putting Brian Elliott to sleep … as Alexander Edler scored the 1-0 goal from center ice on Vancouver’s first shot that actually got on net. Ouch.

It’s already been a tough season for Brian Elliott, who came into Saturday with an .898 save percentage.

Elliott was perfect through the rest of the first two periods, so we’ll see if Calgary can overcome that gaffe.

Update: The Canucks ended up winning 2-1 in overtime. Ryan Miller was the better of the two goalies in this one.