Let it begin: 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs get under way tonight with five games

It’s time.

The playoffs begin tonight and to make sure that your excitement levels are at their absolute highest, five series drop the puck tonight with Game 1 of the first round.

Versus will have up to three games to bring you on the air tonight starting off with Detroit-Phoenix from Joe Louis Arena in Detroit before joining the Capitals and Rangers in progress upon its completion. Then late tonight it’s Chicago and Vancouver from Rogers Arena in Vancouver to cap off the night at 10 p.m. ET. Here’s the rundown of tonight’s action. All times are Eastern.

Tampa Bay @ Pittsburgh – 7 p.m.

No Sidney Crosby in the lineup as expected as he continues his rehab, but Pittsburgh kicks off the playoffs with their own most important player in goal in Marc-Andre Fleury. Can the Penguins and coach Dan Bylsma win the chess match against Tampa Bay and coach Guy Boucher in what they hope turns into a low scoring affair? The Pens will need wingers James Neal and Alex Kovalev to step up their games and help Jordan Staal from having to carry the full load.

Tampa Bay will look to their stars to step up in a big way, in particular Steve Stamkos whose torrid goal pace early in the season slowed down dramatically as the year rolled along. Now would be a great time to snap out of it. The real question for Tampa Bay is which version of Dwayne Roloson do they get? Do they get the guy who inspired the Lightning’s surge and stabilized them in goal or the guy who’s prone to fits of poor play. The Penguins surely won’t make it easy on him.

Phoenix @ Detroit – 7 p.m. (Versus)

One of the playoffs more intriguing match-ups is a rematch of last year’s first round. Detroit goes into Game 1 without Henrik Zetterberg out with a knee injury and without Mike Modano who is a healthy scratch. They’ll likely get Niklas Kronwall back in on defense and they’ll need that physicality against the Coyotes. Goals should be at a premium for Detroit with Ilya Bryzgalov in goal for Phoenix but they’ll be down a defenseman as Derek Morris is out with an upper body injury. Either David Schlemko or Oliver Ekman-Larsson will take his spot.

If there’s a game Phoenix would want to seize control of it’s this one. The Wings are more susceptible without Zetterberg and depending on how much longer he’s out, the Coyotes would be wise to win the games he’s not playing in because Detroit is that much better with him.

NY Rangers @ Washington – 7:30 p.m.  (Versus – Joined in progress)

The Capitals will be hoping to put the memories of last year’s first round failure fully behind them now and doing that against a Rangers team that has no quit in them and an all-world goalie to back them up will make that task difficult. The Caps dedication to defense should at least look nice against the Rangers as New York has a hard enough time scoring goals as it is. Alexander Ovechkin will get to bring his high scoring playoff tendencies to the forefront tonight all while Michal Neuvirth gets the call in goal for Game 1. The Rangers will be bringing some magic of their own starting Mats Zuccarello over Sean Avery as well as Matt Gilroy over Steve Eminger. Opting for offensive ability over defensive toughness and annoyance? We’ll see how long that lasts in this series.

Chicago @ Vancouver – 10 p.m. (Versus)

A series that starts off and makes it well worth the time to stay up late and check it out as there’s enough intrigue here to put a novelist to shame. Vancouver is the top team in the playoffs while Chicago took the back door into the postseason. Add that to Chicago having owned Vancouver the last two years in the playoffs and the pressure being immense on Roberto Luongo and the rest of the Canucks to win it all and it’s almost too much to handle.

Almost.

How the Canucks handle things tonight and whether or not they allow Chicago to dictate the pace and their presence on the ice will be watched closely. There’s no reason for Vancouver to be timid in this game and while they’ll have to handle those first ten minutes while Chicago looks to start twisting the psychological knife early the Canucks will have to hold strong if they want to prove us right and win the Stanley Cup this year.

Nashville @ Anaheim – 10:30 p.m.

We like this series to be the nastiest one of the first round and with the kind of snarl both teams play with it’s not a surprise. While the Ducks have the advantage in the offensive department with Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne doing their thing, the Predators have a distinct advantage in goal with Pekka Rinne going up against (most likely) Dan Ellis. The underrated feature of this series is the comparison of top defensemen. Anaheim rolls with offensive studs like Cam Fowler and Lubomir Visnovsky while Nashville has crushers like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. For a series that’s not getting a lot of attention, there’s more than enough star power here to keep your eyes locked on to it. Look for both teams to come out explosive tonight in Anaheim.

NCAA standout Foo leaving school, will sign NHL deal this summer

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Spencer Foo, who racked up a whopping 62 points in 38 games this year for Union College, is forgoing his senior season to achieve his “life long dream of playing in the NHL.”

Where that dream takes place remains to be seen.

Foo, 22, won’t be back at Union in the fall, but will complete his spring term at Union and not sign with a pro organization until summer, per the Daily Gazette. The decision comes after a banner three seasons in school, capped off with a junior campaign in which he was nominated for ECAC Hockey Player of the Year and shortlisted for the Hobey Baker.

Foo has reportedly drawn interest from the Flyers. There have also been rumblings of the Oilers being in the mix — Foo is an Edmonton native — but it appears nearly every team has some level of interest. Consider this, from LA Kings Insider:

The Kings are among the teams involved in [Foo’s] courtship, and asked where the stiffest competition was coming from, I was told, “about 29 other teams.”

Foo is an undrafted free agent, so there’s no real rush for him to make a decision. Sounds like NHL teams are more than willing to wait it out.

Announcing the Hobey Hat Trick: Aston-Reese, Butcher, Vecchione

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Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese, Denver’s Will Butcher, and Union’s Mike Vecchione are the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

Aston-Reese, a 22-year-old forward, had 31 goals and 32 assists in 38 games this season. Undrafted, he signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this month.

Butcher, a 22-year-old defenseman, had seven goals and 29 assists in 41 games for the Frozen Four-headed Pioneers. A fifth-round pick of the Avalanche in 2013, Butcher is still unsigned and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent Aug. 15. It remains to be seen if the Avs will offer him a contract, though it’s been reported they will.

Vecchione, a 24-year-old forward, had 29 goals and 34 assists in 38 games. Undrafted, he’s expected to sign with an NHL team shortly — possibly the Flyers or Wild.

Jimmy Vesey, Jack Eichel, and Johnny Gaudreau were the Hobey Baker winners in each of the last three years.

After 12-game absence, Boychuk back for Isles

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The New York Islanders, four points back of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and having lost their last two games, will get a huge boost tonight on the blueline.

Johnny Boychuk, who’s missed the last 12 games with a lower-body injury, will return to the lineup on Thursday when the Isles take on the Flyers in Philadelphia. It’ll mark the first time the veteran defenseman has played since getting hurt back on Mar. 3.

(Boychuk draws in at the expense of Thomas Hickey, who’ll sit tonight.)

Needless to say, this is a massive addition for the Isles. Boychuk was averaging close to 21 minutes per night and had 21 points through 59 games before his injury, and led all New York defensemen in shots on goal.

The Isles are going to be an interesting team to watch down the stretch. It’s tough sledding, with five of their final seven contests being played on the road, though that’s mitigated by the fact they’re playing a bunch of teams outside of the playoff picture (Philly, New Jersey x2, Buffalo and Carolina).

McAvoy has the talent to improve Bruins right now

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Charlie McAvoy could be in the Providence Bruins’ lineup as soon as Friday against Albany.

Providence also plays Saturday and Sunday, so even if it’s not Friday, the 19-year-old defenseman is expected to get his first taste of pro hockey sometime this weekend.

Of course, the real question is when his Boston Bruins debut may occur.

“He has the attributes to be able to play NHL games right now, absolutely,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney, per the Providence Journal. 

McAvoy has yet to ink an NHL contract. He’s in Providence on an amateur tryout after making the decision to leave Boston University. If he plays an NHL game this season, the first year of the three-year entry-level contract he’ll sign would be burned.

Hence, Sweeney’s desire to see McAvoy in the AHL before making any decisions.

“This gives an opportunity for him, first and foremost, to get a chance to play professional games, which is another level for him. [We’ll] evaluate from there,” said Sweeney.

It’s certainly possible, given McAvoy’s talent, that he could help the NHL Bruins right now. The bar is essentially Kevan Miller, Boston’s third-pairing defenseman on the right side. (If McAvoy were a left shot, the bar would be slightly lower, with all due respect to John-Michael Liles.)

The NHL Bruins, who’ve yet to book a playoff spot, have six games left in their regular season. They host Dallas tonight, Florida Saturday, and then they’re in Chicago Sunday.

Assuming McAvoy stays with Providence all weekend, his first real chance to get into an NHL game would be Tuesday against Tampa Bay.

Stay tuned.

Read more: Bruins will leave door ajar for McAvoy