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.

Pretty or not, Senators aim to play their game vs. Penguins in Game 7

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that’s not exactly the case.

“I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times,” Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

“I think, if you believe you’re beaten, you’re done already,” Anderson said. “If you believe that you can win, there’s always a chance.”

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league’s marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren’t supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring’s Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they’ve survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan’s impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year’s East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents’ Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month.

“It’s not something that’s new to them,” Sullivan said. “These guys have been involved in these experiences on a number of occasions, and they have those experiences to draw on. You know, I think they know what to expect, and now it’s a matter of going out and earning it and controlling what they can and doing your very best to get the result that we’re looking.”

The Senators are 0-5 in Game 7s, the last setback coming in the first round to the New York Rangers in 2012. That was five years ago, a lifetime in the NHL. Ottawa rebuilt itself on the fly this season in coach Guy Boucher’s first year. Boucher favors discipline over daring, and while the stat sheet looked awfully one-sided in Game 6, the scoreboard did not.

The Senators understand they’re the underdog and that the idea of a Cup final between first-timer Nashville and a Canadian club from one of the smallest markets in the league won’t exactly draw eyeballs to the screen. They don’t care. They’ll try to play the way they always play on Thursday night. To be successful, they don’t really have a choice.

“We tried to win another way, and we got our butts kicked,” Boucher said.

While both Boucher and Sullivan are doing their best to try and keep their teams focused on the process and not the outcome, in some ways it’s a fool’s errand. It’s the only game all year that will end with the Prince of Wales Trophy presented – but not handed – to the winners. They know. The players do, too.

“I think it’s fun to kind of get lost in those moments and to just do what you can do,” Penguins goaltender Matt Murray said.

Just don’t confuse adrenaline with nerves.

“These are the games, when you’re a kid growing up, that you’re playing in the backyard, the Game 7s and that,” said 40-year-old Pittsburgh forward Matt Cullen, who could play in his final NHL game on Thursday. “So for us as players, this is what it’s all about.”

Game 7 offers the Penguins and their stars the opportunity to cement their legacy while the Senators can complete an improbable run to their sport’s biggest stage.

“We’re against a really good hockey team, the Stanley Cup champion, and we have a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals,” Senators forward Derick Brassard said. “We can’t ask for anything better than this, but we just have to have fun with that.”

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Related: Boring style is not a new topic for Senators

Predators are dominating the Stanley Cup Playoffs in rest

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If the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a battle of attrition, then the Nashville Predators are the side that always makes sure everyone has rations and a good place to sleep.

OK, that’s an esoteric way of saying that the Predators have managed to get rest while other teams work deep into playoff series. Consider the gaps that Nashville has seen during this postseason:

April 20: Nashville sweeps the Blackhawks with 4-1 win
April 26: Preds beat the Blues in Game 1 4-3. The Blues eliminated the Wild on April 22.

May 7: Predators eliminated the Blues with a 3-1 verdict in a Game 6.
May 12: They managed a 3-2 overtime win against the Ducks. Anaheim finished off the Oilers on May 10, generating such a quick turnaround that Randy Carlyle couldn’t resist grumbling about it after the series concluded.

May 22: Predators bounce the Ducks with a 6-3 win in Game 6.
May 29: They’ll face either the Penguins or Senators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Eastern Conference Final will end tomorrow (May 25).

People often debate about “rest vs. rust,” but those discussions sometimes gloss over the invisible benefits of merely not playing a game. If the Predators played a Game 7 against the Ducks, they may have suffered another injury. Not sweeping the Blackhawks could have made for a very different series.

Setting the table while others miss opportunities

In no way is this a dismissal of the Predators’ accomplishments. Instead, it’s praise for their mascot-appropriate “killer instinct.”

The Penguins, for instance, needed three tries to eliminate the Washington Capitals and now must face another Game 7 against a pesky Senators team. If Ottawa advances, they will have three more playoff contests under their belt, a highly relevant consideration when you consider how taxing this run has been for Erik Karlsson.

Now, the Predators won’t begin the Stanley Cup Final 100 percent. Ryan Johansen won’t magically get to play just because they get a week of rest rather than a few days.

Still, the Predators’ legs will be as fresh as they can be, which is a rare luxury for games played into June.

They’ve earned these breaks by eliminating teams in unflinching ways and by winning road games in tough situations. If they win it all, that reduced fatigue has to at least be considered one of the advantages that they leveraged to victory.

Young Mitch Marner meme isn’t lost on Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

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A couple of days ago, Mitch Marner was spotted at Pearson Airport in Toronto with a backwards baseball cap after flying back from a very impressive and productive run at the World Hockey Championship.

Hockey Twitter exploded with well-meaning laughter as the dazzlingly talented 20-year-old looked even younger than 20.

Even a few days later, it really is a sight to behold, whether you need a respite from politics or biting your nails about Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final:

As much as many of us deride this age of social media, it’s been a goldmine for self deprecating comedy from hockey players; as it turns out, Roberto Luongo doesn’t have that market completely cornered, either.

Not long ago, Auston Matthews jumped in on the Marner meme, and it was glorious:

To his credit, Marner himself joined in:

Is anyone else eager to see what these young stars come up with both on and off the ice during the next, oh, couple decades?

Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

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Ryan Johansen isn’t backing down about his criticisms of the way Ryan Kesler plays. Not after the Nashville Predators eliminated the Anaheim Ducks. Not as he recovers from emergency surgery.

That was the top bulletin-board material from a great interview Johansen participated in with TSN 1040 Vancouver on Wednesday, as the refreshingly candid forward discussed a wide array of topics.

For instance, Johansen:

  • Praised the hockey acumen of Nashville fans, backing up P.K. Subban‘s praise of the market.
  • Went into detail about his harrowing injury. Johansen explained that, at first, the seemingly innocent hit by Josh Manson would just be one of those “that’s going to leave a bad bruise” moments. Toward the end of the game, he was a shift or two from telling Peter Laviolette that he’d be a liability to his team. After the contest, he couldn’t even walk out of the shower, and that’s when medical staff determined that a painful injury required emergency surgery.
  • The bittersweet feelings of seeing his team advance to a Stanley Cup Final without him.
  • He spoke about how confident he felt during a postseason run that’s drawn rave reviews.

Still, the juicy stuff was about Kesler. That comes at around the 10:50 mark of an interview worth listening to in its entirety.

Nice. That’s basically the opposite of Detroit Red Wings players regretting shaking Claude Lemieux’s hand and maybe the other extreme of Martin Brodeur snubbing Sean Avery, right?

(It feels necessary to discuss Milan Lucic getting weird during the handshake lines, too. Ah, memories.)

Johansen admits that he was a Vancouver Canucks fan growing up, and while Kesler wasn’t one of his favorite players, he certainly cheered his endeavors. That … won’t happen again anytime soon, as you can note.

Johansen expects a full recovery from that surgery, so yes, we can all pencil in the rematch between those two Ryans in 2017-18.

Hot take: there won’t be handshakes.