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Playoffs Tonight: Blues challenge defending Stanley Cup champion Kings

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The playoffs start tonight and if we learned one thing from last year, it’s that any team can win, regardless of their seed.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at tonight’s action:

Game 1: The Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild (8:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Chicago got off to a historic 21-0-3 start this season and never really hit a major rough patch. The Wild did manage to eke out a shootout victory against the Blackhawks on Jan. 30, but Chicago won the other two matches.

The Blackhawks’ depth is incredible, but 28-year-old goaltender Corey Crawford still has a lot to prove when it comes to postseason hockey. Plus, the Minnesota Wild can use their status as the clear underdogs to their advantage.

“I think now that they’re in the playoffs, they feel they have nothing to lose and they can relax and play their game,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson told CSN Chicago.

Game 1: The St. Louis Blues host the Los Angeles Kings (8:00 p.m. ET, CNBC)

We haven’t seen a team win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back campaigns since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings. Can the Los Angeles Kings defy the odds and win it all again?

It’s hard to bet against the Kings given how spectacularly they cruised through the playoffs last season. Along the way they swept the Blues in the Western Conference semifinals and they were also perfect against St. Louis in the 2013 regular season.

All the same, St. Louis has a lot of offensive weapons, a stellar defense, and an incredibly hot goaltender in Brian Elliott. Regardless of what the Kings have done to them in the past, this isn’t a team that can be taken lightly.

Game 1: The Anaheim Ducks host the Detroit Red Wings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Detroit won four straight games to get into the playoffs while Anaheim has a mediocre 8-9-2 record in its last 19 games. So which Anaheim Ducks will show up for this series and will Detroit’s edge in momentum be the difference in Game 1?

33-year-old forward Johan Franzen wasn’t able to be a major player in Detroit’s last two postseason runs, but he averaged a point-per-game in April. He’s a big X-Factor in this series and so is 30-year-old netminder Viktor Fasth. It’s not even clear if Fasth will be the Ducks’ starter in Game 1, but can he continue his remarkable and unusual rookie season if he’s called upon?

Sharks swarm in the third period, take down Predators in Game 1

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For two periods, the San Jose Sharks couldn’t solve Pekka Rinne.

Maybe it was because of that black cat that found its way on to the ice prior to the start of Friday’s game, or the video review that didn’t go in San Jose’s favor in the opening period.

But that all changed in the final period. It started with Tomas Hertl on the power play finding room just under the glove of Rinne to get San Jose on the board. Joel Ward followed that up with a gorgeous deke, tucking the puck in behind Rinne just as he started to go behind the net, as San Jose was able to take advantage of a defensive breakdown.

Logan Couture added the eventual winner. Within the span of 13 minutes, the Sharks had completely taken over, cashing in on two Nashville penalties and a defensive lapse.

When the onslaught was over, the Sharks skated off with a 5-2 win in Game 1 of this second-round series with the Predators, who only wrapped up a seven-game series win over Anaheim on Wednesday.

Ryan Johansen made it interesting, cutting into San Jose’s lead with under two minutes remaining, but any further comeback attempt was quickly halted by a pair of empty net goals from the Sharks.

The game ended with a dust-up along the boards, before cooler heads did prevail.

Another North Dakota junior goes pro as Blackhawks sign Luke Johnson

Quinnipiac forward Tommy Schutt, left, moves the puck as North Dakota forward Luke Johnson, middle, checks Quinnipiac forward Travis St. Denis during the first period of an NCAA college hockey tournament game Friday, March 27, 2015, in Fargo, N.D. North Dakota won 4-1. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)
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Another day, another University of North Dakota player deciding to enter the professional hockey ranks.

This time, it was 21-year-old forward Luke Johnson who turned pro following his junior year, as he signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that selected him in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Draft.

In 43 games with the NCAA champs this season, Johnson scored 11 goals and 21 points, just shy of his college career high of 24 points set the previous year.

Johnson will forgo his senior year at North Dakota, making him the fourth member of that program’s junior class to turn pro since the end of the season. Keaton Thompson signed with the Anaheim Ducks, Troy Stecher inked with the Vancouver Canucks and Paul LaDue signed with the L.A. Kings.

Senior forward Drake Caggiula, now a free agent, has reportedly narrowed down his list of NHL suitors to six teams.

Brock Boeser, Vancouver’s 2015 first-round pick and coming off an impressive freshman year, will return to North Dakota for his sophomore year, as per Canucks general manager Jim Benning earlier this month.

Video: Black cat hits the ice before Sharks-Predators Game 1

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Perhaps it’s an ominous sign of bad luck to come, but for which team?

Prior to puck drop between the host San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators in Game 1 on Friday, a black cat hit the ice at SAP Center, taking a nervous stroll along the boards.

Not sure exactly where it came from, although it’s possible someone was feeling extra superstitious before the start of this series.

Official update on the really important story of the evening:

Speed, skill help Stars score late victory to take series lead over Blues

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The Dallas Stars scored a late winner, held on in the final minute and eventually struck first in their best-of-seven second-round series with the St. Louis Blues.

Once again, it was the speed and skill of the Stars that proved to be the difference in the end. Radek Faksa scored with less than five minutes remaining in the third period, breaking the deadlock and giving Dallas a 2-1 victory and 1-0 series lead over their Central Division foes on Friday.

As he entered the zone on the rush, Faksa dished off to a flying Ales Hemsky, who was denied by Brian Elliott in alone. But Faksa followed up, jamming in the rebound to give the Stars the lead, as both St. Louis defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo were caught by the speed of the Dallas forwards on the rush.

The Stars held on from there, as the Blues made a late push to tie the game.

Kari Lehtonen stopped 31 of 32 shots for Dallas, while Elliott was busy throughout the night, stopping 40 of 42 shots.

Elliott was furious after the Stars opened the scoring in the second period, as Antoine Roussel tallied on a rebound after yet another nice Dallas passing play in the offensive zone.

Stars forward Patrick Eaves left the game early in the third period and didn’t play another shift after being hit in the lower part of his leg with the puck from a point shot.