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2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round matchups

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Eastern Conference

New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens

Season series: Montreal 3-0-0, New York 0-2-1

This one’s been locked in for a while, with Montreal claiming the Atlantic Division crown and the Rangers locking up the Eastern Conference’s first wild card berth a few days ago. This will mark the first time these two Original Six foes have met in the playoffs since 2014, when the Rangers upended the Habs in the Eastern Conference Final.

That series is perhaps best remembered for the start of the Carey PriceChris Kreider feud. Price suffered a playoff-ending injury on a crease collision with Kreider in Game 1, and exacted a measure of revenge when the two teams met early in the following season.

Watch Rangers vs. Canadiens live on the NBC Sports app

Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins

Season series: Ottawa 4-0-0, Boston 0-3-1

This marks the first time the Sens will face the B’s in a playoff series. Ottawa’s back in the dance after missing last year, while Boston returns following a two-year postseason absence. There’s not a ton of history here, but both enter with some compelling storylines — the Sens, under first-year head coach Guy Boucher, overcame losing Clarke MacArthur to a concussion suffered during the preseason, and were without No. 1 netminder Craig Anderson for long stretches while his wife underwent cancer treatment.

Boston, meanwhile, pulled it together after the midseason dismissal of head coach Claude Julien, and rallied under new bench boss Bruce Cassidy. Several pieces of the ’11 Cup-winning squad still remain — Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Brad Marchand, most notably — and it’s worth mentioning that one of the few Cup winners on the Ottawa roster is Chris Kelly… who won it all six years ago with the B’s.

Watch Bruins vs. Senators live on the NBC Sports app

Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Season series: Washington 1-1-1, Toronto 1-1-1

All the pressure versus no pressure, really. The Caps head into the postseason as the NHL’s top team, boasting an absolutely loaded roster — which includes the blockbuster trade deadline acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk — and firmly in year two of GM Brian MacLellan’s two-year Stanley Cup window.

Simply put, the time in now for Washington.

For Toronto, this season was supposed to be about building for the future. But the future arrived early. The Leafs are in the playoffs after a miraculous turnaround, which saw them go from the worst team in the NHL to one of the league’s most entertaining squads. Three of the club’s top four scorers — Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner — are all rookies, and will make their Stanley Cup playoff debuts.

Watch Capitals vs. Maple Leafs live on the NBC Sports app

Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Season series: Columbus 2-1-1, Pittsburgh 2-1-1

The Blue Jackets are going to the playoffs for just the third time in franchise history, but will face the Penguins for the second time in three years. Back in ’14, Columbus lost 4-2 to Pittsburgh in the opening round, but the series provided some unforgettable moments at Nationwide, including a pair of OT victories (one of which was Columbus’ first-ever postseason win).

For most of this season, Pittsburgh was a popular pick to repeat as back-to-back champion, but those predictions took a hit when No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang was lost for the year with a neck injury. Letang was a vital cog to last year’s Stanley Cup win, and he’ll be undoubtedly missed. How that absence plays out against Columbus will be a focal point of the opening round.

Watch Penguins vs. Blue Jackets on the NBC Sports app

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators

Season series: Chicago 4-1-0, Nashville 1-4-0

This has turned into a pretty healthy playoff rivalry, and will be the third series between the two in the last seven years. Chicago enjoyed another terrific regular season — 50 wins, 109 points — and now looks to get back to another Stanley Cup Final, after bowing out in the opening round to St. Louis last season. The ‘Hawks have never lost a series to the Preds, and they’ll aim to keep that streak going.

Nashville’s had an up-and-down campaign, and it’ll be interesting to see if that trend carries over to the postseason. Something worth keeping an eye on? The Preds were dynamite at home this year, posting a 24-9-8 record at Bridgestone, but weren’t great on the road. No playoff team had a worse away record than Nashville’s 17-20-4 mark.

Watch Blackhawks vs. Predators on the NBC Sports app

Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues

Season series: Minnesota 2-2-1, St. Louis 3-2-0

The big storyline here will be Blues head coach Mike Yeo going up against his former club. The Wild fired Yeo last February after five years at the helm, but he wasn’t unemployed long — St. Louis hired him four months later as the coach-in-waiting behind Ken Hitchcock, who was in his final year behind the bench.

Yeo’s ascendancy happened quicker than expected. Blues GM Doug Armstrong fired Hitchcock on Feb. 1, and the team quickly righted the ship under Yeo, eventually finishing third in the Central Division (thanks in large part to the improved play of goalie Jake Allen).

The Wild have an interesting coaching angle of their own. Bruce Boudreau, who was fired by Anaheim after crashing out in the opening round last year, has done a terrific job in his first season in Minnesota. The Wild won 49 games and racked up 106 points, to finish as the second-best team in the Western Conference.

Watch Wild vs. Blues on the NBC Sports app

Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames

Season series: Anaheim 4-1-0, Calgary 1-4-0

This one was decided late — very late. Anaheim waited until the final night of the regular season to secure top spot in the Pacific Division and for that, they’ll face a fairly familiar foe in Calgary.

The Ducks and Flames met in the second round of the ’15 playoffs, with Anaheim breezing to a relatively easy 4-1 series win. As mentioned above, the Ducks were a major disappointment last year — losing in Round 1 to Nashville — and shook things up by firing Boudreau, and hiring Randy Carlyle. Carlyle is, of course, the same coach that led Anaheim to its first and only Stanley Cup championship back in 2007.

For the Flames, first-year bench boss Glen Gulutzan has one mission: Win a game in Anaheim. It’s been an incredible 11 years since Calgary last tasted victory in Orange County. Given the Ducks have home ice advantage, the Flames will have to win at least one game at Honda.

Watch Ducks vs. Flames on the NBC Sports app

Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks

Season series: Edmonton 3-1-1, San Jose 2-3-0

The NHL’s longest playoff drought is over, as Edmonton will go dancing for the first time since 2006. Led by potential Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid and workhorse netminder Cam Talbot, the Oilers now get to face off against… the defending Western Conference champs.

On paper, a tough draw.

But on the ice, this has all the makings for a really intriguing series. Aside from McDavid’s playoff debut, there’s also Todd McLellan factor to consider. McLellan took the job in Edmonton after an incredibly successful seven-year run in San Jose. He’s still the club’s all-time leader in wins.

Health will be a big factor for San Jose, as both Joe Thornton and Logan Couture were hurt late in the season.

Watch Oilers vs. Sharks on the NBC Sports app

WATCH LIVE: Kraft Hockeyville featuring Penguins vs. Blues

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to host the St. Louis Blues to celebrate the latest edition of Kraft Hockeyville USA, with the game beginning at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

You can watch it online and via the NBC Sports App.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Find out more about Kraft Hockeyville winner Belle Vernon, Pa. in the video above this post’s headline (and also in this post). The game itself is taking place at UPMC Lemieux Sports complex in Cranberry, Pa.

NHL.com captures some of the spectacle, as about 2,000 fans showed up and players signed autographs during what sounded like a very fun event.

Speaking of very fun, all signs point to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin being among those players suiting up for the game itself.

Predators marvel at Fiala’s ‘beautiful’ work in preseason win

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Confession: It was difficult to shake the memory of Kevin Fiala‘s frightening injury from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you need a reminder of the scary moment that ended what seemed like a breakthrough run, the video can be seen above this headline.

Another confession: personally, there’s been some concern about how well Fiala can bounce back, at least early on. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the young forward is his blazing speed; what if that’s been taken away from him?

Now, scoring two goals in the Nashville Predators’ 5-3 preseason win against the Columbus Blue Jackets doesn’t mean Fiala will avoid missing a beat in 2017-18.

Forgive Predators fans for getting excited, anyway, especially with goals like these.

Wow.

Filip Forsberg got borderline-romantic about what Fiala did on Sunday, and again, can you really blame him?

Again, the true tests for both Fiala and the Predators begin in October. Still, it’s better to look impressive at this time of the year instead of to go in slow (or injured, as the unlucky St. Louis Blues seem to be doing).

Gaudreau, other NHL players approve of crackdown on slashing

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When slash after slash broke one of Johnny Gaudreau‘s fingers, he called it part of the game.

The Calgary Flames winger known as “Johnny Hockey” is one of the NHL’s most marketable players, so broken bones should be a problem.

Slashing has become such a regular element in NHL games that it necessitated 791 minor penalties last season with countless more going uncalled. Gaudreau’s broken finger and Marc Methot‘s lacerated pinkie brought enough attention to the issue that the league is taking a stronger stand on flagrant slashing this year to cut down on injuries and obstruction.

“I think it’s tough for the refs to make those calls in games: You don’t really know how bad a slash is,” said Gaudreau, who sat out two and a half weeks after surgery to repair a fractured finger on his left hand. “But if they can harp down or look at it a little more closely, I think it might cause a little less injuries. Guys won’t be missing substantial time. I think it’d be huge.”

It was impossible to ignore slashing when Sidney Crosby sliced Methot’s finger open during a game in March, forcing the defenseman to miss three weeks. No penalty was called, and Crosby didn’t receive any supplemental discipline.

After members of the league’s competition committee recommended a closer look at slashing, officials have been instructed that it’s OK to call it more this season. NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom said the rise in slashing over the past decade came about after the stricter enforcement of hooking and holding following the 2004-05 lockout with players finding new tactics to slow the game down.

“Players started slashing in between the hands and on the hands, and the whacking became hacking became something that became the norm in the game,” Walkom said. “It’s time to have a stronger enforcement to let the players know what they can and can’t do. If you’re going to be whacking a player’s hands six, eight feet from the puck, there’s a good chance that you’re going to be penalized if it’s seen by the officials on the ice.”

So many slashing penalties were called in the first few preseason games that it was somewhat comical. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere understands slashing but said he doesn’t know if it should be a penalty when no one knows why the whistle was blown.

Walkom sent a note reminding referees that the intent was to focus on slashes around the hands, not every time a player’s stick hits an opponent in the heavily-padded pants. Slashing at players’ hands will not only be an area of emphasis on the ice but also from the league office where new vice president of player safety George Parros is watching closely.

The former enforcer said slashes delivered with greater force or directed at players’ fingers will be met with fines and/or suspensions.

“We’re going to try and change player behavior,” Parros said. “We’re certainly trying to get rid of a pattern of a certain type of slash. If that’s like a harder slash on the fingertips as opposed to maybe in the elbow pad or something, that might be something we look at. And if it’s a pattern of a certain type of location slash or if it’s a pattern of a player, we’re going to look to eliminate both of those.”

Reducing unnecessary injuries is just one piece of this tighter enforcement. As with the crackdown on the hooking, holding and interference that mucked games up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, fewer slashes should open the ice up for offensive players at even-strength and potentially lead to more power plays.

“In some ways it’s going to put even bigger premium on getting body position and not being stuck in a position where you have to reach for a guy,” Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner said. “Usually that’s a positive sign for getting more opportunities to produce.”

St. Louis Blues coach Mike Yeo said he already noticed players slashing less often a few games into the preseason. That’s one of the intended consequences of calling certain types of slashes more.

“The players are the smartest people in the game relative to the game and they will adjust because nobody wants to sit in the penalty box,” Walkom said. “A lot of it’s reflex and habit, but the players will break old habits with a consistent enforcement.”

Old habits die hard, but it’s easier than healing broken bones.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Looks like Coyotes dodged a bullet with Oliver Ekman-Larsson

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The Arizona Coyotes’ defense really rose up the NHL ranks during this summer, but how impressive would that group look with star Oliver Ekman-Larsson out of the lineup?

There was fear that another Coyotes young blueliner would face a setback as far as knee injuries go, yet the news seems positive for “OEL.”

Coyotes GM John Chayka considers him day-to-day with a knee injury, and it doesn’t sound like there’s any structural damage.

No kidding.

In other Coyotes news, the team made Pierre-Olivier Joseph (the 23rd pick of the 2017 NHL Draft) one of their training camp cuts. So not all good news for prominent Coyotes with hyphenated names, although you could argue that POJ(?) might be better off receiving additional seasoning.