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NHL playoffs preview: A look at each series matchup

In a finish that supports Commissioner Gary Bettman’s claims about parity ruling the NHL, the final Stanley Cup playoff spots and matchups weren’t determined until the final weekend of the season.

The Nashville Predators finished No. 1 in the Western Conference and in the league, but the Vegas Golden Knights became the biggest surprise by finishing first in the Pacific Division in their first season. The Kings got back in as a wild-card team a year after their miss led to the dismissal of coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi, and the Ducks and San Jose Sharks joined them in the playoffs for a California trifecta.

In the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning skidded to the finish but got the No. 1 seeding when the Boston Bruins lost to the Florida Panthers on Sunday. The New Jersey Devils qualified for the first time since their 2012 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Kings, and the Philadelphia Flyers joined them after missing out last season. The two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins reached the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season, the longest active streak in the NHL.

The team with the best record in each conference plays the wild-card team with the fewest points, and the other division winner faces the other wild-card team. The second- and third-place teams within each division face each other.

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The first-round winners within each bracket will meet to determine the four conference finalists. Shown below, the winners across the top and across the bottom will face each other in a conference semifinal. Those winners will meet in the conference final.

A look at the matchups:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

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Kings captain Anze Kopitar had 92 points (35 goals, 57 assists) this season.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press )

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VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

51-24-7, 109 points

KINGS

45-29-8, 98

Season: Even, 2-1-1

Power play: Golden Knights 21.4% (11th); Kings 20.4% (17th).

Penalty killing: Golden Knights 81.4% (12th); Kings 85% (1st).

Top scorers: Golden Knights, William Karlsson 43-35—78; Kings, Anze Kopitar 35-57—92.

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Outlook: Vegas’ speed and relentless work ethic carried the Golden Knights to the Pacific Division title, and their home record of 29-10-2 was among the NHL’s best. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s three Stanley Cup titles with the Pittsburgh Penguins will benefit a team that hasn’t experienced pressure together. The Kings, who got bounce-back seasons from Kopitar and Dustin Brown (28 goals, 61 points), started strong but later struggled against speedy teams. Jonathan Quick won the Jennings Trophy for playing at least 25 games with the team that gave up the fewest goals. Jeff Carter’s return from a lacerated ankle tendon boosted their offense, but their defense might be vulnerable without injured Jake Muzzin and Derek Forbort.

Pick: Kings in seven.

Schedule

Game 1: Wednesday at Vegas, 7

Game 2: Friday at Vegas, 7

Game 3: Sunday at KINGS, 7:30

Game 4: April 17 at KINGS , 7:30

Game 5*: April 19 at Vegas, 7

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Game 6*: April 21 at KINGS, TBD

Game 7*: April 23 at Vegas, TBD

*if necessary; times PDT

RELATED: Iafallo optimistic about being ready for Kings’ playoff opener with Knights

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Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf has 118 points (37 goals, 81 assists) in 121 career postseason games.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press )

DUCKS

44-25-13, 101

SAN JOSE SHARKS

45-27-10, 100

Season: Sharks, 3-0-1

Power play: Ducks 17.8% (23rd); Sharks 20.6% (16th).

Penalty killing: Ducks 83.2% (5th); Sharks 84.8% (2nd).

Top scorers: Ducks, Rickard Rakell 34-35—69; Sharks, Brent Burns 12-55—67.

Outlook: Injuries to a half-dozen key players held the Ducks back early in the season but they managed to stay within reach of the playoff pack. They won their last five games and went 10-1-1 to finish second in the Pacific. Rakell set a career mark in goals, Ryan Getzlaf worked magic by collecting 50 assists in 56 games and winger Ondrej Kase (20 goals) gave them third-line scoring. Ryan Kesler has been his usual abrasive and gritty self despite hip problems. But without injured Cam Fowler (shoulder) their power play urgently needs a new quarterback. The Sharks limped to the finish and are not expected to have Joe Thornton (knee), but Evander Kane was an effective addition up front. This should be a physical series that puts defense first.

Pick: Ducks in six.

Schedule

Game 1: Thursday at DUCKS, 7:30

Game 2: Saturday at DUCKS, 7:30

Game 3: Monday at San Jose, 7:30

Game 4: April 18 at San Jose, 7:30

Game 5*: April 20 at DUCKS, TBD

Game 6*: April 22 at San Jose, TBD

Game 7*: April 24 at DUCKS, TBD

*if necessary; times PDT

RELATED: Gibson skates in practice and could be in goal for Ducks in Game 1

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P.K. Subban finished tied for eighth among defensmen in points (59) in his second season with the Predators.
(Nick Wass / Associated Press )

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

53-18-11, 117

COLORADO AVALANCHE

43-30-9, 95

Season: Predators, 4-0

Power play: Predators 21.2% (12th); Avalanche 22.0% (8th).

Penalty killing: Predators 81.9% (6th); Avalanche 83.3% (4th).

Top scorers: Predators, Filip Forsberg 26-38—64; Avalanche, Nathan MacKinnon 39-58—97.

Outlook: The Predators are deeper than they were last spring, when they reached the Cup Final. They won the Presidents’ Trophy for compiling the NHL’s top record and defied tradition by touching the trophy, but they should be immune to any trophy-touching jinx thanks to their quick, skillful forwards, an exceptionally mobile defense, and the feats of goaltender Pekka Rinne (2.31 goals-against average, .927 save percentage). The Avalanche made a stunning turnaround from worst in the NHL last season to grab the second wild-card spot, led by MVP candidate MacKinnon. But losing goalie Semyon Varlamov and defenseman Erik Johnson to injuries late in the season will be too big a strain on Colorado’s depth.

Pick: Nashville in five.

Schedule

Game 1: Thursday at Nashville, 6:30

Game 2: Saturday at Nashville, noon

Game 3: Monday at Colorado, 7

Game 4: April 18 at Colorado, 7

Game 5*: April 20 at Nashville, TBD

Game 6*: April 22 at Colorado, TBD

Game 7*: April 24 at Nashville, TBD

*if necessary; times PDT

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Jets right winger Blake Wheeler had a career-high 68 assists, tied with the Flyers’ Claude Giroux for the most overall.
(Jason Halstead / Getty Images )

WINNIPEG JETS

52-20-10, 114

MINNESOTA WILD

45-26-11, 101

Season: Jets, 3-1

Power play: Jets 23.4% (5th); Wild 20.4% (18th).

Penalty killing: Jets 81.8% (9th); Wild 81.3% (13th).

Top scorers: Jets, Blake Wheeler 23-68—91; Wild, Eric Staal 42-34—76.

Outlook: The Jets finished strong, winning 11 of their last 12 games. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck had a breakout season and shared the league lead in wins (44) while compiling a 2.36 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Center Paul Stastny was an excellent trade-deadline acquisition who gives them many scoring options, Wheeler tied for the NHL lead in assists (68) while having a career-best point total (91), and Patrik Laine was second in the NHL with 44 goals. Winnipeg is well balanced. The Wild won only four of their last 10 games and lost key defenseman Ryan Suter to a broken ankle; they’ll miss him badly. Staal’s 42 goals were the most he’s scored since 2005-06, and Zach Parise is hitting his stride after recovering from back surgery, but that won’t be enough.

Pick: Winnipeg in five.

Schedule

Game 1: Wednesday at Winnipeg, 4

Game 2: Friday at Winnipeg, 4:30

Game 3: Sunday at Minnesota, 4

Game 4: April 17 at Minnesota, 5

Game 5*: April 20 at Winnipeg, TBD

Game 6*: April 22 at Minnesota, TBD

Game 7*: April 25 at Winnipeg, TBD

*if necessary; times PDT

EASTERN CONFERENCE

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Right wing Nikita Kucherov’s 100 point season was only the third in Lightning history. Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis both accomplished the feat in 2006-07.
(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press )

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

54-23-5, 113

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

44-29-9, 97

Season: Devils 3-0

Power play: Lightning 23.9% (3rd); Devils 21.4% (10th).

Penalty killing: Lightning 76.1% (28th); Devils 81.8% (8th).

Top scorers: Lightning, Nikita Kucherov 39-61—100; Devils, Taylor Hall 39-54—93.

Outlook: The Lightning backed into the Atlantic Division title and No. 1 seed in the East when the Bruins lost to Florida on the last day of the regular season. Center Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 86 points) sat out the last week because of a lower-body injury and his status is unclear. He practiced on Monday with no apparent limitations but if he’s less than 100%, Tampa Bay will have a tough time. Hall is having an MVP-caliber season, but after him the drop-off in scoring is steep: Nico Hischier, last year’s No. 1 draft pick, is next at 52 points. Tampa Bay had five players with more than 60 points but Hall was the only Devil to score that many. But there’s something resilient about the Devils and Keith Kinkaid’s goaltending.

Pick: Tampa Bay in seven.

Schedule

Game 1: Thursday at Tampa Bay, 4

Game 2: Saturday at Tampa Bay, noon

Game 3: Monday at New Jersey, 4:30

Game 4: April 18 at New Jersey, 4:30

Game 5*: April 21 at Tampa Bay, TBD

Game 6*: April 23 at New Jersey, TBD

Game 7*: April 25 at Tampa Bay, TBD

*if necessary; times PDT

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Left winger Brad Marchand led the Bruins with 85 points (34 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games this season.
(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press )

BOSTON BRUINS

50-20-12, 112

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

49-26-7, 105

Season: Maple Leafs 3-1

Power play: Bruins 23.5% (4th); Maple Leafs 25% (2nd).

Penalty killing: Bruins 83.7% (3rd); Maple Leafs 81.4% (11th).

Top scorers: Bruins, Brad Marchand 34-51—85; Maple Leafs, Mitch Marner 22-47—69.

Outlook: When Marchand wasn’t suspended or fined for committing dirty deeds he was scoring clutch goals, including eight game-winners. The Bruins were sixth in goals scored per game (3.26) and fourth in goals against (2.57), so they’re balanced and can get by if Rick Nash (concussion) doesn’t return soon. They got an infusion of energy from U.S. Olympian Ryan Donato, who had five goals and nine points in 12 games but will miss young defenseman Brandon Carlo (fractured ankle). The Maple Leafs were fourth in scoring at 3.29 goals per game but Frederik Andersen faced 33.9 shots per game while setting a club record with 38 wins. Auston Matthews (34 goals, 63 points in 62 games) will have to fight through tight checking.

Pick: Maple Leafs in seven.

Schedule

Game 1: Thursday at Boston, 4

Game 2: Saturday at Boston, 5

Game 3: Monday at Toronto, 4

Game 4: April 19 at Toronto, 4

Game 5*: April 21 at Boston, TBD

Game 6*: April 23 at Toronto, TBD

Game 7*: April 25 at Boston, TBD

*if necessary; times PDT

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This season Capitals left wing Alexander Ovechkin notched his 1,000th career point three months before appearing in his 1,000th career game.
(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press )

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

49-26-7, 105

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

45-30-7, 97

Season: Capitals, 3-1

Power play: Capitals 22.5% (7th); Blue Jackets 17.2% (25th).

Penalty killing: Capitals 80.3% (16th); Blue Jackets 76.2% (27th).

Top scorers: Capitals — Alex Ovechkin 49-38—87; Blue Jackets — Artemi Panarin 27-55—82.

Outlook: Will having little pressure and no Presidents’ Trophy on their resume lighten the Capitals’ playoff baggage and propel them past the second round? They can score: Ovechkin nearly hit 50 goals and Evgeny Kuznetsov set career marks in goals (27) and points (83) but goaltender Braden Holtby struggled enough to lose his job to Philipp Grubauer. That leaves coach Barry Trotz with a tough call. The Blue Jackets were happy to avoid the Penguins but they’ll get all they can handle from the Capitals. Injuries cost forward Nick Foligno and defenseman Markus Nutivaara time late in the season, and they’ll have to contribute in order to give the Blue Jackets a chance.

Pick: Capitals in six.

Schedule

Game 1: Thu. at Washington, 4:30

Game 2: Sunday at Washington, 4:30

Game 3: April 17 at Columbus, 4:30

Game 4: April 19 at Columbus, 4:30

Game 5*: April 21 at Washington, TBD

Game 6*: April 23 at Columbus, TBD

Game 7*: April 25 at Washington, TBD

*if necessary; times PDT

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Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin led the Penguins in goals (42) and points (98).
(Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press )

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

47-29-6, 100

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

42-26-14, 98

Season: Penguins, 4-0

Power play: Penguins 26.2% (1st); Flyers 20.7% (15th).

Penalty killing: Penguins 80% (17th); Flyers 75.8% (29th).

Top scorers: Penguins, Evgeni Malkin 42-56—98; Flyers, Claude Giroux 34-68—102.

Outlook: The Penguins scored five goals in each of their regular-season games against the Flyers and had three players among the top 10 scorers: Malkin, Phil Kessel (34 goals, 92 points) and Sidney Crosby (29 goals, 89 points). Yet, despite having the NHL’s most potent power play, the Penguins finished with only two more points than the Flyers over the course of the season. They need goalie Matt Murray to regain his 2017 playoff form. Goaltending looms as a problem for the Flyers, who only recently got Brian Elliott back. The Flyers must stay out of the penalty box and be disciplined. Even then, they’re a longshot against a team that has won eight straight playoff series.

Pick: Penguins in six.

Schedule

Game 1: Wednesday at Pittsburgh, 4

Game 2: Friday at Pittsburgh, 4

Game 3: Sunday at Philadelphia, noon

Game 4: April 18 at Philadelphia, 4

Game 5*: April 20 at Pittsburgh, TBD

Game 6*: April 22 at Philadelphia, TBD

Game 7*: April 24 at Pittsburgh, TBD

*if necessary; times PDT

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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