Time flies when you follow a tedious, spirit-sapping lockout with a 48-game season that was crammed into 100 calendar days. The Kings will try to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, but, unlike last season, they won’t take anyone by surprise.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who had to break up their 2010 Cup team almost immediately because of salary-cap concerns, have rebuilt their reserves of talent and character and are the favorites.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins withstood injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to easily lead the East. Crosby, who broke his jaw in late March, was skating last week, but it’s unclear when he will return.
Here’s a breakdown of the Western and Eastern conference matchups:
1. Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5) vs. 8. Minnesota Wild (26-19-3)
Season series: Blackhawks 2-0-1.
Power play: Blackhawks 16.7% (19th); Wild 17.9% (16th).
Penalty killing: Blackhawks 87.2% (third); Wild 80.7% (18th).
Leading scorers: Blackhawks — Patrick Kane 32-23 — 55. Wild — Zach Parise 18-20 — 38.
Outlook: The Blackhawks dominated the West with a sustained level of excellence. Led by “Captain Serious,” Jonathan Toews, who’s a candidate for most valuable player and the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, Chicago has depth, speed and the toughness to back everything up. The Wild was lucky to grab eighth, a disappointing finish. Parise and Ryan Suter, who each signed 13-year, $98-million free-agent contracts last summer, had huge impacts. Suter, though only plus-two defensively, merits Norris Trophy consideration for his shutdown skills and overall command. The Wild can’t come close to matching the Blackhawks up front.
Prediction: Blackhawks in five.
2. Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6) vs. 7. Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8)
Records: Canucks 54-19-9, Blackhawks 44-29-9.
Season series: Detroit 2-1.
Power play: Ducks 21.5% (fourth); Red Wings 18.4% (15th).
Penalty killing: Ducks 81.5% (13th); Red Wings 81.7% (12th).
Outlook: The Ducks had a great start but struggled to score during the late stages of the season, and their goaltending swung wildly between superb and lamentable. Jimmy Howard gives the Red Wings steady goaltending and Henrik Zetterberg (11 goals, 48 points) has raised his game. For the Ducks to advance and quiet the big Detroit cheering section that always shows up in Anaheim, Getzlaf, Corey Perry and bruising defenseman Francois Beauchemin must be leaders and the second and third lines must produce.
Prediction: Red Wings in seven.
3. Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7) vs. 6. San Jose Sharks (25-16-7)
Season series: San Jose 3-0.
Power play: Canucks 15.8% (22nd); Sharks 20.1% (seventh).
Penalty killing: Canucks 84.0% (eighth); Sharks 85.0% (sixth).
Outlook: The Canucks got past a goaltending controversy and constant injuries on defense. Goalie Cory Schneider and defenseman Chris Tanev missed time late in the season because of undisclosed injuries and they must be healthy for the Canucks to avoid a second straight first-round upset. The Sharks have never lacked talent — they’ve lacked heart. Defenseman/winger Brent Burns has given them an emotional lift with his aggressive style and Logan Couture is a game-breaker.
Prediction: It’s tough to pick the eternally underachieving Sharks, but they seem grittier. Sharks in six.
4. St. Louis Blues (29-17-2) vs. 5. Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5)
Season series: Kings 3-0.
Power play: Blues 19.5% (12th); Kings 19.9% (10th).
Penalty killing: Blues 84.7% (seventh); Kings 83.2% (10th).
Leading scorers: Blues — Chris Stewart 18-18 — 36. Kings — Anze Kopitar 10-32 — 42.
Outlook: This should be physical, since both teams have big bodies who like to bash and crash. The Blues’ additions of Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester make them different from the team that lost three regular-season games to the Kings, but the Kings enhanced their depth on defense by adding Robyn Regehr and regaining Matt Greene after back surgery. Goalies Brian Elliott of St. Louis and Jonathan Quick of the Kings have hit their stride after slow starts. They’ll be difference-makers .
Prediction: Lots of bruises on both sides and the Kings winning in six.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0) vs. 8. New York Islanders (24-17-7)
Season series: Penguins 4-1.
Power play: Penguins 24.7% (second); Islanders 19.9% (11th).
Penalty killing: Penguins 79.6% (25th); Islanders 80.3% (21st).
Leading scorers: Penguins — Sidney Crosby 15-41 — 56; Islanders — John Tavares 28-19 — 47.
Outlook: Crosby missed the last 12 games of the season after breaking his jaw, and it’s unclear when he will return. He was due to see a doctor Tuesday in hopes of getting medical clearance. The Penguins still have enough depth up front to win, but their defense will be challenged by the Islanders’ fleet, young forwards. Tavares is a legitimate most-valuable-player candidate. He and usual linemates Matt Moulson (15 goals, 44 points) and Brad Boyes (10 goals, 35 points) can be dangerous.
Prediction: The Islanders will push the Penguins out of their comfort zone, but they’re not quite up to this task. Pittsburgh in six.
Season series: Tied 1-0-1.
Power play: Canadiens 20.7% (fifth); Senators 15.9% (20th).
Penalty killing: Canadiens 79.8% (23rd); Senators 88.0% (first).
Outlook: The Canadiens faded late in the season, but that shouldn’t obscure their remarkable climb from 15th last season to No. 2 this season. Their fate will hinge on Carey Price’s ability to regain his early-season form and if the sagging defense can regroup. Ottawa Coach Paul MacLean has done a great job steering his team through injuries to core players. Goalie Craig Anderson, who led the NHL in goals-against average (1.69) and save percentage (.941), has returned. So has last season’s Norris Trophy winner, Erik Karlsson. They’re capable to controlling the momentum.
Prediction: Ottawa in seven.
Season series: Rangers 2-0-1.
Power play: Capitals 26.8% (first); Rangers 15.7% (23rd).
Penalty killing: Capitals 77.9% (27th); Rangers 81.1% (15th).
Outlook: The Capitals finished with a 15-2-2 surge to finish atop the Southeast, the NHL’s weakest division. The Rangers went 10-3-1 down the stretch to crash the top eight and move up. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (2.05 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) should have some great confrontations with Ovechkin, the NHL’s top goal scorer. The Capitals had the league’s most potent power play thanks to Ovechkin, who scored a league-leading 16 power-play goals, and teammate Mike Ribeiro, who had a league-leading 21 power-play assists.
Prediction: Rangers in six.
Season series: Bruins 3-1.
Power play: Bruins 14.8% (26th); Maple Leafs 18.7% (14th).
Penalty killing: Bruins 87.1% (fourth); Maple Leafs 87.9% (second).
Outlook: The Bruins limped to the finish line, dropping to the fourth seed after losing their season finale. Their strengths are balance up front and the goaltending of Tuukka Rask (2.00, .929). They have talent, but do they have the will to regain the title they won in 2011? Toronto forward Nazem Kadri (18 goals, 44 points) blossomed this season into one of the NHL’s most dynamic players. But the Maple Leafs’ defense is thin after Dion Phaneuf and will be tested by the Bruins’ multifaceted forwards.
Prediction: Bruins in six.