Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins took so long to clinch a playoff berth, they almost missed the postseason altogether.
And the consequences are daunting for their tardiness in securing the Eastern Conference’s final spot on the last day of the season Saturday. The Penguins are back on Broadway for a second straight year in a rematch against the defending conference playoff champs and this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners, the New York Rangers.
“Yeah, we know them well, they know us well,” Crosby said. “So there shouldn’t be any surprise there.”
Surprise might a relative term given what happened in their second-round meeting last year. The Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead by scoring once in each of the final three games, including a 2-1 loss at Pittsburgh in Game 7.
The Rangers and Penguins open at New York on Thursday in one of four compelling East first-round matchups.
Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman faces his former team, the Detroit Red Wings, in a series that opens Thursday. There’s a provincial border battle brewing in Canada, with Ottawa facing Montreal, starting Wednesday. And two of the NHL’s top scorers face off starting Wednesday, when Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals meet John Tavares and the New York Islanders.
Here’s a glance at each of the four series:
RANGERS (53-22-7) VS PENGUINS (43-27-12)
The Rangers have plenty of momentum following a season in which they set franchise records for wins and 113 points. The last time New York broke those records was 1993-94, when the Mark Messier-led Blueshirts last won the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers have speed, depth and offense. And Henrik Lundqvist is on top of his game by showing no after-effects of a throat/neck injury that sidelined him for much of February and March. New York didn’t miss a beat without King Henrik, by going 18-4-3 in his absence.
The Penguins limped in to the postseason, going 3-9-2 before a 2-0 win over last-place Buffalo on Saturday.
“We’ve always been in there, and never cut it so close,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said of the Penguins extending their playoff streak to nine seasons.
Reinforcements are on the way to shore up a banged-up Penguins blue-line. Derrick Pouliot is set to return after missing two games with a lower-body injury. Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington were called from the minors to fill in for Christian Ehrhoff and Kris Letang, who are both out indefinitely with concussions.
CANADIENS (50-22-10) VS SENATORS (43-26-13)
Montreal’s Carey Price led the league with a 1.96 goals-against average, a 93.3 save percentage and 44 wins.
And yet, Price’s accomplishments were overshadowed somewhat of late by Ottawa’s so-called “Hamburglar.”
Goalie Andrew Hammond sparked Ottawa’s monumental 23-4-4 run to make the postseason. Hammond was called up from the minors in mid-February after starters Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner were sidelined.
“I’ve never had a stretch of hockey like this in my life,” said Hammond, who went 20-1-2.
He’ll need to keep it up against a balanced Canadiens team that’s strong on defense and featured six players with 15 or more goals. Max Pacioretty had a team-best 37 goals, but his status remains uncertain after missing the final two games with an upper body injury.
LIGHTNING (50-24-8) VS RED WINGS (43-25-14)
Red Wings veteran forward Henrik Zetterberg called it an honor to play alongside Yzerman, Detroit’s former captain. The difference is, Yzerman will be in the press box and not on the ice when the series opens at Tampa.
“It’s more of a headline for newspapers than anything else,” Zetterberg said.
The Steven Stamkos-led Lightning generated plenty of buzz by setting franchise records in wins and 108 points. Stamkos led with 43 goals on a team that had nine players score 12 or more. Yzerman deserves credit for assembling a team that features a mix of young talent, including Tyler Johnson, and veteran leadership, such as Ryan Callahan and former Detroit forward Valtteri Filppula.
The Red Wings are back in the playoffs for a 24th consecutive year, but feature several question marks. Goalie Petr Mrazek will make his postseason debut in place of Jimmy Howard, who has struggled since being sidelined by a groin injury in January.
CAPITALS (45-26-11) VS ISLANDERS (47-28-7)
Alex The Great led the Capitals back to the playoffs following a one-year absence by scoring 53 goals to win his fifth scoring title.
Now Ovechkin’s seeking something far more elusive: Playoff success. The Capitals have won just three postseason series, and failed to advance past the second round since Ovechkin arrived in D.C. in 2005-06.
Capitals first-year GM Brian MacLellan hopes that trend will finally change.
“For one of the better players in the league — he’s won a lot of individual awards — a team award, the Stanley Cup, would be pretty high on his priority list right now,” MacLellan said.
Washington faces an Islanders team that has enjoyed even less playoff success over the past 20 years.
New York reached the playoffs for only the third time in nine years, and hasn’t won a first-round series since 1993. That’s when the Islanders knocked off the Capitals in a six-game first-round set.
The Isles did it this year in a season in which they’re bidding farewell to their home, Nassau Memorial Coliseum, before moving to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next year.
AP Sports Writers Will Graves, Howard Fendrich and Noah Trister contributed.
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