After six weeks of hopeful excitement that his New Jersey Devils would face the New York Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs, Erik Haula had a simple, sarcastic take: “Here we are.”
And the playoffs are finally here, too.
Devils vs. Rangers in another chapter of their bitter Hudson River rivalry is one of the juiciest of the eight first-round matchups, two of which needed the final game of the regular season to determine them.
The Eastern Conference is set, featuring the NHL-best Boston Bruins against the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division bracket, along with Rangers-Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes against the New York Islanders on the Metropolitan side.
In the West, MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers face the Los Angeles Kings, and the Pacific Division champion Vegas Golden Knights go up against the Winnipeg Jets. The defending champion Colorado Avalanche finished first in the Central Division and open their Stanley Cup defense against the Seattle Kraken, while the Dallas Stars will face the Minnesota Wild.
The chase for the Cup begins Monday.
Game 1: Monday at Boston.
The Bruins set league records with 65 wins and 135 points, skating away with the Presidents' Trophy and home ice throughout the playoffs. Goaltender Jeremy Swayman said of the wins record, “It’s a feather in our cap, but we have a bigger goal in mind.”
Boston has it all, from 61-goal-scorer David Pastrnak and elite two-way center Patrice Bergeron to top defenseman Charlie McAvoy and likely Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Linus Ullmark.
Florida finished 30 points lower than a year ago. but thanks to a late surge behind journeyman netminder Alex Lyon, the Panthers got in as the second wild card. Few NHL playoff series are easy to win, but the Bruins are heavy favorites.
Game 1: Tuesday at Toronto.
This tantalizing matchup, locked in for some time, is a rematch from the first round last year, when the Lightning rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to win in seven games.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly have yet to win a playoff series in Toronto. The Lightning have the playoff pedigree and the best goaltender in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy, but they've also played so much hockey because of three trips to the final — and two wins — since the fall of 2020.
Toronto is favored, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. On paper, the team that added 2019 Stanley Cup winner and playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly among several trade deadline pickups is better than Tampa Bay and looks ready to advance.
Game 1: Tuesday at New Jersey.
The Devils won three of the four games between the teams this season, and their speed presents a challenge for the Rangers. Jack Hughes is in the playoffs for the first time, coming off a 99-point season to lead the Devils, who signed Cup-winning veteran Ondrej Palat.
New York benefits from the experience of a run to the East final last year and added Cup winners Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko at the trade deadline.
The Rangers also have the X-factor advantage in net with reigning Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin. New Jersey's Vitek Vanecek needs to be better than he was in the postseason for Washington; if he plays like he did early in the season, it could help the Devils advance.
Game 1: Monday at Carolina.
The Hurricanes lost forwards Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov to season-ending injuries and still won the division for a third consecutive year. They'd like to finally break through after consecutive second-round exits.
The first test is the Islanders, who are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence. Like good friend and fellow Russian Shesterkin, Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin could steal a series.
Carolina leads the league in goals by defensemen, spearheaded by offseason acquisition Brent Burns. Well-coached by Rod Brind'Amour, the Hurricanes could have any one of three goalies in net: Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta or young Pytor Kotchetkov.
Game 1: Monday at Edmonton.
McDavid and the Oilers fought back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Kings in the first round last year, and since bringing in defenseman Mattias Ekholm at the trade deadline have been better at keeping the puck out of their net. Rookie goalie Stuart Skinner will nonetheless be tested by seasoned Kings players like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty.
Los Angeles jettisoned two-time Cup-winning goalie Jonathan Quick for Joonas Korpisalo, and the Kings outscored their problems despite a team save percentage of .892 that's fifth-worst in the league. That is an eye-catching stat for a team about to face the Oilers.
Edmonton is on a nine-game winning streak that includes two wins over the Kings and could be the class of the West thanks to McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and their newfound balance.
Game 1: Tuesday at Vegas.
In their first season with Bruce Cassidy coaching and with Jack Eichel healthy, the Golden Knights are back in the playoffs. They’ve made the playoffs in five of six seasons since coming into existence — and this season they are formidable no matter which goalie they have in net.
Winnipeg looked safely in until a late-season swoon put that in danger. The Jets up front and on defense will likely struggle against Vegas, but like so many lower-seeded teams they can win if Connor Hellebuyck dominates in net.
Game 1: Tuesday at Colorado
The champs won the Central Division despite playing the entire season without captain Gabriel Landeskog and missing playoff MVP Cale Makar, No. 1 center Nathan MacKinnon and others for long stretches because of injuries.
In the playoffs in their second season of existence, the Kraken beat Colorado in two of three meetings this season, and the Avalanche’s only win came in a shootout. That’s the Kraken’s reason for optimism.
But the Avalanche still have much of their Cup-winning core together plus coach Jared Bednar. Underestimate them at your own peril because another long run in Denver is distinctly possible.
Game 1: Monday at Dallas
Minnesota’s former team against Minnesota’s current team is also a showdown between two of the breakout stars in the sport: the Stars’ Jason Robertson and Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov. Robertson scored a career-high 46 goals and broke Mike Modano's franchise points record, while Kaprizov had 40 goals despite missing several to injury.
If Jake Oettinger can come anywhere close to his play in the first round last year when he stopped 272 of 285 shots against Calgary, Dallas could make a long run.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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