The Rangers are back on the road to the Stanley Cup one year after coming up short in the final against the Kings. But the Blueshirts won't sneak up on anyone as they did last postseason after winning the Presidents' Trophy this year.
If New York's other playoff entrant, the Islanders, can reach the Stanley Cup Final, more than a few fans will be surprised. The once-cruising Isles slowed down toward the end, but still avoided a wild card seed.
Read on for thoughts and predictions for each first-round series in the Eastern Conference.
Rangers (53-22-7, 113 points) vs. Penguins (43-27-12, 98 points)
The Blueshirts outplayed the Pens throughout the season, winning three of four matchups and only losing the other in a shootout -- something that can't happen in the postseason. With the Rangers at as close to full strength as teams get come playoff time -- Kevin Klein's likely absence aside -- their superior all-around team should be able to handle a Pittsburgh team missing its top defensemen, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta.
Pick: Rangers in four
Capitals (45-26-11, 101 points) vs. Islanders (47-28-7, 101 points)The Isles' recent struggles -- just six wins since March 1 -- don't bode well for them against Washington, which could be a postseason sleeper. John Tavares can't carry the entire scoring load, but he might be forced to do so. That will be the Islanders' downfall in their Long Island swan song.
Pick: Capitals in sixCanadiens (50-22-10, 110 points) vs. Senators (43-26-13, 99 points)
Carey Price may be capable of carrying the Habs all the way, and that's hard to discount given how important strong goaltending is at this time of the season. Ottawa admirably clawed their way into the postseason, but their momentum may hit a wall against Montreal.
Pick: Canadiens in six
Lightning (50-24-8, 108 points) vs. Red Wings (43-25-14, 100 points)
Like the Rangers against the Pens, Tampa Bay controlled the season series against Wings, 3-0-1. But Detroit's defense isn't in such dire straits as that of Pittsburgh -- although left winger Justin Abdelkader's status isn't set yet. It shouldn't matter. The Lightning are just better.
Pick: Lightning in five