National Hockey League

      ***** National Hockey League Previews from The Sports Network *****
                             Wednesday, April 16th
                              (All times Eastern)
 ( - The Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens will
 fight for an early postseason edge on Wednesday when they Bolts host the Habs
 in Game 1 of a best-of-seven playoff series.
 This first-round encounter pits the second and third-place team from the
 Atlantic Division against each other. Tampa finished with 101 points, beating
 the Canadiens by one point for home-ice advantage in the opening round.
 The 2013-14 regular-season series between the Lightning and Habs was extremely
 close with the clubs splitting four meetings, three of which were decided
 after regulation. The largest margin of victory came in the most recent
 encounter when Tampa Bay recorded a 3-1 home win on April 1.
 The first two games of this series are in Tampa, which also hosts Game 2 on
 Friday. The Lightning were 25-10-6 as the home club in 2013-14, but Montreal
 was solid on the road, going 23-15-3 as the guest this season.
 Tampa had lost three straight at home against the Canadiens before winning the
 encounter on April 1.
 The Lightning are led by star centerman Steven Stamkos, who is one of the most
 dangerous snipers in the league. This will be the 24-year-old's first playoff
 run as team captain, however, as he took over the "C" after Tampa traded
 Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers in early March.
 Stamkos missed months with a broken leg this season before returning to action
 in early March. Even without their top offensive weapon for much of the
 season, Tampa was able to post an average of 2.83 goals per game to place
 ninth in the NHL rankings.
 Tampa Bay survived without Stamkos in part due to the play of Ben Bishop
 between the pipes, but the No. 1 goaltender will not be available for Game 1
 due to an upper-body injury suffered on April 8.
 Bishop's absence leaves Anders Lindback as the de facto No. 1 option in net.
 Although the 25-year-old Swede was just 8-12-2 with a 2.90 GAA and .891 save
 percentage this season, his play since Bishop went down to injury earlier this
 month should inspire more confidence than those season totals. Lindback was
 named the NHL's First Star for the final week of the regular season after
 posting a record of 3-0-0 with a goals-against average of 0.67 and a .975 save
 Lindback's lone playoff appearance came in relief for Nashville during the
 2011 postseason. Kristers Gudlevskis, who expects to back up Lindback, saw
 action in his first NHL game on April 11 against Columbus and recorded the win
 with 36 saves.
 "We did not want his first game to be a playoff game," Tampa head coach Jon
 Cooper said of Gudlevskis. "We wanted him to feel the environment and get this
 out of the way and he was up to the task."
 Montreal, meanwhile, hopes goaltender Carey Price can be the team's strength
 in this series.
 Price, who anchored Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,
 had one of his finest NHL campaigns in 2013-14. The 26-year-old went 34-20-5
 over 59 games and set career bests in both GAA (2.32) and save percentage
 (.927). The playoffs have been a struggle for Price, however, as he owns a
 2.90 GAA and .905 save percentage over 30 career postseason appearances with
 the Habs.
 Price was 1-1-2 with an excellent 1.41 GAA in four games against the Bolts in
 Montreal's offense finished 21st in the NHL with just 2.55 goals per game, but
 Max Pacioretty was clearly the best offensive weapon for Montreal, pumping in
 a career-best 39 goals in 73 games to go with his team-leading 60 points.
 Still, the 25-year-old American has never scored in the postseason, failing to
 register a single point over four career playoff games.
 Habs general manager Marc Bergevin realized his team's lack of offense at the
 trade deadline and brought in sniper Thomas Vanek to try and help boost the
 club's scoring. Vanek, who started the season in Buffalo before getting dealt
 to the New York Islanders and eventually Montreal, recorded 15 points (6g, 9a)
 in 18 games with Montreal down the stretch. Overall, he had 27 goals and 68
 points in 78 combined games with Buffalo, New York and the Canadiens.
 Vanek has 15 goals and five assists over 36 career playoff games
 This series marks only the second playoff meeting between these franchises.
 The Lightning made quick work of the Canadiens back in the 2004 conference
 quarterfinals, sweeping Montreal in four games while outscoring the Habs 14-5.
 ( - The Columbus Blue Jackets begin just the second playoff
 run in franchise history, as they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday
 for Game 1 of a best-of-seven series.
 After getting swept in its lone playoff series, Columbus hopes to skate away
 with at least one victory in this opening round set despite being heavy
 underdogs against the Metropolitan Division champion Penguins.
 The Blue Jackets, who entered the NHL as an expansion team for the 2000-01
 campaign, didn't qualify for the postseason until 2009 when they lost all four
 games against Detroit in the first round. This time they enter the playoffs as
 the first wild card in the East and face a Pittsburgh team with the second-
 best record in the conference.
 Pittsburgh swept the Blue Jackets in 2013-14, winning all five encounters in
 regulation. The Pens have claimed six straight and 10 of 12 in the series
 The Blue Jackets and Pens were division rivals for the first time in 2013-14,
 as Columbus moved from the Western Conference to the East as part of the NHL's
 realignment plan for this season.
 Pens star Sidney Crosby racked up seven points (2g, 5a) in five meetings with
 the Blue Jackets this season. Pittsburgh's Chris Kunitz had six points on four
 goals and two assists, while James Neal added three goals and two helpers.
 Pens goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, went 3-0 with a 1.33 GAA in the
 season series.
 Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson was the best point-producer in the season
 series for Columbus, posting three assists over the five losses. One bright
 spot for the Blue Jackets was that No. 1 goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky only
 faced Pittsburgh once in 2013-14, missing the other four encounters due to
 injury or illness.
 On the other hand, Pittsburgh completely dominated the Jackets in special
 teams during the season series, going 5-for-19 on the power play while killing
 13-of-14 penalties.
 Pittsburgh cruised to a division title this season, taking the Metropolitan
 with 109 points -- 13 more than the second-place New York Rangers and a
 healthy Crosby was a big reason why. Crosby led the NHL in scoring with 104
 points this season and is the leading candidate for the 2013-14 Hart Trophy.
 Crosby's fellow star centerman Evgeni Malkin sat out the final 11 games of the
 regular season with a sprained foot, but he could be ready to go in
 Wednesday's Game 1.
 A bigger question for Pittsburgh heading into the postseason is whether Fleury
 will struggle again in net. Fleury anchored Pittsburgh's Cup win in 2009, but
 he has looked awful in the postseason since then and was even demoted to
 backup last spring.
 Fleury was replaced by Tomas Vokoun as the club's No. 1 goaltender after Game
 4 of the opening round against the New York Islanders and did not start
 another game in the playoffs as Pittsburgh was eventually eliminated by Boston
 in a conference final sweep.
 However, Pittsburgh is putting its faith in Fleury once again after he went
 39-18-5 with a 2.37 goals against average and .915 save percentage during the
 2013-14 regular season. In 80 games during his postseason career, Fleury is
 45-34 with a 2.73 GAA and .903 save percentage.
 "(I) remind myself I have one more Stanley Cup than a lot of people, so I know
 I can do it," Fleury said. "I think we have a solid team and I'll try my best
 to get to it again."
 The key to the series for Columbus resides in the crease where Bobrovsky could
 give the Blue Jackets a considerable edge should Fleury get another case of
 the postseason yips. Bobrovsky won the Vezina last season and proved that
 campaign was no fluke in 2013-14, going 32-20-5 with a 2.38 GAA and .923 save
 Bobrovsky has playoff experience from his time in Philadelphia, starting three
 postseason games while making relief appearances on four other occasions. He
 was 0-2 with a 4.04 GAA and .848 save percentage in those outings.
 Pittsburgh, which also will host Game 2 on Saturday, was 28-9-4 at CONSOL
 Energy Center this season. Columbus was 21-17-3 as the visiting team.
 ( - The Anaheim Ducks open the playoffs as the West's top
 seed and hope to get a quick start on Wednesday when they host the Dallas
 Stars at the Honda Center for Game 1 of a best-of-seven series.
 Few teams looked as unbeatable as the Ducks at the start of the season.
 But after a dominating effort for a good part of the season, Anaheim started
 to slip a bit heading into the Olympic break and had posted a mark of just
 14-12-3 during a 29-game span from Jan. 17-April 6.
 The Ducks then capped the regular season with four straight victories, but
 presumed playoff starter Jonas Hiller was not in net for any of those games.
 Hiller, in fact, did not play in seven of Anaheim's final eight games and has
 not won since March 26.
 Still, head coach Bruce Boudreau is likely to go with Hiller over the
 inexperienced Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, neither of whom have ever
 played in an NHL playoff game.
 Hiller's postseason numbers are not terrible, with the 32-year-old pending
 free agent having gone 10-10 with a 2.31 goals against average, .935 save
 percentage and three shutouts in 20 games.
 Given the fact that the Ducks led the NHL with 3.21 goals per game this
 season, Boudreau may be able to roll the dice with Hiller and hope the
 netminder can recapture the form that saw him post a club-record 14-game
 winning streak from Dec. 6-Jan. 12.
 Forward Corey Perry was second in the league with 43 goals to go along with a
 plus-32 rating, while center Ryan Getzlaf finished fifth in the NHL with 56
 assists and second to only Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in points with 87.
 Ducks winger Teemu Selanne is expected to retire at season's end and the 43-
 year-old could have some extra juice for this postseason. He comes into the
 series having totaled 42 goals and 82 points in 118 career playoff games.
 "This is the best time for hockey players," Selanne said. "You've got to enjoy
 every day and every moment. Every little thing matters. Even a little thing
 can turn the whole series around."
 The Stars overhauled their identity this past offseason in an effort to reach
 the postseason for the first time since 2008.
 It worked.
 Under the guidance of first-year coach Lindy Ruff and offensive threat Tyler
 Seguin, the Stars claimed the Western Conference's second wild card position.
 Sure, they got some help from a slumping Phoenix Coyotes club, which had lost
 seven straight before beating the Stars in a meaningless regular-season
 finale, and Dallas did just enough by going 3-4-0 down the stretch, but the
 results are in the bottom line.
 And what a line it was for Seguin, who the Stars acquired this past offseason
 from the Boston Bruins. The 22-year-old brought rumors of immaturity with him
 to Dallas, but with the Stars all he did was show the skill that led to him
 being the second overall pick of the 2010 draft. Seguin led Dallas across the
 board with 37 goals, 47 assists and 84 points -- all career highs -- and now
 brings 42 games of playoff experience to the Stars.
 Seguin has six goals and 12 assists in the postseason and was part of the Cup-
 winning 2010-11 Bruins club.
 His presence also helped Stars captain Jamie Benn soar to new heights. The
 winger set new career highs with 34 goals, 45 assists and 79 points in 81
 games, and the duo of Seguin and Benn was a big reason that the Stars finished
 10th in the NHL with 2.82 goals per game.
 Six other Dallas skaters reached double figures in goals, including Ryan
 Garbutt (17 goals) and Cody Eakin and Erik Cole, who had 16 goals apiece.
 Rookies Valeri Nichushkin (10th overall pick of the 2010 draft) and Alex
 Chiasson also were steady contributors and Dallas has veteran depth in Ray
 Whitney and Shawn Horcoff.
 Defensively, Alex Goligoski had an excellent campaign, with his 42 points a
 career high and his best total since logging 37 points with the Pittsburgh
 Penguins in 2009-10.
 However, inexperience could be an issue in net with No. 1 Kari Lehtonen, who
 owns just two career playoff games to his resume and none since 2006-07 with
 the Atlanta Thrashers. He was solid this regular season, going 33-20-10 with a
 2.41 goals against average and .919 save percentage.
 Should Lehtonen struggle early, Ruff will have the option of going to veteran
 Tim Thomas, acquired at this year's trade deadline. Thomas didn't wow in eight
 games with Dallas, but has outstanding playoff numbers at 29-21 with a 2.07
 GAA, .933 save percentage and six shutouts. Of course, he also won the Stanley
 Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy with Boston in 2011.
 The Stars won two of their three meetings with the Ducks this season, with the
 clubs exchanging 6-3 home victories before Dallas claimed a 2-0 win at Anaheim
 on Feb. 1. Lehtonen did not face the Ducks this season and is 9-7-3 with a
 2.41 GAA against them in 19 career meetings. Hiller went 0-2 with a 3.91 GAA
 in three meetings this season, pulled in the first meeting in Anaheim back on
 Oct. 20.
 "We know them well and we?ve had some success against them," said Goligoski.
 "They're fast and they're a bigger team, and they obviously had a great
 season. We're looking forward to the challenge."
 This marks the third all-time playoff meeting between these clubs and first
 since the Stars bested the Ducks in six games during the 2008 Western
 Conference quarterfinals. That avenged a six-game series loss to Anaheim in
 the 2003 semifinals.
 Anaheim also will host Game 2 of this series on Friday.
 The Ducks were 29-8-4 as the home team this season, while Dallas was just
 17-20-4 as the visitors.
 04/16 10:56:38 ET

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