'Best time of year:' NHL playoff matchups set
By STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writer
The team expected to win it all faces an opponent that loaded up for the same thing, the defending champions go up against a playoff newcomer and the wild West is wide open in the quest for the Stanley Cup.
The NHL playoffs open Wednesday when the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning host the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of their first-round series. Five of the eight series get underway Wednesday and the other three Thursday.
"Best time of year," Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said.
In the other Wednesday openers, the 2016 and 2017 Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins visit the New York Islanders at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, the St. Louis Blues visit the Winnipeg Jets, the Dallas Stars visit the Central Division champion Nashville Predators and the defending Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights play Game 1 at San Jose.
"The last couple months, we've been getting ourselves ready," Blues winger Alex Steen said. "We've been pretty dialed in on what we want to do."
In the Thursday openers, the Bruins host the Toronto Maple Leafs, the reigning Cup champion Washington Capitals host the Carolina Hurricanes and West-best Calgary hosts the Colorado Avalanche.
Carolina is in the playoffs for the first time in a decade but Washington can't overlook this matchup.
"They're a really good team, extremely improved, play with a ton of speed, great D corps in terms of mobile guys, depth scoring and then their goaltenders have been outstanding for them," Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. "If you look at their team from the All-Star break on or even earlier than that, they were one of the best teams in the league, so we know we've got to be on top of our game and it's going to be a real challenge."
The Atlantic Division bracket features an intriguing showdown between the Lightning and Blue Jackets, who acquired pending free agents Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid and held on to good-as-gone goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin at the trade deadline to take a shot at the Cup. Columbus has never won a playoff series and has a tough task against Tampa Bay, which is led by league-leading scorer Nikita Kucherov and Vezina Trophy candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The winner of that series faces the winner of Boston-Toronto, which is a rematch of last year's first round matchup that went to the Bruins in seven.
"We've got to play a really solid, sound defensive game," Maple Leafs forward Connor Brown said.
Barry Trotz's Islanders face Mike Sullivan's Penguins in a matchup of the past two Cup-winning coaches. Whoever gets through that coin flip of a series faces the winner of Washington-Carolina.
San Jose has defenseman Erik Karlsson back for its heavyweight bout with Vegas for the right to face the winner of Calgary-Colorado in the Pacific Division. The Flames rolled to the top seed in the West and trailed only Tampa Bay in the points race.
"You grind 82 games all year," Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic said. "Here we are at this point and we've set ourselves up to be in the playoffs, and in the dance, now we just have to go out and execute like we can."
After the Central Division got shook up in the final week of the regular season, the winner of Nashville-Dallas will face the winner of Winnipeg-St. Louis.
"A lot of excitement for what is going to be a good series," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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