NHL PLAYOFFS: Rangers begin their championship pursuit against Washington

FILE - Washington Capitals' Dylan Strome plays during an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in Philadelphia. Since being picked third in the draft nearly a decade ago behind Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel and ahead of Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome has yet to play in an NHL playoff game outside the 2020 pandemic bubble. That changes Sunday when he and the Washington Capitals visit the New York Rangers, fittingly at Madison Square Garden where he rooted on his brother Ryan in the 2022 postseason.(AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)(AP/Matt Slocum)

All eight first-round matchups in the NHL playoffs are set after the last day of the regular season flipped two of the biggest series in the West.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights will open against West top seed Dallas. Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers will face the Los Angeles Kings, a team they’ve defeated each of the past two years in the same round.

In the East, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers begin their championship pursuit against Washington. Cup favorite Carolina faces the New York Islanders in the first round, but any of nearly a dozen teams could win it all.

A glance at the first-round series (times Eastern):


Game 1: Sunday at New York, 3 p.m.

New York was the best team in the league. Washington needed to win its regular-season finale to get into the playoffs, doing so with an unusual empty-net goal.

The Rangers are heavily favored, according to BetMGM Sportsbook. But Capitals center Dylan Strome pointed out the teams not only split four games but each scored and allowed nine goals in the season series.

“Anything can happen in playoffs,” Strome said. “You saw what happened last year: The best team in regular-season history (Boston) loses to Florida because they had a good end of the season and they kind of carried it towards playoffs. We’ve won three in a row, we’re feeling good. The momentum’s kind of with us, and obviously we feel good.”


Game 1: Saturday at Carolina, 5 p.m.

This is a rematch from last year, when the Hurricanes beat the Islanders in six games. It’s also another series pitting Carolina’s Sebastian Aho (a Finnish forward) against New York’s Sebastian Aho (a Swedish defenseman), no relation.

What has changed: The Islanders upgraded at coach, hiring Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy midseason, and won seven of eight games down the stretch to make a surprise run to the playoffs. Speaking of goaltending, Hurricanes starter Frederik Andersen is 9-1-0 with a 1.30 goals-against average and .951 save percentage since returning from blood-clotting issues.


Game 1: Sunday at Florida, 12:30 p.m.

Defending Eastern Conference champion Florida looked on track to play Toronto in the first round until the Panthers came back to beat the Maple Leafs on Tuesday while Boston lost to Ottawa. So now they will face cross-state rival Tampa Bay.

The Lightning have 2019 Vezina Trophy winner and 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, while Florida has two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. The play of the Russian goalies could decide the series.


Game 1: Saturday at Boston, 8 p.m.

A year removed from setting NHL records for the most wins and point in a season and losing in the first round, coach Jim Montgomery hopes the Bruins learned “how to handle adversity when it smacks you in the face.” That could come in the form of 69-goal scorer Auston Matthews or any of the Leafs’ other elite offensive players.

Facing Boston is a chance for Toronto, which has one playoff series victory with its current core, to slay a dragon that has tormented the team. The Bruins eliminated the Leafs in 2018 and ’19.


Game 1: Monday at Dallas, 9:30 p.m.

Congratulations on clinching the top seed in the Western Conference, Dallas. Your reward is the reigning champs getting captain Mark Stone back from a lacerated spleen just in time to make another run.

The Stars, who lost to the Golden Knights in the West final last year, have been “a wagon” down the stretch, in the words of Colorado coach Jared Bednar, looking like the class of the conference with a deep roster and a mountainous goalie in Jake Oettinger. Starting with Vegas is a steep test.


Game 1: Sunday at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.

The first matchup to get locked in was Winnipeg vs. Colorado, a classic clash in styles. The high-octane Avalanche tend to overwhelm opponents but went 0-3 against the Jets this season, outscored 17-4 and never putting up more than two goals in any game and looking absolutely smothered by the best defensive team in the league in terms of goals allowed.

The most recent game was a 7-0 Jets rout in Denver, but the Avalanche, with their core mostly intact from their 2022 Cup run, know how to flip a switch when the playoffs arrive. That starts with MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon, who finished second to Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov in the scoring race and is motivated to win another championship.

Colorado’s biggest question is in goal, where Alexandar Georgiev has been up, down and inconsistent. The same cannot be said of his standout counterpart, the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck.


Game 1: Sunday at Vancouver, 10 p.m.

Rick Tocchet-coached Vancouver was one of the biggest surprises of the season. In October, making the playoffs would have made it a good year for the Canucks, but now they’re Pacific Division champions and have their sights set on making it through the West.

Nashville stands in the way of that after a late-season 16-0-2 surge propelled the Predators into a wild-card spot in their first year under coach Andrew Brunette and with Barry Trotz in charge as general manager.


Game 1: Monday at Edmonton, 10 p.m.

Here we go again. This is the third consecutive year Edmonton and Los Angeles have played in the first round. The Oilers won each of those series and are favored to advance to face either Vancouver or Nashville after winning 46 of 69 games since the coaching change from Jay Woodcroft to Kris Knoblauch.

This could be three-time MVP Connor McDavid’s chance to carry the Oilers to their first title since 1990. McDavid and Leon Draisaitl talk and look a lot like MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog did before Colorado won it all two years ago.


AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

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