National Hockey League

      ***** National Hockey League Previews from The Sports Network *****
                              Thursday, April 17th
                              (All times Eastern)
 ( - The Philadelphia Flyers will try to get by without their
 No. 1 goaltender when they visit the New York Rangers on Thursday for Game 1
 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
 The Flyers announced Wednesday that Steve Mason will not suit up for the
 opener of this best-of-seven series. Ray Emery will get the start instead and
 Cal Heeter, who made his NHL debut Sunday in a loss to Carolina, will serve as
 the backup.
 In 36 career playoff games, Emery is 20-15 with a 2.57 goals-against average,
 .903 save percentage and three shutouts. He led Ottawa to the Stanley Cup
 Finals in 2007, but hasn't seen action in the postseason since playing for
 Anaheim in 2011.
 Emery was the backup to Corey Crawford in Chicago's run to a Stanley Cup title
 last spring, but didn't get into a game.
 "I get excited to play in these situations, especially the playoffs,
 especially with a group like this," Emery said.
 Of course, Henrik Lundqvist will be the goaltender across the rink from Emery.
 The Rangers undisputed No. 1 netminder had another solid campaign in 2013-14,
 setting club records for regular season wins and shutouts along the way.
 Although the 32-year-old Swede was 33-24-5 with a 2.36 goals against average
 and .920 save percentage it still was a down season by Lundqvist's lofty
 standards. His GAA was the highest its been since Lundqvist posted a 2.38 in
 2009-10 and the netminder's save percentage was his worst effort since
 finishing the 2008-09 campaign at .916.
 New York only has made it out of the second round once since Lundqvist took
 over the starting role in 2005-06, but it's hardly been his fault. In 67
 playoff games, Lundqvist has posted a 2.28 GAA and .920 save percentage.
 The Flyers and Rangers have been divisional rivals for decades, but this
 series marks the first playoff meeting between the clubs since 1997 when
 Philadelphia downed New York in five games for the Eastern Conference title.
 Overall, Philadelphia has won six of the 10 playoff series between the
 franchises and has claimed three straight and four of the past five
 The Flyers and Rangers split four meetings in 2013-14, with each team winning
 twice at its home arena. New York's home-ice advantage could loom large in
 this series, as the Blueshirts have claimed eight in a row at home against the
 Flyers, who last won at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 2011.
 The Rangers finished second in the Metropolitan Division and two points ahead
 of Philadelphia to capture home ice in this series.
 Flyers captain and star centerman Claude Giroux only managed two assists in
 the four meetings with the Rangers this season and that's certainly not a good
 sign for Philadelphia. Forward Matt Read and defenseman Mark Streit were the
 best offensive players for the Flyers in the season series, posting one goal
 and two assists apiece.
 Meanwhile, New York's best weapon against the Flyers this season was speedy
 forward Chris Kreider, who had two goals and two assists in three games
 against Philly but does not expect to play in this set. Brad Richards had one
 goal and two assists over four games, while Rick Nash had a goal and an assist
 in three outings.
 Lundqvist went 2-1-0 with a 2.03 GAA against the Flyers this season. Emery did
 not face New York this season, but is 7-2-0 with a 1.87 GAA in 10 career
 regular-season games against the Blueshirts.
 One concern for New York heading into the opening round is the health of No. 1
 defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who sat out the last five games of the regular
 season with a bruised left shoulder. Although McDonagh expects to play in Game
 1, it will be interesting to see how his shoulder holds up against the
 postseason grind.
 McDonagh led New York's blue line this season in goals (14), assists (29),
 plus-minus (plus-11), penalty minutes (36) and shots (177). He also led the
 club with an average ice time of 24 minutes, 59 seconds and finished fifth on
 the team's overall scoring list with 43 points.
 Rangers forward Derick Brassard left practice on Tuesday with a back issue,
 but expects to play tonight. Brassard was fourth on the team this season with
 45 points off 18 goals and 27 assists.
 Philadelphia's Steve Downie is out with an upper-body injury, but fellow
 forward Zac Rinaldo could play Thursday after completing a four-game
 suspension. Rinaldo received the ban for delivering a head shot against
 Buffalo defenseman Chad Ruhwedel on April 6.
 New York will host the second tilt of this series on Sunday before the venue
 shifts to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4.
 The Rangers were 20-17-4 as the home club this season, while Philly was
 18-16-7 as the guest.
 ( - The St. Louis Blues need to put a rough ending to the
 regular season behind them if they want to get past the defending Stanley Cup
 champions in the opening round of the playoffs.
 The struggling Blues hope to get back on track when they host the Chicago
 Blackhawks in Thursday's Game 1 encounter at Scottrade Center.
 Heading into the final week of the regular season, St. Louis was in the
 running to capture the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top point-earning
 team. Instead, an 0-6-0 skid knocked the Blues out of first place in the
 Central Division, where they finished a point behind the Colorado Avalanche to
 earn a much-tougher first-round matchup against a Chicago team that has won
 two of the last four Stanley Cup titles.
 St. Louis went 3-2-0 in the season series against the Blackhawks, with two of
 those wins coming in a shootout. Chicago, though, has won seven of the 10 all-
 time playoff series between the Central Division rivals.
 While this will mark the 11th all-time playoff series for these two clubs,
 they are meeting for the first time since the Blues ousted the Blackhawks in
 five games of the 2002 conference quarterfinals.
 The good news for St. Louis is that it is getting healthy. A rash of injuries
 contributed to the club's season-ending slump and forwards David Backes,
 Vladimir Sobotka, T.J. Oshie, Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund are
 considered questionable for the start of this series.
 However, a number of those players have returned to practice and Oshie,
 Backes, Morrow and Sobotka could all play in Game 1. So could forward Vladimir
 Tarasenko, who has been sidelined since the middle of March with an injured
 right hand.
 "We're going to have everyone back at some point in the first round," Blues
 head coach Ken Hitchcock said on Wednesday.
 Ryan Miller was acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline and enters this
 series as the No. 1 netminder for the Blues. St. Louis hopes Miller can help
 the club get out of the first round after it fell in six games to Los Angeles
 in the opening series last spring.
 Miller was 10-8-1 with a 2.47 goals against average and .903 save percentage
 in 19 starts with the Blues and is 25-22 lifetime in the postseason with a
 2.47 GAA and .917 save percentage. That includes two deep runs with the Sabres
 in 2006 and '07.
 Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford didn't slow down after helping Chicago
 win the Cup a season ago as he went 32-16-10 with a 2.26 goals against average
 and .917 save percentage in 59 games, including 56 starts. Crawford is 21-15
 with a 2.04 GAA in the postseason.
 Like the Blues, Chicago played the end of the regular season without some key
 players but the Blackhawks are as healthy as they can be since forwards
 Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been declared ready to go for Game 1.
 Kane missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a lower-body injury,
 while Toews sat out the last six with an upper-body issue. Toews, the team
 captain, won the Conn Smythe Trophy when Chicago won it all in 2010 and Kane
 claimed the playoff MVP award last spring.
 "I'm excited to get things going," said the reigning Conn Smythe winner. "I've
 watched a lot of hockey lately, so it's going to be nice to play in some games
 The return of Kane and Toews bulks up Chicago's talented top-six that also
 includes Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the up-and-coming Brandon Saad.
 Chicago won the Central Division last season in a lockout-shortened campaign
 and battled its way to a second Stanley Cup title in four years. The
 Blackhawks hope to become the first repeat champions since the Detroit Red
 Wings in 1997-98.
 The Blues, who were 28-9-4 at home this season, will host Game 2 of this
 series on Saturday. Chicago was 19-14-8 on the road in 2013-14.
 ( - The Colorado Avalanche were the biggest surprise of the
 NHL's regular season. The Central Division champions now hope to carry their
 shocking success into the playoffs, as the Avalanche welcome the Minnesota
 Wild to Pepsi Center for Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
 Colorado not only made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, the club
 also earned its first division title since 2002-03. Winning the Central was no
 small feat, as the Avs finished ahead of an excellent St. Louis Blues team and
 also the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
 The Avs figured to be a team on the upswing after landing talented center
 Nathan MacKinnon with the top overall pick of the 2013 draft and hiring former
 goaltender great Patrick Roy as their head coach. But an outstanding season by
 netminder Semyon Varlamov expedited the process and his Vezina Trophy-worthy
 season -- as well as a late collapse by the Blues -- helped the Avs take the
 division, setting up this first-round matchup against the Wild, who claimed
 the first of the West's two wild card spots.
 Varlamov led the NHL with 41 victories, breaking Roy's single-season franchise
 mark set in 2000-01. He also surpassed his head coach for the most home
 victories by an Avalanche goaltender in a season with 24.
 All will be for naught though if Varlamov's postseason debut with Colorado
 goes sour. He has not played a playoff game since 2010 with the Washington
 Capitals and in 19 total games of postseason experience, the Russian is 10-9
 with a 2.49 goals against average and .915 save percentage.
 There may be some additional pressure on Varlamov and the defense as forward
 Matt Duchene may miss the entire series with a bruised knee suffered on March
 29. Duchene still led the Avs with 47 assists and 70 points, but Colorado did
 manage to go 5-1-2 down the stretch without him.
 The Avalanche snapped a three-year playoff drought by matching a franchise
 record with 52 victories and setting another mark with 26 road wins. Their 112
 points were good for second-most in the club's single-season history.
 Minnesota is in the playoffs for the second straight season, making the club
 2-for-2 in postseason appearances since it broke the bank to sign both forward
 Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter in the summer of 2012.
 The Wild snapped a four-year postseason drought by earning the eighth seed a
 season ago, only to fall in five games to the Chicago Blackhawks. This season,
 Minnesota racked up impressive totals of 43 wins and 98 points -- a 17-point
 improvement from the full 2011-12 campaign.
 The usual suspects came through as Jason Pominville, Parise, Mikko Koivu and
 Suter were Minnesota's top four scorers.
 The Wild had four goaltenders make at least 10 starts this season, but Ilya
 Bryzgalov is the No. 1 option heading into the playoffs. Bryzgalov was
 acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline and the Russian veteran went
 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals against average and .911 save percentage in 12 games
 with Minnesota.
 Bryzgalov has appeared in 38 postseason games, though his numbers aren't
 great. He is 17-19 with a 2.81 GAA and .908 save percentage.
 The Avalanche got a point in all five of their meetings with the Wild this
 season, going 4-0-1.
 Varlamov was 3-0-1 with a 2.16 GAA in four games, while Bryzgalov did not face
 the Avalanche since joining the Wild. The Russian has, however, won all four
 of his previous playoff games against them, posting a 0.94 GAA and two
 shutouts while with the Anaheim Ducks back in 2006.
 This is the third all-time playoff meeting between the clubs. The Wild won a
 2003 conference quarterfinals matchup in seven games, while the Avalanche
 knocked off Minnesota in six games during the same round in 2008.
 Colorado also will host Game 2 of this best-of-seven series on Saturday. The
 Avs were 26-11-4 on home ice in 2013-14, while Minnesota was just 17-17-7 on
 the road.
 ( - The San Jose Sharks are out for revenge in the opening
 round of the playoffs, as they attempt to knock out the team that eliminated
 them from last spring's postseason.
 The Sharks have home-ice advantage this time against the Los Angeles Kings,
 who are visiting the SAP Center for Thursday's Game 1 battle between the
 Pacific Division rivals.
 This marks the third all-time playoff meeting between these clubs and second
 in a row. The Kings gutted out a low-scoring seven-game victory in last
 season's second round, one that left the franchise spent ahead of a five-game
 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference finals. San Jose lost the
 first two games of last year's playoff matchup versus Los Angeles before
 rallying to get back into the set.
 The Sharks defeated L.A. in six games in the 2011 conference quarterfinals.
 That was the last time the Kings, who won the franchise's first Stanley Cup
 title in 2012, were knocked out in the first round.
 These California rivals played a close five-game season series in 2013-14,
 with the Kings owning a 3-1-1 edge. The teams combined for just 21 goals and
 skated in four games decided by a single goal.
 Kings netminder Jonathan Quick won both of his games this season versus the
 Sharks, giving up just three goals, and is 11-4-5 versus them in the regular
 season lifetime as well as 6-7 in the playoffs with a 2.25 goals against
 average and three shutouts.
 Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe winner, has excellent career playoff numbers,
 going 29-21 with a .929 save percentage and 2.03 in 50 lifetime postseason
 Like Quick, the Sharks boast a goaltender with a Stanley Cup-winning resume in
 Antti Niemi, who won a title with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. However, the
 30-year-old Finn was less impressive in his first two appearances in the
 playoffs with the Sharks before a solid run in 2013.
 Niemi went 7-4 with a 1.87 goals against average and .930 save percentage
 lasts spring as the Sharks swept their first-round series before a tight
 seven-game loss to the Kings. San Jose's No. 1 has had his struggles down the
 stretch this season, perhaps the result of having played in 64 games, and
 he'll have backup Alex Stalock hovering over his shoulder.
 Niemi went 2-1-1 with a 2.67 GAA in this season's series, while Stalock lost
 his only start despite giving up just one goal. Niemi is 6-6 in the playoffs
 against the Kings with a 2.74 GAA and .897 save percentage.
 Although Sharks head coach Todd McLellan would not officially reveal his
 starter for Game 1, all signs point to Niemi getting the call over Stalock.
 Both the Kings and Sharks are deep at both ends of the ice, but L.A. uses its
 depth more for defense than offense. The Kings allowed an NHL-best 2.05 goals
 per game this season, but were ranked 26th in offense (2.42 gpg).
 San Jose had a balanced attack, placing fifth in the league with 2.35 goals
 against per contest while tying St. Louis for sixth in scoring (2.92 gpg).
 Both teams enter this playoff battle without many injuries to note. Kings No.
 1 defenseman Drew Doughty is dealing with a bruised left shoulder, but he
 expects to play in Game 1.
 The Sharks, meanwhile, saw forward Tomas Hertl return late in the regular
 season from a knee injury. Hertl missed over three months of action and 45
 games after L.A. captain Dustin Brown delivered a knee-on-knee hit on the
 Czech rookie.
 Hertl had 15 goals and 10 assists in 37 games this season and is hoping to
 prove himself in his first NHL postseason.
 San Jose was 29-7-5 as the home team this season and will host Game 2 on
 Sunday. The Kings were 23-14-4 as the visiting club in 2013-14.
 04/17 10:58:08 ET

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