Rangers, Alex Ovechkin rise as East playoffs near; issues for Bruins, Leafs

Trending up:

  • New York Rangers: Having secured the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time since the 1993-94 season -- the last time the team won the Stanley Cup -- the Rangers are rolling into the postseason with plenty of confidence and swagger. A first-round matchup against the injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Penguins could make for easy work for the Blueshirts, as well, though no team with the power tandem of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin should ever be overlooked. Rangers forward Kevin Hayes enters the postseason playing well, too. The 22-year-old notched a goal and an assist in the season finale against the Washington Capitals and recorded six points in the final four games.

  • Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: Ovechkin continues to shine in what has been a spectacular season under new coach Barry Trotz. Ovechkin captured his fifth Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy with a whopping 53 goals; it's the third consecutive season he has won the league’s scoring title. Ovechkin also scored a power-play goal in Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Rangers to set a Capitals record for power-play goals in a season with 25. The New York Islanders are going to have their hands full.

  • Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators: What can we say about Stone that hasn't already been said? The rookie has been outstanding in helping fuel the Senators’ magical run and has to be climbing at least a few Calder Trophy ballots with his superb second half. The 22-year-old takes a nine-game point streak into the playoffs, with eight goals and five assists during that span.

Trending down:

  • Toronto Maple Leafs: Sunday was significant in Leafsland, with team president Brendan Shanahan effectively tearing the club down from top to bottom by firing general manager Dave Nonis, interim coach Peter Horachek and his assistants as well as several scouts and members of the team’s player personnel staff. It was a hard move but a necessary one if Shanahan is to begin a new era in Toronto and turn the page on an absolutely dreadful season.

  • Boston Bruins: As stunning as it was to see the Los Angeles Kings miss the playoff cut, the Bruins’ demise was almost equally surprising. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli called the season a failure, and that was before the team was eliminated from contention. It’s hard to imagine there will be no repercussions for an underachieving Bruins team, especially given team executive Charlie Jacobs’ warning shot earlier this season.

  • Buffalo Sabres: There must be at least some relief for Ted Nolan, who was fired Sunday after an abysmal season in Buffalo. Sabres general manager Tim Murray was frank in his postmortem, revealing that he and Nolan did not have a great relationship. The biggest question facing the franchise now is whether it will land the top pick in the draft and select phenom Connor McDavid. Sabres fans deserve that much.

Injury report:

  • Hamonic ailing: Islanders coach Jack Capuano declined to elaborate on the status of top defenseman Travis Hamonic after Saturday's regular-season finale, saying only that he would undergo further evaluation. But considering the way Hamonic was limping after sustaining the lower-body injury Friday night, he likely will miss time during the team’s first-round series against the Capitals.

  • Letang out indefinitely: According to at least one report, the Penguins can expect to be without Kris Letang for the playoffs as the star defenseman recovers from a concussion sustained during the final week of play. The Penguins are already without veteran Christian Ehrhoff and youngster Olli Maatta, although the team recalled Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington from the minors on Sunday to help fortify the defense.

  • Pacioretty uncertain: The Montreal Canadiens face a streaking Senators team in the first round, although it remains unclear whether top Habs forward Max Pacioretty will be available when the series begins. There were some positive signs over the weekend, however, as Pacioretty skated Saturday at the team’s practice facility. Coach Michel Therrien has not yet revealed whether he expects Pacioretty to be in the lineup for Game 1.

What to watch for:

  • Playoff pressure for Nash: Rangers forward Rick Nash set a career high with 42 goals this season, but his legacy on Broadway will be defined by what he does in the playoffs, and his track record has not been great thus far. Nash has struggled in the postseason during his tenure in New York, though he has the chance to change that perception this spring, starting against the Penguins.

  • Goalie decision for Babcock: The big decision for Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is whether he will stay in Detroit or take a job elsewhere next season, though a more pressing question faces him at the moment. Babcock told reporters over the weekend that he has already decided on a playoff goaltender but declined to reveal whether it would be incumbent Jimmy Howard or youngster Petr Mrazek. Money is on the latter, considering Mrazek posted a 35-save shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.

  • Young guns: The Tampa Bay Lightning head into the playoffs as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, boasting a roster of offensive talent and one of the best young coaches in the league in Jon Cooper. The biggest X factor for the Bolts will be how goaltender Ben Bishop handles the playoff pressure. Bishop and the Lightning have won three straight games heading into the playoffs, but they face a Red Wings team with ample veteran leadership in a difficult first-round matchup.