Which player matchup are you most excited to see in the first round and why?
Craig Custance: I'm always a sucker for a good goalie showdown, and Carey Price vs. Henrik Lundqvist is about as good as it gets. The Montreal Canadiens are so reliant on Price, so there might be more pressure on him to perform in this postseason than on any other goalie. He's the best goalie in the world, so he's up for it, there just isn't much margin for error with that team. If he's not great, they usually aren't particularly good. And in talking to people around hockey, I'm surprised at how much concern there is about the New York Rangers' Lundqvist. There's certainly more doubt circling him now than I've heard before a playoff series, so that's another issue to watch. But these are two of the best of their generation going toe-to-toe in what should be a great series.
Pierre LeBrun: Easily the best matchup has to be Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the San Jose Sharks trying to slow down Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid. That's the matchup that's going to decide that entire series. Vlasic is among the very best shutdown defensemen in the NHL; it's why he played for Canada at the 2014 Olympics and at the World Cup of Hockey in September. But stopping McDavid and his explosive speed has been a nearly impossible task for any defenseman this season. The crazy thing about McDavid is that he seems to go faster after he gets the puck, which defies logic. But it's true. Can't wait to watch that matchup play out.
Joe McDonald: I'm looking forward to the Columbus Blue Jackets' Brandon Dubinsky against the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby. It's a bitter rivalry between those two, and you can bet Columbus coach John Tortorella will do his best to have Dubinsky on the ice every time No. 87 is out there. Dubinsky has the knack to crawl under Crosby's skin. Crosby is the best in the world, and Dubinsky will do everything possible to mentally dismantle the Pittsburgh captain and reigning Conn Smythe winner. Dubinsky is hard to play against as a shutdown center man, and he's willing to make sacrifices and will finish his hits to slow the opponent down. In this case, his target is Crosby. This could be the difference-maker in this series.
Rob Vollman: I'm going to go with Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues against Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild. Tarasenko tied for fourth overall with 39 goals, which is at least twice as many as everyone on his team except Patrik Berglund, who scored 23. If Suter can shut him down, the Blues will be eliminated quickly no matter how hot they and their goalie Jake Allen have been under coach Mike Yeo. Can Suter do it? He has been Minnesota's workhorse for years, taking on all the tough opponents in all zones, at all scores and in all manpower situations. Since he joined the team in 2012, Suter leads the NHL with a jaw-dropping 10,511:20 minutes played. I know plus/minus is a bit of a bogus statistic, but his league-leading plus-34 crudely demonstrates just how effective the Wild have been when he was out there this season. This is one matchup I really don't want to miss, and it will be the deciding factor in an otherwise tight series.
Scott Burnside: Lots of people like the Calgary Flames to knock off Anaheim in spite of the fact the Ducks have won their fifth straight Pacific Division and come into the playoffs with points in 14 straight games. But they don't have a chance if superlative two-way Ducks center Ryan Kesler, likely to win his second Frank J. Selke Trophy as the top two-way forward in the game, is able to shut down the Flames' top center Sean Monahan, which means shutting down the Flames' top forward unit. This will be a significant challenge for Calgary coach Glen Gulutzan, especially in Games 1 and 2 in Anaheim, where he won't have last change and where the Ducks have won 27 straight games against the Flames.