NHL playoffs: Friday’s slate of games

By Matt Verderame

The first round of the National Hockey League playoffs are winding down, but the series are heating up. On Friday, three contests will be played out with two squads hoping to advance into the conference semifinals.

Let’s take a look at each game and what it means:

Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers (NYR leads 3-1)

The Rangers are the top seed in the East and can advance to the next round with one more win. After splitting the first two games at Madison Square Garden, New York won a pair of close games in Pittsburgh to put the Penguins on the brink. Superstar Evgeni Malkin has not been able to get on track, being held without a point on only five shots through the first four games.

The Rangers are riding an emotional high after knocking off Pittsburgh in overtime of Game 4, courtesy of a Kevin Hayes goal in the extra session. Perhaps New York’s physical style began to wear on the speedy Penguins, with the Rangers leading the way in hits, 42-28. Pittsburgh will need more production from Sidney Crosby and Malkin if they want to pull the upset and come back from this 3-1 deficit. Last year, the Rangers did it to them, so revenge would be sweet.

Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads 3-1)

This series was supposed to be one of the better matchups of the first round. Instead, Montreal jumped out to a 3-0 series lead. The Canadiens were not dominant in any of the affairs, only winning by a goal each time, including two in overtime. Ottawa finally rallied in Game 4 to get on the board, forcing a Game 5 back in Montreal.

The Canadiens won the Atlantic Division, largely on the back on Carey Price. Price is unlikely to drop four straight games, making this a brutal climb back for the Senators. However, if they can win tonight and get back to Ottawa for Game 6, the pressure will begin to mount on the Habs.

Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues (Series tied 2-2)

The Blues were on the brink of disaster heading into Game 4 at Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center. Down 2-1 in the series, St. Louis mustered up everything it had and roared to a 6-1 win, putting the Wild back on their heels before flying to St. Louis.

The Blues are the more talented team, but Minnesota has stars and a terrific system. This series seems destined to go the full seven games, and perhaps see overtime in the deciding contest. The Blues need Vladimir Tarasenko to continue his hot play, after scoring two goals in Game 4. Tarasenko is one of the most electrifying players in the game, capable of taking over a series. In the regular season, Tarasenko had a team-best 37 goals.