The quest for the Stanley Cup begins tonight when the first puck drops on the 2016 NHL playoffs. After 82 regular season games, the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference finished with the best record in the league (56-18-8, 120 points), while the Dallas Stars (50-23-9, 109 points) claimed the top spot in the West. (Defending Cup champs the Chicago Blackhawks ended up third in the West’s Central Division with 103 points.)
But this is playoff hockey — all that regular-season accomplishment doesn’t mean anything. Now 16 teams are in a grueling slog of four rounds of best-of-seven series to claim sports’ ultimate trophy.
Before the first games get underway, here’s a look at three of the first-round matchups.
Detroit Red Wings vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning beat Detroit last season in the first round on their road to the Stanley Cup Final. But this year, both teams are in rough shape.
Tampa Bay enters with a depleted roster with both captain Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman out. Detroit barely made the playoffs, extending their postseason appearance streak to 25 years.
One advantage the Red Wings have is in goal, where Petr Mrazek had a record of 27-16-6 and a 2.33 GAA this season. They also boast playoff experience with veterans like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Even with Stamkos out, the Lightnings’ calling card will be their offense. They need Nikita Kucherov, who had 66 points this season, to step up. Jonathan Drouin, who was the subject of trade rumors, has been recalled from the minors to play in Tampa’s top six.
I expect this to be a very physical series and that plays more to the Red Wings strengths. But given the Bolts’ injuries, I expect the Red Wings to win this series in six games.
New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
This matchup is another first-round rematch from last season. In 2015, the Penguins barely got into the playoffs and got trounced. A year later, the Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL, and they will be a challenge to New York.
After a midseason coaching change, Pittsburgh caught fire and finished the season in second place in the Metropolitan Division. They boast the third-best offense in the entire NHL.
It’s unclear if Evgeni Malkin — who was injured late in the season — will be available at all in this series. But the Pens still have one heck of an offense without him. Sidney Crosby led the team in goals (36) and points (85) during the regular season. Phil Kessel mixed in 26 goals and 33 assists.
The one problem for the Penguins right now is injuries in the net. Both Marc Andre-Fleury and backup goalie Matt Murray were injured last week.
The Rangers have their own problems, though, especially on defense. Captain Ryan McDonagh is out for Game 1 and Dan Girardi has had a rough season.
I predict the Penguins will win this series in six games as their high-powered offense overwhelms the Rangers’ beleaguered D.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
The Hawks are not playing their best hockey as of late, while St. Louis has been solid. Chicago will also be without Duncan Keith for Game 1, as he finishes his suspension for slashing Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle in the face.
Still, the Chicago has Patrick Kane, who led the NHL in points this season with 106. Rookie Artemi Panarin has 77 points this season.
St. Louis answers with Vladimir Tarasenko, who has 74 points. But what makes the Blues dangerous is their stingy defense. Their resilient group should pose a challenge to the Blackhawks offense.
Even though they aren’t playing their best, the Blackhawks have rich playoff experience — they’ve won three Stanley Cups in six years with the same core players. For that reason, I believe the Blackhawks will win a hard fought series in seven games.
Photos: Chris O'Meara/AP (Red Wings), Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images (Penguins), Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images (Blackhawks)