AP Sports Writer
WASHINGTON — Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals are the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference and could be on a crash course to meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Crosby and Ovechkin would face off in the second round, marking just the second postseason meeting between the two stars.
The Penguins won eight in a row and 14 of 15 before resting Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang in their regular-season finale. They open the playoffs against Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals face the Philadelphia Flyers, who charged from 12th in the East to a wild-card spot in the second half of the season.
Only one of those four teams can emerge from the brutal Metropolitan Division, which represents half of the bracket in the wide-open East. On the Atlantic side, division champion Florida faces the New York Islanders and the banged-up Tampa Bay Lightning play the Detroit Red Wings, who are in the playoffs for the 25th consecutive season.
“Other than the Capitals this year, we were out of the playoffs about a month ago and we’re second in the conference,” Penguins forward Eric Fehr said. “It’s pretty crazy to see how things are changing and how a team jumps from out of the playoffs right into their own division past the wild card.”
Washington clinched home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs with seven games to spare. Coach Barry Trotz said it might have felt like the Capitals were “in a total free-fall” but that wasn’t the case as they finished the season 5-3-3 with almost nothing to play for.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is rolling into the playoffs without star center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Olli Maatta.
“To be honest, it doesn’t mean we’ve played great every game but we’ve found ways,” Crosby said. “I think the main constant is just we’ve given ourselves a chance with the way we work every night and we play as a team. That’s the biggest thing is nobody’s been taking any nights off.”
Here are some things to watch in the Eastern Conference as the playoffs begin:
NEW CATS ON THE BLOCK: Led by the goaltending of Roberto Luongo and the play of the ageless Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and for just the fifth time in franchise history. This will be the first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs for youngsters Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, so no one quite knows how Florida will handle the pressure and intensity.
LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE: The defending East-champion Lightning won’t have forward Steven Stamkos and defenseman Anton Stralman for at least the first round, and a handful of other players, including defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Ryan Callahan, aren’t 100 percent. Tampa Bay has to hope Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender Ben Bishop is at his best in order to make another deep run.
NEW YORK: The Islanders had a chance to essentially pick their playoff road, and their lackluster loss to the Flyers with several top players resting means they will face Florida instead of Pittsburgh. Captain John Tavares has the ability to carry the Islanders on his shoulders despite a bevy of injuries, and he just might do that playing alongside Frans Nielsen.
NEW YORK II: Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is nearing the end of his prime, but his team has the playoff experience to surprise. New York has eliminated the Penguins in each of the past two seasons, and if defenseman Ryan McDonagh returns from an upper-body injury, this team is no pushover.
FIRED UP FLYERS: After FaceTiming with ailing owner Ed Snider after clinching a playoff berth, the Flyers learned of his death Monday morning following a two-year battle with cancer. Philadelphia players have already said they’re dedicating the 2016 playoffs to Snider, giving them fresh motivation after expending so much energy just to make the postseason.