(Reuters) - The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins renew one of the NHL’s greatest feuds while the Los Angeles Kings battle the Anaheim Ducks in a clash of Southern California rivals as part of a mouthwatering slate of second-round series.
The enigmatic Pittsburgh Penguins and equally perplexing New York Rangers should provide fans with more anxious moments while the Chicago Blackhawks continue the defence of their Stanley Cup crown against the Minnesota Wild.
The bruising action during the first round, where three of the eight best-of-seven series went the distance, appears likely to carry over into the conference semi-finals with already intense rivalries set to turn red hot.
Boston, who eliminated the Detroit Red Wings in five games, and Montreal, who swept the Tampa Bay Lightning, are well rested for what should be a wildly entertaining showdown of Original Six teams clashing in the playoffs for a 34th time - a record in North American professional sports.
“It’ll be like trench warfare,” Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien said ahead of Thursday’s opening game. “Montreal-Boston is one of the great rivalries in sports, and we’re going to be writing a new chapter.”
Montreal hold a 24-9 edge in their playoff meetings with Boston but it is the Bruins who have come out on top in the last two series, in 2009 and 2011.
The top-seeded Bruins are considered the NHL’s most complete team while Montreal, the only Canadian club to qualify for the playoffs, carry the Stanley Cup hopes of a hockey-mad nation.
A berth in the Eastern Conference Finals could be decided by a goaltending duel between netminders who backstopped their respective countries to Olympic medals earlier this year.
Montreal’s Carey Price helped Canada to a gold in Sochi and is enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career while Rask, a bronze medal winner with Finland in Russia, is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL’s top netminder.
Goaltending will also be in the spotlight in the East’s other semi-final.
While New York’s unflappable Henrik Lundqvist is a calming presence in the Rangers net, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has been prone to costly postseason gaffes and does not inspire the same confidence.
But the Penguins have other concerns, including a lack of production from NHL scoring champion Sidney Crosby, who failed to find the back of the net during a six-game series win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Rick Nash, the Rangers’ leading goal scorer in the regular season, has also gone missing, failing to score during his team’s seven-game series versus the Philadelphia Flyers.
Los Angeles and Anaheim have both won Stanley Cups and are familiar Western Conference foes, even clashing outdoors earlier this year at Dodgers Stadium but this marks their first meeting in the playoffs.
The Kings reached the West’s semi-final in dramatic style, becoming just the fourth NHL team to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games.
After surrendering 16 goals in the first three games to the San Jose Sharks, Kings netminder Jonathan Quick allowed five over the next four to lead the Los Angeles fightback.
Kings defenceman Drew Doughty’s dominating performance has put him into the early discussion for the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to most valuable player in the playoffs, while teammate Anze Kopitar is tied for the playoff lead with 10 points.
The Ducks, who eliminated the Dallas Stars in the opening round, are led by a pair of hard-nosed forwards in Ryan Getzlaf, a Hart Trophy finalist as the most valuable player in the regular season, and Corey Perry, the 2011 MVP.
The Blackhawks began their march to a Stanley Cup last season with a first-round win over Minnesota and find the same Wild team standing in their way yet again. Minnesota needed overtime in Game Seven to beat the Colorado Avalanche and reach the second round.
After spending big money on free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild are looking for a return on their investment against a Chicago team that are coming off a bruising first-round win over the St. Louis Blues.
Chicago captain Jonathan Toews is back to full fitness after sitting out the end of the regular season with an injury while defenceman Brent Seabrook returns after serving a three-game ban for an illegal hit on Blues forward David Backes.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue