The team expected to win it all faces an opponent that loaded up for the same thing, the defending champions go up against a playoff newcomer and the wild West is wide open in the quest for the Stanley Cup.

The NHL playoffs open Wednesday when the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning host the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of their first-round series. Five of the eight series get underway Wednesday and the other three Thursday.

“Best time of year,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said.

In the other Wednesday openers, the 2016 and 2017 Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins visit the New York Islanders at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, the St. Louis Blues visit the Winnipeg Jets, the Dallas Stars visit the Central Division champion Nashville Predators and the defending Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights play Game 1 at San Jose.

“The last couple months, we’ve been getting ourselves ready,” Blues winger Alex Steen said. “We’ve been pretty dialed in on what we want to do.”

In the Thursday openers, the Bruins host the Toronto Maple Leafs, the reigning Cup champion Washington Capitals host the Carolina Hurricanes – in the playoffs for the first time in a decade – and West-best Calgary hosts the Colorado Avalanche.

The Atlantic Division bracket features an intriguing showdown between the Lightning and Blue Jackets, who acquired pending free agents Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid and held on to good-as-gone goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin at the trade deadline to take a shot at the Cup. Columbus has never won a playoff series and has a tough task against Tampa Bay, which is led by league-leading scorer Nikita Kucherov and Vezina Trophy candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The winner of that series faces the winner of Boston-Toronto, which is a rematch of last year’s first round matchup that went to the Bruins in seven.

SABRES: Buffalo fired coach Phil Housley following two disappointing seasons and after the team extended its franchise-worst playoff drought to an eighth consecutive year.

The 55-year-old Housley, a Hall of Fame defenseman, failed to restore any semblance of success to a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2007. The Sabres were 16-33-8 following a franchise-record-matching 10-game winning streak that ended in late November. Overall, Housley finished with a 58-84-22 record in Buffalo.

PANTHERS: The team fired Bob Boughner on Sunday, ending his two-year tenure with the team with one year remaining on his contract. The Panthers didn’t make the postseason in either of those years and have missed the playoffs 16 times in the last 18 seasons.

Florida won 80 of its 164 games with Boughner on the bench. Assistant coach Paul McFarlane also was fired.

KINGS: The team says Willie Desjardins is not a candidate to become its next head coach after he served in an interim role for most of the season.

The Kings were 27-34-8 under Desjardins, who was hired on Nov. 4 as the interim coach after John Stevens was fired 13 games into the season.

OILERS: The team said that X-rays on Connor McDavid were negative after he left the Oilers’ 3-1 victory over Calgary on Saturday night with a left-leg injury that hadappeared serious. The next hurdle is an MRI, which the 22-year-old McDavid will have after traveling home with the team.


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