Friday's four-game playoff slate could see as many as three teams advance to the next round. A quick preview:
If the Flyers want to stay alive ... they'll have to pray to the hockey gods to curse the Capitals for just one night. After being thoroughly dominated for much of the series, there isn't much the Flyers can do to upset the league's best team. It's not just scoring that's the problem; once again, the Flyers' goaltending has failed to win games, or at the very least keep them in the series. All Flyers are inadvisable for daily contests.
If the Stars want to enter the next chapter of the Jamie Benn era ... Antti Niemi, who is the likely starter with Lindy Ruff's win-and-you're-in rotation, has to hold the fort, and the Stars offense has to come through like it has all season. A quick five-game series will give Tyler Seguin (Achilles) and the rest of the Stars a chance to rest before facing the winner of the Blues-Blackhawks series, which could be the toughest test in the nascent Benn era. The only hope for the Wild, gasping for air without star forward Zach Parise, is for Devan Dubnyk to steal a game, and unfortunately for him this isn't 2015.
If the Sharks want to slay the dragon ... just as the Canucks did by beating the Blackhawks before embarking on their impressive run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011, Martin Jones has to shut the door and the big guns need to pull through. The Kings will play their usual aggressive, physical and brash game, but if the Sharks can stay as disciplined as they have all series and then get Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski to capitalize on the ensuing power plays, they'll have no problem knocking out the Kings.
If either the Panthers or the Islanders want to gain the upper hand in the series ... then each team's goaltending has to hold. Roberto Luongo, 37, is already complaining of fatigue in the first round of the playoffs, and Thomas Greiss is trying to hold the fort as long as he can before Jaroslav Halak (groin) returns. If neither team has much confidence in their goaltending, expect plenty of shot blocking, which means both teams are hoping for no more than 30 shots against.
Braden Holtby, WAS vs. PHI ($40) - The Flyers scored just one goal through Games 1 and 2, and only managed to defeat the Flyers after being embarrassed on national TV on what should've been a special night for the entire organization. And will the Caps lose two in a row? Highly unlikely. Holtby comes at a premium, but of the three teams looking to advance Friday, the Caps are the strongest bet.
Goalie to Avoid:
Devan Dubnyk, MIN at DAL ($28) - Just ahead of the Flyers among teams most likely to be eliminated Friday are the Wild. Dubnyk has allowed three goals in three of his last four games, and he's facing mounting pressure within his own team as well, since it's unlikely the Wild will turn to Darcy Kuemper ($22). The Stars' offense will be difficult to contain when it has last change at home and will have the added motivation of advancing past the first round for the first time in the Jamie Benn era.
Jonathan Quick, LA vs. SJ ($36) - There's a real good chance that for the first time in four years the Western Conference finals won't feature the Kings or the Blackhawks. Like the Blues this season, the Sharks just seem like a different team than in years past. They don't panic, they play with a controlled edge and they can put together consistent stretches of strong play. The Kings can't play catch-up the entire series, and even with a raucous Staples Center crowd, the Sharks just may be able to close the door, exorcising a demon that's haunted them for two years.
Joe Pavelski, SJ at LA ($30) - Pavelski's been San Jose's best forward this series, and finally the franchise has elected a captain that seems to fit the role. He has four goals in four games, only held without a point in the Game 3 loss. If the Sharks advance Friday, it'll be because Pavelski stepped up in a big way.
Center to Avoid
Claude Giroux, PHI at WAS ($19) - Even without Brooks Orpik, the Caps' defense probably won't have a problem with Giroux, who hasn't looked right since going unconscious after taking a heavy hit from the Coyotes almost a month ago, and who has just one assist in four games. The Flyers ask a lot of Giroux, and he's been paying the price physically. Now, the whole team is paying the price.
Jamie Benn, DAL vs. MIN ($31) - If Alex Ovechkin ($34) is unquestionably the league's best right winger, then Benn is unquestionably the league's best left winger. He's already accomplished quite a bit in his young career, and the only thing that evades him now is a Stanley Cup title. Friday will be a chance for Benn to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. He heads into Game 5 with two goals and four assists.
Tomas Hertl, SJ at LA ($19) - He has just two points in four games, but, more important, plays consistently with Pavelski and Joe Thornton ($20) on the top line and on the top power-play units. It took about a year for Hertl to fully come back from a rookie season cut short by a knee injury, and in his contract year he is having his best season.
Wings to Avoid:
Jaromir Jagr, FLA vs. NYI ($18) - He's a folk hero who is successful because he can slow the game when the puck is on his stick, but in the playoffs the pace often cannot be slowed. It has now been four years since he last scored in the playoffs, and he has not scored a goal in more than 20 consecutive playoff games.
Jakub Voracek, PHI at WAS ($20) - If Giroux can't get going, it's unlikely Voracek can get going, much less carry the team and stave off elimination. In a subpar season, Voracek's struggles have continued into the postseason where he has just five points in his last 11 games. The Caps are just too tough, and it's hard to see the Flyers' offense finally managing to penetrate the defense after four games of futility.
John Carlson, WAS vs. PHI ($32) - He's the team's best defenseman even if he doesn't play on the shutdown pair, but now with Brooks Orpik out of the lineup the Caps will be leaning on him even more. He's made mincemeat of Flyers goalies with three goals in four games, and there's no reason to believe he won't dominate again in Game 5.
Nick Leddy, NYI at FLA ($14) - He registered two assists in the first two games of the series and has gone quiet since, but he's been vital to the Islanders and played nearly 30 minutes in Game 3's one-goal win. The points haven't come in yet, but relative to his role on the team, Leddy is a bargain for Friday's slate.
Defensemen to Avoid
Drew Doughty, LA vs. SJ ($23) - Can you believe Doughty has been held without a point the entire series? Not only is he killing office pools, his lack of offense is also hurting the Kings, who have trailed for much of the series. It's possible Doughty snaps his cold streak in a must-win Game 5, but the Kings seem to get stuck in their own end and more concerned about blocking shots than creating them.
Jared Spurgeon, MIN at DAL ($17) - He got a $20.75 million payday after establishing himself as an up-and-coming power-play quarterback, but his lack of production is hurting a team on the verge of elimination. Perhaps it's his size, or perhaps it's his lack of experience, but after scoring 11 goals during the season, Spurgeon has not scored this spring and has just one assist in four games and just 11 points in 32 career playoff games.