The same realignment that mandated continuation of the Washington Capitals' playoff drought has created some tempting matchups in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which commence tonight in eight locations.
The first postseason engagement between Quebec and Montreal has generated excitement usually reserved for the Cup final. Boston-Buffalo and Philadelphia-New York Rangers are two other pairings of more than passing interest.
The opening series are best-of-five, offering greater upset opportunity than the best-of-seven duels to follow. One need only look back a year, to Edmonton's sweep of Montreal and Minnesota's back-to-back victories in Boston, after 35 straight regular-season failures, to grasp the possibilities.
Tonight's hosts also will enjoy home-ice advantage for Thursday's second games and, if necessary, for the fifth games Tuesday. The third and fourth (if necessary) games will be played elsewhere Saturday and Sunday except for Los Angeles, where the fourth game is scheduled Monday.
Winners of these series begin competition April 15 to determine divisional champions, with the semifinals set to open in Patrick and Norris Division cities April 27. The champion will be determined May 27, if the final goes the limit.
Quebec at Montreal
Nordiques winless in eight Forum visits, while Canadiens have prevailed only once in eight trips to Le Colisee . . . Montreal has lost its iron grip on hockey fans of Quebec province, an eventuality Canadiens foresaw when they tried to block merger with WHA . . . Teams divided season series, 3-3-2, and in final game, March 27, Nordiques lost winger Wilf Paiement with knee injury. Jacques Richard also out with broken foot . . . Montreal allowed only 223 goals, fewest in NHL, while using three goalies . . . Quebec depends heavily on goalie Dan Bouchard, 60-game performer with history of playoff problems . . . Quebec's Peter Stastny ranked third in NHL with 139 points.
Buffalo at Boston
Sabres showed more life in closing weeks after General Manager Scotty Bowman returned to bench duty. He has best winning percentage in regular-season play, .689, and ranks No. 2 behind Toe Blake in playoff action, with .638. Much of that success came in Montreal, however, and Sabres have been postseason disappointment during Bowman's two previous seasons . . . Boston had 5-2-1 record against Buffalo this season, while going 8-13-3 against other three Adams teams . . . Sabre defensemen Larry Playfair and Bill Hajt are doubtful with knee injuries . . . Boston center Barry Pederson scored 44 goals, wiping out club rookie record of 26 set by Roy Conacher in 1939.
Pittsburgh at N.Y. Islanders
Penguins have given two-time defending champion Islanders trouble through the years and New York's 6-2 advantage this season evened overall series at 17-17-12 . . . In only previous playoff meeting, Islanders won 1975 quarterfinals after trailing, 3-0 . . . New York's 28.2 percent power play is league's best, although Pittsburgh set NHL record this season with 99 extra-man goals . . . Penguins won season finale, 7-2, Sunday in very physical game, promising fireworks in playoffs . . . Islander Mike Bossy, doubtful with knee injury, ranked second in NHL with 147 points . . . New York goalie Billy Smith won 32 games, league high.
Philadelphia at N.Y. Rangers
Flyers fired Coach Pat Quinn after defeat in New York and Philadelphia tried to exploit Rangers' scheduling problem on Thursday, before Knicks agreed to move game against Boston to afternoon . . . Rangers' Herb Brooks is leading coach-of-year candidate after extracting 92 points from injury-riddled club . . . In 1979, Rangers won five-game quarterfinal from Philly and reached Cup final; in 1980, Flyers reversed that story . . . Philadelphia yielded 102 power-play goals, NHL record . . . Rangers may be affected by publication last week of "Thin Ice," which detailed some players' dislike for teammates.
Chicago at Minnesota
Teams split season series, 3-3-1, and over years Hawks have dominated North Stars, 51-22-9 . . . Minnesota's Bobby Smith, who set club record of 114 points, had 11 against Hawks . . . Chicago's Denis Savard had club-record 119 points, 10 against Minnesota . . . North Stars tied Edmonton for top spot in penalty killing with 81.9 percent . . . Minnesota's Neal Broten became highest-scoring United States-born player in NHL history, with 38 goals and 97 points.
St. Louis at Winnipeg
Jets captured season series, 4-2-1 . . . Blues never have won in Winnipeg, although tying five of eight games . . . Jets' 80 points marked 48-point improvement, biggest jump in NHL history . . . Winnipeg center Dale Hawerchuk is leading candidate for rookie of year after scoring 103 points . . . St. Louis' Mike Liut was NHL's busiest goalie, playing 64 games. Last year similar schedule left him worn out for playoffs.
Los Angeles at Edmonton
In so-called playoff preview at Los Angeles March 28, Oilers scored two goals in first 24 seconds and won, 6-2 . . . Edmonton took season series, 5-1-2 . . . Kings, who ranked 17th behind Washington, have not won in eight visits to Edmonton, although tying four games . . . Oiler Wayne Gretzky broke all NHL scoring records with 92 goals and 212 points. He had 13 goals and nine assists against L.A. . . . Oilers set NHL mark with 417 goals, averaging 5.21 per game. They averaged 6.38 against Kings . . . Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, 19, had 28-5-14 record with 3.31 goals against.
Calgary at Vancouver
Canucks never have won series in five playoff appearances. Flames ended string of six failures in Atlanta by reaching semifinals in 1981, first year in Calgary . . . Roger Neilson will coach Canucks in this series while Harry Neale continues 10-game suspension for fighting with fans in Quebec . . . Vancouver was undefeated in last nine regular-season games.