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NHL Playoffs: Eichel, Hughes among the top players to watch

The NHL playoffs are going on without Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for the first time since their rookie year in 2006, but that doesn’t mean the chase for the Stanley Cup isn’t packed with star power.

Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche are trying to go back to back. Connor McDavid is determined to win his first championship with the Edmonton Oilers.

And there are a handful of players in the postseason as professionals for the first time. New Jersey’s Jack Hughes and VegasJack Eichel are ready to make an impact at the time of the year when hockey matters the most.

Here are the top players to watch:

CONNOR MCDAVID

The league leader in goals and points and a shoo-in for the Hart Trophy as MVP, McDavid has done just about everything a player can in the regular season and repeatedly said he doesn't care about individual honors.

"Connor McDavid definitively is better than anybody in the league," former goaltender and current ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes said.

McDavid carried Edmonton to the Western Conference final last year, a sweep at the hands of the Avalanche and now the Oilers can defend and go into the playoffs having won 14 of their last 15. Much like MacKinnon hulked out to get the Avalanche over the hump in 2022, McDavid could have that kind of beast mode in store this spring.

NATHAN MACKINNON

Welcome back, Nate. Cale Makar was the playoff MVP on Colorado's Cup run, but MacKinnon is the heart, soul and engine for the Avalanche, who again won the Central Division for home ice through two rounds.

MacKinnon is coming off his first career 100-point regular season, and with captain Gabriel Landeskog out for the entire playoffs with a knee injury, his teammates will need similar production to get through the West. Avalanche players won't get complacent after winning last year if they take one look at MacKinnon.

DAVID PASTRNAK

The only other 60-goal scorer this season besides McDavid, Pastrnak had 46 more points than the next closest Boston teammate. If the Bruins are going to go on a run, they'll be counting on Pastrnak to keep filling the net.

Every indication is he'll do just that, starting against Alex Lyon and the Panthers in the first round. Unlike many of Boston's other, older players, Pastrnak hasn't yet turned 27 and might just be getting started.

JACK HUGHES

As brother and teammate Luke Hughes said, Jack and the Devils have been waiting years for the chance to play in the postseason. Hughes put up 99 points in leading New Jersey to a franchise-record 52 wins.

Retired defenseman Ken Daneyko, whose No. 3 is retired by the Devils, is impressed by what he has seen in Hughes — “He's become a star in the league” — and also expects this to be a learning curve.

“He wants to be the go-to guy, and that’s easier said than done when you’re a young, 21-year-old kid,” said Daneyko, who's an NHL Network analyst. “This is going to be new. This is going to be an experience and a lesson during the playoffs.”

JACK EICHEL

In the playoffs for the first time in his first full season with the Golden Knights, it's Eichel's time to show what he can do. The 2015 No. 2 pick behind McDavid is 17 months removed from artificial disk replacement surgery and is one of the biggest reasons Vegas won the Pacific Division and clinched home-ice advantage through the Western Conference playoffs.

“He’s gone through so much,” retired forward and TNT analyst Anson Carter said. “He looks like he’s healthy again. This is the chance for him to play on the big stage.”

JAKE OETTINGER

The Dallas Stars are no underdog this time, unlike last year when Oettinger stopped 272 of 285 shots in a first-round loss to Calgary that went the distance, including 64 saves in a Game 7 overtime loss.

“It is the best hockey I've ever played,” Oettinger said about that series. “Playoffs, obviously everyone’s watching it like it’s a great opportunity to step up big time for the team.”

Dallas doesn't need to lean only on Oettinger, not with top scorer Jason Robertson leading the way offensively and Miro Heiskanen being a rock on defense. But Oettinger has the potential to put the Stars on his back with saves high in quality and volume.

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Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports