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NHL playoff preview

Best first-round matchup

What's surprising is there really isn't a first-round matchup that looks like it will be close. Certainly a couple of series have a chance to go seven games, but the chance to see sweeps is better. If the Penguins get off to a slow start and the Senators can contain Sidney Crosby, there's a chance Ottawa could pull off the shocker of the first round and take out the defending champs. The teams split the four games of the regular-season series.

Most intriguing first-round matchup

Two months ago the Red Wings were left for dead and were in danger of missing the postseason. Meantime, the Coyotes are fighting just to stay in Arizona because of a financial mess; the league is running the team right now. (Hey, would commissioner Gary Bettman get his name on the Cup if Phoenix wins it all?) Phoenix has the home-ice advantage in the series, but it would be surprising if the Coyotes won it. Red Wings fans don't care, but it would be good for the game (as well as the health of the franchise) if Phoenix could pull off the upset.

The team you should root for

If you're a hockey fan, you have to respect the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo is a hockey-mad town that is starving for its first Stanley Cup. Plus, you have to respect the organization for its stability. General manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff have been in charge since the summer of 1997. And then there's goalie Ryan Miller, above, the star of the Vancouver Olympics. It was heartbreaking to watch him in net as the Americans lost the gold-medal game to Canada in overtime. It would be justice if he could lift a Stanley Cup over his head in two months.

Team to beat in the East

On the surface, it seems like the Capitals or Penguins are the top dogs. The Caps won the Presidents' Trophy, which goes to the team that finishes the regular season No. 1, with 121 points, a franchise record. The Pens have been to two consecutive Cup finals and won it all last year. Still, we're not sold on the Caps' goaltending. And the Pens have struggled against the best teams; they went 0-8-2 against the Caps and Devils. Also, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been up and down. Our pick? The Devils. They have no goalie issues with Martin Brodeur, they play coach Jacques Lemaire's defensive system perfectly, and they have offensive punch with Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac.

Team to beat in the West

Two months ago the Red Wings seemed in danger of missing the playoffs. Now they might be the best team in the highly competitive West. Seven teams finished with at least 100 points. Only 13 points separated the top seed (San Jose) from the seventh (Nashville). The Sharks appear loaded, but they always appear loaded, and then they choke in the postseason. The Blackhawks might have the best lineup, but they have goalie issues. It's a wide-open race to the final, but watch out for Vancouver because of goalie Roberto Luongo. In the end, however, until someone proves they can beat the Red Wings, we're taking Detroit.

First-round predictions

Eastern Conference

Washington (1) vs. Montreal (8)

The Canadiens barely snuck into the playoffs; the Capitals lost just once in regulation in their final 14 games to finish with the most points (121) in the NHL since 2005-06. On paper it's a mismatch. It will be on the ice, too. Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak will keep the Habs close, but in the end, the Caps' offense, led by Alex Ovechkin, will be too overwhelming. Interesting, however, is that Montreal won three of the five regular-season meetings between the teams. Caps in four

New Jersey (2) vs. Philadelphia (7)

If you believe defense wins championships, then New Jersey is your team. No team allowed fewer goals (191) than the Devils. The Flyers stumbled down the stretch, going 4-7-1, and needed a shootout victory on the last day of the season to make the postseason. The Flyers went 6-2 against New Jersey this season, but they won't beat the Devils four out of seven now. Devils in five

Buffalo (3) vs. Boston (6)

The Sabres have a chance to win it all because they have the best goalie in the world at the moment, Ryan Miller. The Bruins have trouble scoring, partly because of injuries. They won't score enough to have a chance in this series. They beat the Sabres four out of six games this season, but they might not score 10 goals in this series. Sabres in five

Pittsburgh (4) vs. Ottawa (5)

The Penguins went 7-5-3 down the stretch, but they know what it takes to win in the playoffs, much more than the Senators do. Neither of the Sens' goalies, Brian Elliott and Pascal Leclaire, has started a playoff game. And one of their big guns, wing Alex Kovalev, is out with a knee injury. The Pens are not on top of their game right now, but they should have enough to get by Ottawa. Penguins in six

Western Conference

San Jose (1) vs. Colorado (8)

The Sharks finished strong, going 8-1-1 to take the top seed, and their power play and penalty kill, which are critical in the playoffs, finished in the top five in the league. Also, goalie Evgeni Nabokov is as good an anyone when he gets hot. The Avalanche is this year's surprise playoff team. It started strong but won only three of its final 13, and it hasn't won in regulation since March 16. The Avs have been a nice story, but the story will end quickly. Sharks in five

Chicago (2) vs. Nashville (7)

Hockey fever has returned to Chicago because of a young group of stars led by wing Patrick Kane and center Jonathan Toews. We like everything about the Blackhawks except their goaltending. Neither rookie Antti Niemi or veteran Cristobal Huet has won a playoff series. The Predators are solid and went 11-3-1 in their final 15. But they have the worst penalty kill of any playoff team (77 percent), and their power play is mediocre at best, 16.6 percent. Those numbers matter in the playoffs. Blackhawks in six

Vancouver (3) vs. Los Angeles (6)

Goalie Roberto Luongo gives the Canucks a huge edge, but Vancouver is not just about defense and goaltending. Led by the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, this is one of the top offensive teams in hockey. The Kings might be Cup contenders … in a few years. They have a good team, but they appear too young to do any damage in this year's playoffs. Plus, goalie Jonathan Quick struggled down the stretch, winning once in his final eight games and just four of his final 16. Canucks in five

Phoenix (4) vs. Detroit (5)

The finally healthy Red Wings are the hottest team in hockey, going 16-3-2 since the Olympic break. The have four solid lines, a veteran defense and, in Jimmy Howard, a reliable goalie. Heck, backup Chris Osgood has won three Cups. The Coyotes are an amazing story. Picked by many to finish last in the NHL, they set franchise records for victories (50) and points (107). Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is good enough to steal a series. Unfortunately, the Coyotes are playing a team nobody wanted to face. Red Wings in six

NHL playoff preview 04/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 9:39pm]

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