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Previews of NHL playoff series opening Thursday

St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones breaks down the first-round playoff series that begin tonight.

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western Conference

San Jose Sharks (2) vs. L.A. Kings (7)

The skinny: You have to feel bad for the Kings. They were a top-four seed for most of the season, then lost leading scorer Anze Kopitar, who was averaging nearly a point a game, for the season because of an ankle injury last month. They acquired Dustin Penner from the Oilers at the trade deadline, but he's no Kopitar. The Kings' leading healthy scorers are Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, who each had a mere 57 regular-season points, and the team finished ranked 25th in goals. The Sharks are in a familiar position as one of the top seeds in the West, but past postseasons have ended in disappointment. San Jose has collected at least 100 points the past four seasons but reached the conference final once. The Sharks are led by the usual suspects: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and Dany Heatley. The top scorers haven't scored quite at the pace they have in recent seasons, but the Sharks appear to have more offensive depth. After Boyle, the defense is a little thin. The teams are fairly even in goal with Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick and San Jose's Antti Niemi, though Niemi did backstop the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last season.

What's notable: The teams met six times in the regular season. San Jose won three times in regulation. The Kings won once in regulation and twice in overtime/shootouts.

Prediction: One never feels confident picking San Jose in the postseason, but the Kings will miss Kopitar too much. Sharks in six.

eastern Conference

Philadelphia Flyers (2) vs. Buffalo Sabres (7)

The skinny: Based on the seedings, the Flyers should be favored. But based on recent play, the Sabres might be the favorites. The Sabres are 28-11-6 since Jan. 1; the Flyers lost 16 of their last 25 regular-season games (seven in regulation) and won only one of their final six to barely hang on to win the Atlantic Division. Still, there's a lot to like about the Flyers, who are looking to get to the Cup final for the second year in a row. They led the conference in goals with 252 and had seven players with at least 20 goals. A major concern is the health of defenseman Chris Pronger. He comes into the playoffs after missing a month with a wrist injury, and it's unlikely he's 100 percent. Philadelphia also has to be nervous about handing the playoff reins to rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. If he struggles, the Flyers won't hesitate to switch to veteran Brian Boucher. The Sabres' strength is Ryan Miller, maybe the best goalie in the world. He has battled injuries but should be ready. Buffalo's top scorer, Thomas Vanek, had 73 points, but the next two scorers had only 52. Derek Roy, probably Buffalo's top player and out since Dec. 23 with a leg injury, could return, but he's likely out for the first round.

What's notable: This is the ninth time these teams meet in the playoffs. The Flyers have won five of those series, including the 1975 Stanley Cup final.

Prediction: This smells like an upset, but maybe the Flyers will wake up because it's the postseason. Flyers in seven.

Boston Bruins (3) vs. Montreal Canadiens (6)

The skinny: This is the juiciest of the first-round matchups. These teams already dislike one another, and the rivalry went to another level last month when Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara slammed Montreal's Max Pacioretty into the partition between the player benches. The Bruins have the look of a Cup contender, especially with Vezina (top goalie) and Hart Trophy (MVP) candidate Tim Thomas in goal. The Bruins yielded the fewest regular-season goals in the conference (195), and they were fifth in the league in goals, led by 30-goal scorer Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton (26 goals), Patrice Bergeron (22) and Brad Marchand (21). Montreal averaged 2.59 goals per game, the fewest of any playoff team in the East. Its leading point producer, Tomas Plekanec, had 57 points, and its top goal scorer, Brian Gionta, had 29 goals. Montreal needs goalie Carey Price to steal this series. And he's capable of doing it. He appeared in 72 games and had a .923 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average.

What's notable: The Canadiens won four of the six games in the season series, but the last time the teams met — March 24, two weeks after the Chara hit on Pacioretty — the Bruins crushed the Habs 7-0.

Prediction: Price is good, but not good enough to stop a team that appears headed to the Cup final. Bruins in five.

Previews of NHL playoff series opening Thursday 04/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 9:06pm]
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