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NHL playoff preview of series starting Wednesday

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

Eastern Conference

Washington Capitals (1) vs. New York Rangers (8)

The skinny: After years of breezing through the regular season only to get bounced early in the playoffs, the Capitals decided to abandon their high-flying ways and stick to a more defensive style that they hope will lead to postseason success. Even with Alex Ovechkin, the Caps were only 19th in the NHL in scoring, but they were fourth in goals allowed. The Caps seemed to have stumbled on the formula for playoff success — balanced and deep scoring, solid defense and playoff-tested veterans. They come in on a 16-3-1 streak. The big question is in goal. The Caps' choices are two unprovens: Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. This could be the Caps' undoing. Meantime, the Rangers, who backed into the playoffs on Saturday, have a clear advantage in goal with Henrik Lundqvist. Scoring is an issue, especially because injury-prone Marian Gaborik, New York's most talented player, disappears for long stretches and Ryan Callahan, who was second on the team with 23 goals, is out with a stress fracture. The Rangers, however, did get captain Chris Drury back from injury.

What's notable: The Rangers took three of the four games in the season series, winning 6-0 in their most recent meeting on Feb. 25. Lundqvist was 2-1 against the Caps with two shutouts.

Prediction: The Rangers will put a serious scare into the Caps, but they won't have an offense to pull off the upset. Caps in seven.

Western Conference

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)

The skinny: The Canucks were, far and away, the NHL's best team. Their 117 points were 10 more than the next closest team. They led the NHL in goals for, goals against and power play and were third in penalty killing. They are led by the Sedin twins — Daniel, who led the league in scoring with 104 points, and Henrik, fourth with 94 points. They have, perhaps, the best defensive forward in the NHL in Ryan Kesler, who also had 41 goals. Their defense might be the best corps in the league and they have a steady goalie in Roberto Luongo. Quite simply, it's their Cup to lose. But they don't get a first-round cakewalk in the defending champion Blackhawks. Chicago had to break up part of its team after last season's Cup run and was inconsistent all season. The Blackhawks are still loaded with stars up front such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. And you can put their top two defensemen — Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith — up against any two defensemen in hockey. Corey Crawford has been sturdy in goal but he's essentially a rookie, with no postseason experience.

What's notable: The Blackhawks eliminated the Canucks from the second round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. Both series went six games.

Prediction: It's hard to pick against the defending champs, but even harder to pick against this season's Canucks.

Canucks in six.

Detroit Red Wings (3) vs. Phoenix Coyotes (6)

The skinny: The Red Wings just keep on ticking. They're in the playoffs for the 20th consecutive season and, again, they are legitimate Cup contenders. The bad news is leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg will not be ready to start the series because of an upper-body injury. The good news is Detroit still has plenty of playoff-proven stars, including Pavel Datsyuk, Nick Lidstrom, Johan Franzen, Brian Rafalski and Tomas Holmstrom. Even aging veterans Todd Bertuzzi and Mike Modano could be factors in April and May. The Coyotes are a blue-collar bunch. Shane Doan was the only player to score 20 goals — and he scored exactly 20. But, they also had 10 players with at least 11 goals. Phoenix's special teams are awful — 23rd in power play, 26th in the penalty kill. And special teams seem to have a major impact in the playoffs.

What's notable: Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov could be the wild card of the series. He was 2-0-2 against the Red Wings this season with a 2.63 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.

Prediction: The Coyotes have been a nice story over the past two seasons, but Detroit is just too much for them. Red Wings in five.

Anaheim Ducks (4) vs. Nashville Predators (5)

The skinny: The Ducks had a rough start to the season, but were one of the league's best teams in the second half. They went 34-17-2 since Dec. 5. Anaheim features the best line in the NHL with Corey Perry, the league's only 50-goal scorer this season, and linemates Ryan Getzlaf (76 points) and Bobby Ryan (71 points). That line accounted for 103 of Anaheim's 235 goals. Plus, Lubomir Visnovsky led NHL defensemen with 68 points. But after that top line and veteran Teemu Selanne (31 goals), there's a significant drop. The Predators don't rely on any one player. Their leading goal scorer, Sergei Kostitsyn, had only 23 goals, but they had nine players with at least 10 goals. Defense is their strength and the dynamic duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter will try to shut down Anaheim's top line.

What's notable: Dan Ellis — yeah, the former Lightning goalie — is expected to be Anaheim's starter because of a rash of injuries. He has had an amazing turnaround with the Ducks (2.39 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage) and was one of the NHL's three stars last week. But the Predators should have the edge in goal with Pekka Rinne, a likely Vezina Trophy finalist who finished second the NHL in save percentage and third in goals-against average.

Prediction: Perhaps the hardest series to call. We'll give Nashville the advantage in goal and in the series. Predators in seven.

Eastern Conference

(1) Capitals vs. (8) Rangers

Wednesday: at Washington, 7:30

Friday: at Washington, 7:30, Versus

Sunday: at New York, 3, Ch. 8

April 20: at New York, 7, Versus

April 23: at Washington, 3, Ch. 8*

April 25: at New York, TBD*

April 27: at Washington, TBD*

(2) Flyers vs. (7) Sabres

Thursday: at Philadelphia, 7:30

Saturday: at Philadelphia, 5

Monday: at Buffalo, 7, Versus

April 20: at Buffalo, 7:30, Versus

April 22: at Philadelphia, 7:30*

April 24: at Buffalo, 3, Ch. 8*

April 26: at Philadelphia, TBD*

(3) Bruins vs. (6) Canadiens

Thursday: at Boston, 7, Versus

Saturday: at Boston, 7, Versus

Monday: at Montreal, 7:30

April 21: at Montreal, 7, Versus

April 23: at Boston, 7, Versus*

April 26: at Montreal, TBD*

April 27: at Boston, TBD*

Western Conference

(1) Canucks vs. (8) Blackhawks

Tonight: at Vancouver, 10, Versus

Friday: at Vancouver, 10, Versus

Sunday: at Chicago, 8, Versus

Monday: at Chicago, 8, Versus

April 21: at Vancouver, 10, Versus*

April 24: at Chicago, 7:30*

April 26: at Vancouver, TBD*

(2) Sharks vs. (7) Kings

Thursday: at San Jose, 10, Versus

Saturday: at San Jose, 10, Versus

Monday: at Los Angeles, 10:30, Versus

April 21: at Los Angeles, 10:30

April 23: at San Jose, 10:30, Versus*

April 25: at Los Angeles, TBD*

April 27: at San Jose, TBD*

(3) Red Wings vs. (6) Coyotes

Tonight: at Detroit, 7, Versus

Saturday: at Detroit, 1, Ch. 8

Monday: at Phoenix, 10:30, Versus

April 20: at Phoenix, 10:30 Versus

April 22: at Detroit, 7, Versus*

April 24: at Phoenix, TBD*

April 27: at Detroit, TBD*

(4) Ducks vs. (5) Predators

Tonight: at Anaheim, 10:30

Friday: at Anaheim, 10:30

Sunday: at Nashville, TBD

April 20: at Nashville, TBD

April 22: at Anaheim, 10*

April 24: at Nashville, TBD*

April 26: at Anaheim, TBD*

* If necessary

NHL playoff preview of series starting Wednesday 04/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 7:22pm]
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