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Western Conference

San Jose Sharks vs. Colorado Avalanche

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy last year, the Sharks bowed out meekly in the first round in a loss to eighth-seeded Anaheim. The Sharks will now look to avoid the same fate when they face the eighth-seeded Avalanche this spring after winning the West’s top seed again.

Last year’s playoff meltdown brought a shakeup in Silicon Valley, acquiring forward Dany Heatley in a trade from Ottawa, and Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau all finished this season with more than 80 points as the Sharks outlasted the Blackhawks for the top seed in the West.

Colorado, after finishing with the West’s worst mark a year ago, made a nice recovery this past season, using a hot start that had them atop the Northwest Division early on then holding off the Calgary Flames despite a swoon to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence.

If the Avs are going to author an upset, they’re going to need Craig Anderson to come up big in goal. Anderson was brilliant early in the season, but buckled under a heavy workload down the stretch and posted a 3.37 goals-against and an .892 save percentage in March and April.

It won’t be easy for the Sharks to swim the tough waters of the West, but they should be able to advance to the second round and end the Avalanche’s season.

The Pick: Sharks in five.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators

The best young team out west narrowly captured the top seed, but the Blackhawks earned the No. 2 thanks to a young core featuring a pair of Olympic standouts, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Chicago’s run for the NHL’s top record was derailed by a 6-7-2 post-Olympic run, and the Blackhawks lost defenseman Brian Campbell with a broken collarbone when he was hit by Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. But they still had a chance to win the West on the final day of the regular season before a season-ending loss to Detroit kept the ‘Hawks in the second seed.

They now face a seventh-seeded Nashville team that features a balanced attack, with no player with more than 51 points, but six players had over 43 points. Patric Hornqvist scored 30 goals for the Preds to lead Nashville, and also finished with a team-best plus-18.

While the ‘Hawks have become a vogue pick to win the West, they will need to get good goaltending from Antti Niemi, who won the starting role from Cristobal Huet with a 2.23 goals-against and a .914 save percentage.

The Preds should push Chicago in the series, as they finished strong with a 14-6-1 finish to reach the 100-point mark. But it will be a tough task to keep the Blackhawks from skating into the second round, where they should get Campbell’s return and bolster their Stanley Cup chances.

The Pick: Blackhawks in six.

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