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Stanley Cup first-round forecast

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2010

With the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs beginning Wednesday, here's a look at all eight first-round matchups, along with a prediction of which team will be moving on to the second round.

Eastern Conference

Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens

The Caps start their bid for the franchise's first Stanley Cup against the club that has holds the NHL record for titles, the Montreal Canadiens.

This year, Washington easily outpaced the rest of the Eastern Conference with 121 points, while the Canadiens needed an overtime loss with two days left in the season to avoid falling out of the playoffs completely.

But the Canadiens have played the Capitals tight this season, with both teams winning a pair of games and the four games being decided by a total of five goals. Montreal is the only playoff team that can say they beat the Caps in regulation at Verizon Center, and also ended Washington's 14-game win streak back in February.

Montreal's hope for an upset bid will rest with goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who posted a 2.40 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage, but did not face the Caps at all this year and whose play dropped off late in the season. He's facing the Caps team that scored 313 goals -- most in the NHL since 1995-96 -- and features 50-goal scorer Alexander Ovechkin and 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin.

In an entertaining series, Washington should move on to the second round for the second straight year.

The Pick: Capitals in six.

New Jersey Devils vs. Philadelphia Flyers

A team with one of the best goaltenders ever to play the game takes on a team with some serious questions in net as a pair of bitter Atlantic Division rivals clash.

New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, after an ugly collapse in the Devils' first-round loss to the Hurricanes last April, now gets another chance for redemption and looks to make an extended Stanley Cup run when he battles the Flyers. As for Philadelphia, they have run through five different netminders this year and now turn to Brian Boucher with starting netminders Ray Emery and Michael Leighton shelved with injuries.

Philadelphia, after acquiring Chris Pronger in the offseason, had high hopes for the season but found themselves undone by injuries -- particularly to their goaltenders -- but managed to qualify on the season's final day by surviving a de facto play-in game against the Rangers to punch their playoff ticket.

The series figures to be a tough battle, with the Devils being the league's top defensive team, and the Flyers likely to try and punish the Devils physically and slow down the tempo of the series. Philadelphia features four players with over 125 minutes in penalties, compared to the Devils, who only have two players with more than 60 PIMs.

Despite the Flyers finishing with 15 less points than the Devils, Philadelphia went 4-1-1 against New Jersey in the regular season, and should make this a tight series despite Philadelphia's serious goaltending woes.

The Pick: Devils in seven.

Buffalo Sabres vs. Boston Bruins

Two old Adams Division rivals battle in the first round, with the Sabres back into the playoffs for the first time since 2007, while the Bruins slid down from being the East's top seed last year to sixth seed in the East.

Unlike the 2006-07 Buffalo team to make the playoffs, which was a high-octane offensive club, this year's Sabres rely heavily on goaltender Ryan Miller, who is a strong favorite to win this year's Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder.

For their own part, the Bruins also play a strong defensive game and have a good netminder of their own in Tuukka Rask, who posted a 1.97 goals-against and a .931 save percentage in 45 games for Boston and unseated defending Vezina winner Tim Thomas from the starting role in Boston.

So, with good goaltending at both ends of the ice, it will be up to the offenses to generate chances. This is where the series likely turns, as Boston features just one 20-goal scorer, Marco Sturm, while Buffalo features three.

What was the league's top offense a year ago has been undone with the trade of Phil Kessel to Toronto -- for a top three pick in this year's draft -- as well as injuries, but Boston will need to find some goals to have a chance to advance.

The Pick: Sabres in six.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators

Finishing fourth in the East wasn't a bad thing for the Penguins last year, as Pittsburgh won their third Stanley Cup in franchise history as the No. 4 seed last spring. Now, after losing the Atlantic Division title to the Devils in the season's final weekend and falling to fourth seed again, the Penguins open their title defense with their third meeting against the Senators in four years.

This year, Ottawa rebounded nicely from missing the playoffs a year ago to snag the fifth seed in the East, although they will have to make their Cup run without forward Alexei Kovalev, who is out for the year with a torn ACL.

The Sens rely on Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza for their offense to help generate their offense, and goaltender Brian Elliott has been good in net to bolster the team's successful playoff push.

While not quite as loaded talent-wise as last year's championship roster, the Penguins still feature two of the best young players in the game in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, with Crosby getting his first 50-goal season with a two-goal effort in the Penguins' final game of the regular season Sunday on Long Island.

While this year's Pens aren't as deep as last year's club, they are still one of the most talented teams in the East -- and still the team to beat. Unless Elliott badly outplays Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens will advance.

The Pick: Penguins in six.

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.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings

In the sometimes strange world of the NHL's playoff setup, even though the third-seeded Canucks are matched up against the sixth-seeded Kings, in reality, the teams finished only two points apart in the standings.

Vancouver got a terrific performance this season from forward Henrik Sedin, who won his first Ross Trophy with 112 points to lead the league.

The Canucks also have goaltender Roberto Luongo, who helped Canada capture the gold medal at GM Place two months ago and now looks to bring a silver trophy to the arena for his NHL club.

Los Angeles returns to the postseason for the first time since the 2001-02 season, as after some failed rebuilding attempts finally paid off this season with only the second 100-point season in franchise history. The Kings are led by Anze Kopitar's 34 goals, and Jonathan Quick's netminding.

The Canucks' playoff experience gives them an edge over the Kings, and should help them prevail in the series.

The Pick: Canucks in seven.

Phoenix Coyotes vs. Detroit Red Wings

The most unusual playoff matchup of the first round features Phoenix against the two-time defending Western Conference champs from Detroit.

Phoenix began the year after an NHL takeover and the very future of the franchise in Arizona in doubt, leading to sparse crowds for home games and little excitement heading into the season. But thanks to the stellar goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov, who finished with a 2.29 goals-against and a .920 save percentage, the Coyotes -- despite still being owned by the league -- made the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

As for the Red Wings, one of the most consistent powerhouses in the NHL seemed like they might miss the postseason for the first time since 1990 as little as a month ago, but thanks to a great performance by their young netminder they climbed up to the fifth seed.

Jimmy Howard posted a 2.27 goals-against and a .924 save percentage in 62 games for the Red Wings, after having just nine games of NHL experience heading into the season.

But the Wings boast a lot of playoff experience, and while the Coyotes' story has been the best of the playoffs, it might not be a long stay in the postseason.

The Pick: Red Wings in six.