Montreal (8) vs. Boston (1): The NHL should declare this Original Six playoff series an annual event, which it practically is (the two rivals have met 31 times, with Montreal winning 24). Last year, the Canadiens needed a nervous seven games to eliminate the Bruins after beating them in all eight regular-season meetings. Now the roles are reversed with the Bruins, 5-1 against the Canadiens during the year, the No. 1 seed and Montreal looking up from the bottom. Boston will push the Canadiens around. Unless Montreal makes the Bruins pay for their indiscretions with a revved-up power play, this one will go quickly. Watch as roughneck Bruins winger Milan Lucic and Canadiens defenseman Mike Komisarek pound each other into submission. Bruins in six.
New York (7) vs. Washington (2): An anemic Rangers attack meets shaky Capitals goaltending. Wackiness ensues. The Capitals won't hesitate to play rookie backup Simeon Varlamov if José Théodore struggles, but it might be too late by then. New York's Chris Drury and Scott Gomez should start paying back some of their contracts with an impressive series, but the Capitals' bitter Game 7 overtime loss to Philadelphia last spring will prove to be the spadework that allows them to survive. Alex Ovechkin on Broadway. You gotta love it. Capitals in seven.
Carolina (6) vs. New Jersey (3): If you had asked me three weeks ago, I might have been tempted to pick New Jersey to win the Cup. Now the Devils look off their feed, as they say back on the ranch in Viking, Alberta, where coach Brent Sutter might decide to go no matter what the Devils do this spring. After some early brilliance following his return from the elbow injury, goalie Martin Brodeur has looked mortal. Meanwhile, Carolina defenseman Anton Babchuk has turned into Paul Coffey. Eric Staal, with the repatriation of Erik Cole, looks ready for a rampage. Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward has been hot. What's not to like about those 'Canes? Hurricanes in six.
Philadelphia (5) vs. Pittsburgh (4): The Keystone Series is layered like an onion and will make you cry because one of these two gifted teams will be out early. My guess: the unfortunate team will be the Flyers, my preseason pick to come out of the East. Their attack is impressively balanced -- the brittle Daniel Brière is on fire -- and their special teams are superb, but Pittsburgh has as many weapons five-on-five and an equally good power play of late. (The under/over on short-handed goals in the series is three.) In the end, Pittsburgh goalie Marc-André Fleury outplays Martin Biron. Watch Sidney Crosby versus Flyers captain Mike Richards, the best individual matchup of the first round. Penguins in seven.
Anaheim (8) vs. San Jose (1): This Blue Cross series will keep you, and them, in stitches. Guffaw as the Ducks light their torches and try to slay the NHL's monster team. (Key stat: the Sharks were 23-11-6 against the 15 other playoff teams.) Giggle as Sharks star Joe Thornton gets mean. Chuckle over the cartoonish pounding the Ducks will attempt to administer, and smile when the tougher-than-you-think Sharks push back. In better health than they've been in months, the Sharks should survive. Major props here to GM Doug Wilson's slick work in rebuilding the defense. Sharks in seven.
Columbus (7) vs. Detroit (2): The Blue Jackets, Central Division neighbors, won't be intimidated facing the Cadillac of the NHL. (Note to editor: Cadillac's still in business, right?) Columbus won three of their final four games against Detroit, which cruised through the season with precious little emotion. Coach Mike Babcock surely will rectify, even if the guys in those other sweaters have no playoff portfolio. The Blue Jackets should hang with them, but the Red Wings' talent simply is too great for a well-coached team backstopped by rookie goalie sensation Steve Mason. Hello life, good-bye Columbus. (Notice there was not one reference to Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood in the preceding. Pretty good, huh?) Red Wings in six.
St. Louis (6) vs. Vancouver (3): The Blues made it to the 6 seed because of coach Andy Murray's nagging, Chris Mason's superb goaltending, rookie T.J. Oshie's emergence and a whole lot of pixie dust. Their second-half joyride stops here. Vancouver forwards Henrik and Daniel Sedin are men now, Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows are terrific complementary forwards, and goalie Roberto Luongo is ready for his close-up. This gives Mats Sundin at least one more round to rouse himself from a stupor. Canucks in five.
Calgary (5) vs. Chicago (4): I consistently overrate the Flames' ability to hammer a playoff opponent into submission, so take this one with a box of rock salt. But if defensemen Dion Phaneuf and (more doubtfully) Robyn Regehr and forward René Bourque return, Calgary won't be undermanned. The best matchup: Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff versus Hawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin; both are capable of stealing a game or even a series. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews is going to lead the Blackhawks to their first Cup since 1961 sooner than you think. Just not this year. Flames in seven.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Washington (2): This is the dream matchup: Ovechkin versus Crosby, Ovechkin versus Malkin, showboat versus dreamboat. There is enough mutual antipathy that these games don't even have to be cultivated in the hothouse of the playoffs in order for the rivalry to flower. At some point, Washington's goaltending is going to fail. The guess is right about now. Penguins in six.
Carolina (6) vs. Boston (1): The focus in this series will shift back to Boston's first line of Marc Savard-Phil Kessel-Lucic, which will be tested more sternly than it was in the first round. Boston goalie Tim Thomas outplays Ward and Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara stands tall -- well, at 6-foot-9, he always stands tall, but you know -- and defenseman Dennis Wideman scores the series-winner on a late power play. Bruins in seven.
Calgary (5) vs. San Jose (1): Even after being softened up by the Ducks, the Sharks show enough backbone to beat the Flames. Patrick Marleau's speed will be the difference-maker against the banged-up Calgary defense. The consensus was that the Flames "won" the trade deadline -- especially with the acquisition of big center Olli Jokinen, who skates and shoots but doesn't make his teammates better. There is no hardware awarded for that. Sharks in six.
Vancouver (3) vs. Detroit (2): I'm torn here. The Canucks were going to be my team of destiny, but the Red Wings were my preseason pick. Ignoring the evidence of my eyes -- middling goaltending, sloppy defensive zone coverage, boredom -- I'm guessing Detroit's skill will be enough to eke this out against a brilliant Luongo. If Osgood can't make 24 stops a night, however, the Red Wings will be briskly whisked out of these proceedings. Red Wings in seven.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Boston (1): Malkin shrunk as the playoffs moved along last year. No longer. The NHL's leading scorer will remain consistently productive throughout. There will be a freshet of goals in this series, including several from defensemen. Watch for Kris Letang on Pittsburgh's power play. The Bruins have more depth, but the Penguins' premier talent can overwhelm. Penguins in six.
Detroit (2) vs. San Jose (1): Maybe this isn't a must-see matchup in the sense of Washington versus Pittsburgh, but the level of hockey will be even better if not always as spectacular. These are deep, talented teams who will play the most complete hockey of the spring before attrition and travel take their toll. Unlike Luongo, Khabibulin and Kiprusoff, Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov does not necessarily frighten the Red Wings. He can still beat them, but he is not going to steal a series from them. The matchup: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg versus Thornton and Marleau. It's a connoisseur's dream. Red Wings in six.
Pittsburgh vs. Detroit: I am blindly loyal, if not necessarily perspicacious. Start with the Red Wings, stay with the Red Wings. The Penguins are not the callow team that took Detroit to six games in the final last year, but now the goaltending gap between the teams narrow. Detroit's poise and will win some tight games. Red Wings in seven.
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