Wednesday April 15th, 2009

Regular season series: split 2-2 Jan. 9: Blues 6 at Canucks 4 Feb. 10: at Blues 4, Canucks 6 Mar. 19: Blues 0 at Canucks 3 Mar. 26: at Blues 4, Canucks 2

The Skinny: The Blues are going to be the chic pick for everyone looking to call a first round upset. Honestly, it wouldn't be that much of a shocker for the hottest team of the second half (25-9-7) to ride that momentum to a series win, but the surprising Blues are running up against a team that's nearly as hot. The Canucks have been almost unbeatable at home over the final two months, and that sets this up as the perhaps the most compelling series of the first round.

The Blues battled through more than 450 man games worth of injuries and emerged as a young, hungry group. They'll stack an aggressive group of forwards, including T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Patrik Berglund, and their snarling special teams against the veteran defense corps of the Canucks. That group came under criticism recently for undisciplined play, but appeared to have regained their focus in the final week.

That said, the most fascinating battle will be in the pipes. Roberto Luongo is the most polished goalie in hockey. Brilliant in his last playoff appearance two years ago, he comes into this postseason on a roll, going nearly 146 minutes without giving up a goal.

At the other end of the ice is Chris Mason, who was just as dominant in the second half: 24-8-6 with five shutouts. Both are capable of stealing a series, but Luongo's experience gives him the edge in what should be a low-scoring, tightly contested series.

Spotlight Is On: Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Rumors began circulating months ago that the twins would seek $6 million per year in free agency, and as point-per-game superstars in the regular season they can make a good statistical case for themselves. Problem is, their lack of strength made them too easy to stifle in the playoffs, which is where that kind of payday is earned. The duo has shown more grit this season, and seeing Daniel come back minutes after losing teeth in Dallas last month demonstrated that they've upped the price they're willing to pay. With gritty winger Alex Burrows riding shotgun, they might be ready for that breakthrough postseason performance.

X-Factor for Blues: Paul Kariya. Sidelined by a pair of hip operations since early November, the veteran winger is almost ready to return to the lineup. Kariya didn't travel to Vancouver for the opening games, but could suit up when the teams return to St. Louis. That's the kind of boost that could spark a late-series rally . . . or help finish off the Canucks.

X-Factor for Canucks: Pavol Demitra. His pretty impressive performance last spring has been obscured by the mere three assists he netted. Unfair? Maybe, but the playoffs are a results-oriented business. The fact is that Demitra didn't score enough to help the Wild get past the Avalanche, and that's the rep he carries into his first playoff series with the Canucks. Doesn't help that he's coming in ice cold, with just five goals in his last 25 games. The Canucks are going to need secondary scoring. Time for him to get off the schneid.

The Pick: Vancouver in six

MORE BREAKDOWNS

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Flyers vs. Penguins

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Canadiens vs. Bruins

Blue Jackets vs. Red Wings

Ducks vs. Sharks

Flames vs. Blackhawks

SI.com EXPERT PICKS: Round by round brackets

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