Friday May 1st, 2009

Regular season series: Boston won 4-0-0

Dec. 20: at Boston 4, Carolina 2 Dec. 27: Boston 4 at Carolina 2 Jan. 10: Carolina 1 at Boston 5 Feb. 17: Boston 5 at Carolina 1

The Skinny: Boston took the regular season series and possibly the psychological upper hand. Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice admits a team can be nervous going in if it clearly didn't compete and was dominated. That isn't quite the case here, but the Bruins did have Cam Ward's number. In the four games, he allowed 13 goals for a 3.90 GAA (his season average was 2.44) and his .871 save percentage against Boston is his lowest against any Eastern Conference foe.

Yet, Carolina has a history of stunning feats. There was the "Miracle at Molson" in 2002, and lately the Shock at the Rock that put them into this round. And the Bruins have yet to see Carolina's best. After their last meeting on Feb. 17, the Hurricanes went 17-5-2, climbing from outside the playoff picture to sixth place. They welcomed 2006 Cup team stalwart Erik Cole back to complement center Eric Staal who, if given an extra inch or second, will make you pay. And Ward is coming off a spectacular performance against New Jersey.

That said, Boston is far more offensively potent than the Devils, so Ward will certainly be tested by a team that rolls four well-rounded lines. Carolina, which tends to use a three-line system, leans on its top six for offense. In fact, rookie Blake Wheeler was the only Bruin forward not to score a point in the first round, and every one of them averaged at least 9:55 on the ice, a testament to depth and the trust that Adams Award-nominated coach Claude Julien has in his team.

Spotlight's On: Zdeno Chara. The Norris Trophy finalist can put the brakes on just about anybody, and he did so cleanly against Montreal by committing zero penalties while playing the most minutes of any Bruin. He's the main pillar of a defense that allowed the fewest goals (2.32) during the regular season and the man who shut down Staal (no points against Boston) this season.

X-Factor for Carolina: Ray Whitney. It may come as a surprise that Whitney -- not Staal -- led the Hurricanes in scoring this season with 77 points and is tied with him at seven postseason points apiece, tops on the team. The 17-year veteran is the calm in Carolina's storm, and if he and Staal continue to click, they will give the Bruins trouble.

X-Factor for Bruins: Tim Thomas. Counterpart Ward has the postseason pedigree (a Stanley Cup, the 2006 Conn Smythe) and a growing resume of big game performances. Thomas can begin to really build his own legend here in a tougher test than he faced against Montreal, but he will have to handle the up-close-and-personal presence of the big-bodied Staal, who has a knack for getting into the hard areas. And Staal's not the only Hurricane who will be storming Chara and Co. to create screens in front of Thomas's net.

The Pick: Boston's depth up front and size on its back end will ultimately overwhelm Carolina, but the Hurricanes could grab an early lead in the series, and some confidence, if the Bruins don't shake off the rust of their eight-day layoff in short order. Plus, the longer the 'Canes stay in it, the more Bruins Hockey Rules commercials we get to see. Boston in 6.

Regular season series: Washington won 3-0-1

Oct. 16: Washington 4 at Pittsburgh 3 Jan. 14: Washington 6 at Pittsburgh 5 Feb. 22: Pittsburgh 2 at Washington 5 March 8: Pittsburgh 4 at Washington 3

The Skinny: Somebody should check Gary Bettman's home for a Martin Brodeur voodoo doll and look for pins around its seven hole because only some sort of otherworldly intervention could have ve set up this classic. The hockey world got its wished-for Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin showdown, and there's a good chance it will live up to the hype. Two skilled teams -- Capitals on the fly and Penguins down low -- are brimming with talent and rivalry. That Feb. 22 battle on the boards between the NHL's two pillars stirred the coals.

Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, the regular-season scoring champ and principal in his own feud with Ovechkin, has the potential to turn this series because the Capitals won't be quite as physically taxing as the Flyers were, especially without enforcer Donald Brashear, who will sit five games due to his high hit on Rangers forward Blair Betts. The Caps counter with the dangerous Alexander Semin, who can curl and drag with the best of them and has a hard wrister -- even from his knees. He led them with eight first-round points and shot his mouth off last October by famously calling out Crosby for not being all that.

With Mike Green seemingly healthy again, the Caps' power play will be running on all cylinders. But Pittsburgh's penalty-killing won't be a big concern. The Pens' power play, which went 4-for-32 against Philadelphia, must improve and challenge the relatively untested Washington penalty-kill, which kept the conference's worst power play (New York) at 12.9 percent in the first round.

Spotlight's On: Alex Ovechkin. How will he respond to all the hype and on-ice intensity? Crosby went through the full playoff pressure-cooker during the Pens' run to last year's Stanley Cup Final, but there's a fear that Ovechkin, who is more of a showman, could get too caught up in the extracurriculars. He was guilty of trying to win games against New York all by himself. He won't be able to do it against the Penguins, though he'll likely try.

X-Factor for Pittsburgh: Jordan Staal. The second overall draft pick of 2006 is the only question that Washington can't really answer. A strong two-way center and top-notch penalty-killer, Staal is also a gifted scorer who has steadily improved on the draw. In a series where any edge can be decisive, Staal brings a set of valuable tools to the table.

X-Factor for Washington: Simeon Varlamov. Opponents are still getting a read on the 21-year-old goalie, who played just six NHL games before taking over for Jose Theodore in Game 2 of the first round. "We want to make it as difficult as we can on him," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "We are going to know where to shoot on this guy and where he has been susceptible to some chances." As it is, the Pens' firepower will be much harder to deal with than New York's popgun brigade, so it's safe to say that the rookie is in for his first stern test . . . on the biggest stage of his young career.

The Pick: It'll be toss-up close, but Pittsburgh has more postseason experience, and the bright lights and sideshows may distract the young Caps long enough for the Penguins to exploit Varlamov's inexperience. Penguins in 7.

Click here for analysis and forecasts by Allan Muir.

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