MORE BRACKETS:Darren Eliot | Kostya Kennedy | Brian Cazeneuve | Jim Kelley | Allan Muir | Sarah Kwak
Montreal (8) vs. Washington (1): Hurry, see the Lilliputian Canadiens forwards dangle against the Brobdingnagian Capitals defense. This series could be ugly, especially five-on-five. Montreal was last in the league in goals in this category. (Memo to Canadiens coach Jacques Martin: putting Marc-André Bergeron with Andrei Markov on the No. 1 defense pair against the Alex Ovechkin line is a recipe for disaster.) The Capitals simply have too much firepower for a team whose goalie, Jaroslav Halak, looked shaky the final week of the season. (Proposition bet: which team goes to its No. 2 goalie first?) Montreal's faint hopes rest on a nifty power play that is second only to Washington's, and some gaffes in the Capitals' net. Like the opening sentence of this musing, this should be Swift. Washington in 5.
Philadelphia (7) vs. New Jersey (2): Flyers goalie Brian Boucher does a spectacular impersonation of former NHL star Dominik Hasek. Now, if the veteran can mimic Hasek on the ice for two weeks, the Flyers might have something. Alas, there is a goaltending gap in the series -- Boucher vs. the record-setting Martin Brodeur -- that tilts heavily towards the Devils. The most entertaining parts of the New Jersey Turnpike series will be watching the square peg, Ilya Kovalchuk, fit into the round hole of the Devils system, and watching Philadelphia defenseman Chris Pronger trying to pound left winger Zach Parise. The Flyers had a 5-1 advantage in the season series, but Brodeur should get out of the first round for the first time since 2007. New Jersey in 6.
Boston (6) vs. Buffalo (3): These are the excruciating moments in sports: watching a figure skater try to land a quad, a 13-minute Tiger Woods apology and the Bruins trying to score goals. Now the punchless B's have to solve the NHL's best goalie, Ryan Miller. Good luck, fellas. Although Drew Stafford is out with a concussion, Tim Connolly could be back as early as Game 1 to boost a Buffalo attack currently led by Thomas Vanek, who broke out of a season-long slump after returning from injury in the final week of the regular season. Keep an eye on Tyler Myers, the rookie Sabres' pituitary defenseman, for signs of nerves. We doubt we'll see them. Buffalo in 6.
Ottawa (5) vs. Pittsburgh (4): The Senators are a truly perplexing team, seemingly in the middle of a five-game losing streak or a six-game winning streak. Captain Daniel Alfredsson thinks they have the right approach to beating the defending Stanley Cup champions. We don't know about that, but we do know this: coach Cory Clouston saved GM Bryan Murray's job. The Penguins have not fared well against elite NHL teams this season, but the hot-and-cold Senators don't really qualify. Sidney Crosby is playing like his hair is on fire. Ottawa's worthy shutdown pair of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov will be sorely tested. Pittsburgh in 6.
Colorado (8) vs. San Jose (1): The Sharks can thank Detroit for the overtime win against Chicago on Sunday that gave them a dream first-round matchup. The Avalanche didn't reach the playoffs with smoke and mirrors -- although that is a swell name for a defense pair -- but with stalwart goaltending from Craig Anderson and reliable production from young forwards, who, with the exception of U.S. Olympian Paul Stastny, many hockey fans couldn't pick out of a police lineup. (Google Chris Stewart. See?) The Sharks, 8-1-1 down the stretch, should find an extra playoff gear this time, something sadly lacking in the past. San Jose in 5.
Nashville (7) vs. Chicago (2): The Predators are the franchise that hockey forgot, or at least everyone except those who were unlucky enough to play them. Don't mess with Nashville. It has the best young defense pair in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, the backbone of a team that plays generally smart and always relentless hockey for coach Barry Trotz. The goalie match-up should involve two players not chosen for the Finnish Olympic team: Nashville's Pekka Rinne and Chicago rookie Antti Niemi, which says more about the goaltending depth in Finland than it does about these two netminders. Chicago's skill at puck possession -- it allowed only about 25 goals a game -- will make the difference for the Blackhawks, who are likely to be without injured D-men Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson in the series. Chicago in 6.
Los Angeles (6) vs. Vancouver (3): Some days you look at the Canucks and think they could be a near-perfect playoff team (albeit a little suspect on back end depth): Two superb centers -- Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler; complementary wingers -- Mikael Samuelsson, Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond and, of course, Daniel Sedin; and solid goaltending in Roberto Luongo. Then you remember the Luongo meltdown against the Blackhawks in the second round last year, and you breathe deeply. The return of minutes-eating defenseman Christian Ehrhoff on the final day of the regular season should help, but the Kings won't be a pushover. Los Angeles has some building blocks for an extended Stanley Cup run in the next few years, but goalie Jon Quick has been shaky recently and the load on young stars such as defenseman Drew Doughty will be heavy. Vancouver in 6.
Detroit (5) vs. Phoenix (4): The Coyotes are the French Foreign Legion, stationed in a desert with better southwestern cuisine. They have a bunch of misfits -- Lee Stempniak, Matthew Lombardi, Adrian Aucoin -- who have bonded to form much of the nucleus of a shoe-leather-tough team under the auspices of coach Dave Tippett. They can be outscored -- their power play is embarrassing -- but they won't be outworked by a team that won the Cup in 2008 and reached Game 7 of the 2009 final. The sheer amount of energy that Detroit expended in the past month just to make the playoffs might catch up to it, but probably not here as long as rookie goalie Jimmy Howard continues his hot streak. Detroit in 7.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Washington (2): Certain matchups should just wait their turn. Like the Russia-Canada quarterfinal at the Olympics, life would have been a little sweeter if this were the conference final instead of a second-rounder for the second straight year. The Capitals are a far more mature team than the one that lost in seven mostly memorable games last year, and that's thanks to the work of general manager George McPhee, who imported Scott Walker, Brendan Morrison, Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera to give the Capitals more veteran depth up front. The attention will be on Crosby and Ovechkin, but the series will be far more textured than in 2009. Unless the Capitals' goaltending crumbles -- that theme, again -- the NHL will have a new champion. Washington in 7.
Buffalo (3) vs. New Jersey (2): Sabres coach Lindy Ruff challenged his core forwards -- Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Vanek -- to take full ownership of the team in 2009-10, which they finally did. But with a middling power play, there is still too much pressure on a defense that, beyond the Myers and Tallinder pair, looks frayed. Like the Sabres, the disciplined Devils worry first about the back end, but have higher-end forwards in Kovalchuk and Parise. (Proposition bet: the under-over in goals per game in this series will be four.) This won't be the most scintillating of series, but the goalies are capable of producing something memorable. New Jersey in 7.
Detroit (5) vs. San Jose (1): Joe Thornton enters the playoffs with 53 points (12 goals) in 76 games. Patrick Marleau comes in with 62 points (37 goals) in 92 games. Maybe Dany Heatley turns into the Sharks' difference-maker, but a long playoff run has to be placed squarely on the broad shoulders of Jumbo Joe and Marleau, who always leave you wanting a little more. The intriguing matchup: Sharks high-end forwards vs. defense pair Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. Look for Wings coach Mike Babcock to use Pavel Datsyuk against Thornton, working for this match-up even on the road. Could be a classic, but the Sharks find a way to live down to expectations. Detroit in 6.
Vancouver (3) vs. Chicago (2): The Canucks liked their matchup last year heading into the series against the then-callow Blackhawks, but Chicago won and is older, stronger and just as fast now. Patrick Kane and the other dandy Hawks forwards will put extreme pressure on a defense that is slightly undermanned. The Canucks will need extraordinary work by the Sedin twins and Burrows to outplay the top defense pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Antti Niemi, a big guy with quick legs and a remarkably broad butterfly, should have settled himself as a playoff goalie by now. Campbell's return should also benefit the Hawks. Chicago in 6.
New Jersey (2) vs. Washington (1): If styles make fights, they should also make a playoff series. This match-up is a struggle for the soul of hockey with the Capitals trying to push the pace -- no team has approached the game like this since the Penguins of the early 1990s -- and the sclerotic Devils trying to turn this into chess on ice. (The Devils can even send out a line of Zach, (Travis) Zajac and (Dainius) Zubrus -- if you need to catch even more Zs.) The Capitals are uniquely blessed with the ability to score in bunches. The guess is that their goaltenders, José Théodore and Semyon Varlamov, make the routine saves plus one or two more. Capitals in 6.
Detroit (5) vs. Chicago (2): This is Big Brother vs. Little Brother. It's amazing to see how these Original 6ers have followed similar paths off and on the ice. First the Dead Wings rose from the ashes in the late 1980s and '90s under the new ownership of the Ilitch family. The Blackhawks have now made a massive turnaround under Rocky Wirtz, son of the late Bill Wirtz. The Wings started playing a puck possession style in the mid '90s; the Hawks finally amassed the talent capable of playing the same system the past two seasons. The difference -- true of all big and little brothers -- is that Detroit has the older legs. Even if Datsyuk crawls into their heads, this is the time for the Blackhawks to announce a new era in the NHL. Chicago in 7.
Chicago vs. Washington: After a lull in Cup match-ups during the early years of the past decade, the NHL will score a hat trick with its third straight glamorous final: a big-market, U.S.-based, Original 6 team against the firewagon Capitals, who feature one of the two best-known faces in the NHL even when Ovechkin has his fake tooth in. This is what the league imagined the post-era lockout would look like: attacking, skilled teams. (Not sure the NHL thought shaky goaltending might abet it, but there you go.) I picked Chicago at the start of the season. While consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, why get off the Blackhawks now? Chicago in 6.
MORE BRACKETS:Darren Eliot | Kostya Kennedy | Brian Cazeneuve | Jim Kelley | Allan Muir | Sarah Kwak