Eastern Conference Breakdowns
|(1) Buffalo Sabres vs. (8) New York Islanders|
|Regular-season series: Sabres won 3-1|
10/26: Sabres 3-0 1/1: Sabres 3-1 1/27: Islanders 5-3 3/30: Sabres 6-4
1st in N'east
| The Skinny: As long as they can stay healthy this time around, the Sabres will represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final. The first step comes against the Cinderella Islanders, who found a way to sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. But that's as far as their journey goes. Buffalo is too deep, too fast and too talented for New York. A healthy Sabres team that features a league-leading seven 20-goal scorers can hurt any opponent with any one of their four lines. If the boys from Long Island can wear Buffalo down with physical play, they might, MIGHT, have a chance.|
The Spotlight Is On: Ryan Miller. After matching a team record with 38 wins, Miller, 26, will look to stay on a roll in his second postseason. The steady netminder went 3-1 with a 2.52 GAA against the Isles this season and carried the Sabres to within one game of the Cup final last year. He should have a healthy corps in front of him this time.
X-Factor for Sabres: Maxim Afinogenov. In three games against N.Y. this season, Afinogenov (left) had two goals and five points. People forget how well this winger was playing before he went down in February with a broken wrist. If he's 100 percent, Maxim will be a maximum handful for the Isles' blueliners.
X-Factor for Islanders: Tom Poti. The veteran blueliner (right) ended the season on a tear with 20 points in his last 22 games. He definitely provides offense, but the Isles need him to get physical with the Sabres' top-tier snipers.
The Pick: Sabres in five.
4th in Atlantic
|(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Tampa Bay Lightning|
|Regular-season series: Lightning won 3-1|
1/18: Lightning 3-2 (OT) 1/26: Devils 2-0 2/11: Lightning 4-1 3/22: Lightning 3-1
1st in Atlantic
David E. Klutho/SI
| The Skinny: Let me begin by saying this series could go either way. The Devils' biggest advantage over the Lightning: pesky players who won't allow snipers Martin St. Louis or Vinny Lecavalier much room to operate. But those same gnats will need to provide some offense. A number of New Jersey's top players are entering the postseason banged up. That's one reason this matchup could go the distance. The Devils ranked first in the NHL in fewest penalties, so beating them 5-on-5 will be crucial for Tampa Bay, but the biggest edge New Jersey has is between the pipes.|
The Spotlight Is On: Patrik Elias. The Devils are crossing their fingers that Elias won't reinjure his groin at any point during the playoffs. Despite the fact he missed seven games this season, the 30-year-old led the team in scoring with 69 points. You guessed it. He's that important to the offensively-challenged Devils.
X-Factor for Devils: Travis Zajac. Will the rookie shine or wilt under the spotlight of the postseason? Considering the Devils have a few top players hurting, Zajac (left) will have to shoulder more of the load. His energy could be just what New Jersey needs.
X-Factor for Lightning: Dan Boyle. A constant threat, and the quarterback on the power play, Boyle (right) will be counted on heavily -- 25 to 30 minutes per game. The Bolts must keep him from being banged around by the Devils' checkers.
The Pick: Devils in six.
2nd in S'east
|(3) Atlanta Thrashers vs. (6) New York Rangers|
|Regular-season series: Thrashers won 3-1|
11/10: Rangers 5-2 11/28: Thrashers 5-4 (OT) 1/20: Thrashers 3-1 3/16: Thrashers 2-1 (OT)
1st in S'east
| The Skinny: They added a handful of playoff-tested veterans before the trade deadline, but the Thrashers still don't have enough on the back end to slow Jaromir Jagr and Co. Despite having more than enough firepower, Atlanta's power play has been misfiring for much of the season and is the lowest-ranked unit of any playoff squad. For the Rangers, it all starts and ends with Henrik Lundqvist, who closed out the season by winning seven of his last 10. The Rangers are tough in their own zone and will do stellar work of clearing traffic away from Lundqvist.|
The Spotlight Is On: Ilya Kovalchuk. With his speed and playmaking skills, Kovalchuk will be a tough match for the Blueshirts although his play, or lack thereof, in the defensive end could turn out to be one of Atlanta's biggest weaknesses. Another aspect to keep an eye on: Can Sean Avery goad Ilya into a few ill-timed penalties?
X-Factor for Thrashers: Slava Kozlov. Believe it or not, Kozlov (left) ended the regular season with more points than Kovalchuk. With the Rangers' defense keeping close watch on Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, Kozy could turn into Atlanta's main point producer in the series. But it may not be enough.
X-Factor for Rangers: Michael Nylander. Why is this underrated guy important? He centers the Rangers' top line. Nylander (right), who had three goals and six points in four games against the Thrashers this season, needs to bounce back from last season's dismal one-point performance in the postseason.
The Pick: Rangers in six.
3rd in Atlantic
|(4) Ottawa Senators vs. (5) Pittsburgh Penguins|
|Regular-season series: Penguins won 3-1|
11/10: Senators 6-3 3/6: Penguins 5-4 (OT) 3/18: Penguins 4-3 (OT) 4/5: Penguins 3-2
2nd in N'east
David E. Klutho/SI
| The Skinny: This should be the most entertaining first-round matchup -- and another that can easily go either way. Will this be the year the Senators finally put to rest their track record of being playoff flameouts? Maybe. It definitely helps when you can trot out the best two-way line (Mike Fisher, Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Schaeffer) in the league. But the young and talented Pens await. What will hurt them is their inexperience in the playoffs and their weaker third and fourth lines on defense that give up a lot of chances and are susceptible to a strong forecheck.|
The Spotlight Is On: Marc-Andre Fleury. Like many of his teammates, Fleury is making his first postseason appearance. No pressure, but the Penguins will only get into the second round if the 22-year-old, who was less than stellar in four games against the Senators this season, comes up with a plethora of huge saves.
X-Factor for Senators: Mike Comrie. The Senators will need some punch from their second line. That's where Comrie (left) comes in. The veteran, who was dealt from the Coyotes before the deadline, ended the season with seven points in his last five games.
X-Factor for Penguins: Colby Armstrong. Things always seem to come a bit easier when you're stationed alongside Sidney Crosby. But if the Ottawa blueline corps keys on Sid the Kid, Armstrong (right) is more than capable of providing a big spark.
The Pick: Senators in seven.
2nd in Atlantic
|Western Conference Breakdown|