By Allan Muir
With all four match-ups set in the Western Conference, here's a look at a key storyline that could help define each series:
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
When Stephane Robidas gruesomely shattered his leg on Nov. 29, he was arguably the most effective defenseman for the Dallas Stars. When he made his remarkable return to action just four months later, he did it while wearing the sweater of the Anaheim Ducks. Funny how things work out. Robidas was deemed expendable by Dallas and dealt to the Ducks at the trade deadline for a fourth-round pick in a swap that looked bad at the time ... and even worse now. While the Stars will wait years to see if that pick pans out, they'll have to spend the next two weeks battling against a motivated ex-teammate who will be playing 20-plus minutes of ferocious two-way defense. "I have a lot of friends [in Dallas], a lot of good teammates," Robidas said. "There’s guys that stayed at [my] house last year and this year. But it’s a game and it’s playoffs and I want to win."
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
The Avs may be the season's feel-good story, but listen to the Corsi Kids and they'll tell you that Colorado's Cinderella season ends here. The Avs allow too many shots against -- 32.6 per game, a miserable 25th overall -- and have thrived only due to a breakthrough season by Semyon Varlamov, whose save percentage rose from .903 in 2012-13 to a Vezina-worthy .927 this season. The pressure then falls squarely on Colorado's no-name defense. Led by reclamation project Erik Johnson and featuring a crew of castoffs (Andre Benoit, Nate Guenin and Nick Holden), over-the-hill types (Jan Hejda and Cory Sarich), and the surprising Tyson Barrie, the Avs' blueline corps managed to prove the doubters wrong all season. But Minnesota is a team that can create havoc on the forecheck, and the Wild will put consistent pressure on this group. Can Colorado's defenders raise their level of play to meet the increased demands of the postseason? Or will they prove that the numbers wonks were right all along?
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
A Stanley Cup favorite less than a month ago, the Blues are now primed to be the first team eliminated this spring. They come into the series having lost six straight with a forward corps that has been decimated by injuries. But those might not be their biggest concerns. Ryan Miller, the goalie they mortgaged the future to acquire, has been miserable of late. The former Sabre has lost his last five starts, giving up 18 goals and looking shaky in the process. Some of that's on a defense that's suddenly prone to allowing odd-man rushes, but Miller was brought in to be a difference maker, an upgrade over Jaroslav Halak. He has to prove he can be that guy.
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
The most highly anticipated series of the first round -- and the third meeting in four years between these California rivals -- should come down to goaltending ... and that doesn't bode well for the Sharks. Not that Antti Niemi hasn't been good this season, but he hasn't looked quite as steadfast as in the past. His numbers reflect his decline: a GAA that jumped from 2.16 to 2.39, and a save percentage that decreased from .924 to .913. With San Jose going up against a world-class stopper in Jonathan Quick and a ferocious L.A. defense, Niemi will have to ramp up his game to give the Sharks a chance.
MUIR: Eastern Conference storylines