Nov. 20: Montreal 3, Washington 2Nov. 28: Washington 4, Montreal 3 (SO)Jan. 5: Washington 4, Montreal 2Feb. 10: Montreal 6, Washington 5 (OT)
How the Caps can win: Break out the DVDs from last year's series against New York. That clash was as lopsided on paper as this one appears to be, yet the undermanned Rangers had Washington on the brink of elimination before the Caps took the final three games. Complacency at both ends of the ice, not just their much maligned defensive work, triggered the near disaster. If they've learned their lesson and can maintain their focus, the overwhelming gap in firepower should cut this series short.
How the Habs can win: Power-play success. There may be teams that can keep up with the Caps five-on-five, but Montreal certainly isn't one of them. Their only chance of staging a monumental upset would be to goad Washington into the box and then take advantage of the extra man. Power play point men Andrei Markov and Marc-Andre Bergeron will have to be les meilleurs for the bleu, blanc et rouge to craft an upset.
Key performer: Alexander Semin, Capitals. Coach Bruce Boudreau recently offered his 40-goal man a backhanded compliment -- or perhaps just a gentle reminder that effort tends to be rewarded: "When he wants to play, and he's wanted to play an awful lot these days, he's as skilled as there is in this league." Semin has a displayed a tendency to drift in and out of games in the past, but with 10 points in his last 11 contests, he may already have taken the hint.
Keep an eye on: Jeff Schultz, Capitals. Sidelined by a rib injury for all but one playoff game last spring, the blueliner missed out on his chance to bring order to the Keystone Caps. Count on him making that impact this time around. After watching Schultz post a league-leading plus-50 rating this season and provide a steadying and influential defensive presence next to Mike Green, it's conceivable that the team's blueline could be viewed as a strength by the time this series is over.
X-Factor:Washington's finishing kick. If the Canadiens happen to catch the Caps napping, they'd better be certain to put them to bed for the night. Washington led the league in third-period scoring and ranked second in come-from-behind victories, highlighting the quick response potential of their offense.
Season series: Boston, 4-2
Nov. 7: Boston 4, Buffalo 2Nov. 20: Boston 2, Buffalo 1 (OT)Jan. 29: Buffalo 2, Boston 1Feb. 9: Boston 3, Buffalo 2 (SO)Mar. 29: Buffalo 3, Boston 2Apr. 8: Boston 3, Buffalo 1
How the Sabres can win: Ryan Miller won't have to steal the series, but he'll need to play at a near-Olympian level to keep up with the guy at the other end and compensate for his own team's fits-and-spurts approach to offense. Miller, who lowered his GAA for the fifth consecutive season, gives the Sabres the same emotional edge that Dominik Hasek once did. When he's between the pipes, any game is winnable. Scoring support could come from Thomas Vanek, the disappointing winger who finally found a groove with five goals over the season's final weekend. If he's rolling, the Bruins will be hard pressed to answer.
How the Bruins can win: Put the Sabres to sleep. It's no secret that the Bruins enter the postseason having scored fewer goals than any team and their top offensive threat, Marc Savard, remains sidelined with a concussion. Scoring by committee sounds like a plan -- until you realize committee members like Michael Ryder (three goals in his last 23 games) and Marco Sturm (one in 16) might not show up for the meeting. They'll have to cling to Claude Julien's defensive scheme like it was Linus' blanket, keep the over/under at three, and hope that rookie sensation Tuukka Rask doesn't pull a Jim Carey.
Key performer: Tuukka Rask. The Sabres can win without Miller being their best player, but with an offense that scores less often than a young Bud Bundy, the Bruins won't survive if Rask bends, let alone breaks. The league leader in both GAA and save percentage may lack playoff exposure, but his calm demeanor and economical style are ideally suited to withstand the pressures of the postseason.
Keep an eye on: Tyler Myers, Sabres. Not that the 6-8, 222-pound favorite for the Calder was going to skate by unnoticed, but it'll be interesting to see how he responds to his first playoff experience, especially with Zdeno Chara wreaking havoc at the other end of the ice. He'll likely be used to contain Milan Lucic, Boston's best hope for establishing physcial domination in the series.
X-Factor: Tim Connolly, Sabres. The first line center missed the final nine games of the season with a foot injury (has it been determined yet if his bones are made of papier mache or glass?), but he's expected to return for the series opener. If he can stay healthy, Connolly bolsters Buffalo's five-on-five scoring and both special teams. That may be all the edge the Sabres need.
How the Pens can win: Support Sidney Crosby. The Kid led the league with 51 goals, but the Sens have always had his number, limiting him to just two goals in 17 regular season games. It'll help to have Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar back at close to 100 percent, but it'll be up to guys like Bill Guerin (two goals in his last 15) and trade deadline acquisition Alexei Ponikarovsky (one in 15) to help lighten the load.
How the Sens can win: Find a way to convince goalie Brian Elliott that he's the guy who earned Player of the Week honors at the end of last month and not the guy who allowed 14 goals over his last four starts. The difference between these teams isn't so great that only a superlative performance in net will save them, but Ottawa is going nowhere if Elliott can't steal at least two games.
Key (non)performer: Filip Kuba, Senators. Ottawa's defensive leader in both time on ice and offensive production was lost for the season after undergoing back surgery last week.
Keep an eye on: Erik Karlsson, Senators. The dazzling rookie blueliner picked up some of Kuba's slack, netting 10 points in his final nine games. His hockey sense is off the charts and, at just 19, he's on the verge of becoming an exceptional offensive talent. Problem is, he knows how good he can be and that confidence can sometimes get him into trouble.
X-Factor: Pittsburgh's grind. The Pens have played a lot of hockey over the past three seasons, advancing to the Cup final twice before winning it all last spring. There were stretches where they looked tired this season. Was that the sort of calendar-watching malaise that befalls some good teams or the wear-and-tear taking an irreversible toll?
Season series: Flyers, 5-1
Oct. 3: Philadelphia 5, New Jersey 2Nov. 16: Philadelphia 3, New Jersey 2Dec. 12: New Jersey 4, Philadelphia 1Feb. 8: Philadelphia 3, New Jersey 2Feb. 10: Philadelphia 3, New Jersey 2 (OT)Mar. 28: Philadelphia 5, New Jersey 1
How the Devils can win: Get the most out of their no-name defense. Their blueline won't frighten anyone on paper, but on the ice the unit proves to be more than the sum of its parts. Effective and clean will be key -- Philly's access to its third-ranked power play needs to be minimized. The return of Paul Martin provides a huge boost. He's known for his offensive contributions, but his defensive zone reliability has to be seen to be appreciated. It's tough for the opposition to score when they can't shoot, and few limit opportunities with their stick and positioning as well as Martin does.
How the Flyers can win: Confidence. For all their struggles this season, the Flyers, who went 4-1-1 against the Devils in the regular season, know in their hockey hearts that they've drawn the best possible opponent. If the Flyers can rattle New Jersey's defense with a consistent pounding -- and avoid the infractions that will tax their penalty kill -- they might pull off the "upset."
Key performer: Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils. The stunning trade deadline acquisition of the game-breaking sniper was made with the postseason in mind. This despite the fact that Kovalchuk has played in just four playoff games in his career and has one goal to show for it. He was a solid performer down the stretch, averaging a point per game, but there were nights when lack of chemistry was an issue. The Devils need him to click.
Keep an eye on: Jeff Carter, Flyers. Philly's offensive leader with 33 goals, Carter missed eight games with a broken foot and only returned to action for the final two contests over the weekend. He labored through Friday's match, but was a factor in the playoff-clinching win over the Rangers, launching six shots and leading the team's forwards in ice time. His presence changes the dynamic of Philly's forward lines and makes them a tougher team to defend.
X-Factor:History. The 2-7 match-up has been perilous for the higher seed, with 14 of the 30 battles since 1994 going to the underdog. Given Philly's dominance over the Devils this season, they're primed to make it 15 of 31.
For Western Conference breakdowns click here.
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