MORE BRACKETS:Michael Farber | Darren Eliot | Jim Kelley | Kostya Kennedy | Brian Cazeneuve | Sarah Kwak
Montreal (8) vs Washington (1): If this series had taken place a month ago when Jaroslav Halak was channeling the ghost of Jacques Plante, the underdog Habs might have offered some bite to go with their bark. But the Halak who will man Montreal's net this week looks somewhat worse for wear caused by his heavy workload down the stretch. The Capitals may have goaltending issues of their own (can Jose Theodore be hockey's answer to Trent Dilfer?), but their awesome firepower will cover any defensive blemishes. If Washington stays out of the box and limits Montreal's power play chances, they might want to pack the brooms for their Game 4 visit to the Bell Centre. Washington in four.
Philadelphia (7) vs. New Jersey (2):Brian Boucher managed to outduel Henrik Lundqvist in a winner-take-all match on Sunday, but now the Flyers' third- (fourth? fifth?) stringer is being asked to best Martin Brodeur in a seven-game series. Good luck with that. Despite Philly's regular season dominance of the Devils, I expect this set will revert to form, with Jersey's no-name defense setting the tone. Brodeur, who enters the series second all-time with 98 playoff wins, has something to prove after being found wanting at the Olympics and failing to get Jersey past the first round the last two years. Look for him to have a spectacular series. New Jersey in five.
Boston (6) vs. Buffalo (3): This old-school Adams Division clash sets up as either the most entertaining or most skull-numbingly boring of the first round. Fair to say that goaltending will be the primary focus with the league's top statistical stoppers, Tuukka Rask and Ryan Miller at opposite ends of the ice, and if that's what it comes down to, well, better bring a pillow. But with so little to separate those two, the betting here is that this series will tilt on physical domination. The ability of forwards like Raffi Torres and Milan Lucic to assert their will, or defenders Tyler Myers and Zdeno Chara to create a zone of fear could make the difference. The Sabres have more talent, but if there's going to be a first-round upset, their inability to match Boston's muscle makes them the likely victims. Bruins in six.
Ottawa (5) vs. Pittsburgh (4): Pittsburgh may have lost a couple of key defenders, but they're a bigger, tougher squad than last year and they know how to win. All they have to do now is find the on-switch that's eluded them over the past month. This year's Sens are a more structured, better coached side, but wildly inconsistent. If they get on a roll, they're capable of stringing together a few wins, but it's just as likely that they'll go out in four straight. It'll be up to Brian Elliott to keep it close. Anyone really want to bet on him? Pittsburgh in five.
Colorado (8) vs. San Jose (1): This one has the makings of a blowout, with top-ranked San Jose coming in on an 8-1-1 roll while the Cinderella Avs barely made it to the ball before their carriage turned into a pumpkin. If they play up to their paper, the Sharks enjoy a mismatch up and down the roster. They have four solid lines, a quick, capable defense and superior special teams. But -- and it's a big but -- these are the Sharks, and until they dispel the choke aroma by winning a few series, there's going to be a cloud of imminent doom hovering over these poster children for underachievement. The path to redemption begins with this series. If they can take the first two at home, they'll be alright. San Jose in five.
Nashville (7) vs. Chicago (2): Plenty of experts will tell you that Chicago is the team to beat this spring...and Nashville just might be the team to beat them. Pekka Rinne gives the Preds a slight edge in net and the Nashville blueline, led by Olympians Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, is smart, swift and powerful. They're well coached and deadly in close games, going 14-0-1 in their last 15 decided by one goal. But even with all that, they're going to be hard-pressed to contain a Chicago offense that finished third overall with 271 goals. If Patric Hornqvist (upper body injury) is a factor, it'll go the distance. Blackhawks in seven.
Vancouver (3) vs. Los Angeles (6): There's a sense that a Kings win in this series would be an upset, but would it really? Statistically speaking, this may be the most evenly matched series in the first round. Every number from points (Vancouver had the edge, 103 to 101) to goals-against (a slight edge to the Kings) to special teams (a toss-up) suggests this could go either way. Both teams also come in with question marks in net -- neither Roberto Luongo nor Jonathan Quick offered much in the way of reassurance down the stretch. The only discernible edge may be experience. The Canucks, who've managed to win two series over the last three years, have it. The Kings, making their first postseason appearance since 2002, do not. Canucks in six.
Phoenix (4) vs. Detroit (5): Look, the Coyotes provided the feel-good story of the year. They've become a dangerous team with Dave Tippett behind the bench -- structured, balanced and effective. They've got a world-class goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov and a red-hot sniper in Lee Stempniak. And for all that, they're about to become road kill because of a lousy playoff draw. Look hard enough and you can probably construct a reasonable argument to support the Coyotes, but the reality is that Detroit is simply too poised, too experienced and too talented to let this series get away from them. Red Wings in six.
Boston (6) vs. Washington (1): The B's are the league's premier shutdown squad and with Rask's no-panic presence in goal, you can be sure that Claude Julien's boys won't be intimidated. But come on -- the league's most feeble offense against the most dynamic group since the heyday of Gretzky's Oilers? This'll be like the 1990 Cup final all over again. Washington in five.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. New Jersey (2): Sometimes you can actually learn from history. Take the regular season series between these divisional foes. They met six times, the Devils came away with 12 points. That's domination. But before you say the playoffs are a new season, know this: according to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been four cases in NHL history where a team has swept a season series of at least six games and then met that same team in the playoffs. Every time, the club that was swept was brushed aside again. So much for a repeat. New Jersey in six.
Detroit (5) vs. San Jose (1): You could sense the urgency down the stretch in San Jose as they re-committed to their defensive vows and still found a way to take four of their final five by a single goal. But this is a lousy match-up for the Sharks. The Wings owned the season series, going 3-0-1 while limiting the high-powered San Jose offense to just six goals.. with a roster whittled down by significant injuries. Now healthy and feeling the confidence that carried them to the final each of the past two seasons, Detroit will author another chapter in San Jose's history of disappointment. Detroit in six.
Vancouver (3) vs. Chicago (2): The Olympic gold medal removed the "what's he ever won?" stigma from Luongo, but his meltdown in Game 6 of last season's series with the Hawks leaves room to wonder if he's capable of carrying a team to the third round, let alone a Cup. Though the Hawks may still be missing Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson on the back end, they'll find a way to execute their transition game to make the most of their speed advantage up front. Look for Luongo to crumble, again, against that offensive assault. Chicago in six.
New Jersey (2) vs. Washington (1): When the Caps signed Mike Knuble last summer, and added Eric Belanger and Scott Walker at the deadline, it was with a series like this in mind. The Devils can muck up the middle to stymie Washington's skilled forwards, but they don't have the depth or the strength on the back end to keep the grinders bottled up. The Devils took three of four in the season series, but they'll need a superlative effort from Brodeur just to get this set to five games. Washington in five.
Detroit (5) vs. Chicago (2): An Original Six clash that sets up as the best series of the postseason will be won on the strength of a underrated Detroit power play. Though the unit finished in 10th spot, it was dragged down by injuries to Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom. The Hawks boast an elite penalty kill, but it will falter in the face of those big bodies and the silky passing of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The bright side for the Hawks: at least Marian Hossa won't lose in the Cup final for the third straight year. Detroit in seven.
Washington vs. Detroit: No team has won more playoff series since the lockout than Detroit's nine, for good reason: in a post-cap league where every contender has holes, the Wings are the closest thing to a perfectly constructed team. Their top-six can't match the firepower of Washington's, but they're a more effective, two-way group. Their bottom six boasts more speed and grit. And their blueline has battled through 456 games compared to just 157 for the Caps. Over a seven-game series, that depth and experience will carry the day. That's not to say it'll be easy, especially with a highly motivated Alexander Ovechkin looking to avenge a series of recent disappointments, but the Wings carry enough of an edge to earn their second Cup in three years. Detroit in seven.
MORE BRACKETS:Michael Farber | Darren Eliot | Jim Kelley | Kostya Kennedy | Brian Cazeneuve| Sarah Kwak
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