Oct. 15: Chicago 3, Nashville 1Oct. 24: Chicago 2, Nashville 0Oct. 29: Nashville 2, Chicago 0Dec. 4: Nashville 4, Chicago 1Dec. 26: Chicago 4, Nashville 1Dec. 27: Chicago 5, Nashville 4
How the Blackhawks can win: After watching his club dismantled by Chicago during the last week of the season, a Western Conference team exec wondered aloud how anyone could beat the Blackhawks. Fair question. Outside of Detroit, the Hawks might boast hockey's most balanced lineup -- an ideal blend of skill (Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane), two-way play (Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews) and grit (Dave Bolland, Adam Burish). That offensive depth gives them a distinct advantage over the hunt-and-peck Preds and should set the tone for the series.
How the Predators can win: Now, just as during the regular season, Barry Trotz's undermanned, underfunded team has to approach every regular season contest with sheer intensity and defensive dedication. If the Predators don't do that, they simply can't compete. Their dream of toppling the Hawks begins with goalie Pekka Rinne's A-game. Rinne led the league with four post-Olympic shutouts and his 1.96 GAA gave Nashville a chance to win every night. The defense corps, led by Olympians Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, is smart, physical and rarely makes a mistake. It's up to the forwards to support that effort by clawing out an extra goal here and there.
Key performer: Antti Niemi, Blackhawks. The Hawks will tell you they're tired of talking about their goaltending and have full faith in Niemi and Cristobal Huet. Maybe they do. After all, their team GAA (2.48) was significantly lower than Nashville's (2.70) and few teams do a better job of clearing the zone and limiting chances. Still, Niemi has as much NHL playoff experience as you or me or Betty White, so expect the gnashing of teeth to continue until he proves he can elevate his game.
Keep an eye on: Chicago's blueline. For all the acclaim, it simply hasn't been as effective since the break. Injuries to Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson have hurt their transition game and forced players like Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel into roles that might ask too much of them. Bad reads and rushed reactions have led to poor decisions and higher quality scoring chances than their goalies are used to seeing. Getting Campbell back later in the series would help with the balance, but until then, Chicago's defenders might be the second-best group on the ice.
X-Factor: Nashville's ability to close out one-goal games. The Preds warmed up for the tight-checking, low-scoring style of postseason hockey by going 14-0-1 in their final 15 one-goal games. Trotz believes those results will enhance his team's chances. "In one-goal games, there's no panic," he said. "We're used to those tight games. It makes us more resilient."
Season series: Canucks, 3-1Oct. 29: Vancouver 2, Los Angeles 1 (SO)Nov. 26: Vancouver 4, Los Angeles 1Dec. 14: Vancouver 3, Los Angeles 1Apr. 1: Los Angeles 8, Vancouver 3
How Canucks can win: They're not quite Washington West, but Vancouver's Sedin-fueled offense was plenty effective, torching the opposition more often than any team outside of the blastin' Caps. But don't think it's all about Art Ross winner Henrik and his trigger-happy brother, Daniel. These Canucks boast three lines capable of lighting it up, and that depth gives them a clear edge on the Kings. Add in the West's best home record and the benefit of experience -- the Canucks have managed to win two series over the last three years -- and Vancouver should find its way into the second round.
How the Kings can win: They're widely regarded as underdogs, but are they 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 (slight edge to the Kings) to special teams (a toss-up) suggests this could go either way. If the Kings can take advantage of Vancouver's injury-riddled defense (see below) and use their size and speed to establish their forecheck and cycle, they might win their first series since 2001.
Key performer: Ryan Kesler, Canucks. Here's the mark of a great two-way center: while matched against Anze Kopitar this season, Kesler not only kept the Kings' catalyst off the board, he managed to chip in a goal and an assist. The secret to his success is in the circle, where Kesler's face-off dominance kept the puck away from Kopitar. If this trend continues, the Kings' offense may slow to a trickle.
Keep an eye on:The goaltending. Both teams come into the series with concerns between the pipes. Roberto Luongo led Canada to Olympic gold, but he's 11-11 in the playoffs and his erratic play down the stretch offered nothing to suggest that his success rate will improve. Jonathan Quick steps in as a playoff rookie for the Kings, but his lack of experience is less disquieting than his own struggles in March and April. If he stumbles, the Kings might turn to to prospect Jonathan Bernier.
X-Factor:Vancouver's battered blueline. Pugnacious veteran Willie Mitchell is out indefinitely with a concussion suffered in January. Aaron Rome, a surprisingly effective stand-in for Mitchell, hasn't practiced this week and could be out. Most worrisome though is Sami Salo. He says he'll be back Thursday after sitting with a suspected groin pull, but a player who's suffered 29 injuries over his career is a dirty look away from his 30th...and the Canucks simply can't replace his minutes.
Season series: 2-2
Oct. 22: Phoenix 3, Detroit 2 (OT)Dec. 14: Detroit 3, Phoenix 2Jan. 2: Detroit 4, Phoenix 1Jan. 26: Phoenix 5, Detroit 4 (OT)
How the Red Wings can win: They keep rolling. No team was hotter post-Olympics than the Wings, who lost just five games and were 8-1-1 in their last 10. No new formula. The Wings focused on what's always worked for them: keeping the puck on their sticks as often as possible. Add in a renewed commitment to team defense and a preternatural poise that only comes from having succeeded so often in the past and the Wings sure look to have their mojo back.
How the Coyotes can win: Convince the NHL to adopt the shootout for the playoffs. Not to belittle what this team accomplished over the season by playing smart, disciplined hockey, but after securing 14 of their franchise-record 50 wins in the skills competition, it's obvious they'll be in tough to match that success level in the postseason. That said, they have to stick to what's worked -- strict adherence to the system implemented by likely Jack Adams-winner Dave Tippett and sensational goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov -- if they hope to have a chance against the veteran Wings.
Key performer: Jimmy Howard, Red Wings. The rap on Detroit teams of recent vintage is that they've succeeded despite the presence of caretaker goaltending. Howard, the subject of considerable fan angst early in the season, emerged as something more: a stopper capable of carrying the team through rough patches. He's coming in on a high -- 13-0-2 in his final 15 -- but he'll have to maintain that pace to outlast a potential Vezina-winner in Bryzgalov.
Keep an eye on: Lee Stempniak, Coyotes. Where would Phoenix be without this unlikely sniper, acquired moments before the window closed at the trade deadline? A constant source of frustration in Toronto, he found instant success with the Coyotes, scoring 14 times in just 18 games and reviving a power play that had been ranked 30th in the league before his arrival. You can't underestimate the impact of a hot hand and right now there isn't anyone hotter than Stemper.
X-Factor: Fresh legs. Despite all the hardships earlier in the season, the Wings might end up appreciating those lengthy stints spent on the IR by Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen and other key performers. Detroit has played a lot of hockey over the past two years, so the reduced mileage on some of those wheels could lead to some extra jump come crunch time.
Season series: 2-2
Oct. 1: Colorado 5, San Jose 2Oct. 30: San Jose 3, Colorado 1Mar. 28: San Jose 4, Colorado 3Apr. 4: Colorado 5, San Jose 4 (OT)
How the Sharks can win: Play up to their potential. It's really that simple. The Sharks hold a vast edge in terms of talent, balance and painful experience that should carry them quickly through this series. If this team is as good as it thinks it is, this shouldn't even be a test.
How the Avalanche can win: Maybe Craig Anderson, suffering from over-use towards the end of the regular season, rediscovers his early form. And maybe the top line of Paul Stastny, Chris Stewart and T.J. Galliardi remembers to play hard on both sides of the puck. Maybe the Sharks will set their watches wrong and miss the start of a game. Look, not to diminish what the Avs accomplished this season, but with so little experience on their side, they'll need a nothing-to-lose spirit -- and another San Jose playoff flop -- just to stay competitive. The present doesn't look so promising, but this will be a good learning experience for a team that has a very bright future.
Key performer: Evgeni Nabokov, Sharks. There shouldn't be any reason to question the credentials of a netminder with three consecutive seasons of 40-plus wins to his credit, but Nabokov has exhausted that goodwill with a series of playoff flops. Still, it is his recent struggles -- kicked off by that Olympic meltdown -- that are most alarming. He's allowed at least four goals on seven occasions since the break, victimized by mental lapses and wonky positioning. He has to avoid that level of generosity if the Sharks are to advance.
Keep an eye on: Matt Duchene, Avalanche. The Franchise will be leaned on heavily as he gets his first taste of postseason action, but is he up to the challenge? The league's top rookie scorer is coming off a hip injury suffered last Wednesday in Edmonton, and there's no telling yet how that will impact his effectiveness. He'll also be without Peter Mueller, the deadline acquisition with whom he displayed considerable chemistry down the stretch. The presence of veteran Milan Hejduk will provide some stability, but this can't just be a learning experience for Duchene. He has to make an offensive contribution for the Avs to have a chance.
X-Factor: They're the Sharks. In terms of talent and experience, this series should be a walk-over...but this is a team that invents new and humiliating ways to implode each spring. You have to wonder how they'll react if they find themselves in a hole, if there's enough trust in the room to band together and climb out of it. Maybe this is the year they take that step...but we won't believe it until it happens.
Click here for Eastern Conference breakdowns
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