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The Hockey News 2008-09 NHL Playoff Preview

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The race for the Stanley Cup begins in earnest Wednesday, when the top 16 teams in the NHL begin a grueling odyssey towards glory or heartbreak. The post-season landscape has shifted, but the uncertainties are constant. Here are some storylines to follow:

• Can Detroit reverse the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover and repeat as champs, let alone win a round?

• Conversely, how will the Columbus Blue Jackets fare in the franchise’s first foray into the post-season?

• Are the Sharks for real, for real this time?

• Does Boston’s Tim Thomas believe in ghosts, such as those that guard the Montreal Canadiens from bear attacks?

• How far can offense take the Washington Capitals and does that mean a Conn Smythe for Alex Ovechkin?

• Will anyone survive the second straight Battle of Pennsylvania between the Penguins and Flyers?

• The St. Louis Blues are just happy to be here, right?

There’s only one way to find out and that’s to settle it all on the ice, along with many other questions.

Below you'll find breakdowns on each of the eight opening round series and THN.com's picks to move on.

San Jose Sharks SAN JOSE SHARKS vs. ANAHEIM DUCKS Anaheim Ducks

SEASON SERIES
San Jose - 4-2-0 (12 GF, 12 GA)
Anaheim - 2-4-0 (12 GF, 12 GA)

LEADING SCORERS VS. OPPONENT
San Jose - Jonathan Cheechoo 4 (3G, 1A), Christian Ehrhoff 4 (1G, 3A), Dan Boyle 4 (0G, 4A)
Anaheim - Ryan Getzlaf 6 (0G, 6A)

SPECIAL TEAMS
There is almost nothing to choose between the power play for the Sharks and Ducks because they’re both so lethal. With Dan Boyle and Rob Blake on the back end in San Jose and Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer on the points in Anaheim, there will be a lot of setting up from the top. The only difference is the Ducks play on the edge of the rulebook and were shorthanded an average of almost once per game more than the Sharks were during the season. The Sharks have a much stronger penalty kill as well. Edge: San Jose

FORWARDS

Should both coaches opt for power on power, it could prove to be a wonderful matchup with the Sharks’ first line of Joe Thornton between Devin Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau going head-to-head with the Ducks’ top unit of Ryan Getzlaf between Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry. Both teams get balanced scoring from their top forwards, but the Sharks have more depth of talent up front than the Ducks and that could be a difference-maker in the series. Edge: San Jose

DEFENSE

Again, a lot of talent and depth on both sides of the puck. The four defensemen San Jose added before or during this season – Blake, Boyle, Brad Lukowich and Kent Huskins (injured) - each has a Stanley Cup ring on his finger. Boyle provides the offense and Blake the steady two-way play, but the tandem of Pronger and Niedermayer, along with an excellent supporting cast, is by far the Ducks’ most prominent strength. Edge: Anaheim

GOALTENDING

No matter which goalie the Ducks use, the men at both ends of the ice will have something to prove in these playoffs. Evgeni Nabokov must show that another terrific regular season will not be followed by yet another flameout in the playoffs. Jonas Hiller, who appears to have won the No. 1 job in Anaheim, hasn’t played a minute of NHL playoff hockey in his career. Should the Ducks go with Jean-Sebastien Giguere, he must prove that he can be in the playoffs everything he wasn’t in the regular season – consistent and reliable. Edge: San Jose

COACHING

Todd McLellan has won championships at every level as a coach and brings a sense of stability and accountability to the Sharks in the playoffs. While there have been whispers that Randy Carlyle’s act has begun to wear a little thin with the players, he remains an astute playoff coach who plays the playoff chess game as well as anyone out there. Edge: Even

THE X-FACTOR
After getting out to a great start, the Sharks flat-lined a little, but that was probably to be expected. The Sharks will try their best to play smash mouth hockey and depending upon how the games are called, will have a physical edge. Jonathan Cheechoo, who had a miserable first half, has been a Duck killer, with three career hat tricks against Anaheim.

PREDICTION
This is not a great draw for the Sharks, who know they will be tested physically in a big way this series, which may hinder their chances of winning later in the playoffs. But it’s difficult to see the Sharks, who have grown their own talent and acquired lots of character and winning experience, losing this series. This might be the most difficult series the Sharks have in this year’s playoffs. Sharks in six

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Detroit Red Wings DETROIT RED WINGS vs. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS Columbus Blue Jackets

SEASON SERIES
Detroit - 3-2-1 (18 GF, 17 GA)
Columbus - 3-3-0 (17 GF, 18 GA)

LEADING SCORERS VS. OPPONENT
Detroit - Pavel Datsyuk, 9 (1G, 8A)
Columbus - Rick Nash, 6 (6G, 0A)

SPECIAL TEAMS
Talk about a study in contrasts. Detroit has the No. 1 power play in the league, while Columbus ranks dead-last. On the penalty kill, things even up, as the Blue Jackets are a respectable 13th in the league, while the Wings struggled to 25th overall. The key in this series will be for Columbus to stay out of the box. The Jackets were tied for 13th in the league in times shorthanded this season, getting the gate an average of 4.2 times per game. With Detroit scoring at a 25.5 percent pace on the man advantage, that’s a goal per night right there.  Edge: Detroit

FORWARDS

The Wings boast the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner in Henrik Zetterberg, not to mention Pavel Datsyuk, who was also a contender for 2008 playoff MVP and is himself a Jackets killer. Watch for Datsyuk’s two-way play to factor into the post-season once again. Marian Hossa’s groin is wonky, but the Wings still have plenty of other weapons such as Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary. Rick Nash will make his first sojourn into the NHL playoffs for Columbus and the captain will have to be firing on all cylinders. R.J. Umberger was a playoff hero for Philadelphia last year, while physical forecheckers such as Raffi Torres and Jared Boll will make life miserable for Detroit. Edge: Detroit

DEFENSE
Detroit’s top duo of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski is one of the best tandems in the league and Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart were fantastic during the ’08 Cup run. How players such as rookie Jonathan Ericsson and sparsely-used Chris Chelios play will be a factor. Columbus has won all season on defense and goaltending and that’s not going to stop now. Led by lunch-pail minute-munchers Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda, the crew is steady and knows its role. Undersized offensive defenseman Kris Russell will be intriguing to watch. Edge: Detroit

GOALTENDING
Steve Mason is the slam-dunk, sure-thing Calder Trophy winner this season and the Vezina and Hart are not silly fantasies. The rookie netminder has vaulted his Blue Jackets into their first post-season and his big-stage experience at the world juniors will help his nerves. On the other side, Detroit has lugged Chris Osgood along all season. Despite leading the Wings to a Cup last year, Ozzie has been inconsistent and porous, with a goals-against average nearly one full goal worse than Mason’s. Clearly Detroit’s Achilles’ heel. Edge: Columbus

COACHING
Along with Mason, Ken Hitchcock has been a savior for Columbus. The crafty old coach has a Stanley Cup ring from his days in Dallas and his players have bought into his safe, defensive system. If they can execute it, they’re dangerous, as the Wings found out several times in the regular season. For Detroit, Mike Babcock has a ring from last year and has always had success in the playoffs, albeit with loads of talent at his disposal. Not that anyone in Detroit is complaining about that – he still gets the best out of his guys. Edge: Even

THE X-FACTOR
Stanley Cup hangover vs. first-time jitters. The numbers are pretty black and white. In the past five seasons, the Cup winner has either lost in the first round or missed the playoffs altogether the next season. Detroit has played a lot of games in the past few years and aren’t exactly a young team. Meanwhile, Columbus can look at the previous two teams to make their NHL playoff debuts and wince: Atlanta (swept in ’07) and Nashville (dusted in ’04, still haven’t won a round). Which team will break its respective curse?

PREDICTION
Hangovers aside, Detroit is simply too poised to be thrown off by a division rival who played them as tough as anyone this season. The Blue Jackets can always hang their hats on the 8-2 spanking they gave the Wings earlier in the season, but when it comes down to crunch time, it’s hard to go against players such as Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom, all of whom have been there, done that, in the playoffs. Detroit in six

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Vancouver Canucks VANCOUVER CANUCKS vs. ST. LOUIS BLUES St. Louis Blues

SEASON SERIES
St. Louis - 2-2-0 (14 GF, 15 GA)
Vancouver - 2-2-0 (15 GF, 14 GA)

LEADING SCORERS VS. OPPONENT
St. Louis – Patrik Berglund, 6 (1G, 5A)
Vancouver – Daniel and Henrik Sedin, 5 (1G, 4A)

SPECIAL TEAMS
Vancouver was a middle-of-the-pack finisher in both power play and penalty-killing this season, finishing 16th overall with the man advantage (18.8 percent) and 17th overall on the PK (81.4 percent). St. Louis, on the other hand, was an excellent special teams performer this season, finishing eighth on the power play with a 20.5 percent efficiency rate and third in penalty-killing at 83.8 percent. Edge: St. Louis

FORWARDS

This is going to be a series of offense by committee for both teams. In Vancouver, the Sedin Bros., will lead the way, with Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows playing an agitating style with some offense of their own. Pavol Demitra is another wildcard. Can he get Mats Sundin going? In St. Louis, it’s all about the kids. If David Backes, Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie and David Perron are intimidated by the playoffs, St. Louis will be singing the blues. Paul Kariya is the wildcard on the Blues’ side; if he can get back into any kind of form, it’ll be a huge boon. Edge: St. Louis

DEFENSE

Five Vancouver blueliners scored 20 or more points, led by Kevin Bieksa’s 11 goals and 43 points. Bieksa also led the team in average ice time, while Willie Mitchell held the highest plus/minus rating at plus-29. In all, it’s an unheralded, cagey defense corps with old warhorses like Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo who’ve been through the post-season battles. St. Louis’ blueline was devastated by injuries to Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer and has become a makeshift, defense-first group, led in scoring by Carlo Colaiacovo’s three goals and 30 points. Edge: Vancouver

GOALTENDING

Roberto Luongo is one of the best goalies in the world and if he hadn’t missed significant time this season, chances are the Canucks would have sewn-up the Northwest Division long before the final weekend. Luongo has won games on his own in the past for the offensively challenged Vancouver squad, but with more depth in front of him he shouldn’t have to in this series. No player has won more games in the past four weeks than St. Louis’ Chris Mason, who is arguably the hottest goaltender in the league after eclipsing Manny Legace and forcing him to the American League. He’s good, but not in Luongo’s stratosphere. Edge: Vancouver

COACHING

Ironically, when we polled THN staffers and 35 NHL correspondents for our season preview issue this year, Vancouver’s Alain Vigneault and St. Louis’ Andy Murray (the winner with 11 of 40 votes) led the way when the question “Which NHL coach will be the first fired?” was asked. But they are survivors. Of the two, Murray has more experience - this being his 14th season as part of an NHL coaching staff - and has been in the running for the Jack Adams Trophy in the past, but Vigneault gets the nod for having a coach of the year award on his mantle. Edge: Vancouver

THE X-FACTOR
If Sundin can get back to form, he could put Vancouver over the top in this series; there’s no doubt the 6-foot-5 Swede is a load to handle around the net and coming off the half boards. Despite netting just nine goals and 28 points in 41 games after an extended off-season, Sundin has been producing more of late. If he can provide secondary scoring along with Demitra, the Canucks will be too strong offensively for St. Louis’ piecemeal defense.

PREDICTION
St. Louis just doesn’t have the horses to compete with Vancouver’s playoff-tested group. Going by the old mantra that you have to lose before you win, the Blues will take this gift of a playoff berth as a learning experience and use it to build on for the future; a Cinderella team the Blues will not be, even if it’s only because of Luongo. Vancouver in five

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Chicago Blackhawks CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS vs. CALGARY FLAMES Calgary Flames

SEASON SERIES
Chicago – 4-0-0 (19 GF, 7 GA)
Calgary – 0-3-1 (7 GF, 19 GA)

LEADING SCORERS VS. OPPONENT
Chicago – Andrew Ladd and Martin Havlat, 6 (2G, 4A)
Calgary – Todd Bertuzzi, 3 (2G, 1A); Rene Bourque, 3 (1G, 2A); Jarome Iginla, 3 (0G, 3A)

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Flames haven’t scored on the power play since the franchise was based in Atlanta. Actually, it’s an 0-for-42 drought, dropping it from top-10 in the league earlier in the season to 21st overall. Calgary’s terrific on the penalty kill, though, at fourth overall. Chicago has the fourth-best offense in the league, but lagged at just 12th on the power play and 18th killing penalties. Expect Chicago to have an edge in power play opportunities due to Calgary’s aggressive style of play. Edge: Chicago
 
FORWARDS

The addition of Olli Jokinen and the anticipated return of Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross and Dustin Boyd gives Calgary three lines that can score and an unheralded energy line. The Hawks have more pizzazz in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Martin Havlat, but lack the playoff pedigree to get it done right away. The Blackhawks are also pushovers in the faceoff circle. Edge: Calgary

DEFENSE

Calgary lost Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich in the final weeks of the season and Mark Giordano in January and their returns in the first round are uncertain. Dion Phaneuf has been sub-standard all season, a shadow of his former big-shot self offensively and sloppy and lazy in his own end. Chicago’s blueliners aren’t overly aggressive - other than Brent Seabrook - but Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell and Cam Barker clear the zone well and spark the offense. Edge: Chicago

GOALTENDING
Nikolai Khabibulin owns the Flames (22-5-2 lifetime) and beat them in the 2004 Stanley Cup final with Tampa Bay. He has had an impressive comeback season. Miikka Kiprusoff led the NHL in wins and games played, but also shots faced, goals allowed and wasn’t among the top 30 in goals-against average and save percentage. In other words, he’s absolutely pooped. For three years running, Kipper’s GAA has gone up and save percentage gone down in the post-season. Edge: Chicago

COACHING
Chicago’s a much more cohesive unit under Joel Quenneville and his guidance will help offset the team’s lack of playoff experience; not eliminate it, but help offset it. Calgary’s Mike Keenan has a track record of getting his troops to give a bit more on demand and he can pull the right strings at opportune times. Edge: Calgary

THE X-FACTOR
The Flames were spewing oil down the stretch and lost the division title to Vancouver on the final weekend of the season. That, plus starting on the road, will make them an ornery bunch against a less physical Chicago team. Calgary has the fourth-best record in coming back to win after trailing in the first period.
 
PREDICTION
They say every good, young team has to learn how to lose before it can win. Is this Chicago’s rite of passage? The Flames battled injuries and salary cap issues to close out the season – dressing just 15 skaters in several games – and look prime for an early exit. But with Jarome Iginla’s leadership and a second opportunity in the playoffs, there’s a good chance for an upset. Calgary in seven

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Boston Bruins BOSTON BRUINS vs. MONTREAL CANADIENS Montreal Canadiens

SEASON SERIES
Boston - 5-0-1 (22 GF, 12 GA)
Montreal - 1-3-2 (12 GF, 22 GA)

LEADING SCORERS VS. OPPONENT
Boston - Zdeno Chara, 6 (3G, 3A)
Montreal – Andrei Markov, 4 (0G, 4A), Andrei Kostitsyn, 4 (2G, 2A)

SPECIAL TEAMS
Boston posted the fourth-best power play percentage in the league (23.6) this season with Big Z blasting away from the point. Andrei Markov’s knee injury means the Canadiens have lost their quarterback on the man advantage. Until he returns (possibly later in the series), the man advantage has no rudder. In an odd twist, Montreal and Boston both killed penalties at a respectable 82.4 percent clip this season. Edge: Boston

FORWARDS

With the possible exception of New Jersey, the Bruins are the deepest team up front in the Eastern Conference. Only Detroit posted a higher goals-per-game average than Boston’s 3.29, thanks largely to David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler all taking significant steps forward. That’s a lot of progress for one season. The Canadiens found some chemistry on the No. 1 line when Saku Koivu was placed between Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay, but have no second line to speak of. Edge: Boston

DEFENSE

The loss of Markov is crippling. Quite simply, he was Montreal’s best player all year. Mike Komisarek will be a target and can’t fight every physical battle himself. There’s a chance the Habs blueline gets blown right out of the water by waves of attacking Bruins. Meanwhile, Chara is capable of negating the Canadiens’ top line all by himself and the rest of the Boston defense is very well equipped to handle the rest of Montreal’s smallish forwards. Edge: Boston
 
GOALTENDING

Tim Thomas is a viable Vezina candidate. He’s been great for the Bruins all year and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to play well in the post-season. Sometimes it’s a bit of an adventure, but more often than not Thomas finds a way to stop the puck. Carey Price battled injuries and inconsistency for much of the second half, but did raise his game a bit toward the end of the year. He will need to be spectacular to give Montreal any kind of shot. Edge: Boston

COACHING

Claude Julien gets another crack at knocking off his old team after losing to the Habs in seven games last spring. The Bruins play a tight game under Julien and every player has bought into what the coach is selling. Bob Gainey replaced Guy Carbonneau behind the Montreal bench late in the season and the only thing of significance he’s done is putting together the top line of Koivu, Tanguay and Kovalev. Other than that, the Habs are pretty much the same team they were under Carbonneau – which obviously wasn’t good enough. Edge: Boston

THE X-FACTOR
Anger and incentive. Boston almost upset Montreal as the No. 8 seed last season and appear anxious to avenge that loss this time around. The Bruins are going to tear after the Habs physically and it’s hard to imagine Montreal pushing back too hard. The B’s are also fighting for their share of a crowded Boston sports scene and their first series win since 1999 would really help the cause. If there’s one thing the Canadiens have working in their favor it’s history, both recent and long-term – they’ve won three series against Boston this decade and 24 of 31 post-season meetings versus their Original Six rival all-time.

PREDICTION
This is the biggest mismatch of the playoffs. Boston is too deep, tough and motivated for Montreal to have any kind of shot. The Bruins are built for post-season success and step one will be dismissing the Canadiens with relative ease. Montreal backed into the playoffs and its centennial season, which started with Stanley Cup hopes, will end quickly in the first round. Boston in six

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Washington Capitals WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs. NEW YORK RANGERS New York Rangers

SEASON SERIES
Washington – 3-0-1 (14 GF, 11 GA)
Rangers – 1-2-1 (11 GF, 14 GA)

LEADING SCORERS VS. OPPONENT
Washington – Alex Ovechkin 5 (3G, 2A); Nicklas Backstrom 5 (0G, 5A)
Rangers – Ryan Callahan 4 (3G, 1A)

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Capitals typically take more penalties than the Rangers (387 times shorthanded in the regular season compared to 329 for New York), but it won't matter if the Blueshirts can't solve their power play problems, which have them ranked second-worst league-wide. When the Caps have the man advantage, it's a classic strength-vs.-strength matchup: the NHL's No. 2 PP club against the No. 1 PK outfit. Neither team is particularly potent when it comes to shorthanded scoring. Edge: Washington

FORWARDS
How disappointing were the Rangers forwards this season? Nik Antropov, a deadline acquisition, led the group with a pedestrian 28 goals and 59 points. Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and company still play well without the puck and they'll need to be at their sharpest to provide support as they attempt to shutdown a Capitals offensive juggernaut (No. 2 overall in offense), led by Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Sean Avery sideshow and its impact will be a sub-plot to watch. Edge: Washington

DEFENSE

The Rangers are solid, if unspectacular on the backline; as a team, they were sixth-best in goals allowed. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are a decent shutdown pair handed the daunting task of containing Ovie. When it comes to defending, the middling Caps are a notch or two below New York, but boast a rare weapon in Mike Green the goal machine. Now that he’s a marked man, however, Green’s element of surprise could be diminished. Edge: Rangers

GOALTENDING

When he's at the top of his game, Henrik Lundqvist is a difference maker, capable of stealing games and possibly even a series. While he didn't have his finest regular season, he remains one of the game's best stoppers. Jose Theodore, conversely, runs hot and cold and it's unclear whether backup Brent Johnson will be healthy enough to relieve 'Theo' should he falter. Edge: Rangers

COACHING

John Tortorella has a Stanley Cup ring. Bruce Boudreau is still seeking his first playoff round victory. Edge: Rangers

THE X-FACTOR
Washington has the league's third-best home record, while the Rangers stumbled on the road, posting a 4-12-3 mark in their final 19 contests away from Madison Square Garden. Winning even one game in the jungle that promises to be Verizon Center will be a tall order for New York.

PREDICTION
Each of the four regular season games between the two was close: two were decided in extra time, one ended 2-1 and the other 3-1 thanks to an empty-netter. If Lundqvist brings his ‘A’ game, Drury and Gomez show up and the defense can limit the damage Ovie and friends threaten to inflict, the series could be a squeaker. Washington in seven

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

New Jersey Devils NEW JERSEY DEVILS vs. CAROLINA HURRICANES Carolina Hurricanes

SEASON SERIES
New Jersey - 1-3-0 (8 GF, 11 GA)
Carolina - 3-1-0 (11 GF, 8 GA)

LEADING SCORER VS. OPPONENT
New Jersey – Patrik Elias 4 (2G, 2A), Brian Rolston 4 (0G, 4A)
Carolina - Rod Brind’Amour 6 (0G, 6A)

SPECIAL TEAMS
Neither squad has been especially proficient in special teams, so it could be a matter of who scores the most timely power play marker. If the Devils are without Patrik Elias for an extended period, it takes away their second-most prolific scorer with the man advantage. As underrated as the Devils defense is, there’s no doubting Carolina has the better puck-moving rearguards, giving their PP an advantage. Martin Brodeur alone gives the Devils a slight edge when comparing the penalty-kill situation, but it’s close. Edge: Carolina.

FORWARDS

An underrated move at the time, Carolina’s repatriation of Erik Cole at the trade deadline spurred them to an explosive finish. Rod Brind’Amour looks fresh and has been playing like the playoff leader we have come to know him as for the past three months. That being said, the Devils don’t rely on the trap and Martin Brodeur to win anymore. Zach Parise exploded on the scene with 95 points, carrying linemates Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac to career seasons with him. Not only that, but the Devs have eight 15-goal scorers and some traditional and battle-tested leadership with the likes of Brendan Shanahan, Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik. Edge: New Jersey.

DEFENSE

Neither defense corps has a household name on it, but both are more effective than they are commonly given credit for. The Devils’ tandem of Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya is perhaps the most unheralded, yet effective, top pairing in the league, but what they provide in sturdy positioning and shutdown board work they lack in offense. On the other side, with four defenders notching 30 points or more – compared to the Devils’ one – the Canes can get New Jersey out of their system by rushing the play. Edge: Carolina

GOALTENDING

Sure Cam Ward has a Conn Smythe Trophy to his name, something that has eluded the legendary Martin Brodeur, but would any sane person seriously give the advantage to the Canes in this category? The two goalies have nearly identical stat lines – though Brodeur missed significant time with his elbow injury – but Brodeur’s history gives him the nod. Don’t kid yourself though, this is closer than it may seem: Ward and the Hurricanes have won two more series than Brodeur and the Devils over the past four post-seasons. Edge: New Jersey

COACHING

Paul Maurice returned to the Canes – a team he took to the Stanley Cup final in 2002 – in early December and oversaw a 33-19-5 turnaround after a slow start under Peter Laviolette. On the other side, New Jersey’s Brent Sutter has changed the identity of the Devils from a defensive stalwart into a more offensive-minded attack. Most impressive this year was Sutter’s ability to keep his team going after Brodeur’s injury. Sutter comes from a family that’s all about winning, so you know another first round exit will be unacceptable. Edge: New Jersey

THE X-FACTOR
It’s an old playoff cliché, but in this matchup it rings true: Goaltending will win this series, plain and simple. Ever since winning the Conn Smythe, Ward has been a lost man, unable to find that magic again. Recently, however, he’s wiggled himself into that same groove and settled in nicely at the perfect time of year. If he can match his effectiveness from 2006 it might not matter what Brodeur can muster, though any team with the all-time leader in wins between the pipes can never be counted out.

PREDICTION
This series is a funny one because at the beginning of the season neither was expected to have much of an impact, but because of extended hot streaks both are now popular choices as a dark horse to win the Cup. Interestingly, the past three times both teams made the playoffs in the same year (2001, 2002 and 2006) they met each other and the winner advanced to the Cup final. Could that trend continue this year? With both humming at the right time, it’s entirely possible. Carolina in seven

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Pittsburgh Penguins PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS Philadelphia Flyers

SEASON SERIES
Pittsburgh - 4-2-0 (21 GF, 21 GA)
Philadelphia - 2-2-2 (21 GF, 21 GA)

LEADING SCORERS VS. OPPONENT
Pittsburgh – Sidney Crosby, 9 (4G, 5A)
Philadelphia – Jeff Carter, 8 (3G, 5A)

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Flyers had the NHL’s sixth-best power play (22.5 percent) and penalty kill (83.0 percent), while the Penguins finished eighth in the league on the PK (82.7 percent) and were 20th overall with the man advantage (17.2 percent). But, at least from the Pens’ perspective, those stats are somewhat misleading; Pittsburgh’s penalty kill has been much-improved since former coach Michel Therrien was cashiered and their power play performance has benefited greatly from the return of veteran blueliner Sergei Gonchar. That said, the Flyers still have done it better, for longer, in both areas. Edge: Philadelphia

FORWARDS
In Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens have two of the NHL’s top three point producers this year. The Flyers didn’t have a single player who reached even the 90-point plateau – but they do have a much more balanced attack at forward, with six players posting at least 25 goals. That depth ought to provide a huge tactical advantage for Philly’s coaching staff. Edge: Philadelphia

DEFENSE
As mentioned earlier, Gonchar’s return from injury has given the Pens a huge boost just when they needed it. He’ll likely flirt with 30 minutes of ice time per game and make goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s life a lot less complicated. However, the Flyers have a similar type of veteran in the criminally underrated Kimmo Timonen, who was injured when these two teams met in the 2008 post-season. His presence evens out any advantage Gonchar gives to Pittsburgh. Edge: Even

GOALTENDING
Fleury proved last spring he could be a difference-maker in net for Pittsburgh; his play this year, while unspectacular, hasn’t dissuaded many observers from that belief. The Flyers, on the other hand, go into yet another post-season with goaltending as their Achilles’ heel. That’s not to say Martin Biron or Antero Niittymaki doesn’t have a four-round run in them – only that few will be shocked if they’re the difference, in a negative way, in this series. Edge: Pittsburgh

COACHING
Dan Bylsma posted an 18-3-4 record after taking over from Therrien in mid-February. He’s smack in the middle of his honeymoon phase with the franchise and has worked wonders getting his players to believe in themselves again. The Flyers’ John Stevens was under the gun after Philly’s start-of-season stumble, but stayed calm and showed why he was THN’s coach of the year in 2008. All things considered, though, Bylsma has the stronger hand at the right time. Edge: Pittsburgh

THE X-FACTOR
If the officials wind up putting their whistles away in this series, the Penguins could be the chief beneficiaries. Pittsburgh had the fifth-best 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio (1.18); the Flyers (1.01) were ranked 15th in the league in that category. Patience for the Pens will be paramount as they take on a Flyers team that would love nothing more than to goad the Pens into dumb penalties.

PREDICTION
This could very well be this post-season’s most evenly matched first round series. Pittsburgh clearly comes in as the hotter of the two teams, but they’ll have a difficult time matching Philadelphia’s depth and will need Fleury to step up in a big way. In any case, it promises to be a long and taxing showdown that could affect the winning team’s ability to make a deep run. Penguins in six

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

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Despite being an Original Six series, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have never met...
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