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The Hockey News 2009-10 First Round Playoff Preview

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Let Lord Stanley’s tournament commence.

In what is one of the most wide-open playoffs in years, every team seems to have something going for them, as well as running against them. There are some old guards in Detroit and Pittsburgh who have experience on their side; there are some favorites in San Jose, Vancouver and Washington with a lot of post-season proving to do; and there are surprises in Colorado, Los Angeles and Phoenix itching to write their own Cinderella tale.

Can Washington’s high-powered offense get the support it needs from its suspect defense and rickety goaltending? Speaking of rickety goaltending, will the Flyers be able to matchup with Martin Brodeur’s Devils?

Can teams like Boston, Phoenix and Nashville do damage, despite the fact their offensive weapons are limited?

Can San Jose finally get over the hump? Can the young Hawks snap hockey’s longest Stanley slump?

Could we actually see a re-match between the champion Penguins and red-hot Red Wings?

Below you will find THN's breakdown of each series, who has the edge in a variety of aspects and our pick to move on.

Plus, we asked one NHL Insider – a former NHL coach who asked to remain anonymous – for his insight into each matchup.

Expect the unexpected in the NHL’s second season. Let the thrill of the games begin.

San Jose #1 SAN JOSE vs. #8 COLORADO Colorado

SEASON SERIES
San Jose – 2-1-1 (12 GF, 13 GA)
Colorado – 2-2-0 (13 GF, 12 GA)

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Sharks were significantly better in both power play and penalty-killing than the Avalanche this season, particularly on the penalty kill, where the Sharks were among the best teams in the league. Their power play is deadly, as evidenced by the fact that Dany Heatley finished the season second in the league with 18 power-play goals, while Patrick Marleau had 10. Marleau also had four shorthanded goals. If Matt Duchene isn’t 100 percent healthy, that’s a huge hit for the Avs’ power play. Edge: San Jose
 
FORWARDS

We all think of the Sharks as the high-flying offensive powerhouse and the Avalanche as the team that wins on defense, but the fact of the matter is that the Sharks scored only 20 goals more than the Avalanche did during the regular season and were actually outscored 13-12 by Colorado in the season series. But you also cannot ignore that San Jose has far more depth of talent on its roster or the fact that core Avalanche forwards Chris Stewart, Matt Duchene, T.J. Galiardi, Ryan O’Reilly, Ryan Wilson and Peter Mueller have never participated in a playoff game. The Sharks also have a huge edge in faceoffs. They were best in the league in that category and Colorado was second worst. The Sharks starting with the puck so often and being able to cycle it the way they do gives them a huge edge. Edge: San Jose

DEFENSE

Neither team is considered a defensive juggernaut, but the Sharks did finish fifth-best in goals-against among playoff teams. The Avalanche, on the other hand, were the worst defensive team in the Western Conference and only Ottawa and Pittsburgh gave up more goals among teams in the post-season. Neither team gets much offense from its blueline corps. Edge: San Jose

GOALTENDING

Not much separates Evgeni Nabokov and Craig Anderson, other than the fact that Anderson faded down the stretch. But both are among the best in the league this past season. Coincidentally, both appeared in 71 games, while Anderson faced the most shots of any goalie in the league (2,223) and Nabokov was No. 2 in shots faced (2,168). Once again, Nabokov has much to prove. Edge: Even

COACHING

Nobody was surprised that Todd McLellan led the Sharks to the Western Conference title, but Joe Sacco shocked almost everyone by having the Avalanche challenge for the Northwest Division title for much of the season and get the Avs into the playoffs. McLellan will have to prepare his team for the enormous expectations it faces, while Sacco must guard against his team being satisfied with what they accomplished already. Edge: Even

THE X-FACTOR

Neither team was terribly great after the Olympics, but the Avalanche stumbled badly, going 8-10-3 down the stretch and leaving the impression that if the season were a couple weeks longer, Colorado might have played its way out of a playoff spot. It will be interesting to watch the battle between experience and exuberance.
 
PREDICTION

The Sharks have historically been epic playoff failures, but it has been the second round, not the first that has been their big bugaboo over the years. The Avalanche could still be swept in four straight games and the organization would deem this season to be a success. The Avs are playing with house money, but all signs point to the feel-good season ending very soon. San Jose in five

INSIDER INSIGHT
“Not close. There’s a huge matchup problem for Colorado, particularly on the back end. They don’t have the size or the strength to defend against San Jose’s weight.”

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Chicago #2 CHICAGO vs. #7 NASHVILLE Nashville

SEASON SERIES
Chicago – 4-2-0 (15 GF, 12 GA)
Nashville – 2-4-0 (12 GF, 15 GA)

SPECIAL TEAMS
For all their creativeness with the puck, the one thing the Hawks haven’t been happy with is their power play. Ranking a middling 16th, Chicago hasn’t been able to capitalize with the man advantage and was just 3-for-19 against the Preds. Nashville was just 1-for-19 against Chicago on the power play and ranked 24th in the league. The Hawks had the league fourth-best penalty-killing unit, led by shutdown man John Madden, while the Preds were 28th. Edge: Chicago
 
FORWARDS

Chicago would easily have a half dozen players selected in a regular season fantasy pool before anyone even looked at the Nashville roster. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp lead a lineup that boasts three scoring units. Chicago ranked first in shots and third in goals. The Predators score by committee, though Patric Hornqvist had a breakout 30-goal season. Martin Erat had four of Nashville’s 12 goals against Chicago this season.  Edge: Chicago

DEFENSE

With Olympians Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook leading the way, Chicago ranked first in shots allowed and sixth in goals allowed. But with Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson out for at least the first round, more will be expected from Niklas Hjalmarsson. Nashville has always taken great pride in its team defense and blueliners; Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are rock solid. Dan Hamhuis, Francis Bouillon and Kevin Klein are unheralded shutdown specialists. Edge: Nashville

GOALTENDING

For the better part of two years, the Preds relied on their two-goalie tandem with Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis. But make no mistake, Rinne is their man in the playoffs. He started 17 of 21 games after the Olympic break and had a .923 save percentage in three games against the Hawks. Antti Niemi has earned the No. 1 job in Chicago, but is on a short leash if things don’t go well. Cristobal Huet has a lot to prove in the playoffs and had a .940 SP in playing five of the six games against Nashville. Edge: Nashville

COACHING

Barry Trotz is the second-most tenured coach in the NHL, behind Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff, and is universally lauded for keeping the budget-conscience Predators competitive year after year. He has managed to get his players to buy into his no-nonsense system for more than a decade. Joel Quenneville took over a talented cast of Blackhawks last season and taught them poise and patience. His teams have won nine of 19 playoff series and he has made it to the conference final twice. Edge: Chicago

THE X-FACTOR

Nashville’s Patric Hornqvist was hit by a shot from teammate Shea Weber in the final week of the season and his status for the series is uncertain. Without his 30 goals, the Preds next top man is Martin Erat with 21 and Steve Sullivan and J-P Dumont with 17. The Blackhawks meanwhile have six 20-goal scorers and two more with 17. Can Nashville somehow win games 2-1?
 
PREDICTION

No one ever expects the Predators to be any more than a playoff bubble team, yet with limited resources they’ve qualified five of the past six seasons. The Blackhawks still have some unsettled issues (goaltending, power play) and would be well-advised to not look beyond the opening round. All the same, it’s tough to overlook Chicago’s stunning offensive weapons. Chicago in six

INSIDER INSIGHT
“This one will go a lot longer than people think because Nashville really goes to the net hard. They’ve spent six years grooming a dozen of these players and I would say this one is going six or seven games. Chicago is still going to win it, but I’d be worried about what’s going to be left of the Hawks after this series.”

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Vancouver #3 VANCOUVER vs. #6 LOS ANGELES L.A.

SEASON SERIES
Vancouver – 3-1-0 (11 GF, 11 GA)
Los Angeles – 1-2-1 (11 GF, 11 GA)

SPECIAL TEAMS
It’s a dead heat in power play and penalty-killing between these two teams. With the man advantage the two rank sixth and seventh in the league, while shorthanded they rank in the bottom half of the league. While we’ll give the edge on the power play to Vancouver’s deep offensive attack, the fact their defense is hurting and shot-blocker extraordinaire Ryan Johnson is out with an injury means the penalty-kill nod goes to the Kings. Edge: Even
 
FORWARDS

While the Kings found great chemistry between Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth this year, no two are more familiar with each other than Vancouver’s Swedish twins. Henrik Sedin won the scoring title, while Daniel had a career year of his own despite playing the fewest games. The Canucks, in fact, had career years from a number of players and had six hit 20 goals. Edge: Vancouver

DEFENSE

Willie Mitchell is still struggling with a concussion, oft-injured Sami Salo missed his past two games with a leg injury and Christian Ehrhoff missed his only two games of the season at the tail end of the year after taking a shot off the leg. Injuries have been the story on Vancouver’s blueline all year, while the Kings stand strong. Third-best in the league, allowing a mere 27.6 shots-against per game, L.A. boasts big blockers Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi and Sean O’Donnell and complement it nicely with some offense from Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. Edge: Los Angeles

GOALTENDING

Both goalies represented their countries at the Olympics, though Jonathan Quick didn’t play a central role like Roberto Luongo did. Luongo has been here before, but has yet to win the big post-season game in his career. Jonathan Quick, on the other hand, hasn’t won a game since March 22 and has an .843 SP in his past three games. Vancouver has experience and recent play in its court. Edge: Vancouver

COACHING

Terry Murray did a tremendous job taking his young team to the next development level this season, but he will be coaching in his first playoff series since 2000 and hasn’t won a series since 1997. Alain Vigneault hasn’t lost in the first round of the post-season in his professional coaching career and won the Jack Adams Award in 2007. Edge: Vancouver

THE X-FACTOR

Which Roberto Luongo will show up? And for that matter, which Jonathan Quick will show up? Vancouver’s blowout Game 6 elimination loss at the hands of Chicago last year has to be fresh in the mind of Luongo, who is looking to prove his many doubters wrong after one of the worst seasons of his career. Quick has been rather sluggish since the Olympics and has made 30 saves only once in his past 10 games. He must find his game immediately, but it will be tough against such a deep Vancouver attack.
 
PREDICTION
It’s time for the Canucks to prove themselves as a playoff team and the first step is to knock off the green Los Angeles Kings. It’s a good matchup for Vancouver, who limited the Kings to one goal in three out of the four contests against each other this season. As long as Luongo doesn’t lay an egg – as he’s known to do from time to time – Vancouver will move on to Round 2 once again. Canucks in six

INSIDER INSIGHT
“Vancouver will have its hands full. Vancouver’s depth on defense will get tested because Los Angeles has three lines that will wear you down with the way they cycle the puck. What’s really important is that the Canucks don’t get behind early because L.A. has an ability to cycle and control the game and it’s going to be a tough matchup for Vancouver. The Canucks have some defensemen – guys like Aaron Rome, Shane O’Brien and Sami Salo – who have slow feet in tight places. It’s going to be a challenge for them.”

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Phoenix #4 PHOENIX vs. #5 DETROIT Detroit

SEASON SERIES
Phoenix – 2-2-0 (11 GF, 13 GA)
Detroit – 2-0-2 (13 GF, 11 GA)

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Coyotes are excellent on the penalty-kill, but dreadful on the power play. Detroit can play both ways, with the league’s 11th-ranked PK and ninth-best power play. Tomas Holmstrom can still madden an opposition goalie and Nicklas Lidstrom has one of the most effective point shots in the game. Edge: Detroit
 
FORWARDS

As good as Lee Stempniak has been for the Desert Dogs since coming over from Toronto, the Wings finally have all their horses healthy. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are the names on the marquee, but don’t overlook role players such as Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves, both of whom had to step up when injuries were killing Detroit. Edge: Detroit

DEFENSE

The Red Wings may have the bigger names in Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, but defense is one of the main reasons the Coyotes soared this year. Derek Morris and Mathieu Schneider were brought in at the trade deadline to augment a solid group also featuring the underappreciated Zbynek Michalek and Keith Yandle. Edge: Even

GOALTENDING

Ilya Bryzgalov will get strong consideration for the Vezina Trophy this season thanks to his 2.29 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Playoff-wise, ‘Cool Bryz’ was lights-out for the Ducks when they needed him to cover for J-S Giguere a few seasons back. On the other hand, Red Wings rookie netminder Jimmy Howard has even better stats than Bryzgalov (2.26 GAA, .924 SP). Howard, however, has never played in the NHL’s post-season. Edge: Phoenix

COACHING

Dave Tippett turned around a moribund Phoenix franchise and made the Coyotes a danger in the West. His troops have bought into his system and he brings a wealth of playoff experience to the table. Detroit’s Mike Babcock has a resume that speaks for itself: One Stanley Cup, two other appearances in the final and an Olympic gold medal to boot. Edge: Even

THE X-FACTOR

Detroit has been there, done that when it comes to the post-season. The Wings struggled mightily with injuries this year, which explains their No. 5 seeding, but now they’re healthy. Make no mistake; this is a No. 2 seed in disguise and if any team can protect a rookie goaltender in the post-season, it’s Detroit.
 
PREDICTION
Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Coyotes have earned a lot of good will this season, but the Red Wings are a team dripping with post-season success. Much like the fate suffered by Columbus last year, Detroit is the worst possible opponent for the upstart Coyotes. Detroit in six

INSIDER INSIGHT
“Detroit will win it, but it’s going to be a very long series. Phoenix is almost as old as Detroit and their defense is really underrated. They can keep games close. Everybody is thinking Detroit is going to go on a big roll, but Phoenix is not going to go away quietly and they’re not going to be afraid to play. The coaching staff in Detroit sees things that other teams don’t see and I’m curious to see how they attack and how Ilya Bryzgalov is going to handle what’s coming at him.”

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Washington #1 WASHINGTON vs. #8 MONTREAL Montreal

SEASON SERIES
Washington – 2-1-1 (15 GF, 14 GA)
Montreal – 2-1-1 (14 GF, 15 GA)

SPECIAL TEAMS
The NHL’s top two power plays – Washington is No. 1 at 25.2 percent efficiency; Montreal was next at 21.8 percent – collide head-on this series. Both teams suffer a significant drop-off when it comes to their penalty kill: the Habs had the league’s 12th-best PK crew (83.0 percent), while the Caps plummeted down the rankings with the sixth-worst PK unit (78.8 percent). Washington’s larger discrepancy between its PP and PK gives Montreal a narrow advantage. Edge: Montreal
 
FORWARDS

The Capitals scored 101 more goals (318 in total) than Montreal (217) this year. As well, Washington’s top five forwards (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble) combined for 406 regular-season points. Montreal’s top five (Tomas Plekanec, Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn) combined for 258. Need we go on? Edge: Washington

DEFENSE

Washington’s Mike Green and Montreal’s Andrei Markov are two of the league’s premier puck-moving blueliners. But where the Canadiens’ defense corps leans more on positionally sound veterans such as Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek, the Caps depend on a mix of offensive contributors (Joe Corvo, Tom Poti) on D. We think it’s a wash. Edge: Even

GOALTENDING

Former Habs goalie Jose Theodore has re-claimed the Caps’ starting goalie job from Semyon Varlamov with a superb second half of the season, but his prior playoff inconsistencies leave some doubting him. The Canadiens, on the other hand, have two capable goalies (presumptive starter Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price) to choose from. Neither has won a playoff series, but both together give Montreal a slight edge. Edge: Montreal

COACHING

Canadiens coach Jacques Martin is known as a risk-averse strategist who hasn’t had much playoff success in his NHL career. Meanwhile, Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau is a riverboat gambler of a coach who proved last season he isn’t above inserting an inexperienced goalie (Varlamov) when he’s got a hunch. Boudreau also has a more talented group to work with; funny how that makes coaches appear smarter than their colleagues. Edge: Washington

THE X-FACTOR
Scoring the first goal of each game will be more important to Montreal than Washington in this series: when the Habs trailed first this season, they won only .256 percent of those games (the eighth-worst mark in the league). But even when the Capitals surrender the first goal, they still managed to win more than half the time (.533) – and were the NHL’s best team in that regard.
 
PREDICTION
Stranger things may have happened than the Canadiens upsetting the Capitals, but frankly, it would be an upset of legendary proportions if Montreal won this series. In fact, given how deep the Capitals are on offense, and how inconsistent the Habs have been during the regular season, Montreal could be hard-pressed to win one game, let alone four. Capitals in four

INSIDER INSIGHT
“Washington’s size and depth of size will wear Montreal down in each game and wear them down in the series. To prove a point, Washington will check well early. They’ve got way too much depth for Montreal and their size is going to control all the areas over the game. That’s a bad matchup for Montreal. Montreal has some skill through the middle of the ice, but the problem is they’re going to have a tough time moving through the forest.”

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

New Jersey #2 NEW JERSEY vs. #7 PHILADELPHIA Philadelphia

SEASON SERIES
5-1-0 (20 GF, 13 GA) Philadelphia
1-4-1 (13 GF, 20 GA) New Jersey

SPECIAL TEAMS
They say special teams win in the playoffs and that will be the case in this series. New Jersey finished tied 16th in 5-on-5 goals for and Philadelphia 22nd, although just five goals separated the two squads. The Flyers' power play was deadly all season, finishing third overall at a 21.4 percent clip. New Jersey was respectable at 18.7 percent, good for 11th overall. It’s basically a pick ‘em between these two clubs when it comes to their penalty killing; the Devils finished 11th overall with an 83 percent success rate, the Flyers 13th at 82.8 percent. Edge: Philadelphia
 
FORWARDS

With the exception of rookie James van Riemsdyk and sophomore Claude Giroux, every Flyers forward had a disappointing season; Jeff Carter led in goals (33), Mike Richards in points (62). The bright spot for Philly up front is that everyone is healthy for a change; that depth will be pivotal. New Jersey has two legitimate snipers in Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, and a bevy of responsible double-digit scorers led by Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner. Edge: Philadelphia

DEFENSE

Philadelphia’s top-four is as good as anyone’s in the Eastern Conference. Led by the nasty Chris Pronger with 55 points, a plus-22 rating and 25:55 of average ice time, the only worry surrounding him is a tendency to take too many penalties. Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn are all better-than-average NHL blueliners. New Jersey’s defense doesn’t have a household name, but is a solid group; of those who played 20-plus games this year, none are minus players. Paul Martin’s return from injury was a huge boost. Edge: Philadelphia

GOALTENDING

Philly’s woes here are well documented: signing the combustible and now injured Ray Emery; plucking the now-injured Michael Leighton off waivers; and anointing Brian Boucher their third No. 1 of the season. Boucher is 5-5-2 with a 2.64 GAA and an .888 SP since becoming Philly’s starter. New Jersey’s goaltending is well documented for the opposite reasons. Martin Brodeur is one of the best netminders ever. This season he was first in games played (77) and wins (45), third in GAA (2.24) and 13th in SP (.916). The only question marks are if Brodeur played too much and that he hasn’t led his team past Round 2 since winning the Stanley Cup seven years ago. Edge: New Jersey

COACHING

Philadelphia’s Peter Laviolette is 28-24-5 since taking over from the fired John Stevens Dec. 4. Laviolette does have a Stanley Cup ring on his coaching resume from 2006 with Carolina and a Calder Cup win with the Providence Bruins from 1999. New Jersey’s Jacques Lemaire has eight Cup rings from his playing days with Montreal and another from his first go-around behind the bench with the Devils. Edge: New Jersey

THE X-FACTOR
Philadelphia has essentially been playing for its playoff life for a couple of weeks now. And while the Flyers didn’t exactly step up and seize the No. 7 seed, they did battle back from a five-game losing streak to end March to win three of their last four, including an emotional do-or-die contest against the Rangers in Game No. 82 to seal a post-season berth
 
PREDICTION
Outside of goaltending, The Flyers are a healthy bunch for the first time all season. Statistical down-seasons aside, Philly boats a murderers row of forwards that will go at the Devils in waves. Boucher gained oodles of confidence in besting Henrik Lundqvist on the final day of the season when it mattered most. Pronger will eliminate Kovalchuk, leaving the scoring primarily in Parise’s hands, which is too much for him to do on his own. Despite goaltending questions, Philly upsets New Jersey. Philadelphia in seven

INSIDER INSIGHT
“In the games that I saw, Philadelphia really controlled New Jersey. They really made New Jersey’s defense pay. I thought Philadelphia really played New Jersey well all year. Maybe it’s because they were playing Jersey, but they never played goofy; they played very disciplined and right on the edge, but never over the top. I really think New Jersey has its hands full on this one. I think this one is going to go the distance and I think it’s going to be a very difficult series for New Jersey.”

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Buffalo #3 BUFFALO vs. #6 BOSTON Boston

SEASON SERIES
Buffalo – 2-2-2 (15 GF, 11 GA)
Boston – 4-2-0 (11 GF, 15 GA)

SPECIAL TEAMS
Both teams have excellent penalty killing and middling-to-poor power plays. Buffalo finished the season No. 2 overall with an 86.6 penalty-killing rate; Boston was right behind in third at 86.4 percent. With the man advantage, Buffalo clocked in with a 17.6 percent success rate, good for 17th in the league; Boston was 23rd at 16.6 percent. With no snipers to speak of, the Bruins rely on Zdeno Chara’s point shot and a crash-the-net mentality. Edge: Buffalo
 
FORWARDS
The Sabres finished the year with four 20-goal scorers, including Thomas Vanek who returned from a six-game stint on the sideline with a lower-body injury to score five goals in two games to end the season. A healthy Tim Connolly will go a long way to rounding out the Buffalo attack. Only Marco Sturm cracked the 20-goal plateau for the Bruins and the team’s leading scorer (Patrice Bergeron) finished with just 52 points. Don’t expect many fireworks here. Edge: Buffalo

DEFENSE
Buffalo has a non-descript defense corps led by Calder Trophy favorite Tyler Myers. That’s great, except relying on a rookie blueliner to lead you through the playoffs is a recipe for disaster. Boston has the reigning Norris Trophy winner in Chara, also great. But having three of their top-seven defenseman hurt right now is an even worse recipe for disaster. The Bruins will have to rely on one or both of Adam McQuaid and Andrew Bodnarchuk, rookies who don’t approach Myers in stature. Edge: Buffalo

GOALTENDING
Ryan Miller has approached household-name status in the U.S. after leading Team USA to Olympic silver. He’s the odds-on favorite to nab the Vezina Trophy this year and an MVP candidate to boot. Tuukka Rask jumped up to steal the mantle of Bruins No. 1 from the reigning Vezina winner and Miller’s American teammate, Tim Thomas. Rask led the league in GAA at 1.97 and SP with a .931 mark; Miller was second in both categories. Edge: Buffalo

COACHING
No current NHL coach has been behind the bench for as long as Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff. He took over in July 1997 and won the Jack Adams award in 2006 before finishing as runner-up the next year. Boston’s Claude Julien is the reigning Adams winner, but Boston’s fall from grace this season has him on the hot seat. Edge: Buffalo

THE X-FACTOR
No other player in this year’s playoffs has more career post-season goals than Boston’s own Ponce de Leon, Mark Recchi. The 42-year-old has 50 goals and 123 total points in 151 playoff games. If he can lead the charge offensively and inspire his Bruins, anything is possible.
 
PREDICTION
This should be the most boring series of the opening round, although long overtimes could add an element of excitement if viewers can stay awake. Look for low-scoring contests played mostly in the neutral zone. Whichever team can take advantage of its power play opportunities should come out on top. Buffalo in six

INSIDER INSIGHT
“A lot for Buffalo depends on the injuries. Where are those guys? Buffalo looked really small and light at the end of the year. I don’t know what their lineup is going to be like, but I think this series has a chance of being one where a team might score 16 goals in the whole series and end up winning it.”

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

Pittsburgh #4 PITTSBURGH vs. #5 OTTAWA Ottawa

SEASON SERIES
Pittsburgh – 2-2-0 (15 GF, 13 GA)
Ottawa – 2-2-0 (13 GF, 15 GA)

SPECIAL TEAMS
With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar all on the prowl, Pittsburgh’s power play should be lethal. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been and injuries to Malkin and Gonchar aren’t the easy answer to why. The Sens aren’t any better with the man advantage and the two squads are nearly identical on the penalty-kill as well. Edge: Even
 
FORWARDS

The loss of Alex Kovalev (torn ACL) puts a big dent in Ottawa’s secondary scoring, but Daniel Alfredsson can still make magic with Jason Spezza on the top line. Mike Fisher’s ascent will help the Sens, but fending off Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal – all of whom play on different lines – will be a tough task. Edge: Pittsburgh

DEFENSE

Fans in Pittsburgh are leery about the consistency of youngsters Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, but Gonchar’s return helps. The Sens don’t have the blueline studs of old, but Chris Phillips is still a solid defender and Anton Volchenkov blocks shots like a boss, plus he’ll deliver the big hit. Rookie point man Erik Karlsson will be one to watch. Edge: Even

GOALTENDING

Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t been a world-beater so far this season, but such was the case last year when he helped his team win the Stanley Cup, so the precedent has been set. Rookie Brian Elliott wrested the starter’s job away from Pascal Leclaire, but the University of Wisconsin alum has yet to play a post-season game in the pro ranks, so he’s an unknown quantity right now. Edge: Pittsburgh

COACHING
Dan Bylsma turned a foundering team into the Stanley Cup champs in just 49 games last year and spent his summer researching franchises that returned to championship games. Similarly, second-year bench boss Cory Clouston has wrung as much success as he could out of one of the least talented Ottawa lineups in recent history. Edge: Pittsburgh

THE X-FACTOR
After winning the Cup last year and making the final in 2008, do the Penguins have both the drive and the legs to make another lengthy run? In passing rival Alex Ovechkin en route to a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy, Crosby has shown he loves to excel at any competition, so don’t count No. 87 and his boys out when it comes to a potential repeat.
 
PREDICTION
This will be the third first-round meeting between these two franchises in four years, so familiarity will not be a problem. The Penguins have so many NHL-level forwards that someone with value (Craig Adams or Mike Rupp) will end up sitting in the press box. Ottawa does not have that luxury and won’t have the talent to keep up overall. Pittsburgh in five

INSIDER INSIGHT
“No chance for Ottawa. If Pittsburgh is going to fall apart, it will be later in the playoffs. They’ll tighten up early in the playoffs and then their tendencies from this season might show up later. Marc-Andre Fleury is really underrated. When you get to a defending champion, they’re pretty revved up early.”

Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.

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