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Canadiens, Penguins heavy favourites as NHL East playoffs begin

The Canadian Press
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Injured Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu watches teammates practice as Maxime Lapierre, left, and Guillaume Latendresse, reflected in the glass, take a break Monday, in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson Author: The Hockey News

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Canadiens, Penguins heavy favourites as NHL East playoffs begin

The Canadian Press
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Young talents from Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin and Carey Price are in the spotlight as the NHL Eastern Conference playoffs get set to begin.

Price's Montreal Canadiens and Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins enter the post-season as heavy favourites against the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators respectively while the Rangers-Devils and Flyers-Capitals matchups are expected to be tight series.

Here's a quick look at the four first-round series:

Montreal (1st, 47-25-10) vs. Boston (8th, 41-29-12)

Stanley Cup fever is raging in Montreal as the Canadiens led the conference and drew a first-round opponent they beat eight straight times in the regular season and 11 straight since last season. While Bruins goalie Tim Thomas shone against other clubs, he was shelled by Montreal, which outscored Boston 39-16. Price, meanwhile, was 12-3-0 after veteran goalie Cristobal Huet was traded Feb. 26, although he is untested in NHL playoff action. Montreal also brings the league's top power play while the Bruins were 28th in penalty killing.

It's a whole new season in the playoffs. But Boston's top scorer Marc Savard, making his first playoff appearance, has a sore back. The Canadiens counter with the league's highest-scoring team (262 goals) and a league-high seven players with at least 50 points. Captain Saku Koivu may miss the start of the playoffs with a foot fracture, but big defenceman Mike Komisarek is expected back from a hip injury. The Bruins take heart in the fact that their last two losses to Montreal were close, including one in a shootout.

Montreal is 23-7 all-time in playoff series against Boston, winning the last two in 2002 and 2004.

A matchup to watch - Guy Carbonneau against former Canadiens coach Claude Julien.

Pittsburgh (2nd, 47-27-8) vs. Ottawa (7th, 43-31-8)

There is a strong suspicion that the Penguins tanked their final regular-season game to avoid facing Philadelphia and instead to go up against the reeling Senators, who lost six of their last eight games. If so, there will be added motivation for Ottawa and questions about Pittsburgh starting the post-season on a negative.

The Sens wiped out the youthful Penguins in five games in last year's opening round, but much has changed. For one, Sens star Daniel Alfredsson is doubtful to start and may be out long-term with neck and knee injuries. Without their captain, Ottawa is a seriously diminished club and Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley will need to step up. Plus, their goaltending with Martin Gerber and Ray Emery is a question mark after a season of controversy.

Meanwhile, Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been hot since returning from injury. Crosby was scratched against the Flyers after missing 28 games with a high ankle sprain, but he and Malkin lead one of the NHL's most explosive attacks.

Player to watch: Pens' trade deadline pickup Marian Hossa, a noted playoff underachiever, against his old team.

Washington (3rd, 43-31-8) vs. Philadelphia (6th, 42-29-11)

Both teams go in on a high after late-season surges to make the playoffs. Washington won its final seven games to grab the third seed as weak Southeast Division champion while Philly won seven of its last nine. The teams were 2-2 against each other this season, but haven't met since the trade deadline

The big but slow-footed Flyers defence will have its hands full stopping Ovechkin, the league scoring leader this season and MVP candidate who set an NHL record with 65 goals by a left-winger, while Philadelphia's star centre Daniel Briere has injury trouble. The Caps are 15-4 since the trade deadline, when they picked up Huet, Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke, while the Flyers loaded up before the season on Briere, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen and others.

The key may be in goal, where Philadelphia's Martin Biron has never started a playoff game and Huet has started in only six. But both are hot. Huet won his last nine starts, while Biron ended the season with a pair of shutouts.

Washington holds a 2-1 playoff advantage against the Flyers, but they haven't met since 1989.

New Jersey (4th, 46-29-7) vs. New York Rangers (5th, 42-27-11)

The Devils beat the Rangers in a shootout in the final game of the season to win home advantage for what should be a closely contested, low-scoring and perhaps even bitter series between teams separated only by the Hudson River. The Rangers record against New Jersey this season was 7-0-1, but three were via overtime or shootouts. The Devils scored only 10 goals in the eight games.

It is a series with many plot lines. How will Rangers star Scott Gomez do against his former team and the checking of John Madden? Will this be the swan song for aging superstar Jaromir Jagr, who is rumoured to be headed to Russian club Avangard Omsk next season? Jagr had 22 points in his last 21 games. Will noted playoff stalwarts Chris Drury and Brendan Shanahan rise again for New York?

The spotlight will be on two of the NHL's best goaltenders. The Devils' Martin Brodeur, with three Stanley Cup rings, is probably the best money goalie in the league, but the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist is now considered at least top five in the NHL, although he was bombed by the Devils in his rookie season the last time they met in the playoffs in 2006.

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Canadiens, Penguins heavy favourites as NHL East playoffs begin