1. San Jose v. 5. Detroit
This could be the most entertaining series of the conference semifinals as far as offensive creativity is concerned. Both teams have tremendous weapons at their disposal, which could make this a long series for both the Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov and the Wings' Jimmy Howard. Both goalies had their moments in quarterfinal victories over Colorado and Phoenix, respectively, but both also displayed the inconsistencies associated with goaltenders that can be playoff non-factors. With that being said, the talent will be all over the ice and matchups will be key. Will Detroit match Lidstrom and Rafalski against Thornton, Heatley and Marleau? Who does San Jose match against Zetterberg and Datsyuk? This series will come down to toughness, both physical and mental as well as special teams. I think the special teams will be pretty even but Detroit has a decided edge in the toughness department. What keeps this series close is Howard. He is a playoff rookie and playing in the desert is one thing, playing at the Shark Tank is another. Thornton-Heatley-Marleau were pretty quiet in the Sharks' series win over the Avs. I think they will wake up in this series but not enough to overcome Detroit's playoff experience. I don't think the Sharks' D-unit has what it takes to offset the likes of Holmstrom Bertuzzi and Franzen in front of the net and guys like Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Filppula dazzling and being creative in the open ice.
RED WINGS in an upset, in 6
2. Chicago v. 3. Vancouver
A rematch of the Western Conference semi's from a season ago, one in which Chicago win in six games. This year, both teams are better and more mature. This will be a fun series to watch and one I'm looking forward to. If Vancouver is too fixated on revenge, the Blackhawks will blow them right out of the water. The Hawks are too talented to be fooling around with worrying about what happened last year. Both teams have explosive weapons up front, and as much as Blues fans hate to talk about them, the Sedin twins have elevated their games this season. They will be a load for Chicago's up-and-down defensive unit. The Canucks will have a decided edge in this series in goal, as I still don't trust Antti Niemi, and if not for Nashville's meltdown at the end of Game 5 in the quarterfinals, I'd be talking about the Predators here instead of Chicago. But Roberto Luongo had a complete meltdown last year in the playoffs against the Hawks, and until he proves otherwise, the meter is not tilted towards the Canucks here as one might think. An X-factor in this series: Mikael Samuelsson. He was fantastic against the Kings and is a nice compliment to the Sedins, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler, who might have a bone to pick with Andrew Ladd. This series will also see lots of goals scored, I believe. As much as I want to say goaltending will decide this, I believe it will be special teams. The team that can convert more of their power play chances will rise to the occasion. So who wins these battles: Chicago PP v. Vancouver PK and Vancouver PP vs. Chicago PK? I like Chicago in both cases.
BLACKHAWKS in 7
4. Pittsburgh v. 8. Montreal
How improbable was this matchup when the playoffs began? Well, thanks to Montreal's version of Jesus Christ (Jaroslav Halak) and the Canadiens' miraculous series win over the best team in the regular season, the Washington Capitals, Les Habitants now go from knocking out Alex The Great to Sid the Kid. The Canadiens were able to eliminate Ovechkin and the high-powered Caps. Now, it's on to Crosby and the equally dangerous Penguins. But there's one big difference here -- these are the defending Stanley Cup champs. Been there, done that. This series will be a greater test for Halak and the Canadiens. I thought Halak was a decided difference in goal in the series against the Caps, but Marc-Andre Fleury is MUCH better than anything Washington has. He's battle-tested and playoff-tested. So the goaltending situation is pretty much a wash for me. And as well as Halak was in winning three in a row against Washington, I need to see him do this consistently to be hailed among the greats, which he already has been in Montreal. And to me, that's unfair to guys like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. Halak has a long way to go to be compared with those greats. But on to this series, I can't see Montreal's dream run continue here. Crosby and Co. not only have talent but they are a much more physical team than Washington is. Pittsburgh's secondary scorers play large in these atmospheres, that's why they are the two-time defending Eastern Conference champs. I just think Montreal's undersized forwards will be no match for Pittsburgh's bruising, punishing group. Halak may steal a game or two; he'll have to steal four wins for Montreal to have a shot. No way. Crosby will show Ovechkin just how to put a team away when you have them down 3-1 in a series.
PENGUINS in 5
6. Boston v. 7. Philadelphia
The sixth-seeded Boston Bruins have home ice advantage in the second round of the playoffs. Did I just say that? Well, with the top three seeds in the wild and wacky East falling like dominoes, the Bruins, who upset third-seeded Buffalo will host the No. 7 Flyers, who upended Marty Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils. This will be a matchup of defensive teams that like to score off of counter attacks. Both proved without a reasonable doubt that they can defend the rush, they can defend 5-on-5, they can defend killing penalties and they can defend in front of their respective nets. But who saw Brian Boucher -- yes, Brian Boucher -- outdueling Brodeur? If you said yes, you can stop lying to yourself. But kudos to the journeyman for defying the critics -- myself included -- and stepping up when needed. But Boucher will go up against another upstart in these playoffs, much like Halak has been for Montreal. What can you say about Tuukka Rask? Not only does this guy supplant last season's Vezina Trophy winner in Tim Thomas, but he outdueled Team USA's Ryan Miller in Round One. I like Boston's ability to defend and Rask only makes it doubly tough for those big, strong Flyer forwards to score goals. Philly needs a healthy Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne to have any chance at winning this series. Unfortunately, I just don't see that happening. The Flyers have some flaws which I think Boston can expose, unlike the Devils, who looked uninspired and played like a team that didn't care anymore. Forget about that with Boston. They're playing hungry, confident and healthy, which is why I like the Bruins not only because of Rask but because they are killing penalties and scoring on the power play.
BRUINS in 6