1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 8. Chicago BlackhawksThe Canucks have been the most consistent team this season and it's no wonder they were the Presidents' Trophy winners this season. Their balance and stability up front and along the backline, and with strong numbers from both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, the Canucks will be a tough out this year. The Sedin twins have picked up where they left off this season, but Daniel has had more of the discussion for the Hart Trophy after Henrik took the honors a season ago. Ryan Kesler had the best season of his pro career and will get heavy consideration for the Selke Award, if not be considered the frontrunner (along with the Blues' David Backes and others). Chicago, after winning it all a season ago, is a mystery to me at this point. The Blackhawks snuck in after failing to qualify on their own Sunday, relying on a loss by the Dallas Stars in the final NHL regular season game to qualify. But this Blackhawks team as a eight-seed can be very dangerous. A team with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, a healthy Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, etc. can match up with the likes of anyone in the league. And I'm sure the league was tickled to death to see a Canucks-Blackhawks matchup in the opening round. Somehow, Vancouver-Dallas just doesn't have the same ring to it. The Blackhawks would really make this a balanced series if they can get a healthy Troy Brouwer (shoulder) and somehow Dave Bolland (concussion) into the mix. Brouwer would be more likely of the two, obviously. The Canucks will miss Manny Manholtra (eye) more than one might imagine. This guy's a tremendous faceoff specialist and defensive player who can handle Chicago's skill people. But to make this relatively short, I believe this series will be as much about the mental aspect as it is physical. The Canucks have to overcome the mental hurdle of winning against Chicago. The Hawks have owned them in recent seasons and I believe this is as much about Luongo as anyone else. Great regular season numbers, playoff numbers are another story. Despite no Byfuglien, Ladd, Versteeg, Niemi (Corey Crawford has filled in quite nicely in goal), Sopel, etc., I believe this is a great series and will go all the way. I did pick the Canucks to come out of the west this year in the preseason and will stick with them here but I wouldn't be surprised one bit if Chicago prevails, but ...
CANUCKS IN 7
2. San Jose Sharks vs. 7. Los Angeles Kings
The Sharks enter the postseason as hot as any team in the league. Remember when they were trudging along in October and November? A team that entered the season with high expectations was suddenly being questioned from the top on down. They signed Antti Niemi after he chose to bolt the Blackhawks after winning the Stanley Cup and things weren't quite working out early on. But somewhere along the line, the Sharks flipped the switch and that light bulb has burned brightly ever since. They're getting great contributions from all their lines, and Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau -- players they expected to lead the way -- have produced not at the clip many expected but in timely ways throughout the season. Youngsters Logan Couture, Devin Setoguchi, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski are providing what this offense needs. The Kings are sort of an enigma: good enough to beat the best and bad enough to lose to the worst. Without Anze Kopitar (broken ankle) and Justin Williams (shoulder), their offense has lacked consistency, despite Ryan Smyth doing all he can and the addition of Dustin Penner at the trade deadline. Williams has been cleared for contact and there are some rumblings that Kopitar might give it a go at some point this series. The Kings could certainly use them. Jonathan Quick shows signs of brilliance but also can let in a bushel at times, and Drew Doughty hasn't lived up to his rookie season. I believe this will be one of the more high-scoring series in the quarterfinal rounds, and with the pressure on Vancouver this year to win the west, the Sharks may finally be able to play without great expectations placed on them. Thanks why I like ...
SAN JOSE IN 5
3. Detroit Red Wings vs. 6. Phoenix Coyotes
This series is a repeat of last season, one in which the veteran-laden Wings won despite being pushed by the young, savvy 'Yotes. Of course Detroit has all the history, the Cups, the experience and all that. Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Rafalski, Holmstrom, Franzen ... and now Modano. The list goes on and on. But there's something not right in Motown. And Zetterberg (knee) is ailing and will miss the beginning of this season, according to reports. That would be a huge blow to the Wings' offense. I predicted before the season that this might be Detroit's slow fall from grace. They would make the playoffs but not by much. The Wings proved me -- and a host of other detractors -- wrong by winning the Central Division. Jimmy Howard was steady -- not great -- for much of the season and showed flashes of brilliance but can he hold up during the postseason rigors? I like this Phoenix team. They don't have that 50-goal, 100-point scorer on their roster but from top to bottom, Dave Tippett has a bevy of steady, hard-working skaters that simply get the job done. Keith Yandle, if not this season then certainly in the future, is a Norris Trophy candidate in my opinion and he leads a rock-solid d-unit. And Ilya Bryzgalov may be the most unheralded performer going into this postseason. I don't typically like going with the grain since many are picking an upset here but I like Phoenix to win this series and will go with the ...
COYOTES IN 6
4. Anaheim Ducks vs. 5. Nashville Predators
This is one of the more intriguing series to me. Simply put, if you like high-scoring games, the Ducks win this running away. If you like 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 games, this is Nashville's series to win. The Ducks boost Hart Trophy candidate Corey Perry (the only player this season to reach 50 goals) and linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan make up arguably the top line in the league. These guys were spectacular all season long. Remember when the Ducks came into St. Louis and were blitzed 5-1 by the Blues and were outshot something like 53-14 in that game? I thought I was certainly watching the worst team in hockey unfolding despite the Ducks missing some key pieces at that time. Boy, was I -- and a lot of other pundits -- wrong. And how about the season Lubomir Visnovsky had? The Ducks need to have a clear-cut guy take on the chore in goal if they want to match the Preds' Pekka Rinne, who quietly put together a Vezina-like season. Nashville won't wow anyone with their offensive numbers. When Sergei Kostitsyn is your leading point-getter at 50 points and 23 goals, you wonder how in the heck did this team get in. Simply stated, Rinne for one, and when you have a defensive mentality that Barry Trotz likes to utilize with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter anchoring your d-unit, that's a pretty good place to start. This is going to be a great series, and I'm a little skeptical about the Predators just because they haven't fared well in the postseason. At least they're not facing the Sharks, so I think Nashville finally gets through here ... and Rinne is the reason why. He has the ability to be last season's Jaroslav Halak.
PREDATORS IN 7
1. Washington Capitals vs. 8. New York RangersWait, the Capitals are playing a defensive-minded game first? With Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Co.? Who the heck hit Bruce Boudreau in the head? This doesn't sound like the high-flying Capitals we've come to know. But you know what, this system Boudreau has implemented not only vaulted the Caps back into the playoffs' upper-echelon teams but also catapulted them into the top seed in the East. And they did so without high-scoring defenseman Mike Green, who's expected to be available for the Capitals this series. It seems that Washington has settled on Michal Neuvirth as its goaltender, and this is the area that is my only concern for the Caps heading into this postseason. They've refined themselves in other areas, and the ageless Mike Knuble simply produces with their young studs. The Rangers love to live dangerously. They fell a shootout short of gaining entry into the postseason a year ago then needed a win and a Carolina loss in their respective final games of the season to get in this season -- which they got. Henrik Lundqvist at times carried the Rangers on his shoulders this season (he had a league-best 11 shutouts to prove it). The Rangers have young studs, with Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi at the top of the list, but Callahan's broken ankle will be a huge blow to the Blueshirts. Marian Gaborik MUST produce for the Rangers to have a chance. I believe Lundqvist will steal a game or two -- like Rinne, he could be Halak this season -- but the Rangers will need Gaborik to be electrifying. They have veteran savvy in Bryan McCabe, Vinny Prospal, Ruslan Fedotenko and yes, Sean Avery. Also, if they can get ANY sort of production out of Chris Drury, it will be a big plus. With Callahan, I like the Rangers to not only hang around but win. I just don't know if they can overcome his loss. ...
CAPITALS IN 6
2. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 7. Buffalo Sabres
I love this matchup, because these are two highly-skilled squads that will go Mano a Mano matching up lines in an intense series. The Flyers are defending Eastern Conference champs and are looking for a return trip back to the Cup finals. A good place to start is Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, playoff here Ville Leino and ever-rising star Claude Giroux. Philly is deep, they're talented and they're hungry. The hunger is what will drive them more than ever. But in order for them to thrive, they need Chris Pronger (hand injury) on that blue line. But Buffalo, once dead and buried, has risen from the ashes and made the necessary playoff push to get in. Ryan Miller finally got his act together after some early-season struggles, Jhonas Enroth filled in admirably behind Miller and old friend Brad Boyes fit into the Sabres' lineup and helped in the playoff push. Drew Stafford is a stud, period. If you haven't watched this guy play, check him out. Thomas Vanek performed strong, replicating his 2008-09 season and Jason Pominville performed well. I think this comes down to who's between the pipes. Philly will go with rookie Sergei Bobrovsky in goal after the unheralded run by Michael Leighton a season ago. How things have changed in one year. Bobrovsky was good (very good) early on and eventually supplanted Leighton, who was an unfortunate victim to injury and lost his job. I'm going with the Miller/Enroth tandem here over Bobrovsky/Brian Boucher. ...SABRES IN 6
3. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Montreal Canadiens
It's only fitting, right? Bruins-Canadiens, Original Six squads meeting for a playoff-record 73rd time in the postseason, after what happened earlier this season with Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty? Why wouldn't it be? These teams don't like each other ... heck, they hate each other. This makes some good TV. Ratings should be up for this one. I won't get too in depth with player matchups here because this will come down to emotion. Both teams have talent, they both have tremendous goalies (Vezina-favorite Tim Thomas in Boston and Carey Price in Montreal), and both teams have plenty of grit and determination. But one area where I think the Bruins have an edge: physicality. Boston likes to beat on people and they do it well. I just don't see the Canadiens matching up here. As the series goes on, Boston will look to impose their will and wear down the under-sized Habs. Montreal might see Price steal a game, maybe two, but that's about it. I like the addition of Tomas Kaberle for Boston at the trade deadline, which makes Chara, Nathan Horton, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and Co. even that much more stronger. Michael Cammalleri. Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta need to be beasts for Les Habitants to have a shot. They will have their moments but ...BRUINS IN 6
4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5. Tampa Bay Lightning
You want skill? You want names? This is the series for it. Crosby, Staal, Lecavalier, St. Louis, Stamkos, Fleury, Kovalev ... the list goes on and on. And we don't even have Malkin (knee) in this series. This series will feature plenty of highlights that could reach ESPN's Top 10 plays of the day. Can the Penguins continue to perform without Crosby, who's been out since the turn of the calendar year after suffering a concussion at the Winter Classic. He's been skating but who knows how long before he can get into game action. That's why the play of Fleury, Tyler Kennedy, Staal, Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot, James Neal, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have been crucial. It amazes me how the Penguins kept pace with the class of the east despite missing their two top guns. Coach Dan Bylsma should be applauded (it might win him the Jack Adams) for the job he did with this crew. Also, the job Guy Boucher did in his first season guiding the Lightning back to prominence is to be commended as well. But having three guns like Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier can help in many ways. Former Blue Eric Brewer has been a stabalizing force with Victor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund and Pavel Kubina on the blue line, and the Lightning's value went up when they acquired Dwayne Roloson to backstop pucks in goal. Simon Gagne and former Penguin Ryan Malone could be x-factors in this series, and I look for it to go the distance. I picked the Penguins to represent the east and I won't stray from it but the Lightning are more than capable of winning this but ...PENGUINS IN 7