#1 San Jose vs. #8 Colorado
Regular season head-to-head: San Jose 2-1-1 (Colorado wins one OT game)
Key players: San Jose - Joe Thornton (20-69-89); Patrick Marleau (44-39-83); Dany Heatley (39-43-82); Dan Boyle (15-43-58, 130 blocks); Colorado - Paul Stastny (20-59-79); RW Chris Stewart (28-36-64); D Brett Clark (162 blocks)
Goalies: Evgeni Nabokov (44-16-10, 2.43, .922, 3 shutouts); Craig Anderson (38-25-7, 2.64, .917, 7 shutouts)
Outlook: The Avalanche are very good at blocking shots. In addition to Clark, they have four other players with over 100 blocks - Scott Hannan (144), Kyle Quincey (143), Kyle Cumiskey (105) and Adam Foote (102.) They'll need to be at their best, as will Anderson, against San Jose's potent attack. How this young Colorado team handles its first playoff experience will be interesting. Milan Hejduk and Foote are two of the few Avalanche who've been in the postseason.
Prediction: The sting of last year's first-round exit should still be with the Sharks and they'll take it out on the youthful Avalanche. But it won't be easy. San Jose in six.
#2 Chicago vs. #7 Nashville
Regular season head-to-head: Chicago 4-2 (all regulation)
Key players: Chicago - Patrick Kane (30-58-88); Jonathan Toews (25-43-78); Duncan Keith (14-55-69); Marian Hossa (24-27-51); Patrick Sharp (25-41-66); Nashville - Patric Hornqvist (30-21-51); Steve Sullivan (17-34-51); Shea Weber (16-27-43)
Goalies: Probably Antti Niemi (26-7-4, 2.25, .912, 7 shutouts) for Chicago. Cristobal Huet (26-14-4, 2.50, .895, 4 shutouts) might see time. Pekka Rinne (32-16-5, 2.53, .911, 7 shutouts) - who was the Bearded Talbots' Conn Smythe winner - for Nashville.
Outlook: This is a series of division opponents, but it's a case of "long time no see." The teams haven't met in 2010, playing their last game on Dec. 27. It's also a tale of two teams. Chicago is loaded up front. Nashville not nearly as much, but its depth (nine players with 10+ goals) is comparable to Chicago's (11.) The Blackhawks have much more elite talent. This series depends on which goalie stands on his head and which doesn't. All three involved - Niemi, Huet and Rinne - have been stellar at times and shaky at others.
Prediction: Chicago's offense will eventually wear down Nashville, and while Rinne made some strides as a No. 1 goalie, his tendency to give up bad goals will come back to haunt him. Chicago in six.
#3 Vancouver vs. #6 Los Angeles
Regular season head-to-head: Vancouver 3-1 (Canucks win one SO game)
Key players: Vancouver - Henrik Sedin (29-83-112); Daniel Sedin (29-56-85); Alex Burrows (35-32-67); Ryan Kesler (25-50-75); Mikael Samuelsson (30-23-53); Los Angeles - Anze Kopitar (34-47-81); Drew Doughty (16-43-59); Dustin Brown (24-32-56); Ryan Smyth (22-31-53)
Goalies: Roberto Luongo (40-22-4, 2.57, .913, 4 shutouts); Jonathan Quick (39-24-7, 2.54, .907, 4 shutouts)
Outlook: With Samuelsson returning to health, Vancouver possesses two top-notch scoring lines, and there's a sixth player I didn't mention - Mason Raymond - who has 25 goals. Only one team scored more goals this season than Vancouver. The Kings' secondary scoring is not as explosive, but it's more spread out. While I'm not convinced Luongo has shook off the "can't win the big one" moniker despite winning Olympic gold (Canada won it despite him; he didn't do anything to win it but didn't do anything to lose it) he's going against a youngster in Quick who's getting his first taste of the NHL playoffs, as are many of the Kings.
Prediction: I like what the Kings have going, but they're still at least a year away. Vancouver in five.
#4 Phoenix vs. #5 Detroit
Regular season head-to-head: Detroit 2-0-2 (Phoenix wins 2 OT games)
Key players: Phoenix - Wojtek Wolski (6-12-18 in 18 games with Phoenix, 23-42-65 overall); Shane Doan (18-37-55); Zybnek Michalek (156 blocks); Keith Yandle (12-29-41); Detroit - Pavel Datsyuk (27-43-70); Henrik Zetterberg (23-47-70); Johan Franzen (10-11-21 in 27 games); Nicklas Lidstrom (9-40-49)
Goalies: Ilya Bryzgalov (42-20-6, 2.29 GAA, .920%, 8 shutouts); Jimmy Howard (37-15-10, 2.26, .924, 3 shutouts)
Outlook: This could be the best series. Phoenix allowed the fewest goals in the West; Detroit rolled through the league once getting healthy. Only three teams won more games than the Coyotes. One might wonder how much energy the Red Wings have after being in must-win mode for it seems like four months. Another "which goalie blinks" series. Detroit's offense is better, but Phoenix hasn't needed many goals to win games.
Prediction: Detroit will have enough energy. Phoenix won't get enough goals, but it'll go the distance. Red Wings in seven.
Playoffs begin Wednesday. Enjoy.
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