Here are the matchups to watch in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs:
ATLANTIC DIVISION SEMIFINALS
Chara rebounded from a post-Olympic funk to play some of his best hockey during Boston's unreal 15-0-1 run. Datsyuk only returned from injury April 4, but his presence makes Detroit's depth even more impressive. The Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins are favoured, but if Datsyuk works some magic, and young players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar get hot, watch out. Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock of the Red Wings facing assistant Claude Julien of the Bruins should also be a treat to watch.
Prediction: Bruins in 7
Goalies don't really face each other, but this is a tall task for Lindback if Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop remains out with an upper-body injury. Price is without a doubt the top reason Montreal is in the playoffs, and if he's locked in, the Habs will be a tough out. It'll be interesting to see how Tampa Bay's young players with minor-league championship experience — Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, etc. — handle the NHL level.
Prediction: Habs in 6
METROPOLITAN DIVISION SEMIFINALS
Penguins centre Sidney Crosby vs. the Blue Jackets and expectations
There's no one player, be it Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky or any defenceman, who can single-handedly stop Crosby. The Blue Jackets play a strong team game and it'll be a group effort. But this series is about Crosby, the two-time Olympic gold-medal-winning star whose only Cup with Pittsburgh came in 2009. After a dominant season that saw him run away with the scoring title (and probably also MVP honours), Crosby will again have the weight of a city on his shoulders, especially with Evgeni Malkin coming back from injury.
Prediction: Penguins in 5
To get to Lundqvist, Giroux will first have to go through a tough top defensive pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. It's a different system under Alain Vigneault than John Tortorella, but ask Alex Ovechkin how that went last season. Giroux's absurd scoring pace since November is the top reason the Flyers managed to rebound from a dreadful start to make the playoffs. But Lundqvist is still a goalie capable of determining the outcome of games and series by himself. Also of note: the Flyers haven't won a game at Madison Square Garden since 2011.
Prediction: Rangers in 7
CENTRAL DIVISION SEMIFINALS
No goalie in the league made more saves this season than Varlamov (1,867), who had 142 more than second-place Kari Lehtonen of Dallas. Credit to Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire for changes they made to Varlamov's glove hand but also to the goaltender who could become elite with one strong playoff run. But it also means Colorado gives up a lot of shots, and Parise and Pominville take the lion's share of them for Minnesota. The Avalanche's hopes ride on Varlamov, as usual, especially with Matt Duchene out for the first round.
Prediction: Avalanche in 6
Toews, along with Patrick Kane, will be seeing his first action in some time in Game 1 after being out with injury. In the meantime, Sharp has been keeping the Blackhawks chugging along. The Blues stumbled late to lose out on not only the Presidents' Trophy but the Central Division title. That said, the top defensive pairing of Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo, which Canada kept together in Sochi, is one reason to believe the Blues will be fine, as they've had a year to play together. Another is goalie Ryan Miller, who could play a big role in stopping the defending Cup-champion Blackhawks.
Prediction: Blues in 7
PACIFIC DIVISION SEMIFINALS
Getzlaf put together an MVP-calibre season to lead the deep Ducks to the top spot in the West, while Benn and Seguin pretty much carried Dallas to the second wild-card position, where it moves over to play in the Pacific playoffs. If Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau, who would love to shed a reputation of being a great regular-season coach who can't win in the playoffs, puts Getzlaf and Corey Perry out against the Stars' top line, it could make for some thrilling performances. The Ducks would also like to get Jonas Hiller back in form, or else Boudreau won't be afraid to play musical goalies.
Prediction: Ducks in 6
At one point this year, the Sharks looked downright unstoppable, thanks to a top line of Tomas Hertl, Thornton and Brent Burns and depth of scoring with Pavelski, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. Hertl's injury interrupted that, but there's no doubt San Jose is strong and deep. Quick missed time with a groin injury, but when he was in goal, he was one of the NHL's best, finishing with the top goals-against average. Thank the Kings' team defence for that, too, which also shows how much of a chess match this series could be. Like St. Louis-Chicago, one legitimate Cup contender will be out in the first round.
Prediction: Sharks in 7
PREDICTIONS AFTER THE FIRST ROUND
Eastern Conference final: Bruins vs. Penguins
Boston could see some problems in the Atlantic Division final against Montreal, as the Habs seem to be in the Bruins' heads. But there's just too much talent, from goaltender Tuukka Rask out, to think that team is going to lose. Drawing the Blue Jackets is favourable for the Penguins, but like every year they have to hope Marc-Andre Fleury does not struggle.
Western Conference final: Blues vs. Sharks
Colorado's run to win the Central amid the Blues' stumbles turned the West bracket upside down. The path to the conference final will be absurdly difficult for everyone, but having depth of talent could be key for St. Louis and San Jose. If the Blues and Sharks don't get beat up by the Blackhawks and Kings, they'll be stronger as a result of those series.
Stanley Cup final: Bruins over Blues
In 2013, the Bruins and Blackhawks gave the NHL a final between truly the best team from each conference, and Boston vs. St. Louis would do the same. Miller has shown an ability to get hot over the span of several weeks, and coach Ken Hitchcock has his group ready for the climb. Count on David Krejci to have another star performance in the playoffs, and for Patrice Bergeron to do a little bit of everything so well as he usually does.
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