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The Canadian Press breaks down the NHL's first-round playoff matchups

Monday, 04.12.2010 / 7:08 PM / News

The Canadian Press

The last time the Stanley Cup playoffs were held just a few months after the Olympics, there were plenty of first-round upsets.

In fact, all four lower-seeded teams in the Western Conference managed to advance in 2006 and the No. 8-ranked Edmonton Oilers ended up playing for the Stanley Cup.

Could it happen again just two months after the Vancouver Games?

Even though some NHL teams and players experienced Olympic hangovers, hockey writers Bill Beacon and Chris Johnston aren't predicting another major wave of upsets. Here's a look at their picks for the first-round matchups:

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 Montreal

Beacon: Montreal fans are delighted with the matchup - Alex Ovechkin's flashy smile and perhaps the chance to give ex-Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore the raspberries, if the Caps don't start Semyon Varlamov. Goaltending, and sometimes overall team play, is the only area the Habs have an edge, but Washington's dominating attack should be too much for the punchless Canadiens. Montreal won the season series 2-1-1.

Pick: Caps in seven.

Johnston: It's hard to imagine why any fanbase would be happy to draw this powerhouse. The Caps are motivated and deep, with seven 20-goal scorers - four more than Montreal. Even if the Habs defy the odds and shut down Ovechkin, there is simply too much firepower to contain. Theodore doesn't have to be a star, he just has to be good enough. And I'd say he is, judging by his 20-0-3 record since Jan. 13

Pick: Caps in four.

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No. 2 New Jersey vs. No. 7 Philadelphia

Beacon: Martin Brodeur may have struggled at the Olympics, but he led the NHL in wins and shutouts, while many shots looks to be an adventure for Flyers goalie Brian Boucher. But Philadelphia brings size and talent up front, especially with Jeff Carter back from injury, and big Chris Pronger on defence. Coach Jacques Lemaire will no doubt find a solution for that, however, and win a tough, tight series.

Pick: Devils in seven.

Johnston: There isn't very much for me to add. Brodeur will outperform Boucher to get the Devils back to the second round for the first time since 2007. In Philadelphia, fans will once again be left wondering when they'll get to see a bonafide No. 1 goalie. Maybe next year?

Pick: Devils in five.

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No. 3 Buffalo vs. No. 6 Boston

Beacon: The Bruins labour to score, especially without injured top centre Marc Savard, and the Sabres have the excellent Ryan Miller in goal. Happily for Boston, they have a nifty goalie themselves in Tuukka Rask and that should keep it close in what should be low-scoring games.

Pick: Sabres in five.

Johnston: Somewhat lost in the Eastern Conference playoff race was the fact Boston finished the season on an 8-3-1 run. They may struggle to score goals, but they haven't struggled to win games. As Mr. Beacon noted, the most compelling part of this matchup is the duel between Miller and Rask - and I'm willing to go out on a limb and predict the rookie stuns the Sabres.

Pick: Bruins in six.

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No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Ottawa

Beacon: Losing injured Alex Kovalev, however invisible he was late in the season, leaves the Senators short of depth on attack and they will need every weapon against the defending Stanley Cup champs. It will be a big test for unproven goalie Brian Elliot, and two-way centre Mike Fisher will be extremely busy containing Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The Jordan Staal line may be the trump card for the Pens.

Pick: Penguins in six.

Johnston: It's simply hard to imagine Crosby letting his team drop the ball here. Neither team has been tearing it up of late and the Penguins have struggled with their consistency all season, but skill and experience should carry them into the second round. In fact, a series against Ottawa might be just what Pittsburgh need to get its mojo back.

Pick: Penguins in five.

Western Conference

No. 1 San Jose vs. No. 8 Colorado

Beacon: The Sharks may have lucked out here by getting first place and drawing the Avalanche as a first round opponent. Even San Jose's shaky play in post-season games should be enough to beat the Avs young guns, who seemed to fade a little, along with goalie Craig Anderson, late in the season.

Picks: Sharks in five.

Johnston: Simply making the post-season was miracle enough for a Colorado team that many predicted would finish near the bottom of the Western Conference. The Sharks, of course, have higher aspirations and should have little trouble dispensing the Avs. This could be the last kick at the can for the NHL's perennial underachivers - Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and captain Patrick Marleau are each slated to become unrestricted free agents in the summer.

Pick: Sharks in five.

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No. 2 Chicago vs. No. 7 Nashville

Beacon: Antti Niemi may not be Vezina Trophy material but he was good enough down the stretch to make the Blackhawks look like a Cup contender, with their depth on attack and a solid defence corps, even without the injured Brian Campbell. The Predators have Pekka Rinne in goal and Shea Weber and Ryan Suter on defence, but only two 20-plus goal scorers.

Pick: Blackhawks in five.

Johnston: The Predators are a plucky group, but the team didn't get a favourable draw with this matchup. Recall that Chicago made it to the Western Conference final a year ago and added Marian Hossa in the off-season. It will be difficult for Nashville to match Chicago's depth - Duncan Keith is a Norris Trophy candidate while Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have each taken another step forward in the past year.

Pick: Blackhawks in six.

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No. 3 Vancouver vs. No. 6 Los Angeles

Beacon: It's big for the quickly evolving Kings to make the playoffs, but they should hit a wall against the Canucks, who send out the Sedin twins and then big centre Ryan Kesler's line to torment goalies. Vancouver is hurting on defence, and Roberto Luongo can be brilliant or shaky depending on the day, but that may factor more in later rounds.

Pick: Canucks in five.

Johnston: Luongo may be guilty of some uneven play, but he's still been better than Kings starter Jonathan Quick late in the year. The Canucks goaltender also has the confidence that comes with the Olympic gold he won in February. Vancouver is dealing with some injuries on its blue-line and will be challenged by the upstart Kings, but should prevail in the end.

Pick: Canucks in six.

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No. 4 Phoenix vs. No. 5 Detroit

Beacon: The veteran Red Wings got it together down the stretch and look formidable going into the playoffs, with defence ace Nicklas Lidstrom back on his A-game. The Coyotes proved their many doubters wrong all season, and Ilya Bryzgalov should steal at least one game, but Detroit playing its best hockey is too much for nearly every team.

Pick: Wings in five.

Johnston: The feel-good story from the regular season could be in for a cruel reminder of what it's like to be in the playoffs. Detroit has been tearing the NHL apart since the Olympic break, reeling off a 16-3-2 record, and could find another gear in the post-season. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen are all seasoned playoff performers and goaltender Jimmy Howard has been fantastic down the stretch. The Coyotes will simply be overmatched.

Pick: Wings in four.

Quote of the Day

It's always a little bit weird, but it moves on. They've got a good team, and they played well tonight. I think that's just part of it.

— Peter Laviolette on facing his former team (Flyers) for the first time since his departure