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handicaps the West's first-round playoff matchups

NHL.com @NHL

The underdogs always seem to have a chance in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

There's no shortage of examples from over the years of the little guys knocking off a team that finished well ahead of it during the regular season. You don't have to remind teams like Columbus, St. Louis and Anaheim of that - they all feel like they have a chance as the playoffs get underway this week. It doesn't matter how long the odds seem.

Even though the Blue Jackets are appearing in their first ever playoff series against the defending Stanley Cup champions, they believe they can beat Detroit.

"We're in it to win just like the other 16 teams," said captain Rick Nash. "We didn't come this far just kind of throw our gear on and go out and play. We know what we've got in front of us.

"We've got the best team in the league, some of the best players in the league. They know what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. We're going to have our hands full."

With that in mind, here's our picks for the first round in the Western Conference:

No. 1 San Jose vs. No. 8 Anaheim - First, let's deal with the elephant in the room: The Sharks have made a nasty habit out of disappointing fans and pundits at playoff time.

As a result, many seem to view this as a series that is likely to produce an upset. We simply don't see it that way - even with Anaheim's strong finish to the season.

Not only did the Sharks lead the league from start to finish, they also enter the playoffs with more experience in their lineup than ever before. Stanley Cup winners Claude Lemieux, Rob Blake, Brad Lukowich, Dan Boyle and Travis Moen have all joined the team since last spring.

Consider as well that Anaheim is now without Moen and Sammy Pahlsson - two of the unsung heroes from its Stanley Cup win in 2006.

Further complicating things for the Ducks is a potentially uneasy situation in goal. Sure, Jonas Hiller has taken the No. 1 job away from J.S. Giguere for now, but what happens if he lets in six goals in Game 1?

Anaheim deserves credit for a spirited finish to the regular season, but we simply don't think it matches up well enough with its California cousin.

Prediction - Sharks in five.

No. 2 Detroit vs. No. 7 Columbus - As the best team of the current generation, the Red Wings have been favoured in pretty much every playoff series they've entered in the last decade or more.

But they haven't won the Stanley Cup every year.

It might be the hardest trophy in sports to win once, let alone twice in a row.

Detroit is coming off yet another spectacular regular-season - the ninth in a row where it has eclipsed the 100-points barrier. It won the Central Division for the eighth straight time. It features a lineup that has combined to play an astounding 1,793 NHL playoff games.

And we're picking Columbus.

Despite the Red Wings' continued success, there have been signs all year that they might not be playing up to the standard of last spring. After all, this team gave up eight goals on two separate occasions in the second half of the season.

One of those games came last month, when the Blue Jackets walked out of Joe Louis Arena with an 8-2 victory. Let's consider that an anomaly for both teams.

The reason Columbus is looking at an upset is because coach Ken Hitchcock will have his team playing a tight-checking style and rookie goaltender Steve Mason can steal games.

Here's guessing both of those will happen.

Prediction - Blue Jackets in seven.

No. 3 Vancouver vs. No. 6 St. Louis - Throw out the conference seedings for a moment and consider that these were basically the hottest two teams in the league from February on.

So who is going to cool off now that the heat is really on?

Home ice could be a really big factor here, especially given the cross-continent travel this series will involve. On top of that, the Canucks were virtually unbeatable at GM Place after a swoon early in the new year.

Vancouver also appears to have an edge in goal with Roberto Luongo, although it can't be ignored that Chris Mason was brilliant down the stretch for the Blues. He started the final 38 games and went 24-8-6 with five shutouts.

Even still, we just don't think the Blues have the depth to beat Vancouver four times. As a result, the clock will strike midnight on the NHL's Cinderella team.

Prediction - Canucks in six.

No. 4 Chicago vs. No. 5 Calgary - If this series were played during the regular season, Chicago would have walked away with a sweep.

The Blackhawks won all four games they played against Calgary this year and did so in convincing fashion - outscoring them 19-7.

But anyone who follows the game knows that everything changes in the post-season and that's why we feel Calgary has a chance.

In many ways, this is the most intriguing matchup in the West. The upstart Blackhawks are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 while Calgary is looking for its first series victory since making it to the Stanley Cup final in 2004.

There's a good chance that will happen, especially if Calgary takes one of the first two games at the United Center.

Ultimately, we think experience will win out and Calgary enters with more of that. So ...

Prediction - Flames in seven.

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