NHL Playoffs Preview

TERRY KOSHAN AND STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:24 PM ET

Sun Media sports writer Terry Koshan gives his take on the Eastern Conference matchups, while Steve MacFarlane gives us his take on the Western Conference.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) BOSTON BRUINS (53-19-10) vs. (8) MONTREAL CANADIENS (41-30-11)

Season Series: The Bruins won five of six, with the only loss coming in a shootout in the teams' first meeting of the season. But of the six games, only one was decided by more than two goals.

Last Playoff Meeting: A year ago, the Bruins were down 3-1 in the opening round but rebounded to win twice. Montreal won Game 7, giving it a career record of 24-7 in 31 playoff series against Boston.

The Skinny: Bruins goalies Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez allowed just 196 goals, making Boston the lone NHL club to stay below 200 against during the season. Then there is giant D Zdeno Chara, a favourite for the Norris Trophy ... Montreal's defence is in a shambles. G Carey Price struggled, top D Andrei Markov is out and D Mathieu Schneider has a bum shoulder. Not good ... The Habs line of Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev totalled 32 points during the final 10 games.

Hurting: Bruins C Patrice Bergeron (foot) and LW P.J. Axelsson (undisclosed) are questionable for Game 1. D Andrew Ference (undisclosed) is out indefinitely. LW Marco Sturm's season is over (knee). For Montreal, C Robert Lang (Achilles) and D Francis Bouillon (groin) are done, while D Alexei Markov (knee) is indefinite and LW Sergei Kostitsyn (upper body) is questionable for Game 1. The losses of Ference and Markov will be felt.

Possible Playoff Hero: If Montreal has a true shot at an upset, it will have to get a big effort out of the human enigma, a.k.a. Alexei Kovalev. He has 95 points (42 goals and 53 assists) in 112 career playoff games. Bruins C Phil Kessel ended the season with a hat trick, giving him a team-high 36 goals. He's one of many Boston forwards who has the ability to step up.

(2) WASHINGTON CAPITALS (50-24-8) vs. (7) NEW YORK RANGERS (43-30-9)

Season Series: The Rangers managed to win just one of four games, and that was in the final match on Feb. 11, in a shootout. The Caps won the other three, by two goals in one occasion and by one goal in two others.

Last Playoff Meeting: This will be the fifth time the two have met in the playoffs, but the first since 1994, when the Rangers eliminated the Capitals in five games in the conference semi-final along the way to their first Stanley Cup win since 1940.

The Skinny: If the Rangers pull off an upset, it will be because they have shut down Alexander Ovechkin. He led the NHL with 56 goals, and the Caps were second in the Eastern Conference with 272 goals ... Troubling for the Rangers is the fact they can't score. Their 210 goals for is the fewest of all 16 playoff clubs. Conversely, they allowed only 218, third-fewest among playoff teams in the East ... Since losing in the 1998 final to the Detroit Red Wings, Washington either has missed the playoffs or been eliminated in the first round.

Hurting: Capitals C Boyd Gordon (finger) and D Tom Poti (groin) are probable for Game 1, while LW Donald Brashear (knee) is questionable. RW Chris Clark (wrist) is out for the season and G Brent Johnson (hip) is indefinite. For the Rangers, only C Chris Drury (leg) is hurt, and he is probable for Game 1.

Possible Playoff Hero: We're loathe to say this, but Rangers shift disturber Sean Avery has the ability to make a difference. Avery put a cap on the regular season by driving the Flyers nuts on Sunday, and we'll see how far he gets into Ovechkin's kitchen. Avery had 12 points in 18 games after joining the Rangers in early March. With Ovechkin and Alexander Semin tearing it up for the Caps, sophomore C Nicklas Backstrom had a superb year, recording 88 points in 82 games.

(3) NEW JERSEY DEVILS (51-27-4) vs. (6) CAROLINA HURRICANES (45-30-7)

Season Series: The Hurricanes took the first three games before New Jersey won on the penultimate day of the regular season. Only one margin, a 4-2 'Canes victory on March 18, was by more than one goal.

Last Playoff Meeting: Three years ago, before beating Edmonton in the Stanley Cup final, the Hurricanes dusted the Devils in five games in the conference semi-final. It's the fourth post-season matchup between the franchises, with Carolina winning two.

The Skinny: Devils LW Zach Parise has developed into a bona fide No. 1 forward, finishing third with 45 goals and fifth with 94 points ... Turning back the clock in Raleigh, N.C., this season was smart on the part of 'Canes general manager Jim Rutherford, as coach Paul Maurice returned to be a major factor and LW Erik Cole had 15 points in 17 games after he was reacquired from Edmonton.

Hurting: The Devils are without backup G Kevin Weekes (knee). Carolina C Matt Cullen (foot) is questionable for Game 1.

Possible Playoff Hero: G Cam Ward will have to be at the top of his game in order for Carolina to advance. Ward was excellent during the final six weeks, including a 10-1-2 record in March. Devils C John Madden won't score much, but his defensive play has helped the Devils win Cups in the past, and his ability to shut down big-name players is large.

(4) PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (45-28-9) vs. (5) PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (44-27-11)

Season Series: The Penguins won four of the six meetings, with the first two in overtime and a shootout respectively.

Last Playoff Meeting: Pittsburgh smothered Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference final last spring, ousting the Flyers in five games and holding them to nine goals. In the other three times they have clashed in the playoffs, the Flyers won all three.

The Skinny: Once you get past the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin, who won the Art Ross with 113 points, and Sidney Crosby, who was third in NHL scoring with 103 points, there's a large drop in Pittsburgh's lineup. Chris Kunitz, who was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks, was third in team scoring with 53 points ... Philadelphia had six forwards with at least 25 goals, led by Jeff Carter's 46, but only one other Flyer, Daniel Briere, had more than 10. Briere scored 11 times.

Hurting: Pittsburgh C Mike Zigomanis (shoulder) is out for the season. Philadelphia D Ryan Parent (lower body) is questionable for Game 1, while D Derian Hatcher (knee) and RW Riley Cote (finger) are done for the year.

Possible Playoff Hero: Flyers LW Scott Hartnell came into his own, recording 30 goals for the first time in his NHL career. To boot, Hartnell is a nasty player and probably will be charged with getting under the skin of Crosby and Malkin. For the Penguins, Kunitz has a Cup ring from his Ducks days and that experience can't be drawn up on the spot.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) SAN JOSE SHARKS (53-18-11) VS. (8) ANAHEIM DUCKS (42-33-7)

Season Series: Getting the best of their division rival, the Sharks edged the Ducks four games to two in their season series. They twice shut out the talented Ducks offence. Anaheim was dominant in their two victories, winning by a combined score of 9-2.

Last Playoff Meeting: These two expansion clubs have never met in the post-season. In fact, this is the first playoff meeting between two California teams since the 1969 Western Conference quarterfinal between the L.A. Kings and Oakland Seals.

The Skinny: Claiming the Presidents' Trophy with a league-best 117 points, the Sharks stumbled a little at the finish line with one point in their last three games. The point total was their best in 17 years in the league, but inconsistency was a problem in the second half of the season ... C Patrick Marleau was back on track this season after a disappointing 48-point campaign a year ago. With 38 goals and 71 points in 76 games, the Sharks captain showed he's still capable of nearly a point a game and that the 2007-08 plummet was an anomaly ... So much for the sophomore slump. RW Devin Setoguchi scored 31 goals and added 34 assists in his second season for 65 points in 81 games. The 22-year-old was also tied with C Joe Thornton and Marleau for the team lead with a plus-16 rating. That's impressive company ... G Evgeni Nabokov finished second in the league with 41 wins despite playing 14 fewer games than leader Miikka Kiprusoff of the Flames ... C Ryan Getzlaf tied for sixth in the league with 91 points in 81 games. The Sharks' top gun, Thornton, had 86 in 81 appearances ... Rookie-of-the-year candidate RW Bobby Ryan fell one goal short of fellow winger Corey Perry's total of 32, but did it in 14 fewer games after starting the season in the American Hockey League because of cap restrictions. Ryan finished with 57 points and a team-best plus-13 rating.

Hurting: The Sharks are getting healthy at the right time after a wave of injuries forced them to give a lot of unproven commodities big minutes over the past couple of months. There were as many as 10 regulars out at the same time in March. RW Jonathan Cheechoo (lower-body) missed the last two games of the regular season but is expected to return for the playoffs. D Kent Huskins (foot) should also be ready to go. C Torrey Mitchell broke his leg in the pre-season and hasn't played this year. He's doubtful for the series. The Ducks could get D Bret Hedican (back) soon. LW Brad Larsen is out.

Possible Playoff Hero: LW Ryane Clowe was a monster in the playoffs a year ago, scoring five goals and nine points in 13 games. His 6-foot-2, 225-lb. body makes him a threat in front of the net, and he's got decent hands for a big man.

(2) DETROIT RED WINGS (51-20-10) VS. (7) COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (41-31-10)

Season Series: They split with three wins apiece, but the Red Wings took the Blue Jackets to overtime to come away with the slightly better 3-2-1 record.

Last Playoff Meeting: This is the first time in eight seasons in the league the Blue Jackets have qualified for the post-season.

The Skinny: Goaltending is probably the biggest reason the defending Stanley Cup champions fell short of the Presidents' Trophy and looked less than their best down the stretch with a 2-5-1 record in their last eight games. Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin shared time between the pipes much of the season, but backup Conklin posted better numbers -- a 2.51 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in 40 games -- than the veteran starter Osgood -- 3.09 GAA and .887 save percentage in 46 games ... Jackets captain Rick Nash hit the 40-goal mark for the second time and posted a career-high 39 assists and 79 points in 78 games. His plus/minus rating also skyrocketed to a plus-11 as he took head coach Ken Hitchcock's tutoring more seriously than ever ... In-season additions LW Antione Vermette and C Jason Williams have paid off for the Jackets. They've both gone on to contribute to a previously one-dimensional offence that relied on Nash. Williams came over from Atlanta in January and posted 12 goals and 29 points in 39 games as a Jacket. Vermette scored seven times and totaled 13 points in 17 contests after the trade that sent Pascal Leclaire to Ottawa.

Hurting: Red Wings D Nicklas Lidstrom sat out the regular-season finale to give his sore right elbow extra rest before the playoffs. He'll be ready to go for Game 1. C Kris Draper (lower-body) missed the last two games of the year and is questionable for the start of the series. D Andreas Lilja has been out since Feb. 28 with post-concussion syndrome and isn't expected back in the early rounds. Blue Jackets LW Kristian Huselius (concussion) and LW Fredrik Modin (knee) are probable. C Andrew Murray (undisclosed) is questionable. D Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (lower-body) and C Derick Brassard (shoulder) are out.

Possible Playoff Hero: RW Marian Hossa was a Stanley Cup runner-up last year with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he jumped ship as a free agent to the champion Red Wings in the off-season. He was hurt late in the regular-season but will be motivated to lead the Wings back to the final series any way possible. He scored 12 goals and 26 points in 20 playoff games with the Pens. For the Blue Jackets, Rick Nash could take advantage of some suspect goaltending in Detroit to push his heavy underdog team forward.

(3) VANCOUVER CANUCKS (45-27-10) VS. (6) ST. LOUIS BLUES (41-31-10)

Season Series: Even and open is the best way to describe the four-game set. They swapped 6-4 decisions in their first two meetings, with the Canucks blanking the Blues 3-0 a week before losing 4-2 in the finale.

Last Playoff Meeting: The Canucks came away with a win in the 2003 Western Conference quarter-final that went the distance. It took a pretty incredible comeback as they claimed the final three games to erase a 3-1 deficit. Their season ended in the next round with a Game-7 loss to the Minnesota Wild.

The Skinny: This matchup sees two of the best teams since the all-star break going head-to-head. As impressive as the Canucks' 23-8-3 record that took them straight into the Northwest Division title spot, the Blues' 22-8-6 mark following the break took them from 15th, the very last spot in the West, all the way up to sixth ... The Sedin twins posted identical 82-point seasons and haven't been more than four apart since the lockout. C Henrik potted a career-best 22 goals and the 82 points was also a new high for him. LW Daniel scored 31 times to lead the team. Both are due big raises from their US$3.575-million salaries and could become unrestricted free agents July 1 ... C Mats Sundin has flown largely under the radar.The 38-year-old Swede failed to score in his final 13 games. He did rack up eight assists in that time ... Blues RW David Backes owes his contract to the Canucks, who made a play for him with an offer sheet last summer. The deal he signed for $7.5-million over three years was matched by the Blues, and he has rewarded them with a 31-goal, 54-point season.

Hurting: Healthy as any team qualified for the post-season, the Canucks are without LW Taylor Pyatt, who is grieving the tragic loss of his fiancee after a car accident took her life while on vacation in Jamaica earlier this month. His return is unknown. Part of the reason the Blues' charge was so impressive is they did it without a few key players in the lineup. LW Paul Kariya missed most of the regular-season with a hip injury that required surgery. He could return during the series. D Erik Johnson (knee) won't return, and veteran D Eric Brewer (back) is doubtful for the first round. LW D.J. King (shoulder) is out for the year.

Possible Playoff Hero:It has to be Roberto Luongo. The Canucks goalie is going to face some talented snipers in RW Brad Boyes, RW David Backes, and C Keith Tkachuk. Luongo will have to be sharp, because young guns T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund give the Blues some scoring depth.

(4) CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (46-24-12) VS. (5) CALGARY FLAMES (46-30-6)

Season Series: Swept by the Blackhawks, the Flames earned just one point against them in a 3-2 overtime loss at the Saddledome Dec. 19. Every other game was decided by at least three goals, with the Flames allowing 11 goals against and scoring just three at the United Center.

Last Playoff Meeting: Taking the 1996 Western Conference quarterfinal in four straight games, the Blackhawks dominated the first three before the Flames put up a fight in Game 4. It took a goal from Joe Murphy in triple-overtime for the Hawks to end the series.

The Skinny: The Blackhawks posted their first 100-point season since current Flames GM Darryl Sutter was coaching in Chicago in 1992-93. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and just the second time in more than a decade ... Veteran RW Martin Havlat set a new high with 80 games played, and led the team with 76 points ... Captain Jonathan Toews led the way with 34 goals ... RW Jarome Iginla was bumped from the top of the team's goal-scoring list for the first time since 1999-2000, when Val Bure claimed that title. LW Michael Cammalleri scored 39 times this season, leaving Iginla in second with 35 scores. Iginla was tops in total points with 89 -- eighth most in the league. Cammalleri tied for 13th with 82 points in 81 games.

Hurting: Blackhawks C Patrick Sharp is questionable with a cut on his leg that kept him out of the final five regular-season games. LW Kris Versteeg (arm) returned to the lineup Sunday after missing one game. D Brent Sopel has been on the long-term injury list since Dec. 30 and has had elbow surgery, but is practising with the team again. It's unknown when he may return. The Flames have a long list of injured guys, with little info disclosed on any of them: They could see the return of LW Rene Bourque (ankle), D Dion Phaneuf (undisclosed), LW Curtis Glencross (undisclosed) and D Cory Sarich (foot), but will likely still be without D Robyn Regehr (lower-body). LW Andre Roy (wrist) is questionable, while D Mark Giordano and D Rhett Warrener are doubtful.

Possible Playoff Hero: The Flames will try to slow down the speedy Blackhawks, but with a banged-up defence it won't be easy. They'll rely heavily on goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who nearly stole them a series against the Detroit Red Wings two seasons ago by standing on his head. For the Hawks, it could be Nikolai Khabibulin, who has dominated the Flames over his career (22-5-2 in the regular-season) and stoned them in the 2004 Cup final with Tampa Bay.


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