|(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (8) Nashville Predators|
|Regular-season series: Wings won 5-3|
11/7: Wings 3-2 (SO)
11/22: Preds 3-2
12/10: Wings 2-1
2/12: Preds 4-2
3/9: Wings 4-3
3/15: Preds 3-1
3/20: Wings 6-3
3/30: Wings 1-0 (OT)
1st in Central
The Skinny: The Red Wings head into the playoffs with much talk centered on their postseason failures since winning back-to-back Cups in 1998 and '99. But this year's squad is more balanced, deeper and smarter. In other words, don't expect a first-round shocker. Detroit will rely on puck possession and positioning, and Tomas Holmstrom's return will play a huge role on the top line -- and in front of Nashville's net. The young Predators, meanwhile, need to rely on defensive schemes and distrupting the flow of the Detroit's game.
The Spotlight Is On: Dom Hasek. The veteran netminder, when he wasn't nursing an injury, was inconsistent for much of the season. He may come up huge knowing this could be his last shot at another Cup. If the regular season is any indication, the Dominator knows how to beat the Predators (3-1-1, 2.23 GAA).
X-Factor for Wings: Johan Franzen. The 28-year-old forward is often lost in the shuffle because he's a blue-collar type who lacks flash or highlight-worthy moves. But his kind are invaluable in the playoffs. He led Detroit with six goals and eight points against the Preds this season.
X-Factor for Preds: Jordan Tootoo. He won't fill the sheet or log more than 10-12 minutes, but he's the great agitator who can get under an opponent's skin. Why is that important? If he can draw penalties and put the Preds on the power play, he's done his job. But Tootoo has to be smart and not get himself in the box with Detroit on the man-advantage. A fine line, indeed.
The Pick: Red Wings in five.
2nd in Central
|(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Calgary Flames|
|Regular-season series: Flames won 3-1|
10/22: Sharks 4-1
1/3: Flames 3-2 (OT)
1/30: Flames 5-4
2/12: Flames 4-3 (OT)
1st in Pacific
The Skinny: The Sharks enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams, but that won't affect the Flames, who took three of four during the regular season. San Jose has the more versatile blue line, three viable scoring lines, and Patrick Marleau, who seems to have found his game at the perfect time. As for Calgary, stars (Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff) must come up huge. The bigger concern for Mike Keenan's crew is their poor penalty kill, which has been an issue all season.
The Spotlight Is On: Joe Thornton. He only had one assist in four games against Calgary, but appears primed to put past postseason failures behind him. Mighty Joe is the best passer in the game. That's vital for a team which relies on crisp puck movement and timely scoring.
X-Factor for Sharks: Brian Campbell. The talented backend has been nothing short of sensational since arriving in San Jose, collecting 19 points in 20 games and adding the puck-moving, power-play stud the Sharks lacked, especially in last season's playoffs. Campbell will prove a tough matchup for the Flames.
X-Factor for Flames: Owen Nolan. Iginla will get much of the Sharks' attention, which means guys like Kristian Huselius and Nolan need to step up and provide offensive punch from the No. 2 line. The gritty, rejuvenated veteran had three goals and an assist this season against his former team.
The Pick: Sharks in six.
3rd in N'west
|(3) Minnesota Wild vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche|
|Regular-season series: Wild won 5-3|
10/21: Wild 3-2
10/28: Avs 3-1
11/11: Avs 4-2
11/18: Wild 4-1
1/24: Wild 3-2
3/17: Wild 3-1
3/30: Wild 3-2 (OT)
4/6: Avs 4-3 (OT)
1st in N'west
The Skinny: For the sake of Avs fans, I won't bring up the 2003 playoffs. Considering the regular-season results, expect this series to be just as close and entertaining. Not much separates these Northwest rivals. The Avs have more balanced scoring and their defense is deeper and grittier. But that may not matter much against the Wild's disciplined trapping system. Minny will certainly be hurt by Kurtis Foster's absence, but as long as the Wild grabs an early lead, they should be in good shape. Colorado will need big performances from veterans Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, among others.
The Spotlight Is On: Niklas Backstrom. There may not be a hotter goalie right now than this 30-year-old, who was 4-1 with an impressive 1.98 GAA this season against the Avs. It also helps when you can lean on the NHL's second-best PK unit. Backs doesn't have a lot of postseason experience, but he'll still come up big.
X-Factor for Wild: Brian Rolston. Outside of Marian Gaborik, Rolston's the obvious pick because these two are the only Wild players to finish the season with more than 20 goals. Rolston has been a thorn in the Avs' side this season, with eight points in eight games.
X-Factor for Avalanche: John-Michael Liles. This may be a reach, considering he had a poor regular season (six goals, 32 points), but Liles could see considerable time on the No. 1 power play unit, which must improve to give the Avs a chance.
The Pick: Wild in six.
2nd in N'west
|(4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Dallas Stars|
|Regular-season series: Stars won 5-3|
10/20: Stars 3-1
11/5: Stars 5-0
11/21: Stars 2-1
1/15: Ducks 4-2
1/20: Stars 5-2
2/15: Stars 4-2
3/19: Ducks 2-1
3/30: Ducks 3-2 (SO)
2nd in Pacific
The Skinny: This series could prove to be the most intense, as these two teams truly don't like one another. Both are similar in that they rely on top-notch goaltending and strong defensive systems. But the biggest difference is how each entered the playoffs: Anaheim won five of its last six games, while Dallas struggled mightily -- just four wins since March 1. Also working against the Stars is the fact their most important player, Sergei Zubov, remains a big question mark for the series. The Ducks will again rely on their physical, grinding game to hand the Stars their fourth straight first-round exit.
The Spotlight Is On: Mike Ribeiro. He needs to carry his career season over to the postseason -- something the Stars are counting on. Ribeiro, who had 10 points this season against Anaheim, may need to shoulder even more of the load if Brad Richards continues to struggle.
X-Factor for Ducks: Corey Perry. How important is he? He missed 12 games and still finished as the team's goals leader (29). He may not play the entire series as he's recovering from a quad injury, but his presence will be a huge boost to the offensively-challenged Ducks.
X-Factor for Stars: Matt Niskanen. With the uncertainty surrounding Zubov, Niskanen becomes an even more important cog and will see time quarterbacking the power play. The 21-year-old rookie, who had three points against the Ducks this season, may be counted on to slow the likes of Teemu Selanne and Ryan Getzlaf.
The Pick: Ducks in seven.
3rd in Pacific
|Eastern Conference Breakdown|