San Jose Sharks (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (8)
The Sharks enter this year's playoffs needing to finally rid themselves of the label "playoff choke artists," so facing an Avalanche team that faded down the stretch might be a good place to start.
San Jose was among the league's best in all offensive categories, led by superstars Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, but there are concerns over the performance of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who struggled in March although he played better in his final regular season games this month.
The rebuilding Avalanche surprised many this season by making the playoffs, which is attributable to rising young talent like Chris Stewart and Matt Duchene plus the strong goaltending of Craig Anderson. Their poor defensive game, however, seems to have worn down the overworked Anderson heading into this series. The Avs will be game opponents, but the Sharks bite should prove too powerful to snow under.
Prediction: Sharks in five
Chicago Blackhawks (2) vs. Nashville Predators (7)
This appears to be a match-up between one of the top offensive teams, the Blackhawks, against one of the best defensive clubs, the Predators. But the 'Hawks were almost as strong on defense as they were in scoring, giving up the fewest shots-against and sixth-fewest goals plus they had the fifth-best penalty-kill, making them more than a match for Nashville in the defensive department.
That won't deter the Predators from sticking with the strong team defensive system -- anchored by blueliners Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis and the goaltending of Pekka Rinne -- in hopes of containing Chicago's awesome offense.
Goaltending is considered the Blackhawks' Achilles' heel, so expect the Predators to try to take advantage of goalie Antti Niemi's postseason inexperience. Still, given the Blackhawks depth, led by young superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and it appears the Predators could come up short in the first round once again.
Prediction: Blackhawks in six
Vancouver Canucks (3) vs. Los Angeles Kings (6)
It's the first time the Kings have been in the playoffs in nine years, due largely to the play of young stars like goalie Jon Quick, blueliners Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson and forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Wayne Simmonds. The Kings were among the league leaders in most offensive categories but they will square off against a Canucks team which has been also ranked amongst the league's top scoring clubs this season, courtesy of the Sedin twins, particularly Henrik, the 2010 Art Ross trophy winner and Hart Trophy candidate.
Goaltending could prove a decisive factor in this series. While Quick is a playoff novice, Vancouver starter Robert Luongo appeared to struggle down the stretch. If the Kings can get to Luongo they could threaten an upset, but the Canucks' experience should tip this series in their favor.
Prediction: Canucks in six
Phoenix Coyotes (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)
The bankrupt, owner-less Coyotes were the surprise team of the season, setting team records for points and wins in a season, but their Cinderella story could be coming to a quick conclusion against a healthier, skilled, veteran-laden Red Wings team.
Detroit's offensive numbers were down compared to recent seasons -- understandable given injuries to players like Johan Franzan and Valtteri Filppula -- yet they still ranked considerably higher than the Coyotes.
Phoenix was among the league leaders in defense, but so too were the Wings. A goaltending duel between the Coyotes' Ilya Bryzgalov and the Red Wings' Jimmy Howard could prove the deciding factor of this contest.
Coyotes captain Shane Doan recently said his team would be a "tough out" and they'll put up a good fight but ultimately the Wings depth, skill and experience could prove too much to contain.
Prediction: Red Wings in seven