Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)
Season Series: Vancouver: 2-1-1; Los Angeles: 2-2-0
Vancouver, MarchApril: 11-5-1
Los Angeles, MarchApril: 11-4-3
Outlook: Daniel Sedin's concussion casts a question mark on this series, though the Canucks are more than deep enough to handle their star winger's absence and finished 8-1 after Duncan Keith's elbow took him out of the lineup. For the second straight year, Los Angeles faltered in the final weekend to draw a difficult first-round matchup, and the reprise of a series they lost in six games two years ago. Jeff Carter should return from a deep bone bruise in his ankle, and though he wasn't scoring consistently after joining the Kings, he spreads out opposing teams and opens up space for Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, all of whom greatly benefitted from his arrival at the trade deadline. Though not at the level of Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, these teams already have a fairly strong distaste for each other and should provide some compelling hockey, despite the 1-vs.-8 matchup.
X-Factor: Roberto Luongo, Canucks. He needs to shut up his critics early in the postseason and provide the Canucks a goalie-controversy-free playoff run for once. Good luck with that, Lou.Prediction: Canucks in seven.
St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)
Season Series: St. Louis: 4-0-0; San Jose: 0-4-0
St. Louis, MarchApril: 9-5-4
San Jose, MarchApril: 10-7-3
Outlook: St. Louis dominated the season series by outscoring San Jose 11-3, but I smell a potential upset. The young Blues haven't won a playoff game since the lockout and will be gearing up for a series against the battle-worn and tested Sharks, who finally woke up over the season's final two weeks to post seven wins in their last nine games. Matt D'Agostini, Alex Steen and Andy McDonald recently returned to St. Louis' lineup after missing large stretches of the season, and their arrival pushes several grinders and role players deeper down in the lineup, or perhaps even up into the press box. While the skill level has been raised, the terrific forechecking and hardworking dynamic instituted by coach Ken Hitchcock have been affected. We're also wary of teams that relied heavily on goaltending tandems going deep into the playoffs. It had been expected that Jaroslav Halak would start Game 1 of a playoff series, though he's 1-2-1 in his past four games, having allowed 13 goals, while Brian Elliott posted back-to-back-to-back shutouts last month before faltering in his two final starts. The Sharks are 9-4 since Martin Havlat's return from a torn hamstring; the speedy forward has five goals and 12 points in his past 12 games. They'll have benefitted from their pseudo-playoff home-and-home series with L.A.
X-Factor: Alex Pietrangelo, Blues. The skilled young blueliner and candidate to be a Norris Trophy finalist is coming off a 12-goal, 51-point campaign in which he averaged nearly 25 minutes of ice time. Though he's never played in a playoff game, he'll be expected to anchor St. Louis' defense.Prediction: Sharks in six.
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)
Season Series: Phoenix: 3-1-0; Chicago: 1-2-1
Phoenix, MarchApril: 9-6-4
Chicago, MarchApril: 11-2-4
Outlook: Despite injuries to Jonathan Toews, Steve Montador and Dan Carcillo, the Blackhawks still should have enough looks up front, depth on the back end and tenacity to be considered among the legitimate contenders. In addition to their usual suspects, Andrew Shaw has been a revelation since his promotion from the AHL and enters the playoffs with six goals, 13 points and a plus-seven rating in his previous 14 games. As it has been all season, Chicago's liability is its goaltending, though Corey Crawford was 8-1-2 with a .921 save percentage in March and April and is backed by the playoff-tested Ray Emery. Now that Phoenix has won the first division title in franchise history, can the Coyotes survive the first round? They never have advanced to the second round, going 0-3 in Game 7s and 11-28 overall since relocating from Winnipeg in 1996. It will be a major challenge for them to hang around until Ray Whitney's 40th birthday on May 8. His 53 assists matched a career high, while his 77 points tied for the second-highest total of his NHL career.
X-Factor: Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks. Without him in the lineup, the Blackhawks are capable of winning a series; with him they're major Cup contenders. Don't expect much concrete concussion information about him to be shared during the airtight playoffs. Prediction: Blackhawks in seven.
Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)
Season Series: Nashville: 3-3-0; Detroit: 3-3-0
Nashville, MarchApril: 11-6-1
Detroit, MarchApril: 6-9-3
Outlook: Similar to the East's 4 vs. 5 matchup, there's little to confidently distinguish Nashville from Detroit as the favorite in this first-round series; the two teams split their six games in regulation as the Wings outscored the Preds 16-14. Nashville finished stronger, received more consistent goaltending down the stretch, and has home-ice advantage, while Detroit is 55-37 in the playoffs since the lockout and will get all of its key players back from injury when Darren Helm returns early in the series. There is more pressure on the Predators than at any other point in the team's history. Looking to build off their first playoff series victory last season, and with the expiring contracts of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, anything past the present becomes awfully hazy. They deserved better than to draw Detroit in a first-round battle between teams that combined for 206 points.
X-Factor: Alexander Radulov, Predators. The NHL and KHL defector finished with three goals, seven points and a plus-three rating in a seven-game tune-up for his first Stanley Cup playoff action since 2008. Nashville's expectations have been raised since then, and his goal scoring ability will be a major determining factor in how deep the Predators can go.Prediction: You're really making us pick here, eh? Flip a coin. Predators in seven.