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Posted: Wednesday April 11, 2012 5:33PM ; Updated: Thursday April 12, 2012 12:31PM
NHL Playoffs Preview & Predictions
SI.com's NHL writers Darren Eliot, Adrian Dater, Michael Farber, Sarah Kwak, Brian Cazeneuve and Allan Muir share their postseason predictions. Click here for why our blogger Stu Hackel believes that trying to forecast anything at this fundamentally wild time of year is akin to a fool's errand.
 
First Round Matchups
 
EASTERN CONFERENCE
 
1 New York Rangers
8 Ottawa Senators
KWAK: Sens' attack will put Rangers to the test
WESTERN CONFERENCE
 
1 Vancouver Canucks
8 Los Angeles Kings
DATER: Quick LA's best hope for upset
 
2 Boston Bruins
7 Washington Capitals
MUIR: Pressure's off Caps vs. Cup champs
 
2 St. Louis Blues
7 San Jose Sharks
DATER: Blues a likely swan song for Sharks
 
3 Florida Panthers
6 New Jersey Devils
CAZENEUVE: Devils' stingy D will deny Cats
 
3 Phoenix Coyotes
6 Chicago Blackhawks
MUIR: Feisty Yotes a threat to steal series
 
4 Pittsburgh Penguins
5 Philadelphia Flyers
CAZENEUVE: Olde Tyme Hockey on tap
 
4 Nashville Predators
5 Detroit Red Wings
ELIOT: Predators will take big step forward
 
Eastern Conference Champion
 
ELIOT
They're healthy and playoff-ready from outset, having to face rival Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Penguins are too deep, disciplined and talented not to make a run at the Cup.
DATER
The Predators have the league's best defensive duo, but the Penguins have the dynamic duo. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are simply too much to handle right now, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has quietly been excellent for most of the year.
FARBER
Since when did Sidney Crosby turn into Darth Vader? The NHL likes to devour it's own, doesn't it? In any case, the Penguins have been averaging 4.5 goals per game since Crosby returned to the lineup after his latest concussion. A Pittsburgh goal-apalooza should be enough to negotiate a tortuous path to through the conference, starting with the Flyers.
KWAK
The Penguins have considerable depth in skill and postseason experience that should carry them through the Eastern Conference.
CAZENEUVE
The Pens like to dash and go, and as they did in their early Cup-winning years in the '90s, they may have to get through a tough round or two before making a serious run. Eastern foes can and must be physical against them to knock them out early.
MUIR
It's no sure thing that they'll survive what should be a thrillingly nasty first round tilt with the Flyers, and they'll have to battle through some big, physical defenses along the way, but Pittsburgh's unmatchable depth down the middle and experience between the pipes should be difference-makers.
2012 NHL Playoffs Preview
Source: SI
Analyst Mike Keenan reveals his picks for the most dangerous sleeper teams.
 
Western Conference Champion
 
ELIOT
The Canucks keep inching closer to hoisting the Cup, incrementally building on their previous season. They learned last year to not allow an opponent back into a series ? hard-earned knowledge that serves them well this postseason. .
DATER
They're big, they're talented, they're hungry, they've got the best defense tandem in the league, and they've got a goalie good enough to go the distance. Nashville is a fun town to visit as it is. This spring, it's going to be wild.
FARBER
The Canucks are older, wiser and maybe a tad tougher. While the focus will be on winger Daniel Sedin's brain (concussion) and goalie Roberto Luongo's head (psyche), the player to watch is center Ryan Kesler, a playoff beast in 2011 until he injured his knee. If Kesler shakes the doldrums, Vancouver will be awash in second-line scoring.
KWAK
As the window closes on their core group's chances to win the Stanley Cup, a growing sense of urgency should help them take advantage of the wide-open Western Conference.
CAZENEUVE
After a hangover from their draining 2010-11 season and seventh-game Cup final loss to the Bruins, Vancouver showed some guts by not only rallying back into Cup contention, but winning another Presidents' Trophy. If both Sedins are healthy and either Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider gets on a roll in net, the Canucks could be playing in June again.
MUIR
I hate making the safe pick here, but I can't ignore the obvious. Last year, the Canucks seemed cocky, entitled. This year's group feels different. They learned from their Cup final experience and they're coming in humble, determined and hungry. Expect Cory Schneider to make a key contribution at some point.
2012 NHL Playoffs Preview
Source: SI
Analyst Mike Keenan looks into his crystal ball and picks his two Stanley Cup finalists.
 
Stanley Cup Champion
 
ELIOT
They are just a bit better at every position, which, in the end means that the Canucks are the runner-up once again.
DATER
Sidney Crosby is just getting his legs back. He's fresh. And he knows how to win.
FARBER
The high-end talent is exceptional, the depth is noteworthy and Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending is consistently high. As Rangers GM Glen Sather noted, the Penguins should be the favorite. And as Penguins GM Ray Shero riposted to SI.com, the best team, best coach, best player or best goalie doesn't always win the Cup. .
KWAK
Injuries always play a part in the postseason, so if there's a team that knows exactly how to deal with them, it's the Penguins. That makes them most likely to outlast the rest of the rest of the field.
CAZENEUVE
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on different lines that aren't even the first unit? Seriously? The benefit in having Crosby out for much of this season, and both him and Malkin out for much of the 2010-11 campaign, is that the Pens don't need to rely on one source to win. Over the 60-day rigors of the playoffs, they may have to call on several of their guns.
MUIR
No team has hosted the NHL Entry Draft immediately after winning the Cup since Montreal turned the double play back in 1986. Pens fans can look forward to cheering the 30th overall pick after their team takes Game 7 in Vancouver. Is it too much to ask for Sid to score the overtime winner again, this time against Luongo?
 
Surprise Team
 
ELIOT
They'll outgrind the Blues and battle harder than we've seen while upsetting St. Louis in the first round. Then they'll give the Canucks all they can handle while losing in six games.
DATER
They'll be a surprise in the sense that they at least win a playoff round -- for the first time as a franchise since 1987. They're starting with a Chicago team that might be without Jonathan Toews, but the Coyotes will find a way to win this one anyway.
FARBER
OK, choosing a No. 4 is not exactly like finding a bottle of Chivas in a cesspool, but the Predators are all in for 2012 and could make a terrific run, assuming they get by venerable Detroit. With the repatriated Alexander Radulov, Nashville should not be an offensive basket case. But in recent weeks, the forwards have become a little too loose defensively for coach Barry Trotz's liking.
KWAK
Coming into the playoffs on a winning streak, relatively healthy and drawing a favorable first-round opponent, the Devils could take advantage of more banged-up teams and make a surprise run.
CAZENEUVE
This was one of the best teams of the last few regular seasons. This time, expectations are low. But Washington may have found goaltending wisdom by default, thanks to Braden Holtby. The goalie of the future may be the goalie who is too new to be spooked by the team's playoff flameouts of the past.
MUIR
They nearly pulled the chute before landng their historic playoff berth, but now that they're in, I'm betting the pressure is off in Florida. Their roster boasts plenty of postseason experience, and they are used to playing tight games. The high-scoring defense, led by Brian Campbell and Jason Garrison, will make the difference in a first round upset.
 
Flop Team
 
ELIOT
"Flop" is too harsh, but their unexpected regular season run will be followed by an equally unexpected first round exit at the hands of the Sharks.
DATER
The older bodies that dot Detroit's roster look tired and banged up again at this time of year. After leading their division much of the season, the Wings flopped down the stretch and don't even have home-ice advantage for the first round. Their road record of 17-21-3 is the only one under .500 among the eight Western playoff teams.
FARBER
The Blackhawks have figured out how to win without captain Jonathan Toews, who might (or might not) be back in the NHL's concussion lottery -- a factor that will determine the Cup winner as much as power plays and face-offs. Corey Crawford is the goalie of the future. Will he be the goalie of the present?
KWAK
Over a seven-game series, solid offensive teams may be able to poke holes in the Blues' defense.
CAZENEUVE
For all the fanfare about this team that will likely be good for a while, it is still unproven as a playoff winner. Even its first match-up against San Jose, a team that usually wins one or two rounds, could be a problem for a squad that needs a lead to build confidence in big games.
MUIR
No one ever got rich betting against the Wings, but I think the odds are stacked against them getting out of the first round this time. They can't match the size and strength of the new-look Predators and they'll quickly be pounded into submission.
 
Unlikely Hero
 
Logan Couture :: Andy Mead/Icon SMI
ELIOT
David Booth, left wing, Canucks: His speed and versatility provide a "Boothst" throughout the playoffs, giving the Canucks inspired play in a multitude of situations.

DATER
Mike Fisher, center, Predators: Being a well-paid top player (and married to Carrie Underwood) makes it, perhaps, strange to say he's unsung in anything, but on a team where Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne get the majority of headlines in a small market, Fisher kind of quietly goes about his business, and he does it well.

FARBER
Jordan Staal, center, Penguins: You never really know, do you? In 2009, it was the unlikely Penguins shutdown pair of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. In 2010, it was the Flyers' Ville Leino. Last year, it was President Obama's favorite pot stirrer, Boston rookie Brad Marchand. Staal is the most effective No. 3 center since Bobby Holik. His impact will be felt on both ends of the ice.

KWAK
Logan Couture, center, Sharks: The 23-year-old is part of the future of the Sharks, but he may not be as heralded as the bigger names. He did, however, distinguish himself by being picked last at this season's All-Star Game....

CAZENEUVE
Cory Schneider, goaltender, Canucks: Compare numbers a bit. goals-against average: Schneider 1.96 vs. Luongo 2.41; ave percentage: Schneider .937 vs. Luongo .919. If the Canucks are to make another run this spring, Schneider may need to bail them out and probably can.

MUIR
Zack Kassian, right wing, Canucks: Might be a tinge of my hometown bias at work, but it says here that Kassian delivers early on his immense promise. Some timely physicality will go a long way toward elevating his profile, but it'll be his surprisingly deft touch around the net that seals the deal.
 
Conn Smythe Winner
 
Sidney Crosby :: Gene J. Puskar/AP
ELIOT
Ryan Kesler, center, Canucks: Even though his Canucks will fall to the Penguins, his will and production are too prodigious to ignore. He'll win some hardware, but not what he'd hoped for.

DATER
Evgeni Malkin, center, Penguins: He's been the Alpha Penguin all season. No reason to stop now.

FARBER
Sidney Crosby, center, Penguins: If this is the second Stanley Cup in the Crosby Era, the Concussion Kid -- thanks, Mike Milbury! -- will be the engine powering this machine. The presumptive Hart Trophy-winner (and past Smythe recipient) Evgeni Malkin will be riding shotgun.

KWAK
Sidney Crosby, center, Penguins: His lost season will be redeemed as the superstar center keeps up his point-per-game pace through the rough postseason.

CAZENEUVE
Sidney Crosby, center, Penguins: If he stays healthy throughout the tournament, he'll produce at big moments and lead the Penguins while reminding his critics why he's the league's marquee star.

MUIR
Sidney Crosby, center, Penguins: I've seen more than enough to know that if there's one player I want on my team in a big game, it's Sid. If he stays healthy -- a big if, I know -- he'll be the key to Pittsburgh grabbing that brass ring...or in this case, that silver mug.
 

 
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