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NHL playoff preview: Who will hoist Stanley Cup?

EASTERN CONFERENCE

8 NY Islanders (24-17-7) vs. 1 Pittsburgh

Season series: Penguins, 4-1-0

The Brooklyn-bound Islanders are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, although it portends to be a short visit, given the power and might of the Penguins. As if things weren’t looking tough enough for the distant sons of Mike Bossy, the Penguins could have superstar Sidney Crosby back in the lineup at some point in the series after fracturing his jaw on March 30. The Islanders are plucky, led on offense by emerging star John Tavares and linemates Matt Moulson and ex-Bruin Brad Boyes. Their shortcoming is lack of second- and third-line scoring and a defense that thins out quickly beyond a top pairing of Mark Streit and Radek Martinek. Penguins GM Ray Shero performed brilliantly around the trade deadline, acquiring key support players in Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla, and Jussi Jokinen. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Chris Kunitz lead an awesome attack, one that will be almost impossible for the upstart Isles to contain. The only potential vulnerability for the Penguins: goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Unless he’s Mr. Softy, this one ends quickly.

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Prediction: Penguins in four.

7 Ottawa (25-17-6) vs. 2 Montreal (29-14-5)

Season series: Canadiens, 2-1-1

The first time these two have met in the playoffs and this could be a fun ride, with both clubs favoring a quick-transition game that could turn this into an entertaining best-of-seven eastern Canada track meet. No matter what happens, Ottawa’s Paul MacLean has to be the Coach of the Year, based on how he kept the club together despite injuries to key performers Jason Spezza (still sidelined), Norris-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, and top netminder Craig Anderson. With P.K. Subban leading the charge from Montreal’s back end, and Karlsson working his wizardry from deep in Ottawa’s zone, no other series has this kind of puck movement and potential for rink-length rushes. The Habs pulled off an effective rebuild after not qualifying for last year’s playoffs, much to the credit of new GM Marc Bergevin and new coach Michel Therrien. Their new approach led, in part, to key roles for rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. Look for Therrien to try to slow things down a little, especially on the road, perhaps making it all the more vital for the Senators to try to split the first two in Montreal.

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Prediction: Senators in seven.

6 NY Rangers (26-18-4) vs. 3 Washington (27-18-3)

Season series: Rangers, 2-0-1

Ah, what tortures will Rangers coach John Tortorella have in store for Alex Ovechkin, back on top as the game’s No. 1 goal scorer? Torts loves to clog the slot in his own end, ring goalie Henrik Lundqvist with a human force field, and spring out of the zone with deflections and ricochets. The Caps, under rookie coach Adam Oates, prefer more of a freeflow attack, one that needed nearly two months to take hold. Had it not been for Ovechkin’s torrid run over the final 5-6 weeks, the Caps were headed for a DNQ. Instead, they captured the lackluster Southeast Division title, good for the No. 3 seed and home ice over the Broadway Blueshirts. Much like the Caps, the Rangers looked as if they would slip out of the playoff picture as the final month approached, until they cobbled together a late 5-1-0 run that inched them ahead of both the Senators and Islanders in the standings. They’ve got big talent up front in veterans Brad Richards and Rick Nash, but neither of them is the equal of the Caps’ Great Eight.

Prediction: Capitals in six.

5 Toronto (26-17-5) vs. 4 Boston (28-14-6)

Season series: Bruins, 3-0-1

The Bruins interpret their No. 4 seed as a disappointment, a measure of points frittered away, especially in the second half. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs are thrilled to be here at No. 5, their first postseason berth since 2004. Now we see how those two very different psychic energies play out in the first postseason meeting between these two since 1974. It’s the only Original Six matchup in Round One, and somewhat unexpected. Until the Bruins went 0-1-1 over the weekend, it looked like Montreal and Toronto would do the Original Six honors. The bond here, of course, is Phil Kessel, the ex-Bruin forward who forced the trade that ultimately brought Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton to Boston. The Garden crowd again will be belting out, “Thank you, Kessel!’’ hoping he continues to post goose eggs vs. his old homeboys. But there is much more to this Blue-and-White group nowadays. The attack is deeper and coach Randy Carlyle, who won a Cup in Anaheim, is far more astute at matching up combinations. The Bruins need to be less concerned with Kessel than how to shake their own late-season lethargy.

Prediction: Bruins in seven.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

8 Minnesota (26-19-3) vs. 1 Chicago (36-7-5)

Season series: Blackhawks, 2-0-1

The Blackhawks fired out of the gate with a record-setting 21-0-3 start and finished the 48-game season with a mesmerizing .802 winning percentage. They are deep on the attack. Their defensive corps is solid. And the Ray Emery-Corey Crawford goaltending tandem (each with a ridiculous 1.94 goals-against mark) is the best in the league. A club with no faults to find. Meanwhile, the Wild didn’t edge over the DNQ line until the final weekend, the first time they’ve qualified since 2008. They spent huge money last summer on free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and both played vital roles in the franchise’s resurgence. However, as is often the case, large spending also meant an overall talent imbalance, especially when it came to goal scoring. Of the 16 teams to qualify for the postseason, only the Wild finished with fewer goals scored (122) than allowed (127). The little chance they have in this series comes down to 35-year-old Niklas Backstrom allowing no more than two goals a night, and even that might not be enough to keep the Hawks from a sweep.

Prediction: Blackhawks in five.

7 Detroit (24-16-8) vs. 2 Anaheim (30-12-6)

Season series: Red Wings, 2-1-0

For a 22d straight season, the Red Wings are in the playoffs, but they needed a ferocious finishing kick (four straight wins) to avoid ending a tremendous streak that has included four Cups (1997, ’98, ’02 and ’08). For all their frustration in the shortened season, the Wings still have a very impressive attack with the likes of premier forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg (each above a point-per-game this season). The overall Winged Wheel offense is not nearly as robust any longer, but it remains a fine skating unit, still capable of piling up goals if anyone takes them for granted. The Ducks picked up the rhythm coach Bruce Boudreau put in place last season and made it back to the postseason after posting two DNQs in the previous three years. Their prime forwards, including Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan, are much younger than their Detroit counterparts and Boudreau’s love for pushing the puck could make it very difficult for the Wings to contain the attack, especially with Nicklas Lidstrom no longer the icon in residence on the Detroit backline.

Prediction: Red Wings in 7.

6 San Jose (25-16-7) vs. 3 Vancouver (26-15-7)

Season series: Sharks, 3-0-0

The Canucks are working with much the same cast that lost the Stanley Cup Finals to the Bruins in 2011, although ex-BC Eagle Cory Schneider is their No. 1 goalie provided he is back at full strength from a recent (undisclosed) injury. If not, the chores fall again to Roberto Luongo. So keep that tire pump handy. The Canucks these past three seasons have been eliminated by the club that eventually won the Cup. The key to their attack remains the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, and an overall, shall we say, edginess to their style of play. The Sharks typically enter the postseason as Cup favorites, then perennially find ways to go home early or earlier, with ex-Bruin Jumbo Joe Thornton the face of franchise frustration (with Patrick Marleau often in a co-lead role). But this year is different, the Sharks were all but eliminated from postseason contention less than a month ago, prompting GM Doug Wilson to deal away Ryan Clowe (Rangers) and Doug Murray (Pittsburgh). And voila, a strong April (8-5-1) vaulted them into the No. 6 spot and provided them with a new role: potential spoilers.

Prediction: Sharks in 6.

5 Los Angeles (27-16-5) vs. 4 St. Louis (29-17-2)

Season series: Kings, 3-0-0

The Kings are moving up. They slipped into the No. 8 seed last season, won the Cup, then shimmied up to the No. 5 seed this season. Now what, win the Cup in three rounds instead of four? The Blues actually have a decent chance of upending the champs in the opening round, similar to the Caps last spring sending the Bruins home after seven games. The Blues can’t match LA’ s high-octane forwards — led by stalwarts Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Dustin Brown — but they get the job done with a vast array of dependable size 42 regulars. Five of their forwards, including Chris Stewart (36 points), finished the season with 25 points or more. Not the most artistic bunch Ken Hitchcock has worked with over the years, but the big maestro always finds ways to wring dependable production out of his crew. The addition of ex-Flames back liner Jay Bouwmeester at the trade deadline also helped. The Kings are essentially the same bunch that won the Cup, backed by former UMass goalie Jonathan Quick. If they do it again, they’ll be the first repeat Cup winners since the Wings in 1997 and ’98.

Prediction: Kings in six.

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