8. Colorado vs. 1. San Jose
Season series: Split, 2-2
With a dozen seasons on his NHL résumé, this is where Jumbo Joe Thornton finally makes his bones in the playoffs. We think. Really, why not? He’s 30 now and the Sharks may never have a better opportunity, with three premier forwards: Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley. They should roll over the Avalanche, who kept their hold on the No. 8 spot despite a shaky second half. Biggest question facing the Sharks is goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who looked tired late in the season, especially after getting pulverized by Canada tending the Russian net at Olympus. Colorado won’t put nearly that kind of pressure on him, but he’ll be under fire in Round 2, no matter what the opposition. And we know what Round 2 usually does to the Sharks, if Round 1 doesn’t.
PREDICTION: Sharks in 5.
7. Nashville vs. 2. Chicago
Season series: Nashville, 4-2
It could have been much worse for the Blackhawks, had they ended up facing the surging Red Wings out of the gate. But they’ll have their hands full with the Predators, who quietly amassed 100 points for the third time in franchise history. Nashville is another offensively challenged club that gets by with a strong commitment to defense and great game management by coach-for-life Barry Trotz. Chicago is among a handful of clubs that could win the Cup, something it hasn’t done since 1961. The Hawks have young, prolific forwards, led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the brew seasoned nicely by last summer’s acquisition of Marian Hossa. One huge question: Do they have a Cup winner in either goalie, Antti Niemi or Cristobal Huet?
PREDICTION: Blackhawks in 6.
6. Los Angeles vs. 3. Vancouver
Season series: Los Angeles, 3-1
Might be the best matchup in the first round, although the 10 p.m. start times won’t draw many eyeballs in the East. Both clubs are young, like to trade chances, and have outstanding goalies: Roberto Luongo for the Canucks and ex-UMass Minuteman Jonathan Quick for the Kings. The Canucks finally have a potent offense, led by the Sedin brothers, after years of getting little goal-scoring support from their second and third lines. The Kings have one emerging superstar in top scorer Anze Kopitar and possibly a second in defenseman Drew Doughty, who shows flashes of Bourque-like composure and completeness. Edge to the Canucks because of the slick Sedins and Luongo’s experience. But an upset is hardly out of the question.
PREDICTION: Canucks in 6.
5. Detroit vs. 4. Phoenix
Season series: Split, 2-2
Tremendous job by the Desert Dogs, who survived bankruptcy and posted the first 100-point season in franchise history. Too bad they find themselves staring into the teeth of the Winged Wheels buzzsaw. Not much in the way of high-end scoring among the Phoenix forwards, but they do get some nice pop from the blue line, where ex-Bruin Derek Morris is back on patrol. Desert Dogs aren’t likely to win, but they could, simply because of the MVP season turned in by goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. The Wings, who put together a tremendous post-Olympic rush, are backed by rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard, ex- of UMaine. They also still have the game’s No. 1 back liner in Nicklas Lidstrom. Slow start this year, but Hockeytown is still humming.
PREDICTION: Red Wings in 5.