8. Chicago (97 points) vs. 1. Vancouver (117 points)
Season series: Split, 2-2
After losing to the Wings Sunday afternoon, the Hawks picked off the No. 8 seed thanks to the Wild beating the Stars later in the day. Otherwise, the defending Cup champs were finished. But all they’ve won is a delayed execution. The Canucks, led to their first ever President’s Trophy by the high-flying Sedin twins (Daniel, Henrik), don’t have the edge in overall roster pedigree when compared to the flashier champs. However, they have been the vastly better team this season, start to finish, and they have a decided edge in net with Robert Luongo, who’ll be opposed by postseason newbie Corey Crawford. The Hawks are banking on Crawford, who took the No. 1 job from veteran Marty Turco just after the All-Star break, to be this year’s Antti Niemi. To win a Cup with a first-year ’tender is an amazing feat. To count on doing it two years in a row? Counterintuitive. Didn’t we think those days were over for the sons of Bill Wirtz?
PREDICTION: Canucks in five. 7. Los Angeles (98 points) vs. 2. San Jose (105 points)
Season series: Split, 3-3
This should have a been a California dream series, had the Kings not lost key forwards Anze Kopitar (ankle) and Justin Williams (shoulder), although Williams has been practicing while wearing a harness and will make the final call on playing tomorrow night. Without those two, the Kings will have to dumb it down, play a grinding, defense-based game, and keep to a minimum the times they allow the Sharks to roll out their big guns on the power play (tied for second overall at 23.5 percent). Old friend Joe Thornton and the Sharks’ other prime scorers, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, had 207 points this season. The Sharks, now five straight years with 100-plus points, always impress during the regular season, then fade as the grind extends. Antti Niemi, dismissed by the Hawks after winning Cup, proved himself a worthy No. 1 in teal and earned a four-year contract extension. LA goalie Jonathan Quick, ex- of UMass, is a worthy opponent, but he won’t escape this round unless he’s allowed to front a smaller net.
PREDICTION: Sharks in 5. 6. Phoenix (99 points) vs. 3. Detroit (104 points)
Season series: Split, 2-2
A second straight visit to the postseason by the Coyotes, who continue to play with pluck and purpose, all the while not knowing if the franchise will remain viable once the trunks are packed after the postseason (stop that salivating, Winnipeg). The key to the Desert Dogs’ success is a disciplined, hard-working game plan (kudos to coach Dave Tippett), a varied (though popgun) offense, and the netminding of ex-Duck Ilya Bryzgalov — the main reason the franchise has averaged 103 points the last two seasons. The Wings remain among the game’s elite (11 straight regular seasons of 100-plus points) and easily could make it back to the Cup final for a third time in four seasons. If only all of Detroit had the Winged Wheels’ persistence and consistency. The show is still led by the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg (out for Game 1), and Pavel Datsyuk and a very deep, rich supporting cast. The formula doesn’t change. The faces remain the same. And all they do is win, to the tune of 46-29 in the past four playoff seasons.
PREDICTION: Wings in six. 5. Nashville (99 points) vs.4. Anaheim (99 points)
Season series: Nashville, 3-1
Slovakia now has given the NHL its top shutdown defenseman (Zdeno Chara) and its top point-getting back liner, Anaheim’s Lubomir Visnovsky, who piled up 18 goals and 68 points to lead all defensemen this season. But the Ducks’ true wrecking crew is the top line of Ryan Getzlaf between Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. Perry had a sensational second half, enabling him to win this season’s Rocket Richard Trophy with 50 goals. No way can the pesky Predators match the Ducks’ firepower, not with ex-Hab Sergei Kostitsyn topping Nashville charts with a rather pedestrian 23 goals. The low-budget Preds never have gotten beyond the first round of the postsesaon, and they won’t again this year, unless all-world goalie Pekka Rinne plays Ken Dryden to Anaheim’s ’71 Bruins. Rinne certainly can keep the potent Ducks offense at bay, but there is so little firepower in that Nashville batting order that even perfect netminding might not be enough. Full throttle vs. chokehold. Bet on the throttle.
PREDICTION: Ducks in five.