Tampa Bay (1) vs. NY Islanders (8) Lightning (46-22-8-6, 106 pts); Islanders (38-29-11-4; 91 pts) Season Series: 3-1-0 New York
The Tampa Bay Lightning, Stanley Cup contenders? Two years ago most people would have laughed at the thought but here they are, in the playoffs consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history and a big-time favourite at that. As the Eastern Conference leaders a lot will be expected of Martin St. Louis and company.
Keys for Tampa Bay: Why has Tampa Bay done so well this season? For starters, they score a lot. 245 goals ranked third in the league. They also boast the league's leading scorer in St. Louis. Cory Stillman and Brad Richards also put up big numbers. If goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin gets hot he can steal a series by himself, too. Consistency may be a problem for this team, though. To be successful they need to pick a goaltender—Khabibulin or Grahame—and stick with him.
Keys for New York: The Lightning have five players who finished with more points than New York's leading scorer Oleg Kvasha (51). However, don't underestimate the Islanders' attack as the team finished with only eight less goals than the Lightning. The difference maker in the series may be Rick DiPietro, who had an outstanding playoff run with Bridgeport two seasons ago when he carried them to the finals and may be poised for his NHL coming out party.
Prediction: The Islanders owned the Lightning in the regular season, taking three of four. The biggest reason seemed to be the Isles' ability to shut Tampa's big guns down, with the Lightning only scoring three times in their three losses. Islanders in 7.
Boston (2) vs. Montreal (7) Bruins (41-19-5-7; 104 pts); Canadiens (41-30-7-4; 93 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Boston
Few playoff series evoke the feeling of tradition like a Montreal/Boston match-up. When these two teams get together you can always count on a great battle no matter how close or far apart they are from each other in the standings.
Keys for Boston: Talk about being thrown into the fire. Andrew Raycroft had a great rookie season for the Bruins this year, with a 2.05 GAA and .926 save percentage but he's about to find out there's a whole different pressure playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Samsonov and Thornton both need to stay healthy and contribute key goals in what will be a low-scoring series.
Keys for Montreal: Jose Theodore had a strong playoff run two seasons ago and much of the same will be requested of him this time around. The offensive attack is led by youngsters Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder. Ryder has extensive playoff experience in the AHL, playing a big part in the Hamilton Bulldogs' run to the finals last season with 11 goals in 21 games. Sheldon Souray has to be healthy for Montreal to go deep.
Prediction: Four of the six regular season games between these two teams went into overtime. Look for more of the same in the postseason. In the end, it will be Jose Theodore who makes the difference in these close games. Canadiens in 6.
Philadelphia (3) vs. New Jersey (6) Flyers (40-21-15-6; 101 pts); Devils (43-25-12-2; 100 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Philadelphia
In past seasons, finishing sixth in the conference meant an easier ride in the first round. Not this season, as the New Jersey Devils go up against the Philadelphia Flyers in a series that could wear the victor down for its next opponent.
Keys for Philadelphia: Philadelphia needs to overcome the ghosts of its recent playoff past. Strong goaltending would go a long way in improving the confidence of the team. Robert Esche has a lot to live up to if he's indeed the guy Philadelphia looks at to carry the load.
Keys for New Jersey: Martin Brodeur and team defence are the key for New Jersey as usual. They allowed 11 fewer goals than the next-closest team (Dallas). There's no secret where the Devils' offence comes from. There's Patrik Elias (81 points), Scott Gomez (70 points), Scott Niedermayer (54 points) and then there's everybody else (37 points or less).
Prediction: Flyers have won each of the last three meetings between these two clubs but the playoffs are a whole different season. When Robert Esche looks down the ice and sees Brodeur he'll realize he's outmatched in a hurry. Devils in 5.
Toronto (4) vs. Ottawa (5) Maple Leafs (45-24-10-3; 103 pts); Senators (43-23-10-6; 102 pts) Season Series: 4-1-1 Toronto
Nobody was cheering harder for the New Jersey Devils to defeat the Boston Bruins on the last day of the season than Ottawa Senators fans. The last things the Sens wanted was another match-up with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Keys for Toronto: Ed Belfour is the biggest key for the Leafs but make no mistake about it, this is a different Maple Leafs team than years past. Brian Leetch really solidifies the team's back end and Joe Nieuwendyk brings three Cups to the dressing room. If this team stays healthy they could go a long way.
Keys for Ottawa: The Sens need to get over their Leaf playoff jinx. For that to happen, the biggest key for the team is to win that first game. With 262 goals for and only 189 against the rest should take care of itself. Goaltending and Patrick Lalime is not an issue for this team either, if healthy. Lalime carried Ottawa to within a game of the Cup Finals last year.
Prediction: Toronto has what very few other teams have this playoff season—experience in goal. If Belfour stays healthy he'll be the difference in tight games. Look for more than a few games in this series to go multiple overtimes. Leafs in 7.
Detroit (1) vs. Nashville (8) Red Wings (48-21-11-2, 109 pts); Predators (38-29-11-4; 91 pts) Season Series: 3-3-0
For the first time ever, playoff hockey invades Nashville, Tennessee. Unfortunately for the Predators and their fans, the team staring back at them is the juggernaut Detroit Red Wings.
Keys for Detroit: This is one solid hockey team. Consider that throughout all the turmoil they went through in the regular season, they still cruised to a President's Trophy. Considering what happened last year, they'll also be hungry to go deep into the playoffs. The only weakness could be in goal where Manny Legace may be called upon while Joseph recovers from injury but Legace has had a good season and won't be tested often in this series.
Keys for Nashville: Tomas Vokoun needs to be better than phenomenal for the Preds to have a chance. Essentially, he needs to be Giguere-like (i.e. make 60 to 80 saves over six or seven periods before your time finally scores one to win 1-0). Other than that, their power play needs to be solid—in particular, Steve Sullivan and Scott Walker.
Prediction: Detroit in a way gets their revenge on last season's quick exit. Nashville likes the run-and-gun style but how will that translate into playoff success? Red Wings in 4.
San Jose (2) vs. St. Louis (7) Sharks (43-21-12-6; 104 pts); Blues (39-30-11-2; 91 pts) Season Series: 2-2-0
This is an intriguing first-round match-up between the underachieving Blues and the overachieving Sharks. The Blues were able to put it together down the stretch to avoid missing the playoffs but can they advance past the first round?
Keys for San Jose: San Jose kicks off the playoffs with a Minnesota-style goaltending tandem in Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala. Nabokov will be the go-to guy at the start but Ron Wilson won't hesitate to shake things up. Patrick Marleau and former Flames farmhand Nils Ekman pace the attack up front but Ekman is unproven in the postseason. Marleau has shown he can step it up in the playoffs with his performance of 11 points in 12 games back in 2002.
Keys for St. Louis: Playoff success for St. Louis begins and ends with Chris Pronger. Chris Osgood also needs to play above his capabilities for the Blues to have a chance at advancing. Tkachuk, Weight and Demitra are going to have to fight through the Sharks defence to create scoring opportunities.
Prediction: In the playoffs, defence is key and the Sharks play very well defensively as a team in addition to getting great goaltending. Scoring may be a problem for St. Louis, which managed only 191 goals this year despite a multitude of talent. Sharks in 7.
Vancouver (3) vs. Calgary (6) Canucks (43-24-10-5; 101 pts); Flames (42-30-7-3; 94 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Vancouver
After seven long years out of the playoffs, the Calgary Flames finally make their return to the postseason dance. Vancouver comes into the playoffs on a roll unlike last year, but without Todd Bertuzzi.
Keys for Vancouver: Dan Cloutier needs to overcome his playoff demons. He managed to stave them off for most of the playoffs last season but after gaining a 3-1 lead on Minnesota in the second round, he and the Canucks again faltered. The health of Markus Naslund may also be a concern. He was very good last year, with 14 points in 14 games. If the Sedins pull another disappearing act, Vancouver's going to have to rely on playoff warriors such as Mike Keane and Trevor Linden.
Keys for Calgary: All season long the Flames have been a remarkably consistent bunch. Their highs haven't been too high and their lows haven't been too low. Miikka Kiprusoff needs to limit Vancouver to one or two goals per game (preferably one) and Jarome Iginla needs to come up with timely goals. The Flames also need secondary scoring from the likes of Donovan, Nilson, Nieminen, Conroy, Gelinas, Simon and others. Calgary seemed to have trouble scoring goals down the stretch although they still had success due to Kiprusoff's outstanding netminding.
Prediction: Does anyone remember the game between these two teams on December 26? The Flames played a technically perfect game but ended up blanked by the Canucks 2-0. This entire series will likely mirror that game. The Flames will play well and with a lot of heart but can they score enough? Vancouver in 6.
Colorado (4) vs. Dallas (5) Avalanche (40-22-13-7; 100 pts); Stars (41-26-13-2; 97 pts) Season Series: 3-1-0 Colorado
Colorado versus Dallas in the first round. Most years when these two teams get together in the playoffs the victor is awarded the Clarence Campbell Trophy before moving on to the Stanley Cup Finals. This season both clubs are looking to bounce back from disappointing playoff runs in 2003.
Keys for Colorado: For the first time in its franchise playoff history, the Colorado Avalanche won't be able to look towards their end and see Patrick Roy in goal. Can Aebischer be the man? He has two games of NHL playoff experience under his belt but will be thrown into the fire early on. With the addition of Kariya and Selanne, the Avs thought this would be the year they could spread out the scoring a bit but now with Kariya hurt and Selanne ineffective, it'll be up to Forsberg, Sakic and Hejduk to carry the load. If Tanguay's close to 100% he'll help the Avs' offence as well.
Keys for Dallas: Marty Turco is looking to redeem himself after last season's shaky Stanley Cup Playoff debut. It goes without saying that the Mike Modano of old needs to show up for the Stars to have a chance. They also need to learn to win on the road, especially with Colorado's terrific 21-8-7-5 road record.
Prediction: Not finishing fourth and gaining home ice advantage in the first round could prove a fatal blow for Dallas (26-7-8 at American Airlines Arena this season). Not to mention, it'll probably take them a few games before they realize they're not playing Edmonton in the playoffs for once. Avalanche in 5.