No. 7 Philadelphia Flyers (41-35-6) v. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens (39-33-10)
2009-10 series: 2-2 (no extra-time wins)
Breakdown: This is the strangest year ever in the East playoffs - and it is not just because of the Canadiens. Sure, they knocked off the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Flyers had their moments in upsetting the New Jersey Devils and then pulling off one of the all-time comebacks against the Boston Bruins. For the first time, the two bottom seeds will contest a conference title and, for the first time this spring, the Habs are going against an opponent that is their equal if you take the regular season into the equation. Since nothing about this postseason has been logical, maybe this is the time the Canadiens finally fall. Maybe Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak will run out of miracles. However, that is unlikely. Halak is on a hot streak because his defence is playing tight and smart in front of him. And maybe Montreal's best defenceman, Andrei Markov (knee), will make it back in the lineup at some point in the series. The Flyers made it this far because of defenceman Chris Pronger and because two heretofore unheralded goaltenders - Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton - played way above their heads. The Flyers have a solid attack with the likes of Mike Richards and Daniel Brière - but they are unlikely to scare Halak. With the Habs boasting Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec, they at least match the Flyers.
Pick Habs in seven games
No. 1 San Jose Sharks (51-20-11) v. No. 2 Chicago Blackhawks (52-22-8)
2009-10 series: Chicago 3-1 (two wins in overtime)
Breakdown: Unlike the rambunctious East, the West unfolded mostly according to the seedings, with the two top regular-season teams left standing. This represents a redemption of sorts for the Sharks, their first conference final appearance in six years and a breakthrough for centre Joe Thornton, who had the best series of his playoff life against the Detroit Red Wings, with points in every game and goals in three of the past four. His teammate on Canada's 2010 Olympic team, Chicago forward Jonathan Toews, is even hotter, entering the conference final on a nine-game scoring streak (an eye-popping 19 points in the span). Nine of the players in the series played in February's gold-medal Olympic final, including most of the key contributors on Canada's defence (Dan Boyle, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook). Russia's underwhelming Olympic goalie Evgeni Nabokov has had a solid postseason for the Sharks, as has his Blackhawks counterpart, Antti Niemi. Neither has been Halak-ian; but both have been good enough. Chicago held a 17-11 edge in goals in regular-season play, thanks to one blowout win; the other games were close. In a series between two closely balanced teams, the Blackhawks' one possible edge is their net-front presence, which drove the Vancouver Canucks to distraction. Usually by conference final time, the team that gets off to an early lead prevails. If Chicago can steal one early on the road, they should move on.
PICK: Chicago in six games
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