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Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, right, of Russia, cools down on the bench with coach Bruce Boudreau, left rear, and teammate Mike Knuble during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, April 6, 2010. The Capitals won 6-3. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) (Gene J. Puskar)
Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, right, of Russia, cools down on the bench with coach Bruce Boudreau, left rear, and teammate Mike Knuble during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, April 6, 2010. The Capitals won 6-3. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) (Gene J. Puskar)

The Hockey Heat is On

NHL Playoffs ready to begin Add to ...

Washington Capitals (No. 1 seed) v. Montreal Canadiens (No. 8)

This series will last a game or two longer than it should because the Capitals' goaltending, in the hands of Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamov, is not up to scratch. While the Canadiens looked to be an upset special a month ago thanks to their goaltending, Jan Halak reverted to ordinary for the last couple of games of the season. Not a good thing when you're facing Alexander Ovechkin and company.

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Pick: Capitals in six.

New Jersey Devils (No. 2) v. Philadelphia Flyers (No. 7)

Speaking of goaltending, it's been a tradition for the Flyers to slap a little mud and straw on this position and hope it holds. So now they find themselves facing the Devils and superstar goalie Martin Brodeur with Brian Boucher, a so-so veteran. Gentlemen, book your tee times.

Pick: Devils in five.

Buffalo Sabres (No. 3) v. Boston Bruins (No. 6)

The Bruins have a terrific penalty-killing unit (three short-handed goals in 64 seconds last week), a solid defence and a good goaltending tandem in Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas . The problem? They can't score goals, their best playmaker, Marc Savard, is still out with a concussion, and they have to play the league's best goalie this season, Ryan Miller.

Pick: Sabres in five.

Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 4) v. Ottawa Senators (No. 5)

The Senators, who quietly had a good season, do not have the goaltending to pull off an upset of the defending Stanley Cup champs. Also, Evgeni Malkin is healthy again, so he and Sidney Crosby give the Pens the best one-two punch in the league at centre. Look up the word beleaguered and you'll find a picture of the Sens' defence.

Pick: Penguins in five.

- David Shoalts

WESTERN CONFERENCE

San Jose (No. 1 seed) v. Colorado (No. 8).

Notorious for underachieving at playoff time, and victimized by an eighth seed last year, the Sharks will still go in as heavy favourites against the upstart Avs, if only because they brought in a pure sniper in Dany Heatley and remade the supporting cast to get tougher. San Jose is vulnerable to teams that like to rough them up, but Colorado isn't that, making this a desirable match-up for the Sharks. The Avs rely heavily on a group of first- and second-year pros, of the sort that can run out of gas at this time of year. San Jose will eventually face some hard questions in these playoffs, but they are unlikely to come in the opening round.

Pick: San Jose (in five).

Chicago (No. 2) v. Nashville (No. 7)

In a 12-month span, the Blackhawks went from everybody's favourite feel-good story to legitimate Stanley Cup contender, even with its question marks in goal, where the match-up between two young Finns - Antti Niemi and Pekka Rinne will be one of the more interesting back stories. History tells us that emerging young teams sometimes stumble at this stage in their development. Chicago's best chance of avoiding that lies in its depth up front, beyond Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Marian Hossa, who backed the wrong horse in consecutive years (by being on the losing end of finals with first Pittsburgh, then Detroit) gets to show that the third time maybe can be a charm.

Pick: Chicago in five.

Vancouver (No. 3) v. Los Angeles (No. 6)

Curiously, what has been a Canucks' strength ever since Roberto Luongo arrived from Florida - goaltending - is now one of the few question marks, given that Luongo had only a so-so post-Olympic performance and looked rattled a number of times down the stretch. Thankfully for Vancouver, the team is deeper than it has ever been elsewhere; and if the Sedin twins can duplicate their regular-season magic, then the Canucks may need just solid, not spectacular, work between the pipes. Injuries have whittled away Vancouver's depth on defence, but getting Christian Ehrhoff (and his team-leading 22:47 of nightly ice time) back for the regular-season finale vs. Calgary was pivotal. Canucks' fans, who cheered so hard for the Kings' Drew Doughty in the Olympics, will find many good reasons to jeer him now.

Pick: Vancouver (in six).

Phoenix (No. 4) v. Detroit (No. 5)

Phoenix wasn't even supposed to have an NHL team this year, let alone an NHL playoff team, and now all that's left for this overachieving band of hockey-playing vagabonds is to exorcise that 23-year span in which the franchise hasn't won a playoff round (1987 vs. Calgary in Winnipeg days, in case you're counting). It won't be easy though - Detroit has lost only three times since the Olympic break and rookie Jimmy Howard is 15-0-2 in his last 17 decisions. Nothing about Phoenix's personnel would suggest that they belong in the league's elite, except their collective and overall persistence and a keen understanding on how to play the game in all three zones. Except for Shane Doan, the Coyotes' leading men were all unwanted elsewhere (Lee Stempniak, Matt Lombardi, Wojtek Wolski, Adrian Aucoin). That last laugh reverberating around Jobing.com Arena must surely be sweet.

Pick: Phoenix (in seven).

Eric Duhatschek

Follow us on Twitter: @eduhatschek, @dshoalts

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