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Stanley Cup playoffs: First-round matchups

If point totals at season’s end prove anything, then the path to the Stanley Cup will go through San Jose for the Western Conference playoffs and through the nation’s capital for the Eastern Conference.

The San Jose Sharks finished with 113 points and have three formidable scorers, Joe Thornton (69 assists), Patrick Marleau (44 goals) and Dany Heatley (39 goals). But the Chicago Blackhawks are hungry and finished only one point behind the Sharks, who have a penchant for collapsing this time of year.

The Kings finished strong too. But if they want to make it to the second round, they will need to bring the same energy they had when they last faced the Vancouver Canucks two weeks ago, when they won going away, 8-3, and the same energy they had in the third period Sunday against the Colorado Avalanche.

The picture is a little clearer in the East, where Alex Ovechkin, perhaps the most dynamic player in the league, has fueled the Washington Capitals. They finished with 121 points, a franchise record. And Ovechkin and his teammates may well hoist the Cup come June. Here is a series-by-series breakdown by NHL columnist Helene Elliott and her picks.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 San Jose vs. No. 8 Colorado

The Sharks finished strong, while the Avalanche did not. The Sharks, although notorious playoff flops the last few seasons, definitely have the edge.

Records: Sharks 51-20-11, Avalanche 43-30-9.

Power play: Sharks 21.0% (fourth), Avalanche 18.1%(15th).

Penalty killing: Sharks 85.0% (fifth), Avalanche 80.2% (21st).

Leading scorers: Sharks: Joe Thornton 20-69--89. Avalanche: Paul Stastny 20-59--79.

Outlook: The Sharks had some flat stretches but finished with eight wins in their last 10 games. Patrick Marleau (44-39--83) and Dany Heatley (39-43--82) combine with Thornton to form a formidable first line, and Joe Pavelski (25-26--51) has come into his own. The Avalanche won only three of its last 10 games, battered by injuries to rookie sensation Matt Duchene (torso) and Peter Mueller (concussion). They’re questionable for Wednesday’s opener. Even the Sharks, notorious playoff flops the last few seasons, can’t blow this.

Pick: San Jose in five.

SCHEDULE
Wednesday at San Jose, 7:30 p.m.
Friday at San Jose, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday at Colorado, 6:30 p.m.
April 20: at Colorado, 7 p.m.
April 22: at San Jose, 7:30 p.m.-x
April 24 at Colorado, TBD-x
April 26: at San Jose, TBD-x
x-if necessary; all times Pacific

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No. 2 Chicago vs. No. 7 Nashville

The Blackhawks had a great regular season and lost the No. 1 seeding on the final day. The Predators are plucky and fast.

Records: Blackhawks 52-22-8, Predators 47-29-6.

Power play: Blackhawks 17.7% (16th), Predators 16.4% (24th).

Penalty killing: Blackhawks 86.3% (fourth), Predators 77.1% (28th).

Leading scorers: Blackhawks: Patrick Kane 30-58--88. Predators: Steve Sullivan 17-34--51.

Outlook: The Blackhawks had a superb season, earning a franchise-record 112 points but losing the No. 1 seeding on the final day of the season. That won’t matter for a while. They’re fast and deep and their defense is as mobile as any, even though Norris Trophy candidate Duncan Keith had a post-Olympic letdown. However, they’re going with Antti Niemi in goal, and he has never played an NHL playoff game. Gulp. The Predators are plucky and fast and if Keith doesn’t win the Norris, Shea Weber should. But they gave up as many goals as they scored (225), the worst differential in the West. The Blackhawks are just too deep.

Pick: Chicago in six.

SCHEDULE
Friday at Chicago, 5:30 p.m.
Sunday at Chicago, 5:30 p.m.
April 20 at Nashville, 6 p.m.
April 22 at Nashville, 5:30 p.m.
April 24 at Chicago, noon-x
April 26 at Nashville, TBD-x
April 28 at Chicago, TBD-x
x-if necessary; all times Pacific

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No. 3 Vancouver vs. No. 6 Kings

Goalkeeping will be the focus of attention in this series, as the Canucks’ Roberto Luongo had a post-Olympic letdown and L.A.'s Jonathan Quick was winless in his final eight starts.

Records: Canucks 49-28-5, Kings 46-27-9.

Power play: Canucks 20.9% (sixth), Kings 20.8% (seventh).

Penalty killing: Canucks 81.6% (18th), Kings 80.3% (20th).

Leading scorers: Canucks: Henrik Sedin 29-83--112. Kings: Anze Kopitar: 34-47--81.

Outlook: The Canucks were the most prolific team in the West with 272 goals and boast NHL scoring champion Sedin and his identical twin, Daniel, who finished with an identical goal total. Alex Burrows usually played alongside them and scored a team-high 35 goals. It sounds odd to say but goaltending might be their biggest question because of Canadian gold medal goalie Roberto Luongo’s post-Olympic letdown. But goaltending will be a question for the Kings, too, because Jonathan Quick was winless in his last eight starts. Banger Dustin Brown did well against the Canucks because of his physical style, and getting everyone to follow that is the Kings’ best hope. The Canucks should win but the Kings could give them a battle.

Pick: Canucks in seven.

SCHEDULE
Thursday at Vancouver, 7 p.m.
Saturday at Vancouver, 7 p.m.
Monday at KINGS 7 p.m.
April 21 at KINGS, 7 p.m.
April 23 at Vancouver, 7 p.m.-x
April 25 at Kings, TBD-x
April 27 at Vancouver, TBD-x
x-if necessary; all times Pacific

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No. 4 Phoenix vs. No. 5 Detroit

Coyotes make playoffs despite bankruptcy coaching change right before season and predictions of their demise. The Red Wings were particularly strong in the post-Olympic period.

Records: Coyotes 50-25-7, Red Wings 44-24-14.

Power play: Coyotes 14.6% (28th), Red Wings 19.2% (ninth).

Penalty Killing: Coyotes 84.5% (sixth), Red Wings 83.9% (10th).

Leading scorers: Coyotes: Wojtek Wolski 23-42--65. Red Wings: Pavel Datsyuk 27-43--70.

Outlook: Possibly the purely most enjoyable series. The Coyotes overcame bankruptcy, a coaching change a few days before the season and repeated rumors of their demise to have an excellent season. Kudos to Coach Dave Tippett and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (2.29 goals-against average, .920 save percentage). Bryzgalov has a career 1.68 playoff goals-against average in 16 games with the Ducks. The Red Wings lost only three games in regulation after the Olympics and won eight of their last 10. Goalie Jimmy Howard has no NHL playoff experience but his teammates protect him well. The Red Wings’ experience could outweigh the Coyotes’ youth and speed.

Pick: Red Wings in seven.

SCHEDULE
Wednesday at Phoenix, 7 p.m.
Friday at Phoenix, 7 p.m.
Sunday at Detroit, noon
April 20 at Detroit, 3:30 p.m.
April 23 at Phoenix, 7 p.m.
April 25 at Detroit, 11 a.m.
April 27 at Phoenix, TBD
x-if necessary; all times Pacific

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 Montreal

Records: Capitals 54-15-13, Canadiens 39-33-10.

Power play: Capitals 25.2% (first), Canadiens 21.8% (second).

Penalty killing: Capitals 78.8% (25th), Canadiens 83.0% (12th).

Leading scorers: Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin 50-59--109, Canadiens: Tomas Plekanec 25-45--70.

Outlook: The Capitals led the NHL with 318 goals and a +85 goal differential. Ovechkin, third in the NHL scoring race, is the obvious reason but not the only one. Center Nicklas Backstrom (33 goals, 101 points, fourth overall) and left wing Alexander Semin (40 goals, 84 points) must also be reckoned with, and Mike Green led NHL defensemen in scoring with 76 points. The Canadiens, the only playoff team with a negative goal differential (217 for, 223 against) have to hope goalie Jaroslav Halak, whose .924 save percentage ranked in the league’s top five, can pull off a miracle.

Pick: Capitals in five.

SCHEDULE
Thursday at Washington, 4 p.m.
Saturday at Washington, 4 p.m.
Monday at Montreal, 4 p.m.
April 21 at Montreal, 4 p.m.
April 23 at Washington, 4 p.m.-x
April 26 at Montreal, 4 p.m.-x
April 28 at Washington, TBD-x
x-if necessary; all times Pacific

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No. 2 New Jersey vs. No. 7 Philadelphia

The Devils allowed the fewest goals in the league this season. The Flyers needed a shootout win over the Rangers in their season finale to make the playoffs.

Records: Devils 48-27-7, Flyers 41-35-6.

Power play: Devils 18.7% (11th), Flyers 21.4% (third).

Penalty killing: Devils 82.8% (13th), Flyers 83.0% (11th).

Leading scorers: Devils: Ilya Kovalchuk 41-44--85. Flyers: Mike Richards 31-31--62.

Outlook: Kovalchuk averaged a point per game after the Devils acquired him from Atlanta, producing 10 goals and 26 points in 26 games. Martin Brodeur won his fifth Jennings trophy as the Devils allowed the fewest goals in the NHL, 191. The Flyers did their best to give away their playoff spot but won a shootout over the Rangers in their season finale to make it. They’ve been a huge disappointment, and not just because they can’t solve their eternal goaltending question.

Pick: Devils in six.

SCHEDULE
Wednesday at New Jersey, 4:30 p.m.
Friday at New Jersey, 4:30 p.m.
Sunday at Philadelphia, 3 p.m.
April 20 at Philadelphia, 4:30 p.m.
April 22 at New Jersey, 4 p.m.-x
April 25 at Philadelphia, TBD-x
April 27 at New Jersey, 4:30 p.m.-x
x-if necessary; all times Pacific

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No. 3 Buffalo vs. No. 6 Boston

Expect a low-scoring series with the Bruins offering little offense and both teams featuring two of the top goalkeepers in the game.

Records: Sabres 45-27-10, Bruins 39-30-13.

Power play: Sabres 17.6% (17th), Bruins 16.6% (23rd).

Penalty killing: Sabres 86.6% (second), Bruins 86.4% (third).

Leading scorers: Sabres: Derek Roy 26-43--69. Bruins: Patrice Bergeron 19-33--52.

Outlook: Gee, what are the odds of this being a low-scoring series? The Bruins ranked 29th this season with 206 goals and these two teams have the NHL’s top two goalies in save percentage and goals-against average. Boston’s Tuukka Rask is at .931 and 1.97, with Buffalo’s Ryan Miller at .929 and 2.22. The Sabres had a better home record (25-10-6, vs. Boston’s weak 18-17-6).

Pick: Sabres in six.

SCHEDULE
Thursday at Buffalo, 4 p.m.
Saturday at Buffalo, 10 a.m.
Monday at Boston, 4 p.m.
April 21 at Boston, 4 p.m.
April 23 at Buffalo, 4 p.m.-x
April 26 at Boston, 4 p.m.-x
April 28 at Buffalo, 4 p.m.-x
x-if necessary; all times Pacific

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No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Ottawa

The Senators will be hard-pressed to match the Penguins’ offensive firepower with Alexei Kovalev out of action.

Records: Penguins 47-28-7, Senators 44-32-6.

Power play: Penguins 17.2% (19th), Senators 16.9% (21st).

Penalty killing: Penguins 84.1% (ninth), Senators 84.3% (eighth).

Leading scorers: Penguins: Sidney Crosby 51-58--109. Senators: Daniel Alfredsson 20-51--71.

Outlook: Crosby finished second to Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin in points and hit 50 goals for the first time, sharing the goal-scoring lead with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. But the defending champion Penguins have had an up-and-down season and haven’t duplicated the surge they made entering the playoffs last spring. Could be they’re feeling the mileage of two straight Cup finals appearances, or that they’re waiting to turn it on -- and they still have the talent to win. The Senators lost speedy winger Alexei Kovalev to knee surgery and can’t match the Penguins’ explosive offense.

Pick: Penguins in five.

SCHEDULE
Wednesday at Pittsburgh, 4 p.m.
Friday at Pittsburgh, 4 p.m.
Sunday at Ottawa, 3:30 p.m.
April 20 at Ottawa, 4 p.m.
April 22 at Pittsburgh, 4 p.m.-x
April 24 at Ottawa, 4 p.m.-x
April 27 at Pittsburgh, 4 p.m.-x
x-if necessary; all times Pacific


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