NHL playoff preview

The last spot in a suspenseful playoff race wasn't decided until the final game on the final day of the season. The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks lost their finale but grabbed the eighth seeding in the Western Conference after the Dallas Stars lost to the Minnesota Wild, which had nothing at stake but pride.

The New York Rangers faced a similar situation in the Eastern Conference, hoping Carolina would lose its finale on Saturday. To the delight of the NHL's TV rightsholders, Carolina lost to Tampa Bay and the big-market Rangers got in.

The eight series will feature a traditional rivalry in Boston against Montreal and the third straight Chicago-Vancouver matchup, with the President's Trophy-winning Canucks hoping for their first win. There will be some other firsts, too: The Kings and Ducks made it in the same season for the first time, and the Sharks' Pacific Division title made California teams three-for-three in qualifying.

Five series will begin Wednesday and the other three on Thursday. Here's how they shape up:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Vancouver vs. No. 8 Chicago

Records: Canucks 54-19-9, Blackhawks 44-29-9.

Power play: Canucks 24.3% (first), Blackhawks 23.1% (fourth).

Penalty killing: Canucks 85.6% (third), Blackhawks 79.2% (25th).

Leading scorers: Canucks: Daniel Sedin 41-63—104 (NHL champion). Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews 32-44--76.

Outlook: The Canucks eased into the playoffs. Daniel Sedin is likely to copy twin brother Henrik and win the Hart trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. Ryan Kesler was a two-way standout with 41 goals, 73 points and a +24 defensive rating. The Canucks are deep enough to have overcome a blizzard of injuries on defense. The Blackhawks have looked old and worn out, with injuries to Dave Bolland and Troy Brouwer, but the sight of Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo might revive old muscle memory.

Pick: Canucks in six.

No. 2 San Jose vs. No. 7 Kings

Records: Sharks 48-25-9, Kings 46-30-6

Power play: Sharks 23.5% (second), Kings 16.1% (21st).

Penalty killing: Sharks 79.6% (24th), Kings 85.5% (fourth).

Leading scorers: Sharks: Patrick Marleau 37-36—73. Kings: Anze Kopitar 25-48—73.

Outlook: The Sharks' recent playoff history is ugly but they won two rounds before being swept by Chicago in last season's West final. They have enviable depth up the middle and up front with Marleau, Joe Thornton (21 goals, 70 points), Dany Heatley (26 goals, 64 points) and sensational rookie center Logan Couture (32 goals, 56 points). The Kings might regain winger Justin Williams (22 goals, 57 points) but they need more to awaken their sleeping offense. The power play must produce for them to have any chance.

Pick: Sharks in six.

No. 3 Detroit vs. No. 6 Phoenix

Records: Red Wings 47-25-10, Coyotes 43-26-13.

Power play: Red Wings 22.3% (fifth), Coyotes 15.9% (23rd).

Penalty killing: Red Wings 82.3% (17th), Coyotes 78.4% (26th).

Leading scorers: Red Wings: Henrik Zetterberg 24-56—80. Coyotes: Shane Doan 20-40—60.

Outlook: The Red Wings have been inconsistent but they've been pummeled by injuries. Zetterberg (knee) isn't expected to be ready for the start of the series but rugged defenseman Niklas Kronwall (upper-body) is likely to play. The Red Wings weren't invincible at home: they lost 14 games in regulation at Joe Louis Arena, their highest total since 1992-93. The Coyotes have discipline, a sound checking game and the often-spectacular goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov (2.48 goals-against average, .921 save percentage).

Pick: Red Wings in seven.

No. 4 Ducks vs. No. 5 Nashville

Records: Ducks 47-30-5, Predators 44-27-11.

Power play: Ducks 23.5% (third), Predators 15.2% (26th.).

Penalty Killing: Ducks 81.3% (19th), Predators 84.9% (fifth).

Leading scorers: Ducks: Corey Perry 50 (led league)-48—98. Predators: Martin Erat 17-23—50, Sergei Kostitsyn 23-27—50.

Outlook: The Ducks had fits with the Predators this season, giving up 17 goals while losing three of four games. The Predators are scrappy and exceptionally strong on defense, with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter likely to play a lot against Ryan Getzlaf, Perry, and whoever the other winger is if Coach Randy Carlyle continues to move Bobby Ryan around for balance. Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (2.12, .930) will get some MVP votes, and deservedly so.

Pick: Ducks in six.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 New York Rangers

Records: Capitals 48-23-11, Rangers 44-33-5.

Power play: Capitals 17.5% (16th), Rangers 16.9 % (18th).

Penalty killing: Capitals 85.6% (second), Rangers 83.7% (10th).

Leading scorers: Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin 32-53—85. Rangers: Brandon Dubinsky 24-30—54.

Outlook: The Capitals scored less this season (224 goals, down from 318 in 2009-10) but should enjoy a more successful playoff run than last season's first-round dismissal by Montreal. They're more solid defensively, and rookie defenseman John Carlson is a legitimate Calder trophy pick. The Rangers will miss injured forward Ryan Callahan from a weak offense. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist (2.28, .923 and a league-leading 11 shutouts) must be spectacular for them to stay competitive.

Pick: Capitals in five.

No. 2 Philadelphia vs. No. 7 Buffalo

Records: Flyers 47-23-12, Sabres 43-29-10.

Power play: Flyers 16.6% (19th), Sabres 19.4% (ninth).

Penalty killing: Flyers 82.8% (15th), Sabres 83.0% (13th).

Leading scorers: Flyers: Claude Giroux 25-51—76. Sabres: Thomas Vanek 32-41—73.

Outlook: The Flyers faded down the stretch. Sergei Bobrovsky doesn't inspire a lot of confidence but will start in goal, with Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton behind him. The Flyers need Chris Pronger to return from wrist surgery and be effective. He can dominate a series and did with Edmonton in 2006, the Ducks in 2007 and the Flyers a year ago. The Sabres have surged since the team was sold to businessman Terry Pegula. The line of Tim Connolly, Vanek and Jason Pominville will have to excel at both ends of the ice.

Pick: Flyers in seven.

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Montreal

Records: Bruins 46-25-11, Canadiens 44-30-8.

Power play: Bruins 16.2% (20th), Canadiens 19.7% (seventh).

Penalty killing: Bruins 82.6% (16th), Canadiens 84.4% (seventh).

Leading scorers: Bruins: Milan Lucic 30-32—62, David Krejci 13-49—62. Canadiens: Tomas[cq] Plekanec 22-35—57.

Outlook: Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas led the league with a 2.00 goals-against average and modern-day record .938 save percentage and will be the key to their fortunes. His Montreal counterpart, Carey Price, faded late but shared the league lead with 38 wins, ranked eighth with a .923 save percentage and 10th with a 2.35 goals-against average. The Bruins prefer a physical, defense-first game that the Canadiens can disrupt with their speed. This could go either way.

Pick: Bruins in seven.

No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay

Records: Penguins 49-25-8, Lightning 46-25-11.

Power play: Penguins 15.8% (25th), Lightning 20.5% (sixth).

Penalty killing: Penguins 86.1% (first), Lightning 83.8% (eighth).

Leading scorers: Penguins: Sidney Crosby 32-34—66 (in 41 games before concussion). Lightning: Martin St. Louis 31-68—99.

Outlook: Crosby (concussion) has been practicing but hasn't been cleared for contact, making his return for the first round unlikely. Without Crosby and injured Evgeni Malkin the Penguins played a tighter defensive game and led the league in penalty killing for the first time in franchise history. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (2.32, .918) made it work. The Lightning had two players among the top five scorers, with Steven Stamkos (45 goals, 91 points) ranking fifth after a late fade. The Penguins are better defensively and deeper.

Pick: Penguins in six.

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