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NHL Playoff matchups - Team vs. Team

Anaheim Ducks goalie Viktor Fasth makes save during an NHL hockey game against Phoenix Coyotes Anaheim Calif. Saturday April 27

Anaheim Ducks goalie Viktor Fasth makes a save during an NHL hockey game against the Phoenix Coyotes in Anaheim, Calif., Saturday, April 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

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As the playoffs began last season, all the talk centered on whether the Presidents’
Trophy-winning Canucks could take the last step and win it all or whether the top-seeded Rangers could bring the Cup back to New York’s Canyon of Heroes. Instead, the eighth-seeded Kings wound up storming through the playoffs, beating the sixth-seeded Devils for the Cup.

‘‘Anybody can win, and anybody can beat
anybody,’’ Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said.

For once, it wasn’t coach-speak. Welcome to the postseason, where the regular season means, well, not a whole lot.

(1) Penguins (36-12-0)
vs. (8) Islanders (24-17-7)

Regular season: Penguins 4-1-0.

Here’s a scary thought: The Penguins are getting healthy. Sidney Crosby has been cleared to practice and might be ready for Game 1. Evgeni Malkin and James Neal
already are back, and the Pens added Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow at the trade deadline. The Islanders are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and former No. 1 pick John Tavares has emerged as one of the top centers in the league. They got hot in April and will put up a fight.

Prediction: Penguins in 5.

(2) Canadiens (29-14-5)
vs. (7) Senators (25-17-6)

Regular season: Tied 2-1-1.

Two of the NHL’s big surprises meet in this one. The Canadiens were last in the Eastern Conference last season, and the Senators reached the playoffs despite losing Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, forward Jason Spezza and goalie Craig Anderson to significant injuries. But Karlsson is back from his torn Achilles tendon, and Anderson is back and sharp. The Canadiens backed into the division title when the Senators beat the Bruins in the final game of the season and won only four of their last 10 games. Prediction: Senators in 7.

(3) Capitals (27-18-3)
vs. (6) Rangers (26-18-4)

Regular season: Rangers 2-0-1.

Perhaps the two hottest teams in the league meet in a fascinating series. The Rangers went 10-3-1 in April, finally finding the offense that eluded them most of the season, to climb into the sixth seed from outside the playoff picture. The Capitals, led by Alex Ovechkin’s late scoring binge (22 goals in 21 games), were even better, going 11-1-1 in April to erase the memory of a 2-8-1 start. Can the Capitals solve Rangers goalie Henrik Lund-
qvist? Can Capitals goalie Braden Holtby hold off the resurgent Rangers offense? Can Ovechkin keep up his remarkable pace and finally get past the second round? Stay tuned.

Prediction: Capitals in 7.

(4) Bruins (28-14-6)
vs. (5) Maple Leafs (26-17-5)

Regular season: Bruins 3-1-0.

The Bruins are built similarly to the Blackhawks, with a deep roster of forwards who play a puck-possession style, led by two-way standouts Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci up the middle. Tuukka Rask got a taste of the playoffs when Tim Thomas was hurt in 2010, but this is the first time he’ll be asked to backstop a team with
legitimate Cup aspirations. Meanwhile, the Leafs decided against trading for Roberto Luongo and have entrusted James Reimer with the net. It’s the Leafs’ first postseason appearance since 2004, so the atmosphere in hockey-mad Toronto will be
amazing. Prediction: Bruins in 6.

(2) Ducks (30-12-6)
vs. (7) Red Wings (24-16-8)

Regular season: Red Wings 2-1-0.

When the Ducks beat the Blackhawks on March 20 to sweep the season series, they looked like they just might be the best team in hockey. After that, however, the Ducks were a mere 8-9-2, a stretch-run stumble that started with consecutive losses at home to the Red Wings. The Red Wings, meanwhile, have been in playoff mode for weeks. And while this isn’t your older brother’s Red Wings, there’s still plenty of veteran savvy and plenty of skill up front, led by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The Ducks have two top goalies in Jonas Hiller and rookie Viktor Fasth. Prediction: Red Wings in 7.

(3) Canucks (26-15-7) vs. (6) Sharks (25-16-7)

Regular season: Sharks 3-0-0.

In January, the Sharks went 7-0 and averaged four goals. They’ve been up-and-down since, but they have a Cup-winning goalie in Antti Niemi and one of the best top lines in hockey (Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau). Canucks goalie Cory Schneider, who wrested the starting spot away from Roberto Luongo, will be the top guy in the playoffs for the first time. The Canucks haven’t gotten the kind of Cup hype the Hawks, Ducks, Kings and even Blues have, but they’re talented and playoff-tested. Prediction: Canucks in 6.

(4) Blues (29-17-2) vs. (5) Kings (27-16-5)

Regular season: Kings 3-0-0.

This is a dream matchup for the rest of the conference because whichever team emerges surely will be softened up for the second round. If Good Brian Elliott (one goal or fewer in nine of his last 11 starts) instead of Bad Brian Elliott (five consecutive starts with at least four goals allowed in February) shows up in net for the Blues, they can win this. But the Kings have too much firepower and experience after their run to the Stanley Cup last season. Prediction: Kings in 6.

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