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Penguins, Blackhawks the heavy favourites as NHL playoffs set to begin

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EASTERN CONFERENCE

Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs New York Islanders (8)

Season series: Pittsburgh 4-1-0. Jan. 29, Islanders 4-1 at Pittsburgh; Feb. 5, Penguins 4-2 at New York; Mar. 10, Penguins 6-1 at Pittsburgh; Mar. 22, Penguins 4-1 at New York; Mar. 30, Penguins 2-0 at Pittsburgh.

Sidney Crosby has done non-contact drills at practice and there is a chance he will join Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the team that dominated the Eastern Conference despite missing their scoring leader the last 12 games with a broken jaw. The Penguins will be that much more of favourite if he returns, having added character veterans Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow at the trade deadline. They led the league with 3.38 goals per game. The Islanders are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and many, including star John Tavares, will make a post-season debut.

Pick: Penguins in four.

Montreal Canadiens (2) vs Ottawa Senators (7)

Season series: Both went 2-1-1. Jan. 30, Senators 5-1 at Ottawa; Feb. 3, Canadiens 2-1 at Montreal; Feb. 25, Senators 2-1 (SO) at Ottawa; Mar. 13, Canadiens 4-3 (SO) at Montreal.

The teams only a two-hour drive apart meet for the first time in the playoffs. The Senators are on a high with the recent return of star defenceman Erik Karlsson and big rearguard Jared Cowen from long-term injuries, not to mention ace goalie Craig Anderson. They went 6-3-0 down the stretch. The Canadiens went into a fog after clinching a playoff spot early and only righted themselves in their last two games. Questions persist about the readiness of goalie Carey Price and point man Andrei Markov. But Montreal has three scoring lines and answer Karlsson' skill with P.K. Subban's flash and dash. This should be very close.

Pick: Canadiens in seven.

Washington Capitals (3) vs New York Rangers (6)

Season series: Rangers 2-0-1. Feb. 17, Rangers 2-1 at New York; Mar. 10 Rangers 4-1 at Washington; Mar. 27, Capitals 3-2 (SO) at New York.

A clash of hot teams that both started the season in a funk. The Capitals went 15-2-2 in their last 19 games, a span that coincided with a scoring binge that gave Alex Ovechkin the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy with 32 goals. The Rangers' season turned around after an April 3 deal that sent Marian Gaborik to Columbus for Derek Brassard and two others, which gave them scoring depth. They went 10-3-1 in April. A key is to stop the Caps' league-best power play (26.8 per cent). Washington gives up a lot of goals, so New York's edge in net with Henrik Lundqvist gives them a chance.

Picks: Capitals in seven.

Boston Bruins (4) vs Toronto Maple Leafs (5)

Season Series: Bruins 3-1-0. Feb. 2, Bruins 1-0 at Toronto; Mar. 7, Bruins 4-2 at Boston; Mar. 23, Leafs 3-2 at Toronto; Mar. 25, Bruins 3-2 (SO) at Boston.

Two big, tough teams collide in what could be a tight battle. Boston, the 2011 Stanley Cup champs, went 2-5-2 down the stretch, including Sunday's 4-2 loss at home to Ottawa, to surrender the Northeast Division lead to Montreal. Several top players have been off their games. Their power play is a brutal 14.2 per cent, 28th in the NHL, but it was the same two years ago. Toronto ranked second and Boston fourth in the league in penalty killing, however. A difference may be goaltending, where the Leafs will be up against the one they let get away a few years ago in Tuukka Rask against the inexperienced James Reimer. A late push got Toronto into the post-season for the first time since 2004. It will be big first playoff test for rising star Nazem Kadri.

Pick: Bruins in seven.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs Minnesota Wild (8)

Season series: Chicago 2-0-1. Jan. 30, Wild 3-2 at Minnesota; March 5, Hawks 5-3 at Chicago; April 9, Hawks 1-0 at Minnesota.

The Blackhawks started the season 21-0-3 and never let up, going 10-3-2 in April. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane had 23 goals each to lead a deep group of forwards, Duncan Keith was a workhorse on a solid defence and Corey Crawford did the job in goal. The Wild had high hopes after signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year $98 million deals on July 4. Both played well and, despite the team fading down the stretch, got them into the playoffs for the first time since 2008 in the last game of the season. There are good players but little depth in Minnesota. The Hawks were second in goals-for (3.1 per game) and gave up the league's least goals (2.02).

Pick: Blackhawks in four.

Anaheim Ducks (2) vs Detroit Red Wings (7)

Season series: Detroit 2-0-1. Feb. 15, Anaheim 5-2 at Detroit; March 22, Detroit 5-1 at Anaheim; March 24, Detroit 2-1 at Anaheim.

The question is whether the Ducks faded down the stretch or were on cruise control in the final month. Production dropped for older players like Saku Koivu, Sheldon Souray and Teemu Selanne. But they dominated most of the campaign, with a 49-point season from Ryan Getzlaf and a rebound year from defenceman Francois Beauchemin. The Red Wings spent the season rebuilding their defence after Niklas Lidstrom's retirement and needed a season-ending four-game run to make the playoffs for a 22nd straight year. Big performances from Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were key and will be again in the post-season.

Pick: Detroit in seven.

Vancouver Canucks (3) vs San Jose Sharks (6)

Season series: San Jose 3-0-0. Jan. 27, Sharks 4-1 at San Jose; March 5, Sharks 3-2 (shootout) at Vancouver; April 1, Sharks 3-2 at San Jose.

Getting Kevin Bieksa back from a "body" injury was a relief for the Canucks, although they may be missing rearguard Chris Tanev to start the playoffs. Vancouver wasn't quite as dominant as in recent years, but still has the Sedin twins and the core of the 2011 Stanley Cup finalist squad. A big question is whether Cory Schneider, who was rested with an injury this week, is ready or if Roberto Luongo will have to step up. The veteran Sharks got a little quicker at the trade deadline. They have the edge on special teams with both the power play and penalty kill in the top-10, and a hot goalie in Antti Niemi. But they still need to shake their playoff underachiever label.

Pick: Canucks in seven.

St. Louis Blues (4) vs Los Angeles Kings (5)

Season series: L.A. 3-0-0. Feb. 11, Kings 4-1 at St. Louis; March 5, Kings 6-4 at L.A.; March 28, Kings 4-2 at St. Louis.

This should be the crash and bang series between two physical teams that play solid defence. And both finished strong — L.A. at 10-4-3 and St. Louis 11-2-0. Brian Elliott has been hot in goal in relief of the injured Jaroslav Halak. The Kings swept the Blues in last year's conference semifinal and have won eight in a row overall against them. A concern for the Kings has been goalie Jonathan Quick, last year's playoff hero who was 38th in save percentage (9.02) this season. But they won the Cup as the eighth seed last year and come back with most of the same lineup looking to be the first repeat champion since Detroit in 1998. They have the edge in playoff experience and scoring.

Pick: L.A. in five.

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