It's a wide-open race this year, though most prognosticators are pointing West, to either San Jose or Anaheim to take it all. There's an excellent reason for them to do so: while some of the best players are in the East, the better teams are on the opposite side. But they play the games for a reason, and it's a tough call to predict any post-season. In fact, it's so unpredictable that I'm not going to bother listing the teams in order. Instead, here are the match-ups ranked from least to most interesting... to me, at least.
Who's doing what where, and how they're going to do it:
New Jersey vs. Manhattan
On the attack: Neither team is all that interested in scoring, with Jagr leading the Rangers with one of his worst scoring seasons ever (25 goals, 71 points). Still their emerging youth gives them enough depth to score the nod over the Parise-led Devils (32 goals, 65 points). But it's close.
On the defense: Not much going on here, either; though the Rangers had slightly more offense from the blue line. Both teams preach a shut-down style, with few risks being run. If the Rangers are lucky, They'll have Malik taking a penalty shot once per game. Nod to Manhattan.
Last line: Not as big an advantage as you might think. Lundqvist has been there when needed, and is capable of outplaying even Brodeur in any given game. Just not seven in a row. Nod to the Devils (again).
Specials: Both teams are fairly mediocre on the power play, though the Rangers are 6th in the league on the kill. Nod to Manhattan.
Need to know: The Rangers have owned the Devils this season, taking seven of eight games from them. Even the loss came in overtime, so they still got the point. Combine that with this being the time of year Drury earns his money, and you have a Rangers team looking dangerous. On the other hand, there are few goalies are more money than Brodeur, and the Rangers only managed 16 goals in those seven wins.
Prediction: The Rangers' more physical game and balanced scoring will carry them through.
Montreal vs. Boston
On the attack: Most amazing note from this year? Montreal led the NHL in scoring. Not Ottawa; not Detroit; not Pittsburgh. Kovalev stayed interested all season, and the "A" on his jersey looks better and better. Boston was led by the Invisible Man again (seriously, you'd think 273 points over the past 3 seasons would make Marc Savard more memorable) but the drop after him is precipitous. Advantage Canadiens.
On the defense: Chara is once again earning a lot of attention for the Norris this year, and it's well deserved. He hit a career high in goals and assists, improved his +/- by 35, and has accepted a huge amount of responsibility for his team. Wideman is a sound #2 in his third year, but after that there are no surprises. For Montreal, Markov has apparently decided to replace the off-season loss of Souray himiself, as has the startling Streit. Komisarik looks like he's plateauing as a solid (6'4", 245 lb.) and surly (101 PIM) defender, and Hamrlik completes a steady top four. Advantage Montreal.
Last line: Montreal's Price is the "roll of the dice" that wasn't: he's a high-pressure, high-performance goalie, and always has been. Boston, on the other hand, started with two goalies they won't be using for the playoffs. However, Thomas and Auld are unflappable goalies, each performing far better than expected this season. Advantage, slightly, Boston.
Specials: Boston has an indifferent power play, missing key ingredients for much of the season, and a lousy kill. Montreal has the best power play in the league, and that's all you really need to know there.
Need to know: Chara is Mr. Everything for Boston; look for Montreal to try taking advantage every time he's off the ice - especially by goading him into penalties.
Prediction: As close to a bye as any team is going to get. The Habs own this one.
Washington vs. Philadelphia
On the attack: Ovechkin has more goals than the next three Capitals forwards combined. It's an astoundingly one-sided attack, but that hasn't meant anyone could stop it. But the Flyers are no patsies: there are 6 players each with 20 or more goals for Philadelphia, even with Lupul only managing 56 games. Advantage Philadelphia.
On the defense: Smith, if he makes it back, will have the unenviable job of trying to stop Ovechkin in the first round. If not him, then Timonen will have to sacrifice some offense and focus on minimizing the damage. A very young squad follows those two. Alas, any team that feels they need the slow and often penalized Hatcher is at a disadvantage before they play a game. For Washington, the startlingly productive Green is being allowed to jump into the play, bringing 18 goals and 56 points with him. As for the rest, the point is to get the puck to the forwards, ASAP, and it's something they do reasonably well. Advantage Washington - barely.
Last line: An inconsistent Biron is the man for the Flyers, like it or not, and it will be his first time as starter; whereas Huet has be awe-inspiring in his takeover of Kolzig's position in Washington. Any time you pick up 11 wins in 13 games (and two of them by shutout), you get to start the playoffs. The Caps have a decisive lead in net.
Specials: Philly's 2nd best power play and 10th best penalty kill are 8 and 15 places better than Washington's. Advantage Philly.
Need to know: The Capitals play a hard-forecheck style - I dream of a Washington-Calgary final - and Philadelphia's slow defense is prone to taking bad penalties. If Washington's power play can connect on a quarter of their chances, this will be a short series.
Prediction: Almost impossible to tell. This could be a series of blowouts, or it could be four close-checking matches, or it could take seven. But I'm betting on Washington.
Ottawa vs. Pittsburgh
On the attack: Some awesome scoring is lined up in this match, with Ottawa bringing the biggest line in the game (Alfredsson-Spezza-Heatley) against the most dangerous scoring tandem in the NHL since two other Penguins brought the Stanley Cup to town. It's after the big names that things get interesting, as neither team really has much scoring depth, despite the Pens getting Hossa (3 goals in 12 games) and the Sens acquiring Stillman (3 goals in 24 games). Even up here.
On the defense: Gonchar is the element of surprise for the Pens. He loves jumping into the rush and has an effective shot, and he knows when to let it fly. Whitney adds a second gun to the point, and Gill is there to provide some clear sight lines for Fleury and Conklin. Ottawa has two big men for the front of the net in Commodore and Phillips, and Redden and Meszaros add some puck-moving skills. The easily-avoided Richardson is likely to watch this series. Advantage to Pittsburgh, but it's close.
Last line: A complete reversal of what was expected at the beginning of the season: the Penguins are rock-solid with a young hotshot and a veteran who wants to prove himself; and Ottawa has had personality issues with their young star and a veteran who's been streaky and scarily inconsistent. Advantage Pittsburgh.
Specials: Pittsburgh's power play was 4th best in the league, with the 23rd best kill. Still, that's better than Ottawa's 12th and 22nd. Advantage Penguins.
Need to know: Who's on the ice. This is the first time the Penguins have been completely healthy all season, and the Senators are going to be down some big pieces (Alfredsson, Fisher and Kelly). This is going to be a very physical match up, which may surprise people who think of these two teams as "skilled, but soft". Double check those rosters, and you won't be fooled.
Prediction: Injuries bring down the Senators this year, and the Penguins get their revenge.
Right, then! Off to the West!