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Time for the Playoffs: NHL Kicks off Second Season Tonight

CrosbycupWho says a Florida Panthers beat writer doesn't get to cover playoff hockey?

Rochester counts, right?

Yeah, on my way to New York to check out the Rochester Americans as they kick off their postseason Thursday night against the Abbotsford (Miami) Heat.

Led by Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, the Heat look pretty tough. But the Americans have home ice advantage and Wade doesn't skate all that well. Haslem, unfortunately for Rochester, does.

I would give you my predictions and breakdowns for the opening round of the AHL playoffs, but I plum ran out of time. Instead, here are some news and notes -- including the full schedule -- for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Can Pittsburgh repeat as champs? Is Detroit just tuckered out after their mad dash to the playoffs? Is there a Tim Hortons in Rochester? We'll get these answers to these pressing questions soon enough.

Feel free to comment on my crazy picks (Philadelphia over New Jersey? What are ya smokin' GR?!) and leave your own as well.


-- (1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens

-- Season Series: Split four games with Montreal winning final meeting 6-5 on Feb. 10

Ovechkin3 -- Recent postseason history: Washington won the Southeast Division for the third straight season. After being knocked out in Round 1 in 2008, the Caps went to the second round in 2009. The Canadiens slipped into the playoffs for a second straight season. Montreal was swept by Boston in the opening round in 2009.

-- What to Watch: The Capitals have been on cruise control for the past couple of months as they clinched the Southeast Division in March. With Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstom and Alexander Semin, the Capitals are a lean, mean scoring machine. Goaltending is a question, although Semyon Varlamov did a good job in net last postseason. Montreal backed into the playoffs but have pretty good goaltending. Jacques Martin has a big decision in whether to roll with Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak. In his 15 games since the Olympic break,Halak has gone 9-3-3 with a 2.07 GAA and a .926 save percentage. Twelve of the 20 players who dressed for the Canadiens' playoff opener in 2009 are no longer with the team.

-- Schedule – Thursday @ Washington, 7 (Vs.); Saturday @ Washington, 7 (Vs.); Monday @ Montreal, 7; Wednesday @ Montreal, 7; April 23 @ Washington*, 7 (Vs.); April 26 @ Montreal*, 7 (Vs.); April 28 @ Washington*, TBA.

-- Prediction: Capitals in 6.

-- (2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers

-- Season Series: Flyers won five of six including the final three. Philadelphia outscored the Devils 20-13.

-- Recent postseason history: The Devils lost to Carolina in the opening round last season as Philadelphia was bounced in Round 1 by the Penguins.

-- What to Watch: The Flyers have owned the Devils (who have made the playoffs for 13 straight seasons) this year with 19 goals scored on Martin Brodeur in his five starts in the series. But Brodeur has experience on his side as he and Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fluery are the only two expected starting goalies to have ever won the Stanley Cup in these playoffs. Broduer has won 98 of the 176 playoff games he's started in his career. New Jersey Devils' coach Jacques Lemaire has the most experience among active NHL coaches with 60 wins in 112 games. Philadelphia didn't make it to the playoffs until beating the Rangers in a shootout on Sunday afternoon. The Flyers haven't played well down the stretch, going 3-7-1 in their final 11.

-- Schedule – Wednesday @ New Jersey, 7:30; Friday @ New Jersey, 7; Sunday @ Philadelphia, 6; Tuesday @ Philadelphia, 7:30; April 22 @ New Jersey*, 7; April 25 @ Philadelphia*, TBA; April 27 @ New Jersey*, 7:30.

-- Prediction: Flyers in 7.

-- (3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins

-- Season Series: The Bruins won four of six in the season series, including 3-1 on April 8.

-- Recent postseason history: The Sabres haven't been to the postseason since losing to Ottawa in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. Boston swept Montreal in the opening round before being upset by Carolina in seven games in the semifinals.

-- What to Watch: Team USA goalie Ryan Miller didn't get the gold in Vancouver but he hopes to lift the silver chalice once the Stanley Cup Finals are over. Miller had the second best GAA (2.22) and save percentage (.929) in the league this season. Aside from Miller and a handful of others, the Sabres look much different from their previous playoff appearance as half of the roster has been turned over. Don't expect much scoring in this series as Boston has the second best defense in the league but scored the second fewest goals. According to the NHL, only one team has ranked lower in the league in the past 20 years and qualified for the playoffs – the 1988-89 Vancouver Canucks finished last in the 21-team league with 251 goals (45 more than the Bruins scored this season). Tuukka Rask ended the season leading the league – and Miller – with a 1.97 GAA and a .931 save percentage. Last year, Boston's Tim Thomas (who backed up Miller in Vancouver) led the league in those categories.

-- Schedule – Thursday @ Buffalo, 7; Saturday @ Buffalo, 1 (NBC); Monday @ Boston, 7 (Vs.); April 21 @ Boston, 7 (Vs.); April 23 @ Buffalo*, 7; April 26 @ Boston*, 7; April 28 @ Buffalo*, 7.

-- Prediction: Sabres in 6.

-- (4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators

-- Season Series: The two teams split the season series, with all four games decided by three goals or more. The Pens outscored the Sens 15-13 in their meetings.

-- Recent postseason history: The Penguins claimed their third Stanley Cup in franchise history after entering as the fourth seed in the east. Pittsburgh won the Cup in a Game 7 at Detroit. The Senators missed the playoffs last season and were knocked out of the 2008 postseason by the Penguins.

-- What to Watch: Sidney Crosby got his first 50 goal season as he scored twice Sunday against the Islanders to earn a share of his first Rocket Richard Trophy as he and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos both ended with 51. Before this season, Crosby had never scored more than 39 goals in a season. Coach Dan Bylsma is trying to become just the second coach in NHL history to win the Cup in his first two seasons behind the bench. Montreal's Toe Blake won Cups in each of his first five seasons (1956-60). The Senators have spread out the scoring -- captain Daniel Alfredsson led the team with 71 points but 13 different players ended with 22 points or more.

-- Schedule – Wednesday @ Pittsburgh, 7 (Vs.); Friday @ Pittsburgh, 7 (Vs.); Sunday @ Ottawa, 6:30 (Vs.); Tuesday @ Ottawa, 7 (Vs.); April 22 @ Pittsburgh*, 7 (Vs.); April 24 @ Ottawa*, 7 (Vs.); April 27 @ Pittsburgh*, 7.

-- Prediction: Penguins in 5.


-- (1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche

-- Season Series: The two teams split the four game series with the Avs winning the final meeting 5-4 on April 4.

-- Recent postseason history: The Sharks had another disappointing postseason experience last season as they were bounced from the first round in six games by the Ducks. Colorado missed the playoffs last year.

-- What to Watch: Former Panthers backup Craig Anderson was a workhorse this season, setting the Avs franchise record for games (71), starts (71), minutes (4,235), shots faced (2,233) and saves (2,047). Anderson started 34 of Colorado's final 37 games as the Avs hung on to grab the last spot. Colorado is young (it has five rookies in its lineup) but the Sharks are experienced but under a lot of pressure. The Sharks have made it to the playoffs six straight years and have at least 99 points in the standings in the past six years – but they've only made it as far as the west finals once. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov has three straight 40 win seasons, but he hasn't played all that well in the postseason, going 32-31.

-- Schedule – Wednesday @ San Jose, 10 (Vs.); Friday @ San Jose, 10:30 (Vs.); Sunday @ Colorado, 9:30 (Vs.); Tuesday @ Colorado, 10 (Vs.); April 22 @ San Jose*, 10:30 (Vs.); April 24 @ Colorado*, TBA; April 26 @ San Jose*, TBA.

-- Prediction: Sharks in 6.

-- (2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators

-- Season Series: The Blackhawks won four of the six games played including the final two. The teams have not met since Dec. 27.

-- Recent postseason history: Chicago made a splash in the postseason last year, advancing to the conference finals before falling to the Red Wings. Nashville missed the playoffs last year and have yet to win a postseason series in four previous trips.

-- What to Watch: According to the league, Chicago is the NHL's only team to improve on its record in each of the past five seasons. The Blackhawks set a franchise record with 112 points and 52 wins as they won their first division title since 1993. Last year, Chicago made its first postseason appearance since 2002 and had little playoff experience. That's not the case this year, although goalie Antti Niemi is making his postseason debut – and only played against the Predators once this season. Nashville is a strong defensive team led by goalie Pekka Rinne who went 32-16-5 in his second season in Music City with seven shutouts. But the Preds can score, too, with 10 players scoring 30 points or more. Pittsburgh and Washington had 11 players. Martin Erat had five goals in six games against the Hawks this season.

-- Schedule – Friday @ Chicago, 8:30 (Vs.); Sunday @ Chicago, 8:30 (Vs.); Tuesday @ Nashville, 9; April 22 @ Nashville, 8:30 (Vs.); April 24 @ Chicago*, 3 (NBC); April 26 @ Nashville*, TBA; April 28 @ Chicago*, TBA.

-- Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.

-- (3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings

-- Season Series: The two teams split the four game series with the Kings winning the final meeting 8-3 on April 1.

-- Recent postseason history: The Canucks opened with a series win against the Blues last season before losing in six games to Chicago. The Kings are back in the postseason for the first time since 2002.

-- What to Watch: Not only has it been a while since the Kings were in the playoffs, but that goes for their coach as well. The last time Terry Murray coached in the postseason, it was with the Florida Panthers in 2000. The Panthers haven't been back since. A sixth seed has advanced through the first round every year since 2003 – including four of the past six years in the west. Former Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo is trying to get the Canucks past the second round for the first time since Vancouver played for the Stanley Cup in 1994.

-- Schedule – Thursday @ Vancouver, 10 (Vs.); Saturday @ Vancouver, 10 (Vs.); Monday @ Los Angeles, 10 (Vs.); April 21 @ Los Angeles, 10 (Vs.); April 23 @ Vancouver*, 10; April 25 @ Vancouver*, TBA; April 27 @ Vancouver*, TBA.

-- Prediction: Canucks in 7.

-- (4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings

-- Season Series: The two teams split the four game series with the Coyotes winning the final meeting 5-4 in Detroit on Jan. 26.

-- Recent postseason history: Like the Kings, the Coyotes haven't been to the playoffs since 2002. The Red Wings were denied a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champs last year when they lost Game 7 to Pittsburgh.

-- What to Watch: There isn't a hotter team in the league than the rejuvenated Red Wings – and there isn't a better story than the Bad News Dogs. Phoenix wasn't expected to be very good as the team was of secondary concern as the franchise went through bankruptcy court during the summer. But Phoenix set franchise records with 50 wins and 107 points. Phoenix was a league-best 19-7 in overtime games this season. The Wings, with rookie goalie Jimmy Howard leading the way, are making their league best 19th straight appearance in the playoffs.

-- Schedule – Wednesday @ Phoenix, 10 (Vs.); Friday @ Phoenix, 10 (Vs.); Sunday @ Detroit, 3 (NBC); Tuesday @ Detroit, 6:30; April 23 @ Phoenix*, 10 (Vs.); April 25 @ Detroit*, 2 (NBC); April 27 @ Phoenix*, TBA.

-- Prediction: Red Wings in 7.