SARAH KWAK PICKS THE WEST
THE WILD ARE the West's hottest team of the second half. Since acquiring goalie Devan Dubnyk on Jan. 14, Minnesota has gone 28-9-3, riding its new netminder for all but one game. Leading the league in wins (25) and GAA (1.72) since the All-Star break, Dubnyk should be decisive in a first-round matchup with the Blues, who have ranked in the bottom half in scoring since February. After the Blackhawks defeat the Predators, who have won just six of their last 21 games, the Wild will take the opportunity to exact revenge on Chicago, which put an end to the last two seasons in Minnesota.
The Ducks will wade out of the Pacific, which they dominated all season, drawing the big and physical Jets, who will ride the high of their city's first trip to the playoffs in 19 years. But Anaheim has the size to match and holds a distinct advantage in top-end skill and leadership with center Ryan Getzlaf (70 points) and winger Corey Perry (33 goals). The Ducks went 3-1-1 against the Canucks and were a perfect 3-0-0 against the Wild, indicating that they have the depth and balance to roll to the finals.
Anaheim has only one weakness: goalie. Neither Frederik Andersen nor John Gibson has asserted himself, but a question in net doesn't have to be a death sentence. The 2008 Red Wings won the Cup while flipping between Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood. The Flyers and the Blackhawks made it to the finals in '10 with goalies neither team now employs. Anaheim's D raises some questions too, but with eight solid-if-not-spectacular blueliners, coach Bruce Boudreau can at least throw bodies at the problem. That should allow an assertive, physical attack to win the day, especially in typically tight playoff matchups; the Ducks were 33-1-7 in one-goal games.
NEW YORK RANGERS
SAM PAGE PICKS THE EAST
THE OBVIOUS CANDIDATE to come out of the East is the Rangers—last season's conference champs grabbed this year's Presidents' Trophy and are hot at the right time. They lack several hallmarks of true Cup contenders, though, most notably depth down the middle. Even their presumed route through the hobbling Penguins will stall against a Pittsburgh team led by the always dangerous Sidney Crosby. The next best team by seed, the Canadiens, would be the worst in the field if not for Carey Price. Montreal's netminder will do enough to steal the first-round series against the Senators, but that they need to steal from a miracle playoff crasher sums up the Habs' chances after round 1.
Picking the Islanders is an endorsement their body of work, not anything they've done recently. It's their last hurrah on Long Island, but in an inevitable second-round blood feud between neighbors, four games in Madison Square Garden trumps three in the Mausoleum. Ultimately GM Steve Yzerman's Lightning, made in the Red Wings' image, seem poised for first-round patricide. They'll remind aging Detroit players of their younger, better selves.
Four years after losing to the Bruins in a tight Eastern Conference finals, Tampa Bay surely relished eliminating Boston from contention on this season's last day. Now the Lightning can fulfill the symbolic potential of that game and take the Bruins' mantle as the beast of the East. What this year's outfit has in common with that 2011 team is center Steven Stamkos (43 goals) and defenseman Victor Hedman (38 points, +12), its two young superstars. What's different includes a rebuilt defense and an embarrassment of skill at forward. When things tighten up, Tampa has three lines that can make something out of nothing.
ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GETZLAF)
DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DUBNYK)
SCOTT AUDETTE/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (STAMKOS)
ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (NASH)
DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CUP)