"Caps, Sharks lead pack as NHL playoffs begin"

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The Spectrum

As Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare to begin their Stanley Cup defense tonight against the Ottawa Senators, we take a look at the field of 16 vying to claim Lord Stanley as their own. From team previews to finals predictions, The Spectrum will get you set for the run at the cup.

Eastern Conference
1. Washington Capitals (54-15-13, 121 pts.)
It has been four years since the league has seen a team as dominant as the Capitals were this season. They are the first team since the 2005-2006 season to score more than 300 goals and clinched the Presidents' Trophy with more than a week remaining in the regular season.
Led by Alex Ovechkin, the Caps boast the league's most dangerous offense that includes seven players with 20 or more goals. Ovechkin topped the 50-goal mark for the fourth time in his five-year career and Nicklas Backstrom quietly amassed 101 points.

2. New Jersey Devils (48-27-7, 103 pts.)
The Devils edged Pittsburgh for the Atlantic crown in the final home stretch of the season thanks to a stingy defense and perpetually strong goaltending. Jacques Lemaire's offense finished 19th in the league with just 216 goals for after he failed to find cohesive line combinations.
The team has star forwards Ilya Kovalchuck, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner to carry the load, but all eyes will be on 17-year veteran Martin Brouder to backstop the team in between the pipes. Brouder led all goalies in wins this season with 45 as the Devils allowed league-low 186 goals.

3. Buffalo Sabres (45-27-10, 100 pts.)
After a two-year hiatus, Buffalo is back in the postseason after winning the Northeast division thanks to arguably the best goalie in the world, Ryan Miller. The 29-year-old posted a 41-18-8 record with a 2.22 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in 69 games this year.
Lindy Ruff's plan for the future has finally panned out as Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville stepped into the vacant skates left by Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to provide leadership and consistent production. Roy led the team in scoring for the third-straight season with 26 goals and 69 points while Vanek led the club in goals with 28. Pominville also netted 24 while veteran Jochen Hecht added 21.
Defenseman Tyler Myers amassed 11 goals and 37 assists in his rookie year. The Calder Trophy candidate has quickly become the team's top blue-liner and has provided a physical force alongside veterans Henrik Tallinder, Steve Montador and Tony Lydman.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (47 -28-7, 101 pts.)
The defending champions enter the postseason as the fourth seed for the second straight year. After upsetting Detroit in game seven of last year's finals, the Penguins failed to produce the consistent play that they had hoped for entering the season. But last year's cup run has given the team plenty of playoff experience to emerge as contenders once again.
Sidney Crosby hit the 50-goal plateau for the first time in his career after finishing with 51 scores. The Rocket Richard Trophy co-winner is accompanied by centers Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Stall, as well as Alex Ponikarovsky, Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko as the Penguins' leader's up-front. Marc-Andre Fleury will need to play consistent in net if Pittsburgh plans to repeat.

5. Ottawa Senators (44-32-6, 94 pts.)
The Senators exceeded expectations this season after the emergence of strong goaltending from youngster Brian Elliot gave life to the team midway through the season. Cory Clouston took over the bench at the beginning of February and led the club to a 19-11-4 finish, including nine-straight home wins, in the last two months.
Elliot will be making his NHL playoff debut after posting a 2.57 goals-against average, .909 save percentage and 29 wins in 55 appearances. The young netminder will have plenty of help from his defensive unit, which accumulated 721 blocked shots between five blue-liners.

6. Boston Bruins (39-30-13, 91 pts.)
It was a letdown in "Beantown" this year as the Bruins failed to replicate their success from last season. After trading away star forward Phil Kessel, the team struggled to muster much offense and finished last in the league with just 196 goals. Marco Sturm was the team's only 20-goal scorer while Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci tied for the team lead in scoring with 52 points.
Boston's hopes lye on the shoulders of rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask, who won the job over Olympian Tim Thomas halfway through the season. Appearing in 45 games, Rask posted a dazzling 1.97 goals-against average and .931 save percentage – both league bests. With a defensive unit decimated by injury, it'll be up to Rask to keep Boston off the golf course.

7. Philadelphia Flyers (41-35-6, 88 pts.)
Philadelphia snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season with a shootout win over the Rangers. Despite finishing just 4-5-1 in their last five games, the Flyers cemented a matchup with division rival New Jersey, who they were 5-1 against this season.
The Flyers were a bit of a disappointment after many had pegged them as Stanley Cup favorites prior to the season. Mike Richards led the team in scoring with 62 points, while Jeff Carter led the orange and black with 33 goals. Goaltending was miserable for the Flyers as starter Brian Boucher posted a 9-18-3 record with a 2.76 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. Boucher's strong play at the end of the season will need to continue if the Flyers have any chance of advancing

8. Montreal Canadians (39-33-10, 88 pts.)
The Habs finished 33 points behind first-round opponent Washington and have an uphill battle to climb if they want to hoist Lord Stanley. The club had an inconsistent season and finished the year winning just three of their final 11 games.
Montreal will rely heavily on Jaroslav Halak to provide strong goaltending, but will be on a thin wire with Carey Price waiting in the wings. The Canadians enter the postseason as heavy underdogs and will likely be cleaning out their lockers in quick fashion.

Western Conference
1. San Jose Sharks (51-20-11, 113 pts.)
Spring has been unkind to the Sharks. San Jose made to the Western Conference semifinals three of the last four years but failed to win more than two games. At the top of the west for the second-straight season, the Sharks are looking to end their playoff futility behind the top offensive line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley.
The Sharks' offense is sure to generate goals as San Jose boasts a lineup with five 20-goal scorers. San Jose will need goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to improve on his 32-31 lifetime postseason record if the team has aspirations for a Stanley Cup birth.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (52-22-8, 112 pts.)
The Original Six squad has Chicago excited about hockey again. Behind young stars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks have a core of exciting players who can score (eight players scored 17 or more goals in the regular season) and wear down opposing defenses.
Like San Jose, the question remains on goaltending. Both Cristobal Huet and rookie Antti Niemi, who replaced Huet as the starter, are inconsistent. They have a solid defense protecting them, but who knows what'll happen when Chicago runs into an offensive powerhouse.

3. Vancouver Canucks (49-28-5, 103 pts.)
Vancouver has a questionable defense behind a deep and talented offensive front. Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin will lead the strong offense, but defender Willie Mitchell sustained a concussion and Sami Salo suffered an injury before the Canucks' last game. Goaltender Roberto Luongo is one of the best in the league, but needs the blue-liners in front of him to prevent an all-out assault on his net.

4. Phoenix Coyotes (50-25-7, 107 pts.)
Last summer, the question was where the Coyotes would end up. The least possible answer was the playoffs. Now, they have home-ice advantage in the first round. Phoenix will ride breakout goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, but the team drew Detroit, the hottest team in the NHL. In front of Bryzgalov is a defense that ranked third in goals against per game.
But will Phoenix be able to score? The team ranked 24th in goals per game. Phoenix's Cinderella tale will continue if the Coyotes can find some offensive answers.

5. Detroit Red Wings (44-24-14, 102 pts.)
Since the Olympic break, Detroit has been an NHL-best 16-3-2. Traditionally one of the best NHL teams is entering the playoffs as the hottest team. Rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard has played well this season and gave up only 2.26 goals a game. Coach Mike Babcock has his team winning games on special teams as the Red Wings placed in the top 10 in penalty killing and ranked ninth in power play.

6. Los Angeles Kings (46-27-9, 101 pts.)
The Kings make their first playoff appearance since 2002. Despite the reputation of being a young inexperienced team, L.A. has a nucleus of experienced players who have playoff success. Ryan Smyth is a warrior who played in the 2006 Stanley Cup, Justin Williams won the '06 Cup with Carolina, Fredrick Modin helped Tampa Bay capture the '04 Stanley Cup, and Rob Scuderi was a key defender in Pittsburgh's run to the title last season.
The Kings are prime for an upset if goaltender Jonathan Quick can step up: the 24-year-old goalie was winless in his last eight appearances.

7. Nashville Predators (47-29-6, 100 pts.)
Nashville is far from being a hockey-driven town, but the Predators have its fan base excited. Led by a solid group of blue-liners and goaltender Pekka Rinne, the Predators will face a Chicago team expected to run to the Stanley Cup. Nashville doesn't hold many advantages against the Blackhawks, but has a young and energetic team with no pressure on its collective shoulders.
Nashville will need to improve on special teams: the Predators finished the regular season 24th in power play and 28th in penalty kill.

8. Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9, 95 pts.)
Like every other Western Conference underdog, Colorado was not expected to qualify for the postseason. Colorado was on a roll earlier in the season, but enters the playoffs with just three wins in its last 13 games. The Aves possess a core of young stars that is experiencing the playoffs for the first time.
This is good news for the future, but Colorado goes up against a more-talented San Jose team in the first round.

STANLEY CUP PREDICTIONS
Paterno: Pittsburgh over San Jose (seven games)
Sanchirico: Chicago over Pittsburgh (six games)