What to watch for in the NHL playoffs

Wednesday night marks the start of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, and there are all kinds of matchups, from rowdy rivalries to riveting rematches, to keep an eye on.

1. The rowdy rivalries

No. 3 Bruins vs. No. 6 Canadiens

In early March, Zdeno Chara put a late hit on the Habs' Max Pacioretty, riding him into the glass between the benches and sending him off the ice on a stretcher. The Bruins' beastly defender was not suspended for the hit, teammate Mark Recchi claimed the Canadiens embellished the severity of Pacioretty's injuries -- taking an already heated Original Six rivalry to a boil. When these two teams meet in the opening round, expect the hatred between the players and their fans to be overshadowed only by the tremendous goaltending on both sides of the ice, in Boston's Tim Thomas and Montreal's Carey Price.

No. 4 Penguins vs. No. 5 Lightning

The Penguins have been without superstar forward Sidney Crosby since Jan. 5, when they routed Tampa Bay 8-1 in Pittsburgh. In that game, Victor Hedman pushed Crosby into the boards from behind, causing many to blame him for the Penguins' star's head injury. Though some believe Crosby suffered the concussion during the Winter Classic days earlier, there's no doubt Pittsburgh fans remember the last day Sid the Kid was on the ice and the last big hit put on him by Hedman. Crosby isn't expected to be ready for the opening round, so his Penguins will have to try to off the Bolts without him.

2. The unlikely underdogs

No. 1 Canucks vs. No. 8 Blackhawks

The Canucks finished the regular season with a league-best 54 wins, a league-best +77 goal differential and a league-best 117 total points. Their opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks, barely slipped into the playoffs -- losing their final game to the Red Wings but advancing by way of a Wild win over the Stars. Seems like a pretty easy series to call, right? Not so fast.

For two straight years, the Blackhawks have ended Vancouver's season, bringing Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo to tears on at least one occasion. Though their roster may have changed, the core of the Blackhawks is the same -- offensive superstars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, alongside defensive stalwarts Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. A slow start to the season, injuries and a lack of chemistry have plagued the Hawks all season long, while this Canucks team looks primed and ready for a deep run. Looks like a rout, but it's nearly impossible to imagine Vancouver rolling over a defending Stanley Cup champion Hawks team that has served them back-to-back eliminations. Oh, and throw in a history of line brawls and hair pulling, plus the unique "playoff beard" choices of Toews (mutton chops) and Kane (playoff mullet) and this one should play out much better on the ice than on paper.

"Looks like a rout, but it's nearly impossible to imagine Vancouver rolling over a defending Stanley Cup champion Hawks team that has served them back-to-back eliminations."

No. 2 Sharks vs. No. 7 Kings

It seems crazy to call the No. 2 San Jose Sharks underdogs. They finished the regular season second overall in the uber-competitive Western Conference and, for the fourth straight year, they grabbed the top spot in the Pacific Division. But for all their successes in the regular season, they've been simply awful come playoff time. You thought Rory McIlroy's Masters choke-job was tough to take? How 'bout six straight seasons finishing first or second in the Pacific with just two conference finals appearances and no Cup wins to show for it.

Could this be the year the Sharks live up to their potential, or will they get upset by the Kings, making their second straight playoff appearance after six consecutive years failing to qualify for the postseason?

3. The slump busters

No. 4 Ducks vs. No. 5 Predators

The Predators have made the postseason five of the last six years, but have fallen in the opening round in each of those five seasons. They'll try to get off the playoff schnide with a series win over Anaheim, who are back in the playoffs after failing to qualify last year. The Predators took three of four from the Ducks this season and boast one of the league's top netminders in Pekka Rinne, but Anaheim winger Corey Perry is a handful, finishing the regular season with a league-high 50 goals.

No. 2 Flyers vs. No. 7 Sabres

The Sabres will look to end their recent skid and win their first playoff series since '07 against a Flyers team that made an unlikely run all the way to the Stanley Cup finals last year. The Flyers looked like the team to beat in the East for much of the season, but they have slumped of late and will need to rediscover some of last year's postseason magic if they hope to make another deep run.

4. The riveting rematches

No. 1 Capitals vs. No. 8 Rangers

In a rematch of the 2008-09 conference quarterfinals, the top-ranked Capitals look to off a Rangers team that handed them two embarrassing losses this season. The Rangers, who topped Washington 7-0 and 6-0 en route to a 2-1-1 record against the Caps this year, will look to avenge that opening-round loss back in '09. Head coach John Tortorella likely hoping his team's success on the ice will help him avoid another water bottle-related incident on the bench.

After getting upset by the Habs in the first round of last year's playoffs, the Caps have something to prove too. Alexander Ovechkin is coming off his lowest-scoring regular season. Washington will start unproven rookie Michal Neuvirth in net, but it's tough to believe that the Caps will get bumped by a No. 8 seed for a second straight year.

No. 3 Red Wings vs. No. 6 Coyotes

After missing out on the playoffs for six straight seasons, the Coyotes finally got back to the postseason last year but were ousted by the Red Wings in the opening round. The two teams meet again, with the Wings holding the home advantage this time around. Last year's series went all seven games and the teams split their four-game set in the regular season this year, so expect a hard-fought battle once again.

Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov will need to come up big against the high-scoring Wings, who finished second in the league in goals scored. The Wings have been to the postseason for 20 straight seasons, possessing a swagger that the Coyotes are sorely lacking, but they better find it before the season starts, as they won just four of their last 11 regular-season games.

5. Getting closer to Lord Stanley

Starting the drama of the NHL playoffs means one great thing: we're getting that much closer to seeing the Stanley Cup again, shined up to perfection and carried to the ice by white-glove bearing minions for the storied hand-off to the new champion. You can't beat that spectacle. So sit back and enjoy the weeks to come before we see Lord Stanley handed over.

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