Playoff predictions - Eastern Conference

Another season is in the books. Now, the real fun gets started.

Four series. Sixteen wins. One championship.

No. 1 Montreal Canadiens (47-25-10, 102 points) vs. No. 8 Boston Bruins (41-29-12, 94 points)

OVERVIEW: The storylines on both sides are compelling. The matchup, though, threatens to be a one-sided affair.

In Montreal, you have a team that many publications predicted to finish at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Instead, they came pretty much out of nowhere to win the East for the first time since 1992, and are 16 wins away from their 24th Stanley Cup championship.

Don’t laugh. This is not out of the realm of possibility.

Head coach Guy Carbonneau – a member of the Canadiens’ most recent championship team in 1993 – has gotten the most from a group that on paper didn’t seem to offer much. Alexei Kovalev, often viewed during his career as someone who never quite lived up to his talent, became the first Canadien with 35 goals in a season since Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse in 1995-96.

If you said at the start of the season that Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn would combine for 53 goals, buy yourself a Powerball or Mega Millions ticket. With stars like Alexander Ovechkin in Washington and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, surprisingly it was the Canadiens who led the NHL with 262 goals scored in 2007-08

In former Canadien coach Claude Julien’s first season behind the bench in Boston, he’s led the Bruins to their best finish in 13 years and into the postseason for the first time since 2004 – when they lost to Montreal in seven games.

But Boston last won a playoff series in 1999, and they will find it hard to snap that slide. Safe to say, these aren’t the Red Sox, Patriots or Celtics.

The Bruins didn’t have 30-goal or 80-point scorer in 2007-08. Marco Sturm led with 27 goals and Marc Savard had 78 points, but he hasn’t played since suffering a back injury on March 22 when he was cross-checked by Montreal’s Steve Begin.

If Savard cannot go, it will put more pressure on Chuck Kobasew, Phil Kessel and Glen Murray.

HOW MONTREAL CAN WIN: If Carey Price stays right.

Picked fifth overall in the 2005 NHL draft, Price easily was considered Montreal’s goaltender of the future. His quick ascension this season to starter may have been a surprise, but as he had done in juniors and the AHL, the 20-year-old rookie has proved to be largely unflappable – and pretty hard to beat.

After taking over as as the starter since Cristobal Huet was traded to Washington at February’s trading deadline, Price has gone 12-3-0 with a 2.12 goals-against average, two shutouts and a .936 save percentage.

The NHL rookie of the month for March also enters his first NHL playoff action on hot streak, winning his final seven starts – a run that began with two consecutive victories over Boston.

The last Canadien to win the Calder Trophy was Ken Dryden in 1972. Though this season’s honor likely will go to Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews in Chicago, Price should get some votes.

HOW BOSTON CAN WIN: Before they can consider winning a four-game series from Montreal, the Bruins need to worry about getting just one victory. Boston has been outscored 47-19 during an 11-game regular-season losing streak to the Canadiens.

They also must exorcise some demons hanging out from their playoff loss in 2004. Boston was one win away from moving on to the East semifinals before collapsing. Despite 44 shots on goal in Game 5, Andrew Raycroft gave up three third-period goals in a 5-1 setback.

In Game 6, Sergei Samsonov scored twice, and Boston allowed two empty-net goals in a 5-2 loss. With a chance to advance in a Game 7 matchup, the Bruins failed to get any of 32 shots past Jose Theodore, and Richard Zednik scored both goals in the third en route to a 2-0 defeat.

Tim Thomas won 28 games this season, but was 0-4-1 with a 4.21 GAA versus Montreal this season. Alex Auld was a servicable backup after being acquired from Phoenix, but stopped only three of seven shots in his only action against the Canadiens in 2007-08.

SEASON SERIES: Montreal, 8-0-0.

THE PICK: Montreal in 5. The Bruins will end both losing streaks, but that’s all they’ll be able to celebrate.

No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins (47-27-8, 102 points) vs. No. 7 Ottawa Senators (43-31-8, 94 points)

OVERVIEW: Last season, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s first taste of playoff hockey came against the Senators – and lasted five games.

Now, the two stars will be expected to carry the Penguins into the second round for the first time since 2001, and they’ll be facing a banged-up Senators team that got off to an incredible start before spiraling out of control.

In 2006-07, Crosby and Malkin were the two biggest keys to Pittsburgh ending a six-year playoff drought. Wrapping up his second season, Crosby tallied 120 points to win the Art Ross Trophy at just 19, and Malkin added 85 to earn Calder Trophy honors.

Neither one were able to carry Pittsburgh against a tough Ottawa team which went on to face Anaheim in the Stanley Cup finals. Crosby had three goals and five points, while Malkin managed only four assists. With the series tied 1-1, Pittsburgh managed three goals in three straight losses.

This season, a high ankle sprain limited Crosby to 53 games, but he still put up 72 points. Malkin was even better in his second season, scoring 106 points to rank only behind Alexander Ovechkin in the scoring race.

Though Ottawa has three of the NHL’s top offensive stars in Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, they likely will be missing their best player for some time. Alfredsson – the Sens’ second-leading scorer with 89 points – was waylaid with a vicious but legal open-ice check from Toronto’s Mark Bell on April 3.

That injury was the latest setback in a season that can best be described as bipolar. Under new coach John Paddock, Ottawa got off to a 13-1-0 start, and was 29-10-4 on Jan. 12. Surely a lock for the Northeast Division title and perhaps another East crown.

Instead, they finished 14-21-4, Martin Gerber is overworked, Ray Emery ineffective and Paddock is gone, having been replaced by Bryan Murray – who guided Ottawa into the finals.

Even with Alfredsson’s status iffy, the Senators have the offense to keep up with Pittsburgh. The defense, though, could be what dooms them.

HOW PITTSBURGH CAN WIN: They have experience now. They have Crosby back and pretty much healthy. And they have Malkin – who was dominant at home over the final four weeks of the season.

The second overall pick in 2004 was held without a point in losses after regulation to Ottawa and San Jose in late February. After that, Malkin had nine goals and six assists in an eight-game point streak, leading the Penguins to an 8-0-0 record.

Another player who will need to step up after making his playoff debut is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury - who also had a high ankle sprain that kept him out for an extended period. In his last nine regular-season starts, Fleury was 8-0-1 with a 1.33 GAA and one shutout.

He was tagged for 18 goals in last season's playoff series loss.

HOW OTTAWA CAN WIN: Even when the Senators started off quick, they did not play with a sense of urgency. They didn’t need to – through the first 14 games, Ottawa outscored its opposition 49-27 and played after regulation once.

A Stanley Cup finals appearance. A hot start. Sounds like some complacency set in.

Rediscovering that sense of urgency, knowing they’re four losses from going home for the season may help finally snap Ottawa out of its malaise. If they keep playing sloppy and tentative, though, they can head to the first tee in about 10 days or so.

Gerber was 15-9-2 at home this season, but has allowed 11 goals in losing his last four starts at Scotiabank Place, two coming against non-playoff teams in Toronto and Buffalo. Emery dropped his last three decisions overall, giving up 12 goals.

SEASON SERIES: Senators, 3-0-1.

THE PICK: Penguins in 6. This series will be hard on both teams, and you wish both could advance. This time, the Pens get the upper hand and move on.

More coming...

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