NHL Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference

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NHL Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference
IconIt's that time of year... playoff season in the NHL.
Here, the Bleacher Report's Francois Gendron tells you what to expect in the Eastern Conference, where the Pittsburgh Penguins have been turning heads all season.
The skinny?
Don't bet against Sidney Crosby and the boys... 
Buffalo Sabres (1) v. New York Islanders (8)

Despite Rick DiPietro's health issues in goal, the New York Islanders edged out the Toronto Maple Leafs to earn a spot in the playoffs. Now, though, they're living on borrowed time and facing the real deal in the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres finished the season atop the Eastern Conference. With talented players like Daniel Briere, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Chris Drury, Maxim Afinogenov, and goaltender Ryan Miller, Buffalo shouldn t take more than five games to send the Islanders home for the summer.

New Jersey Devils (2) v. Tampa Bay Lightning (7)

After finishing second in the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils will go as far as goaltender Martin Brodeur can take them.

Brodeur has been a major factor in the franchise's success in the last 15 years, the Devils have won three Stanley Cups with him between the pipes. In '06-'07, Brodeur broke Bernard Parent's record for most wins in a single season, and he ll need to be on his game to match the Lightning's offensive firepower.

Tampa Bay is everything New Jersey isn't: The Lightning have a great attack but lack a great goaltender.

Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist have a combined goals-against average of 3.11. On the plus side, Vincent Lecavalier is coming off the best season of his career: 52 goals (most in the league) and 56 assists. His linemate Martin Saint-Louis tallied 43 goals and 59 assists.

As much as I'd like to see Lecavalier and Saint-Louis advance to the second round, I think that the goaltenders will make the difference in this series. Brodeur will outplay Tampa's net men, and the Devils should eliminate the Lightning in six games.

Atlanta Thrashers (3) v. New York Rangers (6)

This one promises to be a prize fight.

In the red corner, the Atlanta Thrashers are making their first ever playoff appearance. The Atlanta attack relies on Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov, and Marian Hossa. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen had a respectable season, with a goals-against average of 2.79 in 68 games. The Thrashers qualified for the playoffs on the strength of their performance during the second half of the regular season.

In the blue corner, the New York Rangers will lean heavily on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who posted a goals-against average of 2.34 in 70 games this season. Offensively, the Rangers will look to Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, and Brendan Shanahan to lead the charge.

The two teams are pretty evenly matched, and they were only separated by three points in the final standings. The Rangers players have an edge in overall playoff experience and Stanley Cups won, which should be the difference-maker for New York. I see this series going to the Rangers in seven hard-fought games.

Ottawa Senators (4) v. Pittsburgh Penguins (5)

Of all the first round series, this might be the most hotly anticipated.

Both teams finished the season with 105 points. The Senators earned the higher seeding by virtue of their one-game advantage over Pittsburgh in the win column.

The home-ice advantage is the best thing the Senators have going for them. Should they lose either of the first two games of the series in Ottawa, they ll be in serious trouble: The Penguins were lights-out in Pittsburgh all season long.

Both squads have quality players. Pittsburgh is a young team, with the talent to beat a lot of contenders. Ottawa's players have a bit more NHL experience, but that shouldn t stop Sidney Crosby and friends from taking care of the Senators.

I predict a Pittsburgh victory in six games.

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