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Penguins

Puck Talk with Popchock: Semifinal Forecast

Martin St. Louis, Nicklas Backstrom

Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom battle for the puck in a regular season meeting this past November. They’ll meet again this weekend in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. (Photo credit: Greg Plume/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

Since we’re all eagerly anticipating the Steelers’ first-round draft choice–and because we’re all recovering from Wednesday night–I’ll be brief…

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

(1) Vancouver vs. (5) Nashville – The Predators showed me something in the first round.  Not only did they exploit Anaheim’s uncertainty between the pipes, which isn’t necessarily surprising, but guys like Jered Smithson, Steve Sullivan, and team captain Shea Weber all made big plays at one time or another, and actually outshined one of the more lethal offensive attacks in the West.  Don’t be surprised if they take Game 1 at Rogers Arena.  However, Game 7 against the Blackhawks will be the scared-straight experience the Canucks need to galvanize that team moving forward.  On Sunday Vancouver proved it can survive a tough playoff series without needing the Sedin twins to play a dominant role.  Look for Alex Burrows to continue his hot streak, and for Roberto Luongo to go back to looking like Roberto Luongo.  Canucks in five.

(2) San Jose vs. (3) Detroit – Last year the Sharks proved they can beat a banged-up Detroit team, but the Wings are a much healthier and more headstrong bunch this time around after making playoff hockey look easy in typical Red Wing fashion during a sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes.  What will make this a competitive series is the fact that San Jose no longer looks like the springtime choke artists they are frequently made out to be.  Guys like Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski, whom that team counts on for leadership, delivered in the clutch after a couple bumps in the road against the Kings.  The victor will be whichever team displays the most scoring depth.  Pavel Datysuk has played well at both ends of the ice, and history says he and fellow veteran Zetterberg will rally the troops.  Red Wings in six.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

(1) Washington vs. (5) Tampa Bay – Although it doesn’t have the same allure as Capitals-Penguins–much to the chagrin of the NHL’s marketing department, I’m sure–this has the potential to be a tooth-and-nail series, one in which the team that scores the last goal will probably be on the happy side of the handshake line.  Beginning with their surprising Game 4 rout in Pittsburgh, Marty St. Louis and Steve Stamkos came to life, though the play of role players Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim was just as impressive the last couple games.  As long as Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin keep clicking, and keep the pressure off goaltenders Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, the Caps will keep their heads above water.  I’d like to think the Bolts will get the best of both Washington netminders, and that Rolosson will assert superiority in goal.  But I’ve seen enough strange things happen this season to think the Caps’ improved defensive play with serve them well enough to squeak by.  That weakness in goal won’t come back to haunt Washington–not yet, anyway.  Capitals in seven.

(2) Philadelphia vs. (3) Boston – Everyone in Beantown complained that Nathan Horton wasn’t scoring enough.  That was before Horton found the net in OT against the Habs Wednesday night for what might go down as one of the most significant goals in Bruins history, and might also go down as the play that saved Claude Julien’s job.  But the most pleasant surprise over the course of the last series was the play of Chris Kelly, so keep an eye on him.  Meanwhile, give Danny Briere credit for strapping the Flyers to his back against Buffalo, and James van Riemsdyk looks like a rookie no more.  Philadelphia has the horses up front, and their traditionally brutal style of play is a good, mirror-image matchup for the B’s.  Having said that, teams that play “musical goalies” typically don’t last in the playoffs.  Tim Thomas, on the other hand, who has put up world-class numbers this season, will slam the door, and Boston will give him enough offensive support to finish what they started in last year’s semifinals.  Bruins in six.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)