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Buffalo, New Jersey lead as Eastern Conference looks to keep Stanley Cup

But the team to watch is the Buffalo Sabres, who were beaten in seven games by Cup winners Carolina in the conference final last spring. This could be their year after finishing first overall in the regular season for the first time.

Here's a look at the matchups (seedings in parentheses):

NY Islanders (8) at Buffalo (1)

Opener: Thursday 8 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-1 Sabres.

Last playoff meeting: 1980, Isles won 4-2 in semifinals.

Last spring: Sabres lost conference final 4-3 to Carolina; New York missed playoffs.

In the nets: Sabres Ryan Miller a force (40-16-6 with 2.73 goals-against average and .911 save percentage), while Isles' Rick DiPietro is seeing a doctor about a head injury. Wade Dubielewicz (4-1 down the stretch) may play.

Injury front: Sabres winger Paul Gaustad is not expected to play with an ankle injury.

Quote: "The last four of five games, we started to turn a corner and really identified our team. That's what we needed." Isles' Ryan Smyth.

Synopsis: Buffalo's speed and depth should be too much for the Islanders, particularly if DiPietro can't play . . . If the Isles go with Dubielewicz in the series, he would become the first goalie in 20 years to play as few as eight regular-season games and be counted on in the post-season . . . Sabres were No. 1 overall, 21 points ahead of the Islanders . . . New York made a big pick-up for the playoffs in big and gritty Smyth and had slightly better special teams than Buffalo this season . . . Isles coach Ted Nolan faces his NHL club from a decade ago.

Tampa Bay (7) at New Jersey (2)

Opener: Thursday 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-1 Lightning.

Last playoff meeting: Devils won 2003 conference semifinal 4-1.

Last spring: Bolts lost 3-1 to Ottawa in first round; Devils lost conference semifinal 4-1 to Carolina.

In the nets: Martin Brodeur set the NHL wins record with 48 and was third in GGA (2.18) and save percentage (.922); Bolts' Johan Holmqvist stole No. 1 job from Marc Denis this season.

Injury front: Devils defenceman Richard Matvichuk returned for the last game of the season after missing all year with a bad back.

Quote: "It's not that much fun hockey (playing the Devils). It's certainly not fun to watch and it's not that fun to play in." - Tampa's Dan Boyle.

Synopsis: The Devils had the best penalty killing in the East at 85.2 per cent while the Lightning were 28th overall at 78.4 . . . The Devils are the lowest-scoring team among the 16 that made the playoffs . . . A question is how the Devils react to GM Lou Lamoriello taking over from Claude Julien behind the bench only last week . . . Brodeur and Devils defence should hold off Bolts' attack from Vincent Lacavalier and Martin St. Louis . . . The East's No. 7 seed has knocked off the No. 2 six times in the last nine years.

NY Rangers (6) at Atlanta (3)

Opener: Thursday 7:30 p.m. ET.

Season series: 3-1 Thrashers.

Last playoff meeting: Thrashers' first time in playoffs.

Last spring: Rangers lost 4-0 in first round to New Jersey; Thrashers missed playoffs.

In the nets: New York's Henrik Lundqvist dropped slightly from last season, but still posted strong numbers (2.34 GGA, .917 save percentage); Thrashers' Kari Lehtonen was decent (2.79 GGA, .912 save percentage).

Synopsis: Atlanta's special teams were weak - 23rd on the power play at 16.5 per cent and 26th in penalty killing at 79.8, while Rangers were top 12 in both (18.5 PP, 83.8 PK) . . . Both beefed up for the playoffs - Sean Avery to New York, Alexei Zhitnik and Keith Tkachuk to Atlanta . . . The two lineups could feature as many as 18 Europeans . . . Overall playoff experience could tip series in New York's favour . . . Watch for Hossa vs. Hossa.

Pittsburgh (5) at Ottawa (4)

Opener: Wednesday 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-1 Penguins.

Last playoff meeting: Never met.

Last spring: Senators lost conference semifinal 4-1 to Buffalo; Pens missed playoffs.

In the nets: A saw-off between Ottawa's combative Ray Emery (2.47 GGA, .918 save percentage) and Marc-Andre Fleury (2.83, .912).

Injury front: Pens defenceman Ryan Whitney missed the season finale with a sore groin.

Quote: "You work hard all season to get to this point. Now it's time to get going." - Crosby.

Synopsis: Having veterans Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts around will help the young Pittsburgh stars, but they are facing a defensively sound team with depth and that should give Ottawa a clear edge.



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