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Rangers could upset Caps in best NHL east match-up, Bruins a heavy favourite

The New York Rangers' showdown with Alex Ovechkin and the free-wheeling Washington Capitals should be the feature series in the opening round of playoffs in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

An all-Pennsylvania battle between Pittsburgh and Philadephia has great promise as well, while there is a classic battle between Montreal and Boston and a more recent rivalry between New Jersey and Carolina.

Here's our picks for the first round in the East:

No. 1 Boston vs. No. 8 Montreal - The Bruins owned the Canadiens this season, winning five in a row after losing their first matchup of the season in overtime back in October.

But history favours Montreal, which has won 24 of 31 playoff series between the two so-called Original Six clubs, including the last three - in 2002, 2004 and last year.

A year ago, the roles were reversed, with Montreal the top seed in the east and Boston No. 8, but the Canadiens needed seven tough games to beat them in the post-season.

The Bruins are a big, tough team with seven players with more than 20 goals, the league's leading goalie in goals-against average (2.10) and save percentage (.933) in Tim Thomas, a Norris Trophy candidate on defence in Zdeno Chara and the NHL's fourth-best power play.

The Canadiens look like they will start the series without their best defenceman Andrei Markov after barely scraping into the playoffs.

Prediction - Bruins in five.

No. 2 Washington vs. No. 7 NY Rangers - On paper, everything favours the Capitals, who went 3-0-1 against the Rangers this season. New York hasn't won in Washington since Feb. 10, 2007.

Led by dynamic offensive stars Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and defenceman Mike Green, the Caps had the NHL's second-best power play with a 25.2 per cent success rate, while New York was second-worst at 13.9.

But the Rangers also had the league's best penalty killing until, while Washington was in the middle of the pack.

New York also has a wide edge in goal with Henrik Lundqvist, a Vezina Trophy candidate the last three years, against Jose Theodore, despite his fine 32-17-5 record this season.

And the Rangers are a much-improved team since trade deadline acquisitions of centre Nik Antropov, defence veteran Derek Morris and the edgy, always controversial Sean Avery.

If there is an upset in the East, this is it.

Prediction - Rangers in seven.

No. 3 New Jersey vs. No. 6 Carolina - The Hurricanes stormed into the playoffs with a 13-1-1 streak down the stretch and hope they have momentum on their side, even though they closed with a pair of losses, including one in New Jersey.

Carolina goalie Cam Ward, who outduelled New Jersey's Martin Brodeur en route to a Stanley Cup in 2006, has also been hot, setting a franchise record with nine straight wins from Mar. 18 to April 7.

Coach Paul Maurice, who went back to Carolina to replace Peter Laviolette in mid-season, got a boost when former star winger Eric Cole was re-acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline.

But the Devils, who closed by winning four of five games after a late-season dip, is a team stacked with proven veterans that is led on attack by 45-goal scorer Zach Parise and a rejuvenated Patrick Elias.

And even if Brodeur eased off after breaking Patrick Roy's career wins record on his return from a torn biceps, the three-time Cup winner remains among the league's best pressure goalies.

Prediction - Devils in six.

No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Philadelphia - The Penguins are also hot going into the playoffs - 18-3-4 since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien behind the bench.

But they are also a much-improved team since the return of power play point man Sergei Gonchar in mid-February and the trade deadline acquisitions of Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.

With two of the league's three 100-point men - Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin - and with Marc-Andre Fleury solid in goal, the Pens are looking at a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup final.

They won four of six games against the Flyers this season.

The Flyers bring a league-leading six 25-goal scorers, including 46-goal man Jeff Carter, and have a premier two-way centre in Mike Richards, but may not have enough on defence or in goal, where Martin Biron is the starter, to hold off the Pittsburgh attack.

Prediction - Penguins in six.


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