The Two Teams You Don't Want to Face in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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↵It happens every year. Come spring, there's always at least one stunning upset in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a series that upsets the apple cart and sends one team that came into the playoffs with high expectations to the golf course about two months too early. ↵

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↵The first round of the NCAA men's hockey tournament last weekend provided an object lesson in why top seeds ought to proceed with caution when it comes to postseason tournaments. There, the top seeds in three regions fell in the first round. When the Frozen Four gets under way on April 9 in Washington, Boston University will be the only top seed remaining. The rest of the field is less heralded programs from Vermont, Miami (Ohio) and Bemidji State. ↵

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↵So what are the teams you ought to be watching out for when the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin on April 15? In short, you're looking for a team that knows how to simplify its game in front of an elite goalie while being able to survive the physical pounding of a best-of-7 series. ↵

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↵In recent weeks, my dark-horse pick in the Eastern Conference kept changing. At first, I was apt to tab the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they've played so well of late that seeing them take a series from a higher seed would hardly be a surprise. Ditto with the Carolina Hurricanes, whose late-season run has them poised to climb into the top half of the ladder in the East. ↵

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↵So who's left? After Tuesday's tidy 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils, I'm picking the New York Rangers as the one team you'd most like to avoid from the bottom of the draw. The travails of the Broadway Blue Shirts have been chronicled pretty completely this season, from the hot start to a midseason funk that cost coach Tom Renney his job. ↵

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↵But since the trade deadline, this is a different Rangers team, thanks to the additions of winger Nik Antropov (seven goals, four assists), defenseman Derek Morris, and most of all, the re-importation of troubled winger Sean Avery (four goals, five assists and 24 penalty since his return). In the 13 games since Avery returned, the Rangers are 8-4-1 and are about as close to a lock as you can find for the postseason at this point at the bottom of the draw in the East. Toss in elite goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the best penalty kill in all of hockey, and the Rangers are poised to surprise. ↵

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↵In the Western Conference, there are a number of teams to choose from at the bottom of the draw. With Jason Arnott out of the lineup, I've been impressed with the way that the Nashville Predators have soldiered on, but with the most recent loss of Martin Erat, I don't think they can afford to lose any more parts. The St. Louis Blues are everybody's flavor of the moment, but the team is too green to do any damage even if it keeps it tenuous hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. ↵

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↵Instead, I'm going to pick the team that had a letdown last weekend against those same Blues -- the Columbus Blue Jackets. Yes, the Blue Jackets lost twice the Blues over the weekend, but their overall profile augurs well for postseason success. In his rookie season, goalie Steve Mason has proved not only Calder-worthy, but that he has the sort of talent that can steal a game when the team in front of him isn't at its best. Toss in defense-minded coach Ken Hitchcock, along with a lineup that includes veterans who have enjoyed previous postseason success (Michael Peca, Mike Commodore, Jason Williams, Raffi Torres and Antoine Vermette), and there's every reason to expect the Blue Jackets will be a handful come the middle of April. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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