Eastern Conference

No. 1 Buffalo (53-22-7) vs. No. 8 New York Islanders (40-30-12)

Speed, balance, and the steady guidance of coach Lindy Ruff make the

Sabres

one of the Stanley Cup favorites. Strong leadership comes from Chris Drury, and Daniel Briere is among the league's most creative centers. Both can become unrestricted free agents on July 1.

The Islanders finished strong and squeezed into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, and will need to continue their momentum to stay with Buffalo. General manager Garth Snow, a former Flyers goalie, made one of the best trade-deadline moves by acquiring heart-and-soul forward Ryan Smyth from Edmonton. But a head injury to high-priced goalie Rick DiPietro means the Islanders must rely on untested Wade Dubielewicz.

Prediction: Sabres in five.

No. 2 New Jersey (49-24-9) vs. No. 7 Tampa Bay (44-33-5)

Goalie Martin Brodeur has won three Cups with the Devils and goes into the playoffs with a single-season record of 48 wins. New Jersey doesn't have a player in the top 50 in scoring, but its suffocating style and playoff savvy more than compensate. The onus is on Lou Lamoriello, the brilliant general manager who fired Claude Julien and moved behind the bench with two weeks remaining in the season.

For the Lightning, Vincent Lecavalier led the league in scoring and Martin St. Louis wasn't far behind as both surpassed 100 points. Statistically, Brad Richards had an off season, but he has proven himself in the playoffs. The Big Three led the Lightning to the Cup in 2004. In a surprising, Tampa Bay had a poor power play and its goaltending is questionable.

Prediction: Devils in six.

No. 3 Atlanta (43-28-11) vs. No. 6 New York Rangers (42-30-10)

Coach Bob Hartley won the Cup with Colorado in 2001, but the Thrashers have several players with little or no playoff experience, including young goalie Kari Lehtonen. Defenseman Alexei Zhitnik averaged nearly a point a game after arriving from the Flyers, and forwards Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk form an explosive tandem.

Slumps and injuries marked the

Rangers'

uneven season, but the leadership of Cup veteran Brendan Shanahan will factor heavily. Jaromir Jagr had his 15th straight 70-point season and has proved he can carry a team. Michael Nylander and Martin Straka each had 26 goals. Poised goalie Henrik Lundqvist must hold up against the Thrashers' dangerous power play.

Prediction: Rangers in six.

No. 4 Ottawa (48-25-9) vs. No. 5 Pittsburgh (47-24-11).

This is the most intriguing first-round series. The

Senators

pulled together after a terrible early season and must be considered legitimate contenders, with one of the league's top trios - Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza - leading a high-scoring offense. Considered a contender the last five seasons, Ottawa may be running out of time. The pressure is on.

This will be the first playoff appearance for the Penguins' sensational 19-year-old, Sidney Crosby, who seems brash and confident enough to handle the pressure. The Penguins have two other young stars in Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and may need to win now before they can no longer afford to keep together the gifted threesome.

Prediction: Penguins in seven.

Western Conference

No. 1 Detroit (50-19-13) vs. No. 8 Calgary (43-29-10)

The beat goes on for the

Red Wings

regardless of how many key players move on or retire. They have the league's top group of defensemen, led by the invaluable Nicklas Lidstrom. Will 45-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios ever slow down? There is no sign of that yet. If 42-year-old Dominik Hasek doesn't hold up, Chris Osgood, who won the Cup in 1998, is hardly a dropoff.

The Flames are a tough No. 8 seed and got an offensive boost with the addition of Alex Tanguay, who usually plays well against the Wings. Forward Jarome Iginla and defenseman Dion Phaneuf are anchors at both ends of the ice. Former Flyer Daymond Langkow, one of Calgary's top four scorers, would look good in orange and black these days.

Prediction: Red Wings in six.

No. 2 Anaheim (48-20-14) vs. No. 7 Minnesota (48-26-8).

The Ducks were three wins short of last year's final and the core of the team remains, led by veterans Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald. Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger form the best tandem of defensemen in the league, and the power play was the league's third best.

No team was better than the Wild the last month of the season, and coach Jacques Lemaire knows how to frustrate opposing offenses. The team got better after losing No. 1 goalie Manny Fernandez to a knee injury, enabling rookie goalie Niklas Backstrom to show his stuff. Again, though, he's a rookie.

Prediction: Ducks in six.

No. 3 Vancouver (49-26-7) vs. No. 6 Dallas (50-25-7)

Aside from Martin Brodeur, the Canucks' Roberto Luongo seems to be the only goalie capable of carrying his team to the Cup. Nearly lost in Brodeur's chase of Bernie Parent's single-season record for wins, Luongo was right there with 46 victories, two fewer than Brodeur. But these are Luongo's first playoffs.

With only one 20-goal scorer - Jere Lehtinen - the Stars have had to overcome a low-scoring offense and injuries to star center Mike Modano, and did so behind the goaltending of Marty Turco. The Luongo-Turco matchup in the nets should be the best of the first round. Like Luongo, Turco must prove his worth in the postseason.

Prediction: Canucks in seven.

No. 4 Nashville (51-23-8) vs. No. 5 San Jose (51-26-5)

The Predators have great overall speed and one of the best penalty-killing units, crucial in post-season play. They've had problems maintaining a full lineup because of injuries, and it will be interesting to see how Peter Forsberg holds up. Nashville believes it has two No. 1 goalies in Chris Mason and Tomas Vokoun, who each had five shutouts.

Joe Thornton led the rough-and-tumble Sharks with his second straight 100-point season, and the addition of Bill Guerin gives them veteran support. San Jose doesn't get much scoring from the blue line but has the league's second-best power play, and Thornton has been difficult for the Predators to handle.

Prediction: Predators in seven.

- Ray Parrillo