Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores his 51st...

Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores his 51st goal in the second period against the New York Islanders. (April 11, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

The NHL playoffs begin Wednesday night without the Rangers and Islanders, the first postseason since 2001 that both teams missed the cut.

Instead, there are two sub-90 point teams in the tournament for the first time in the post-lockout era; there are conference champions in the Caps and Sharks who still haven't made Stanley Cup believers because of goaltending issues, and there are only two series out of eight in the first round in which the higher-seeded team won the season series over its lower-seeded opponent.

In short, this is wide open. A first-round preview:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Ovie yes, Jose no

No. 1 Capitals vs. No. 8 Canadiens

The Caps have Alex Ovechkin leading the most potent offense in the league, plus an underrated defense that has played far better than anyone would have imagined. And yet, the top team in the league this season is going with Jose Theodore, whose gaudy 30-7-7 record wasn't matched by his 2.81 goals-against average, which wasn't even among the top 30 goaltenders. Montreal's Jaroslav Halak could steal a game or two for the Habs, who also have a solid power play.

Prediction: Caps in 6

Brodeur on the skids

No. 2 Devils vs. No. 7 Flyers

No one could possibly say the Flyers, with Brian Boucher in goal, have a goaltending advantage over Martin Brodeur and the Devils come playoff time. But the Flyers, who squeaked into the postseason with Sunday's shootout win over the Rangers, seem to have Brodeur's number, winning five of six this season. And Brodeur hasn't won a playoff series in two years. If Scott Hartnell and Daniel Carcillo do the Sean Avery number on Brodeur early, this one could get out of hand.

Prediction: Flyers in 6

Miller's time

No. 3 Sabres vs. No. 6 Bruins

A matchup of Vezina Trophy front-runner Ryan Miller and up-and-coming goaltender Tuukka Rask, with a lot of guys who struggle to score facing both of them. Sabres have the edge with Miller and a group of hardworking forwards.

Prediction: Sabres in 6

March of the Penguins

No. 4 Penguins vs. No. 5 Senators

Strange that the 4-5 matchup is the most lopsided, but the defending champion Pens have loads of firepower and solid goaltending; the Sens are relying on playoff neophyte Brian Elliott in goal and don't have their best playoff performer, Alex Kovalev, out with a torn ACL.

Prediction: Pens in 4

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Can San Jose findthe way?

No. 1 Sharks vs. No. 8 Avalanche

San Jose is back on top of the West, where it seems to be every year before faltering in the postseason. The Avalanche has defied expectations all season, and Joe Sacco's young crew will certainly work hard all the way through this series. The Sharks better come to play or it will be another frustrating playoff in California.

Prediction: Sharks in 7

Chicago firepower

No. 2 Hawks vs. No. 7 Predators

Chicago is another high-flying, high-scoring team with questions in goal. The Preds have overachieved yet again, but Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will be too much.

Prediction: Hawks in 5

Vancouver good as gold

No. 3 Canucks vs. No. 6 Kings

Vancouver withstood its month-long road trip around the Olympics to finish strong, and Roberto Luongo could follow up his Olympic gold with a strong playoff run. The Kings are back in the postseason for the first time since 2002, but without a strong start by goaltender Jonathan Quick, this stay won't last long.

Prediction: Canucks in 5

Wings too hot

No. 4 Coyotes vs. No. 5 Red Wings

Phoenix's incredible run to home-ice advantage in the first round despite a yearlong sale process has been a great story, and Dave Tippett is one of the league's best coaches. But the Wings were 17-3-2 over the final quarter of the season and have too much experience to let down against the feel-good Coyotes.

Prediction: Red Wings in 5

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