DETROIT RED WINGS. Once again, an excellent mix of veterans and good young players. Unlike last season, however, they have a more playoff-tested goaltender in Dominik Hasek, who's avoided the injury bug and has played well. Not a lot of weaknesses with this team, although all eyes will be on leading scorer Pavel Datsyuk, who to date doesn't have a strong playoff record to match his regular season stats. Their experience could give them the edge in winning the Conference.

ANAHEIM DUCKS. One of the best teams in the league this season. Goalie J-S Giguere has bounced back from last season's struggles, they possess two of the league's best defencemen in Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, and their offensive attack is led by the ageless Teemu Selanne. They're also a very physical team, which could be wearing on their post-season opponents.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS. Their strong defensive game and the superb goaltending of Roberto Luongo made them one of the hottest teams in the league in the second half of the season. The Sedin Twins have finally answered their critics, leading the Canucks offensively. There's concerns about their offensive depth beyond the Sedins line as the Canucks will be the lowest-scoring team entering the Conference playoffs, which could be their achilles heel.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS. Their deadline day acquisition of Peter Forsberg indicates this team is going for the Cup this season. With their depth in goal, the blueline and offensively, the Preds should be one tough opponent this season, but as a team they've yet to get past the first round and it could test their endurance. Veterans Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott and JP Dumont will be expected to lead the way.

DALLAS STARS. They're only a handful of points from first overall, but the Stars will be dogged by two nagging point heading into the playoffs. First, pressure will be on goalie Marty Turco to finally prove he can win in the post-season. Second, the Stars will be the second-lowest scoring playoff team in the West and will have to get more production from their leading scorers if they're to go deep in this year's playoffs.

SAN JOSE SHARKS. They've had a very strong second half, thanks to leading scorer Joe Thornton and their strong goaltending between the pipes, but there's some concern over their offensive depth and lack of an experienced puckmoving defenceman. The Thornton line will be the focus of opposition checkers so it may be once again up to Patrick Marleau and his linemates to step up as they did in last year's playoffs.

MINNESOTA WILD. My dark horse in the West. Like their last appearance in 2003, this year's version has top-notch goaltending, a strong defensive game, and the offence of Marian Gaborik. What's different about this year's Wild is their depth at forward, where veterans Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston join youngsters Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikko Koivu in providing the Wild with a more balanced offensive attack. Take this club lightly at your peril.

CALGARY FLAMES. Struggled in the season's final days to clinch a playoff berth. The Flames are a better offensive teams than in past years thanks to more scoring depth, but there are concerns about their defensive game, which had previously been its strength. Even star goalie Miikka Kiprusoff seemed to struggle at times this season. "Kipper" and the Flames defence will have to step it up if this club hopes to go deep in this year's playoffs.


BUFFALO SABRES. Led the Conference all season long. Blessed with tremendous depth that allowed them to continue playing well even when numerous injuries struck their key players. Their blazing speed at both ends of the ice makes them a very difficult team to skate with. One potential weak point, however, could be goalie Ryan Miller, who appears to have occasionally struggled this season under a heavier than usual workload. They've also struggled at times down the stretch. Still, they're considered the favourites to win the East.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS. Martin Brodeur's outstanding goaltending and the club's renowned defensive system has once again served them well, but there appears to be some problems facing the Devils heading into the playoffs. Scoring winger Brian Gionta just returned from a groin injury, playmaker Scott Gomez has been banged up, and Patrik Elias has not been scoring at the same torrid pace of a year ago. As long as Brodeur plays well and they stick to their system the Devils are a dangerous opponent, but if their offence sputters they could be in trouble in the post-season.

ATLANTA THRASHERS. Thanks to some key acqusitions - notably Keith Tkachuk- prior to the trade deadline, the Thrashers stabilized down the stretch to clinch their first playoff berth in franchise history. Tkachuk, Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk power a deadly offensive attack, and goaltender Kari Lehtonen can at times win games seemingly by himself. However, there isn't much scoring depth beyond the aforementioned forwards, and their struggling defensive game could hamper their prospects of a lengthy playoff run.

OTTAWA SENATORS. Rallied from a woeful start to once again place among the top teams in the East. As always they play a good overall team game and are blessed with individual talents like Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, and goalie Ray Emery has emerged as a quality starting goalie. Still, as always the big question looms: can this team finally shake the label of playoff choke artists? There isn't much scoring depth past Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson, and if they're shut down again as they were last spring, the Sens could once again face early elimination.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS. Most of their best players are young, entertaining and have exceeded all expectations, turning the Penguins into one of the East's best teams. However, whiz kids like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney and Marc-Andre Fleury have never played in the NHL post-season, and that inexperience could be a problem. They'll look to veterans like Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts and Sergei Gonchar for leadership. A bigger concern is their overall defensive game, which has been average at best this season, and could be a fatal flaw.

NEW YORK RANGERS. One of the league's hottest teams down the stretch, the Blueshirts appear to have finally put behind them the maddening inconsistency that plagued them throughout the season. Indeed, the Rangers may be a better team heading into this year's playoffs than they were a year ago. First-year Ranger Brendan Shanahan has brought in veteran scoring skills, experience and leadership, recently-acquired pest Sean Avery has provided a much-needed boost of gritty skills and toughness, whilst goalie Henrik Lundqvist is healthier and playing much better than he was a year ago.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING. Like the Rangers the Bolts teetered on the brink of playoff elimination before rallying thanks to their high-octane offence. Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have powered their offensive attack all season and could be lethal if unchecked in the postseason. However, their defensive game is still plagued by inconsistency, and their shaky goaltending tandem of Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis could be their postseason achilles heel.

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