You've got your dominant teams (Detroit) and your feel-good stories (Carolina, New York Rangers) and your sexy picks (Anaheim, San Jose). Then, there's the Dallas Stars. Who? Exactly. It's hard to say exactly how a team that had 112 points and was a solid second in the Western Conference flies under the radar, but that's the Stars.
Many expected Dallas (and Detroit) to fall back to the pack with the new collective-bargaining agreement. Yet, behind the inventive, uncompromising coaching of Dave Tippett, the Stars have turned into a team that will be very difficult to dislodge from the playoffs.
Marty Turco has put an inconsistent start to the season behind him to provide solid netminding, while Mike Modano shook off a subpar Olympics to carry the Stars into the postseason with his best play of the season. Jason Arnott, Jere Lehtinen and the rest of the Finnish posse in Dallas have forged a strong team that makes them difficult to play against at both ends. Although they won't blow you out of the rink (the Stars' power play was a mediocre 20th overall), they allow little in the way of offensive opportunities.
The Avalanche, another former Western Conference juggernaut, find themselves in the playoffs in spite of a patchwork lineup that features Patrice Brisebois and former Star Pierre Turgeon instead of Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg. There's still the unflappable Joe Sakic to lead from down the middle and the towering Rob Blake, who also put behind a disappointing first half.
But this version of the Avalanche hardly inspires fear and loathing. The biggest difference between the Avalanche of old and this version will be between the pipes, where GM Pierre Lacroix is hoping reclamation project Jose Theodore can ignore his recent past and lead the Avalanche on a long postseason run. It's a long shot at best.
Why the Stars will win: From the goal line on out, the Stars are just a little bit better than the Avalanche. Turco should be able to outperform Theodore, who looks nothing like the goalie who won Vezina and Hart trophies in 2002.
On the back end, the Stars boast one of the most underrated defenders of the season in Sergei Zubov, who leads a solid, if mostly anonymous, defensive corps. Zubov's 71 points were second among defensemen to Nicklas Lidstrom's 80 points. He averages 26:30 in ice time and that number will go up. He also chipped in nine power-play goals. Defensively, Tippett runs a tight ship as only Detroit and Calgary allowed fewer goals among the Western Conference playoff teams.
Offensively, the Stars have good skill with Lehtinen, who's having a career season, and rookie Jussi Jokinen, who has added unexpected offensive pop. Watch for Arnott to continue a quietly stellar season in the postseason.
Why the Avalanche will lose: Head coach Joel Quenneville has done a terrific job with a lineup that looked not-so-playoff-worthy at the start of the season. The fact the Avs slumped down the stretch, losing 10 of 16, might be a reflection of the roosters coming home to roost.
Although both the power play and penalty kill are ranked in the top 10 in the league, the Avalanche will miss rookie Marek Svatos, defenseman Ossi Vaananen and veteran forward Steve Konowalchuk, all of whom will be out for at least the first round. Alex Tanguay is having a fine season, but is just back from a knee injury and his durability is an issue. All in all, this suggests the Avs will struggle to match the offensive balance the Stars possess.
And then there's the goaltending. How long does Quenneville wait before giving Theodore, a notoriously slow starter in the playoffs, the hook in favor of Peter Budaj, who handled himself well after starter David Aebischer was dispatched to Montreal? Unlike Dallas, which knows Turco will rebound from an off night or bad goal, the psyche in the Avalanche dressing room vis-à-vis Theodore is bound to be much more delicate.
Prediction: Dallas in five.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.