Breaking down the conference semifinals

Here’s what to look for when the conference semifinals of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin this week:

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators

Strengths: Both teams enter this series on emotional highs. The Canucks finally eliminated their playoff nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Predators have advanced to the second round for the first time in franchise history. The normally low-scoring Predators enter this round with the second-best playoff goals-per-game average. The Canucks have a better penalty kill and more offensive star power. Both teams possess solid goaltending and considerable blue-line depth.

Weaknesses: The Predators lack big-name scorers and could find goals tougher to come by against a deeper Canucks defense. Both teams’ starting goaltenders struggled in the first round. The Sedin twins struggled offensively in the final four games against Chicago.

Players to watch: Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo and Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne were Vezina trophy nominees this season, but both were shaky in the first round. Their teams’ respective postseason hopes rest upon them regaining their Vezina-worthy form.

Who will win? The teams match up well in goal and on defense, but the Canucks’ offensive depth should give them the edge. Canucks in six.

Detroit Red Wings vs. San Jose Sharks

Strengths: The Red Wings possess considerably more postseason experience, they had nearly two weeks to rest and Henrik Zetterberg is expected to return from a knee injury. The Sharks have played well in the clutch in the first round, with three of their four victories coming in overtime. Both clubs have considerable scoring depth. The Sharks could possess a mental edge over the Wings, having bested the latter in the playoffs last year.

Weaknesses: The Wings are older and more banged-up than the Sharks, which could become a factor if the series goes long. Both teams have been weak in the playoffs on the penalty kill. Sharks goalie Antti Niemi struggled in the first round against the Kings.

Players to watch: Detroit’s two-way forward Pavel Datsyuk remains the linchpin of the Red Wings offense and defense. Sharks forward Ryane Clowe has emerged as his team’s best player in the playoffs.

Who will win? This conference semifinal rematch should be a more evenly matched and a longer series than last season’s five-game triumph by the Sharks, but the end result should still be the same for San Jose. Sharks in seven.

Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Strengths: Bruins goalie and Vezina nominee Tim Thomas overcame a shaky start in the first round and was key to his club’s seven-game victory over Montreal. The Flyers possess considerable offensive punch, led by Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux and the emerging James van Riemsdyk. Both clubs play a physical style with a nasty edge.

Weaknesses: The Flyers played musical goalies in the first round and appear to have lost faith in once-promising Sergei Bobrovsky and 2010 playoff hero Michael Leighton. The Bruins had the worst power play of the first round, failing to score with the man advantage. The Flyers’ top regular-season goal-scorer, Jeff Carter, missed the last three games of the first round because of a knee injury. Defenseman Tomas Kaberle has failed to improve the Bruins’ blue-line mobility.

Players to watch: Milan Lucic was the Bruins’ leading goal-scorer in the regular season but has yet to tally in this year’s postseason. Flyers veteran defenseman Chris Pronger recently returned from injury, and it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to round back into all-star form.

Who will win? While the Bruins have a definite advantage between the pipes, the Flyers appear to have the edge in overall depth at forward and defense, plus a potential psychological edge from rallying back from an 0-3 deficit to upset the Bruins last spring. Flyers in seven.

Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Strengths: Both teams possess explosive offensive punch, with the Capitals led by the two Alexanders (Ovechin and Semin) and the Lightning by Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. Both were also strong on the penalty kill in the first round, and the Lightning possessed the third-best power play. The goaltenders — Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson, Washington’s Michal Neuvirth — performed very well in the first round.

Weaknesses: The Lightning gave up the second-most shots of all teams in the first round while generating the fewest. The Capitals are under considerable pressure to atone for their recent postseason failures, and, for the second straight year, they face an underdog with nothing to lose.

Players to watch: Stamkos has had a quiet playoff so far, generating points in only two of the seven games against Pittsburgh. Capitals star center Nicklas Backstrom was even more quiet, earning only an assist in five playoff games in the first round.

Who will win? No one should make the mistake of underestimating the Lightning, but the Capitals’ improved two-way play, goaltending depth and determination to silence their critics and become a true Stanley Cup contender should carry them through to victory. Capitals in six.