Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spencer's Playoff Predictions--Western Conference

(1) Canucks/(8) Blackhawks
The Vancouver Canucks are an easy favorite to win it all. They led the league from wire-to-wire this season with few--if any--slumps. After making two consecutive second-round exits (at the hands of the Blackhawks, no less), the Canucks added much-needed strength to their blueline (Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard). Adding gritty veterans Manny Malhotra, Jeff Tambellini, and Raffi Torres were also to their benefit. These players are all surrounding the talent that got them to the playoffs the last two years (the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, Mikael Samuelsson, Kevin Bieksa, Roberto Luongo). It's not surprising that the Nucks finished the season as Presidents Trophy-winners and had the greatest goal differential in the league (+77). The only areas of concern for Vancouver are the loss of Malhotra, the anchor to the Canucks' third line. Additionally, the Canucks have had trouble keeping their defense healthy. Lastly, Roberto Luongo has appeared to suffer collapses in the mental part of his game the last two years against the Hawks. However, this seemed to likely be because of Dustin Byfuglien's presence in front of the net. Without Big Buff in the way, will this be the year that the Canucks are able to move past the Blackhawks?

The defending Stanley Cup Champs have had a maddeningly inconsistent year capped-off by barely clinching a playoff spot, relying on the Wild to beat the Stars in the last game of the season. After parting with so many "role players" in the offseason, the Hawks had a difficult time getting their new faces to fill these roles. Thankfully, the Blackhawks were able to retain their core (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp). However, the Hawks were unable to avoid the "injury bug" as they had last season. All of the above-mentioned players missed at least a few games this year due to injury. This lack of consistency may end up costing the Hawks who are facing an opponent who clearly has their act together. The only real hope for this Chicago team is if they wer able to get in Vancouver's head--especially Luongo's--and remind them of their failures.

Canucks in 7.

(2) Sharks/(7) Kings
This has the potential to be the most lop-sided series in the first round. The Kings made the playoffs on the backs of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, and Jonathan Quick. Unfortunately for the Kings, Kopitar and Williams are done for the season. And if Jonathan Quick's performance in the final week of the season is any indication of what he'll do in the playoffs, the Kings are in bad shape.

The Sharks have been a sexy pick the last several years. With plenty of big names and the scoring to back it up, the Sharks were a difficult team to ignore. After making yet another early exit from last year's playoffs ( a 4-0 series sweep by the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals), the Sharks parted ways with netminder Evgeni Nabakov, who had always been a solid option in the regular season, but fell apart in the playoffs. Interestingly, the Sharks signed Antti Niemi, the goalie who thwarted their Cup hopes last season and ended up hoisting the Cup himself. Pair this playoff-tested goalie with an offense who has learned to be better two-way players and you have a playoff contender.

Sharks in 5.

(3) Red Wings/(6) Coyotes
The Coyotes are an interesting team. Shane Doan's 20 goals leads the team. Most people would take this as a sign of an anemic offense. However, ten other players on the roster have at least ten goals. this sort of player parity makes for a team who can score with any line. However, Phoenix's +5 goal differential this season may not be good enough to take down the perennial playoff contenders.

The history of the Red Wings is well-documented. One would need to go back two decades to find a season that the Wings didn't make the playoffs. The team is only one year separated from its last Stanley Cup Finals appearance and only two years removed from their last Stanley Cup Championship. The familiar cast is back (Zetterberg, Franzen, Holmstrom, Datsyuk, Lidstrom) and there is no reason to doubt them this year.

Red Wings in 6.

(4) Ducks/(5) Predators
The Ducks looked doomed when Jonas Hiller went out with a case of vertigo and Curtis McElhinney took over the starting role. However, the subsequent dumping of McElhinney and additions of Dan Ellis and Ray Emeryseem to give Ducks fans a reason to believe. The Ducks' offense should be a source of hope as well. Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, and Teemu Selanne lead the team in goals with 50, 34, and 31 respectively. I also can't question their meddle as the Ducks came from behind to win several important games down the stretch. Additionally, the Ducks have won 10 of their last 13 games. The last thing a team wants to face in the playoffs is a hot team, which is exactly what the Ducks have become.

The Predators might have been the last team in the West that anyone wanted to face in the first round of last year's playoffs. Although the Predators were only a 7th seed last year, their trap defense wasn't something any fast-paced team looked forward to. The Predators return to the playoffs this year two seeds higher and with a similar lineup. One significant departure to note is the loss of Dan Hamhuis to Vancouver. This may hurt the Preds chances agaisntthe goal-happy Ducks. However, the Ducks +4 goal differential might signify that the Ducks don't have a "stud" defense. Another point to consider is that the Ducks' goaltenders haven't seen playoff action for a few years. Ellis was a back-up last year and Emery spent a considerable amount of time on the DL. Even if Hiller comes back, I have doubts about his ability to snap into playoff form.

Predators in 7.

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