Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Round 1: Western Conference

LA vs. Vancouver
Once again, Vancouver sits atop the Western Conference. This year, though, the Canucks are faced with fewer expectations. Even though the Canucks earned the Presidents Trophy for a second year in a row, the team seems to be under the radar. Maybe Vancouver was shoved in hockey fans' faces so much last year that normal coverage seems "under the radar" now, but I digress.

Being the top seed means that Vancouver gets to face another hungry 8 seed. Last year, the Canucks were forced to face their nemesis, the Blackhawks in the first round. When Vancouver seemingly had the series wrapped up with a start of 3-0 in the series, the Hawks forced a 7-game series and only then did the Canucks finally close the door.

The Canucks are not ready to make the same mistake. After coming within one win from the Stanley Cup before choking in back-to-back games (including a home Game 7), it would be fair to guess that the Canucks are playing with a drive to make good on some unfinished business.

The Canucks seem to be a reverse of the Kings. Scoring is their forte and they've shown it as 5th place in goals per game at 2.9. However, when it comes to the playoffs, Luongo is a well-documented headcase. If the Kings crack Lou early, the Canucks are fortunate enough to have Schneider to fall back on.

However, the Canucks have not drawn a doormat opponent. The Kings have made early exits the past two postseasons and like the Canucks, probably feel they have something to prove. They stand a better chance this year than they have in the past. The Kings have finally found a way to score. As I wrote in my last post, Jeff Carter seems to be the answer for the Kings' previous scoring woes. With Carter likely returning from injury for the series, look to see if Carter can continue to be a presence on the score sheet. Defense and goaltending won't be an issue for LA with Doughty and Quick leading the way. The Kings might have a chance if the scoring continues. If not, the team will have to rely, yet again, on Jonathan Quick to be the team. And if trends me anything, then he won't be able to carry a team that cannot score.

If it weren't for Schneider, this series would be more of a toss-up. But even without Daniel Sedin (which it sounds like he'll be back for the series), the Canucks are a better team. The push to make the playoffs has likely sapped the Kings' strength and Kings fans will be disappointed once again.

Canucks in 5.

St. Louis vs. San Jose

In their previous four meetings, it was pretty clear who was the better team. St Louis swept the season series. No doubt, this was only one of the many amazing things the Blues did this regular season. For instance, the dominant goaltending duo in StL not only posted the league's best GAA at 1.9, they also posted the league's most shutouts with 15 (Elliott 9, Halak 6). However, this poses an interesting problem for St. Louis. Who should start? Elliott has the more impressive numbers, but Halak has the experience of leading the Habs to the Eastern Conference Finals.

More problems exist for the Blues, as well. For one, the Blues are entering the playoffs on the wrong trajectory. For as strong as they played in the regular season, the Blues limped through the final weeks of the season, winning only 4 of their final 12 games. As many of you know, one of the most important things that can decide a playoff winner is being hot at the right time. If this is true, the Blues should be concerned. Also, in hockey more than any other sport, experience is vitally important. It is nearly impossible for a green team to bear the grind of 4 consecutive 7-game series'. The Blues lack mightily in playoff experience. Sure, they have Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, who have playoff experience, but the team as a whole does not have much experience.

Conversely, the Sharks have plenty of playoff experience as a team. Unfortunately, their experience only includes one Conference Finals and a series of early exits. In an effort to build for the playoffs, the Sharks have added Stanley-Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi as well as a solid defenseman in Brent Burns. Normally a high-scoring offense, the Sharks have traded some offense for defense in order to better fit the playoff-winning prototype. The Sharks HAVE improved their defense, but is the offense good enough now to beat the REAL "Best Goalie Tandem in the NHL"? I say, "No."

The Sharks, much like the Kings, will likely be exhausted from scrapping for a place in the postseason. This matchup against a relentless St. Louis club will do them no favors. Beyond that, it's pretty obvious to see that the Blues just have this team's number. And no team can win with a a weak captain like Joe Thornton.

Blues in 4.

Phoenix vs. Chicago

Another contestant in the Pacific Division race, the Coyotes actually came out on top, saving them from almost certain death. However, the Yotes must now recover quickly and get prepared for a playoff-tested Blackhawks club. Unlike the Coyotes, the Blackhawks have been pretty confident in their playoff spot for a few weeks and have been getting in a rhythm for the playoffs. Even without captain Toews and defensive leader, Keith, the Hawks put together a nice stretch toward the end of the season. Corey Crawford seems to have found his game again. And Patrick Kane is scoring points again. All things to be feared by the Coyotes.

However, the Blackhawks have plenty to be afraid of, too. Mike Smith is not the Mike Smith of old. The desert has been good to him. A .930 SV% doesn't happen by accident. And Smith is still rolling, adding 3 shutouts to his stats in the last weeks of the season. The Hawks also need to beware of the Coyotes spread attack. Only one player outshines the rest and that's Ray Whitney. The rest put up decent numbers, making it hard to key in on a particular player or line.

The Hawks also need to look at their shortcomings this season. Goaltending, defense, and power play have all been issues this season. These problems have ebbed of late, but hardly demonstrate a full turnaround. As I said earlier, Crawford seems to have found his game, at the moment. Defense has gotten better with the addition of Johnny Oduya. And the power play was okay the last few games. However, the Hawks have also developed a bad habit of backing down, giving up leads, and allowing games to go beyond the 3rd period. The Blackhawks need to find a way to lock down and not give the Coyotes anything easily, because a gritty team like Phoenix will be sure to take it.

Look for a tough series out of these two teams. The Blackhawks have more experience and a history of making it past the first round (unlike the Coyotes). The Coyotes play a playoff-style game year-round. However, the Coyotes "score by committee" approach to the game hasn't done them any favors in the playoffs the last two years. And if we're honest with ourselves, we know they don't deserve to be a 3 seed. I'm giving the Blackhawks the edge in this series, but it won't be by much.

Blackhawks in 7.

Nashville vs. Detroit

This series is sure to be a classic. Two teams from the best division in hockey face off. The Red Wings boast a wealth of playoff experience and star players that can carry them deep into the playoffs once again. The Predators are becoming perennial contenders and have gone deeper into the playoffs with each postseason. Can the Predators continue this trend?

The Predators' problem in the playoffs before was that they did not have enough of what I call "star power". Similar to the Coyotes, the Predators scored "by committee". This year, the Predators have "gone for broke" to make a deep playoff push. They re-acquired Alexander Radulov after he decided to come back at the conclusion of his KHL club's season. They also made moves to acquire Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill, and Andrei Kostitsyn. Radulov was a top scorer in the KHL and brings a decent amount of "star power" to Nashville. Hal Gill will strengthen what is already a strong defense in Nashville. Gaustad and Kostitsyn won't hurt the team either. The Predators clearly have their best shot to do something in the playoffs in the team's history. Their home ice advantage, held onto by the Blackhawks who defeated the Wings in their final game of the season, will be an extra bonus, as the Red Wings have not been a good visiting team this season.

However, the Wings have so much history of success in the playoffs that I'm not even going to begin to explain it. If you watch hockey, you know what I'm talking about. The Wings also have not changed much since their success. Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Pavel Datsyuk all remain on the team. Jimmy Howard is having a season to remember. This team can definitely match and overcome the Predators with "star power".

This series should be a dog fight. The season series was split, so that gives no edge to either team. As I said before, the Wings were not good as a road team this year, but they were by far the best home team in the NHL. The Predators have done a lot to improve their team, but if the Wings can steal one of the first two games, look for them to take the series. Unfortunately for the Predators, even though they have their best team yet, they still drew a tough opponent. Look for the Wings experience to dash the hopes of the Predators yet again.

Wings in 7.

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