NHL Western Conference Playoffs: First Round Preview
Its been said that the playoffs are the real season, when the men are separated from the boys and the regular season means nothing. Well, it is that time of the year for the NHL and after a grueling 82-game schedule, 16 teams are in and ready to battle for one of sports’ most recognizable trophies — the Stanley Cup. The following is a breakdown of the Western Conference first-round match-ups, with predictions provided below each series.
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
Last year’s Western Conference champs, the Canucks, were a dominant force from top to bottom and appear to be at least 95% of their selves from 2010-11. They are a high-powered offensive club who prides themselves on their name and location, providing an intimidating factor. They blew through the Northwest Division and are the only team from the division to make the playoffs.
The Kings on the other hand blew their chance at the Pacific Division crown but played well enough down the stretch to be considered an upset special. They have a Vezina Trophy caliber goaltender in Jonathan Quick and nice offensive weapons in Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards, but their defense is suspect.
All in all, this should be the most entertaining series to watch with the abundance of offensive talent but the Canucks are rolling into the postseason. They are the more physical team and should wear down LA on both ends.
Canucks in 5
(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
The coaching job that never gets noticed is what Barry Trotz is doing as the Predators head man. He has led Nashville to six of a possible seven playoff appearances since the lockout but never gets any real credit. The Predators are a hard-nosed bunch, working their tails off game in and game out and pride themselves on it. With Pekka Rinne between the pipes and Shea Weber patrolling the blue line, they are a stout team that consistently hangs in there and has brought it this year.
Concerning the Red Wings, one of hockey’s most historic franchises, this year hasn’t exactly been the kindest. It’s odd seeing them not having home-ice advantage in the first round but they are still a team that nobody wants to face…ever. And why would you, with Nicklas Lidstrom playing defense and having to face Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Valteri Filppula on the offensive end. Not to mention Jimmy Howard in net, who might be the USA’s starting goaltender in 2014.
The Predator’s defense should cause problems for Detroit’s weapons and having home-ice helps, though Detroit fans are well-traveled and often infiltrate opposing arenas with ease. This should be a nice battle of defense vs. offense but when in doubt, always look at the goaltending. In this case, Rinne > Howard. Plus, I hate the Red Wings
Predators in 6
(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks
Finally, after years of futility, heartbreak and close calls, the Coyotes won the Pacific Division this year and did it in great fashion, winning their final five games to clinch the crown. They are led by the off-season pick-up of the year, goaltender Mike Smith and also received major contributions from Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata offensively. This is a team full of grit and determination, led by arguably the best coach in the NHL in Dave Tippett, who has now taken this beleaguered franchise to the playoffs three straight years with minimal talent and a hamstrung budget.
The Blackhawks on the other hand are two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup and while they have experienced a drop-off recently, are still loaded. However, most of that talent is with their forwards, such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, as their defense has regressed and there goaltending has fallen off.
Its hard for me to be objectionable when looking at this series, seeing as the Coyotes are my favorite team. I like Chicago as a city and rooted for the Blackhawks in 2009-10 after Phoenix was eliminated, but in the playoffs, as said above, goaltending always rises above all, and nobody has been better recently than Smith.
Coyotes in 5
(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks
On November 6, 2011, with a record of 6-7-0, the Blues fired Davis Payne and replaced him with Ken Hitchcock. Since then, they have gone 43-15-11 and were in line for home ice advantage throughout the playoffs until their recent stumbles. They won’t dazzle you by any means but they are a staunch, defensive hockey team whose backbone is their goaltenders, that being the tandem of Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak.
The Sharks, after having dominated the Pacific Division for the previous couple seasons, fell back this year. A team built on offense that occasionally has the knack for defense will bite you in the ass eventually because while you can score goals, stopping them is even more important. San Jose’s top threats in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are not having great years and their net minding is not that good.
The Blues are stingy and while they do not light up the scoreboard, they don’t allow the other team to either. They are a team built for the playoffs and should play that way in the first round. The Sharks are built to choke every season and with the drop-off this year, don’t expect much from them.
Blues in 5