Sunday, April 11, 2010

Playoff Preview: Western Conference

It's a sad day for yours truly. Not only were my Rangers knocked out of the playoffs with a heartwrenching 2-1 shootout loss to the hated Flyers, but my Blackhawks lost to the Red Wings 3-2 in overtime. That not only meant that the Hawks will finish second in the conference and have to play a much tougher Nashville team instead of the Colorado Avalanche, but it also pushed my Kings down from 5th to 6th. Of the four teams at the top of the West, the ONLY team I really wanted the Kings to avoid playing was Vancouver. We'll get into the whys of that in a second, but just about everything that could go wrong today did.

The meaningful games are almost over; we're waiting on the result of a Buffalo-New Jersey game that's in progress as I type this to decide who gets 2nd in the East. The West, however, has been decided, and finally we can break down all the match-ups heading into the playoff excitement. So in search of anything to distract me from the heartbreak, let's dive right into it and make some predictions!

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
(Sharks won season series 2-1-1)

First of all, I'm not listing anyone's regular season records, because in my opinion you can throw that out the window once we get to the playoffs. How the teams did against each other back in that regular season is at least a little bit interesting, but I wouldn't read too much into that, either. As we all know, the playoffs are a whole different animal: more tight-checking and physical than regular season hockey could ever approach.

You can't talk about the San Jose Sharks without mentioning their playoff failures, most recently as the first seed against the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks. However, no one in San Jose should be too worried about history repeating itself this year. Colorado is almost an exact opposite of the Ducks team that knocked out the Sharks last year: the Ducks were a veteran team who got off to a poor start and then turned it on in a major way down the stretch to get again. They were a better team then their record showed, and they proved it by nearly eliminating the Red Wings in the second round. Colorado, on the other hand, is an incredibly young team who almost backed into the playoffs. They picked up a few big wins over the last week, including over the Sharks themselves, but the teams they beat were largely playing for nothing (or at least close to it). When the chips were down and the Avalanche had to beat the Calgary Flames to hold onto their spot last Friday, they lost. Only by getting some help from other teams did they hold off the Flames for the eighth and final playoff spot.

The Avs getting into the playoffs was clearly a great story. But I don't see how they can hold off a Sharks team that is hungry and out for blood (pardon the pun). There's simply no way this San Jose team will be anything but ready to play in the first round after what happened last year. I don't think the Sharks have what it takes to make it through the rest of the playoffs, but they shouldn't have much trouble here.

Prediciton: Sharks in four.

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
(Blackhawks won season series 4-2-0)

The Hawks are an interesting team to talk about right now. They followed the exact same pattern as last year: awful in March, really good in April. Of course, that doesn't guarantee they will have a post-season like last year's, and most fans of the Hawks will tell you that simply a trip to the conference finals won't satisfy them this year. It's Cup or bust for these Hawks, but to get there they have to get through a very tough Nashville team. Nashville is a fantastic defensive team, and one of the big problems the Hawks have had all season long is getting through the neutral zone against teams who know how to play that 1-2-2 style well. Those problems are only increased when you consider the fact that the Hawks are missing their best puck-carrying defenseman, Brian Campbell, for what will likely be this entire first-round (and perhaps the second-round as well, should they get that far). There's also the question of how rookie goaltender Antti Niemi will hold up under the playoff pressure, a valid question to be sure.

With all that said, I don't think the Predators have enough firepower to hang in there with the Hawks in a seven-game series. I've told you a lot of reasons why the Hawks might not win, but now let me tell you even more reasons why they will win: Jonathan Toews. Patrick Kane. Marian Hossa. Patrick Sharp. John Madden. Kris Versteeg. And on and on and on. This is by far the deepest group of forwards in the Western conference, and only Washington can perhaps compete with them when it comes to being able to roll four lines and always have someone who can score on the ice. Nashville is a pretty great defensive team and Pekka Rinne has been stellar for them in net, but I don't see how they can shut down all four of the Hawks' lines for an entire series. The Hawks will have some problems, maybe even send the (suddenly very sizable) fanbase into a panic by losing game 1 at home, but in the end they'll pull it out.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings
(Vancouver won season series 3-1-0)

Like I already mentioned, of all the four opponents the Kings could have played in the opening round, this is the only one I really wanted them to avoid. With the sole exception of their recent 8-goal pummeling of the 'Nucks in LA, the Kings have almost always played horrible against Vancouver. They're probably the only team who have a line that's better on the cycle than the Kings (though their overall cycle game is still probably stronger), and considering it's largely on the strength of their cycle they got here in the first place, that would in fact be a problem. Vancouver had won a staggering seven games in a row against the Kings before LA finally snapped that streak.

Another problem for the Kings is the play of starting goalie Jonathan Quick, who has gone 0-3-3 in his last six games of the season. The Kings in general have played OK in front of him, sometimes better than others, but Quick has failed to lock it down even when the Kings were heavily outshooting their opponents. Quick's role as franchise goaltender of the future is suddenly in question with the rise of Jonathan Bernier, but unless Quick gets injured or really gets shellacked it will probably be his ball to run with (for this year, at least).

There's really not much else to say here. Vancouver will enter as overwhelming favorites with the best offense in the Western conference. Barring a meltdown from Luongo (who has been known to melt down in the playoffs before) and/or a complete drop-off in play from the Sedins, there's no reason to believe that the Canucks won't be able to handle the Kings with ease. Kings fans can take solace in the fact that their young team will likely be back, and the Vancouver team who will likely eliminate them is perhaps an early favorite to take the Western conference crown.

Prediction: Vancouver in five.

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
(Detroit won the season series 2-0-2)

It's a shame for the Coyotes that it's come to this. Phoenix has had a fairytale season this year, turning from a team everyone had left for dead due to their off-season, off-ice woes into everyone's favorite underdog story. Their 107-point campaign was a new franchise record, including all those years in Winnipeg. But now their magical regular season, full of shootout wins and gutsy performances from guys having career years, must enter the playoffs and face reality. That reality is a Red Wings team that has lost only 1 game in regulation since the Olympic break, a Red Wings team that is healthy for the first time all year. And they are ready to pounce.

If Phoenix has any shot to win this series, they need to get out to a strong start and win both games in Phoenix. If they can really put some pressure on the Wings and their rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard, perhaps they can pull off the upset. We also don't know how this Detroit team will handle starting on the road in the playoffs for the first time in decades. But unless Phoenix has a lot more miracles left in them- and more late-period and overtime goals since there's no shootout to dominate in the playoffs- they will see their dream season come to a nightmare end. We all know how important special teams becomes in the playoffs, and Phoenix has one of the worst power plays in the NHL

Prediction: Detroit in five games.

Alright folks, that's it for the West. I'll be back later tonight breaking down all the matchups in the East, and don't forget we'll have a podcast talking it all over for you tomorrow night at 9 pm EST.

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