Out of Town Notebook: Western Conference Playoff Preview

Earlier, we looked at the playoff match-ups in the Eastern Conference. Now we look at the Western Conference.

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs (8) Chicago Blackhawks

Season Series: Tied (2-2)

The Canucks enter the post-season as the prohibitive favourites to win the Stanley Cup. They finish the year with the league’s best powerplay, goals for, goals against, top-scorer (Daniel Sedin) and overall record. Oh, and they’re second overall in save percentage, third in penalty kill. Anything less than a Cup Finals appearance will make the season a failure, which is high-stakes for coach Alain Vigneault. The defense, injured for most of the year, is finally healthy, and is very mobile. Roberto Luongo just completed his strongest year in Vancouver. Finally, 40-goal scorer Ryan Kesler has earned Hart Trophy consideration, and is the favourite to win the Selke Trophy.

An up-and-down season was saved in Chicago by the emergence of Corey Crawford (.918) in goal and Jonathan Toews up-front. Toews in particular has quickly established himself as this generation’s Steve Yzerman. The core of this team is the same as last year’s Cup champion, but the secondary pieces have not played nearly as well. Michael Frolik, acquired at the deadline, finished the year with two goals in 27-games as a Blackhawk. Tomas Kopecky (-13), Viktor Stalberg (12 goals) aren’t making anyone forget Kris Versteeg or Andrew Ladd anytime soon. They’re in the post-season though, which means a lot of the pressure is off. They’ve also eliminated Vancouver in each of the last two playoffs.

Match-up to Watch: Roberto Luongo vs. crease crashers

Great goalies can shut out the game around them and focus on stopping the puck. The knock against Luongo has been his willingness to let the battles in front of him affect the mental side of his game. The Blackhawks have feasted on this in recent years (although Dustin Byfuglien now plays for Atlanta). If it happens again this spring, real questions will have to be asked about Roberto’s mental toughness to take this team deep into the playoffs.

Quick Decisions:

Coach: Chicago
Goaltending: Vancouver
Defense: Even (Chicago’s top-end is stronger; Canucks defense is deeper)
Scoring: Vancouver (both teams have good top-end scoring, but little depth)
Special Teams: Vancouver

Prediction: Vancouver in 7

(2) San Jose Sharks vs (7) Los Angeles Kings

Season Series: Tied (3-3)

The Sharks were in jeopardy of missing the playoffs near the midway point of the season. Then Antti Niemi took over, posting a 2.14 goals against average and a .925 save percentage after the All-Star Break. Only Vancouver has had a better record against the Western Conference than the Sharks this year. San Jose has long had a reputation as playoff underachievers, but they made the Conference Finals last season, and this year’s entry is deeper up front and in goal. Offense remains the team’s strength, with Patrick Marleau leading the way with 37-goals. That being said, they enter the playoffs with the second-worst penalty kill in the post-season (only the Phoenix Coyotes are worse).

Despite matching last year’s win total, this wasn’t exactly the leap forward that was expected of the Kings this season. The trade for a top-flight forward never materialized for GM Dean Lombardi. Instead, a lack of scoring kept the team in a dogfight for the playoffs most of the year. The Kings enter the playoffs as the lowest scoring team to make it. The lowest scoring team to make the playoffs since the lockout has never been past the first round. Anze Kopitar carried the team offensively all year (73 points, good for 15th overall), but will miss the post-season with a broken ankle. Dustin Penner has been a bust (2 goals in 18 games), while Ryan Smyth has four goals since the All-Star break. Drew Doughty has also struggled a year after Norris Trophy consideration. It hasn’t been all bad though – with the two Jonathans (Quick and Bernier) in goal, Los Angeles has had some of the strongest goaltending in the league throughout the year.

Match-up to Watch: Drew Doughty vs. Patrick Marleau

With both Kopitar and Justin Williams (57 points) likely unavailable, the Kings will need to keep games low scoring if they hope to win the series. While Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley are the more famous names, Marleau is the Sharks most dynamic player. An excellent skater, it will be up to Doughty to ensure Marleau is kept in-check throughout the series.

Quick Decisions:

Coach: San Jose (although this isn’t exactly a battle of Scotty Bowmans)
Goaltending: Los Angeles (slight edge here, as Niemi still lets in a softy now and then)
Defense: Even (Los Angeles has a better top-end, while San Jose’s group is deeper)
Scoring: San Jose (a huge advantage here. Kings will have real troubles scoring)
Special Teams: Even (Sharks powerplay is great, pk bad. Kings are the exact reverse)

Prediction: Sharks in 5

(3) Detroit Red Wings vs (6) Phoenix Coyotes

Season Series: Tied (2-2)

The Red Wings have limped towards the post-season, playing their poorest hockey in recent weeks. Prior to the March swoon it was a typically successful Red Wings season, with 12 players reaching double-digits in goals. Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall will both play through injury to start the first round, with Zetterberg sporting a knee brace.. The powerplay has been good all year, and Nicklas Lidstrom became the oldest defenseman in NHL history with a 60-point season. Despite the accolades, this is the first season of his career that Lidstrom will finish as a minus, and there have been times when his foot-speed has been exposed. There are real questions about Jimmy Howard in goal, although the Red Wings have won Cups with less between the pipes.

While off-ice it’s a different story, on-ice the Coyotes have had two strong back-to-back seasons. The “desert dogs” play an aggressive, defensive style under coach Dave Tippett, and they’re one of the faster teams in the league. In fact, the Coyotes used this speed to give the Red Wings a scare in last year’s playoffs, losing in seven hard fought games. Pending UFA goalie Ilya Bryzgalov had another terrific year in goal (.921 save percentage), and is certainly the team’s MVP. In front of him, an underrated defense gets the job done, with Keith Yandle having established himself as one of the league’s best blueline threats (59 points, although he cooled in the second half). The offense is not particularly deep, with Shane Doan being the team’s only 20-goal scorer (20 exactly). That being said, Radim Vrbata, Lee Stempniak and Lauri Korpikoski each finished the season with 19-goals. Killing penalties has been a weakness all year – the Coyotes enter the playoffs as the worst penalty killing team remaining.

Match-up to Watch: Niklas Lidstrom vs. Shane Doan

Doan, the Coyotes captain, is an inspirational, physical leader and the team’s best offensive player. He was injured for most of the Red Wings series last year. If healthy, he may have changed the outcome of that series. Lidstrom had a tough start handling the quickness of Phoenix’s attack at the beginning of last year’s series. A stronger series from him should nullify Doan, and go a long way towards nullifying Phoenix’s attack.

Quick Decisions:

Coach: Detroit (closer than you might think – Tippett is vastly underrated)
Goaltending: Phoenix (huge advantage)
Defense: Even (top-end goes to Detroit; Phoenix has greater depth)
Scoring: Detroit (clear advantage, unless Zetterberg or Datsyuk aren’t healthy)
Special Teams: Detroit

Prediction: Detroit in 7

(4) Anaheim Ducks vs (5) Nashville Predators

Season Series: Nashville (3-1)

Fewer teams have faced more adversity than the Anaheim Ducks in reaching the playoffs. They were without Ryan Getzlaf for 15 games and their number one goalie, Jonas Hiller, has fought vertigo since the All-Star break. However, coach Randy Carlyle kept the team on track, and winger Corey Perry stepped up with not only his first 50-goal NHL season, but his first 50-goal season at any level. Perry will get MVP consideration, but GM Ducks General Manager Bob Murray should get Executive of the Year consideration as well. Each of the team’s major personnel decisions, from keeping Cam Fowler, to signing Toni Lydman and Ray Emery, to trading for Francois Beauchemin, have paid off. Emery in particular has stabilized the goaltending situation that jeopardized Anaheim’s season. Any discussion about the Ducks season though needs to include the incredible play of Teemu Selanne. Only Gordie Howe (103) and Johnny Bucyk (83) had more than Selanne’s 80-points as a 40-year old.

It was another year of stellar defensive hockey under Nashville coach Barry Trotz. They finished in the top-5 in most defensive categories, including goals against, save percentage and penalty-killing. Much of the credit should go to Pekke Renne, who had six shutouts to go along with a .930 save percentage. Goal-scoring was once again done by committee, with only Patric Hornqvist (21) and Sergei Kostitsyn (23) eclipsing the 20-goal plateau. Mike Fisher hasn’t delivered much offensively since coming over from Ottawa, but he, along with David Legwand, give the Predators two centres they can play against a team’s top line. Shea Weber leads an unheralded defense that can skate and play physically.

Match-up to Watch: Pekke Renne vs. Ray Emery

The Predators have never won a playoff series, and can only go as far as Pekke Renne can carry them. If he can outplay Ray Emery (or Jonas Hiller, if Emery falters), the Predators have a chance. If Emery continues his strong play (and he has carried a team to the Cup Finals before), the Predators will once again experience a short post-season.

Quick Decisions:

Coach: Anaheim (slight edge. Trotz is one of the leagues most consistent, but Randy Carlyle may have had his best season as coach)
Goaltending: Nashville (Anaheim’s goaltending is a real wildcard)
Defense: Anaheim (it’s deeper and more talented than Nashville’s)
Scoring: Anaheim (Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan is one of the better top-lines in the league)
Special Teams: Even (strong Anaheim powerplay will go against a strong Nashville penalty kill)

Prediction: Anaheim in 5

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