Round 2 Preview: Western Conference
Vancouver (1) vs. Nashville (5)
Season Series: Tied (2-2)
What we learned in Round 1
Vancouver: That the Canucks can win a Game 7 without much of a contribution from the Sedins. Also that the league’s best team is still learning the mental side of what it takes to become a champion. Finally, that Alex Edler has arrived as an impact defensive defenseman (23 hits, 15 blocked shots against Chicago).
Nashville: That they have enough offense to take advantage of shaky goaltending (Anaheim’s Ray Emery had a .897 save percentage; Dan Ellis let in four goals on 20 shots in Game 1). Also, that the home crowd in Nashville can get just as loud as the one in Vancouver.
Vancouver: Would the real Roberto Luongo please stand up? It was a Jekyll and Hyde series against the Blackhawks for the Canucks goalie, who won Game 7 without truly looking sharp. Another relevant question to ask is when will Ryan Kesler register his first goal of the playoffs.
Nashville: Would the real Pekka Rinne please stand up? Like his Vancouver counterpart, Rinne was just good-enough to win his first round series.
Both Teams: Each franchise celebrated their first round victory like it was winning the Stanley Cup. The team that best avoids a second round let-down should win this series.
None (Martin Erat is expected to return)
Coaching: Nashville (Trotz finally has a first round victory under his belt, legitimizing claims that he’s among the league’s best)
Goaltending: Even (Both teams feature Vezina Trophy finalists)
Defense: Nashville (Like Chicago, Nashville’s blueline features two players (Shea Weber, Ryan Suter) clearly superior than anything on the Canucks defense)
Scoring: Vancouver (Canucks top-6 is clearly better than Nashville’s, who relied on heroics from lesser lights (Jordin Tootoo, Joel Ward each had five points) to advance)
Special Teams: Vancouver (Nashville’s penalty kill (64%) was lit-up by the Ducks)
Vancouver in 6
San Jose (2) vs. Detroit (3)
Season series: San Jose (3-1)
What we learned in Round 1
San Jose: That this team has more character and depth than it’s had in previous seasons – you don’t come back from a 4-0 deficit in one game, or win overtime games, without these characteristics. This remains a team that can score, with three lines that cause damage.
Detroit: Not much actually, since the Coyotes were a pretty easy first round opponent. Darren Helm was somewhat of a revelation as a key checker. This remains a talented, deep, veteran team with high expectations.
San Jose: Can they defend well enough to prevent the Red Wing attack? Without Anze Kopitar, the Los Angeles Kings still made it a series in round one, largely because the Sharks struggled at times defensively. Now they will have to play against Pavel Datsyuk, clearly the best forward in this series.
Detroit: How much of an advantage, or disadvantage, was finishing off the Coyotes in four games? Usually long layoffs hurt teams advancing to the next round, but thanks to the layoff the Red Wings are healthier now than they were entering the playoffs. Another relevant question is whether or not the Sharks have Detroit’s number. San Jose won their playoff match-up last year and won the season series this year rather handedly.
Both Teams: Which team can win the goaltending battle? Niemi has won five straight playoff series, but wasn’t exactly a brick wall in the first round. Conversely, Jimmy Howard wasn’t really tested by the Coyotes, and remains somewhat unproven.
None (Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen are both expected to be ready for Game 1)
Defense: Detroit (The Red Wings have greater depth – Ruslan Salei and Niklas Kronvall were terrific against Phoenix. San Jose’s Dan Boyle has to play better)
Scoring: San Jose (Detroit certainly has similar depth to San Jose, but San Jose’s top lines are a bit healthier and a bit more dynamic)
Special Teams: Even (Detroit’s penalty kill was awful against Phoenix, but San Jose’s powerplay struggled against Los Angeles. Regular season numbers for both teams are similar)
San Jose in 6
NOW A WORD FOR THE DEARLY DEPARTED…
Anaheim Ducks: Hard not to wonder what could have been for the Ducks, whose best goalie (Jonas Hiller) never saw playoff action due to vertigo. Similarly, the two-game suspension of Bobby Ryan was another obstacle they just couldn’t overcome. There is a great, young nucleus here, so it’s easy to see Anaheim back in the playoff picture next season. They could even challenge San Jose for the division title.
Chicago Blackhawks: Their first round really turned around once they got Dave Bolland back from injury, although he looked spent by Game 7. After a terrific series, Corey Crawford is clearly established as the team’s number one goalie. The championship core almost pulled off an upset for the ages this year. If they can add some more scoring depth and grit this team will be a Cup contender in 2011-12.
Los Angeles Kings: Another team with a solid young core, although it’s missing a first line, complimentary scoring piece to play with Anze Kopitar. If they don’t find that piece this off-season they’re likely first round fodder again next year. The clock is ticking on Terry Murray.
Phoenix Coyotes: Can’t help but feel we’ve seen the best days of this version of the Coyotes. If they go to Winnipeg they’ll likely do so without Shane Doan or Ilya Bryzgalov, which would line the team up for a lottery draft pick in 2012. If the team stays in Phoenix they still might not return with Bryzgalov, who is looking for a home run contract as a free agent. The Coyotes desperately need their young scoring talent, particularly Kyle Turris, to turn the corner.