Out of Town Notebook: Western Conference Semifinals Playoff Preview
Photo credit: The Checking Line
Let’s just get this out of the way first, shall we?
This first round was a bloody disappointment.
Welcome to the deadpuck era 2.0 – to a style of play that see goal prevention more successful than goal creation.
Where goaltenders dominate, and the flow of the game – much improved since the lockout – has returned to slogging through muck.
It’s an game filled with interference and Wild West justice, where league’s least skilled players may attack, hurt and render obsolete its most talented.
Look, playoff hockey is supposed to be many things – faster, more physical, more passionate. But what it shouldn’t be is more boring.
But that’s what it’s been.
The league has become stronger defensively in general, and the playoffs have only amplified that. This is shaping up to be the lowest scoring first-round of the last five years, if not longer.
First Round Goals Per Game:
|Western Conference||Year||Eastern Conference|
God bless that Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, which on its own has saved the league from having the lack of goals be a bigger negative story. The Battle of Pennsylvania averaged 9.33 (!!!) goals per game. The rest of the Eastern Conference games have been snore-fests (4.47).
Skilled teams are falling by the wayside in these playoffs, which, unless Philadelphia or Nashville win the Stanley Cup, reverses the historic trend that shows scoring teams persevere.
The only question is if this is a one-year anomaly or not.
The decline in scoring league-wide in recent years; the rise in shot-blocking; the reduction in penalty calls this season and power play goals (only the Sharks scored at a rate higher than 10% on the powerplay after the All-Star Game!); the defensive collapse in front of the net and other strategies lead me to believe things are only going to get worse unless rules are changed.
With that cheery thought in mind, let’s take a look at the Second Round match-ups in the Western Conference.
St. Louis Blues (2) vs.Los Angeles Kings (8)
Season Series: Los Angeles Kings (3-1)
What we have learned about St. Louis:
They have come of age. When the Blues hired Ken Hitchcock, they did so to determine once and for all whether the young players they’d assembled on their roster were good enough to win together. Manhandling the Sharks in the first round answered that question. Winning in five games also gives them some rest ahead of another round of significant travel against a gruelling West Coast team. The Blues have four lines that can contribute, although in reality only the top-two lines are a threat to score.
What we have learned about Los Angeles:
That they look like another Darryl Sutter team – the 2004 Calgary Flames that went on a Cup run. Jonathan Quick remains a brick wall in goal (Miikka Kiprusoff-esque) and Dustin Brown did a pretty terrific Jarome Iginla impression against the Canucks. Having said that, the absence of Daniel Sedin for three games (all losses) and the poor play of Ryan Kesler were significant factors in L.A.’s win. They’re a good team – better than your usual eighth place team – but the stars were aligned a bit for them in round one. Oh, and the fourth line barely plays.
Coaching: Blues. Slight edge to Hitchcock because he’s won a Cup but both coaches have their teams playing about as well as possible.
Goaltending: Kings. Both teams have put up microscopic goals against totals but if I had to pick one goalie from this series to win a seventh game right now it would be Jonathan Quick, not Brian Elliott or Jaroslav Halak.
Defense: Even. Alex Pieterangelo is playing better than Drew Doughty these days, but Willie Mitchell had the series of his life against the Canucks. Both teams execute their defensive systems flawlessly.
Offense: Blues. A slight edge here to the Blues, as Andy McDonald and Patrick Berglund had impressive first rounds. Can they continue? Meanwhile, the potential is there for L.A.’s offense to explode, but a strict commitment to Darryl Sutter’s system could mean on-going sporadic production from Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. If the Kings are to win this series, they need one of their big guns to get hot.
Special Teams: Blues. The Blues powerplay was third-best in the league post the All-Star Game, and lit-up the Sharks at a rate of 33%. Both teams have very good penalty kills.
Prediction: Blues in 6.
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs Nashville Predators (4)
Season Series: Tied 2-2
What we have learned about Nashville:
They are who we thought they were – arguably the most talented, deepest Predators team in franchise history. They proved they can skate and out-play the Red Wings five-on-five as their powerplay (league best in the regular season) failed them in the first round. At over 20-minutes a game, rookie defenseman Roman Josi was leaned on and played a sound series against Detroit.
What we have learned about Phoenix:
That Mike Smith has pretty much transformed himself into goaltending coach Sean Burke, who at his best was among the league’s elite netminders. This is a Phoenix team that found surprising scoring depth in round one – no remaining Western Conference team had as many different round one goal scorers as Phoenix did (11). Otherwise, this is a Coyotes team that won a playoff series by taking advantage of the counter-attack and being opportunistic. Territorially, thanks to their bend-don’t-break defensive scheme, the Coyotes were outplayed much of round one by the Blackhawks.
Coaching: Even. Two of the best coaches in the game.
Goaltending: Even. Pekka Rinne has a bit longer resume, but Mike Smith was all-world for Phoenix in round one.
Defense: Predators. It’s an underrated blueline in Phoenix, but Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were dominant against the Red Wings. The Predators should get Hal Gill back as well, which should give them a boost on the penalty kill and an additional match-up advantage. Forwards on both teams are expected to play both-ways, but the Predators don’t give up nearly as many shots as the Coyotes do.
Offense: Predators. The Coyotes surprising scoring in the first round could be attributable to poor play from Chicago’s Corey Crawford. Ray Whitney is an elite, intelligent attacker but the rough style of play found in these playoffs limits his effectiveness at even strength. Let’s not forget Nashville was one of the highest scoring teams in the league during the regular season. Alex Radulov is probably the player in this series most capable of dominating play.
Special Teams: Predators. Phoenix’s special teams were very good against a Chicago team that struggled in this area during the regular season. Expect a bit of a drop-off. Nashville’s powerplay struggled against Detroit. They’ll need a better second round performance if they hope to beat the Coyotes.
Prediction: Predators in 5.
Finally, a quick word on the departed:
Cause of death: A lack of secondary scoring and Duncan Keith’s elbow.
Prescription: Stay-the-course, get what you can for Luongo, and try and find a 25-goal scorer or strong playmaker who can mesh with Ryan Kesler.
Cause of death: Poor goaltending and a massive concussion to Marian Hossa, care of Raffi Torres.
Prescription: Upgrade in net. Otherwise there’s still much to like about this Chicago team.
Detroit Red Wings
Cause of death: Age. This team is just not as deep or capable on defense or up front.
Prescription: Use their cap space on Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter. A Rick Nash trade would be worth exploring too. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jaromir Jagr end up here either as a PP specialist (if he doesn’t resign in Philly).
San Jose Sharks
Cause of death: Age. See the Red Wings above.
Prescription: Shake up the core. It would not be a surprise to see Patrick Marleau and/or Danny Boyle moved to bring fresh pieces into the fold. The Sharks will try to take a quick step back to take a giant leap forward before Joe Thornton is completely washed up.