NHL Playoff Predictions 2012: Western Conference First-Round Previews

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NHL Playoff Predictions 2012: Western Conference First-Round Previews
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Vancouver needs a healthy Daniel Sedin to return to Stanley Cup Finals.

The Western Conference playoff picture is more traditional by wagering odds and more tightly bunched than the Eastern side of the bracket.

Top-seeded and last year's Stanley Cup finalist Vancouver is favored to make another run at winning the hardware and is plus-200 to do so. No. 2 seed St. Louis is at plus-300, after winning the Central Division.

After them, Chicago, Detroit and Nashville all are on equal footing at plus-600. Oddly enough, the other No. 3 seed in this tournament, Phoenix, is, like Florida, the long shot to make the finals from their conference.

Here is a preview of each West series with a prediction.

 

No. 1  Vancouver vs. No. 8 Los Angeles

After building a 2-0 lead in the cup finals a season ago, Vancouver was worn out by Boston’s more physical style and failed to secure the best trophy in sports. Instead of sulking, the Canucks manufactured the best record again this season and will hold home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

Vancouver drew a challenging assignment in Los Angeles, who finished second in the NHL in goals permitted at 2.2 per game. The Canucks are not lacking in offensive firepower, yet are built differently this year to better handle more rugged play along the boards and in the corners.  A healthy Daniel Sedin would be a real difference-maker for the Canucks, who still burn from not finishing the job last season.

The great equalizer in any playoff series is goaltending, and Jonathan Quick could be the reason the Kings make this a better-than-presumed series. Quick was marvelous most of the season and had to play with the pressure of almost literally stopping every chance, as the Kings' scoring droughts were frequent.

L.A. needs Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to hoist their level of play and shake the confidence of Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo. The Kings' style of play is similar to Boston’s without similar speed. The longer the series, the better the Kings' chances of pulling off a major upset.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Goalie Brian Elliott had nine of St. Louis' 15 shutouts this season.

These squads split four meetings, with three of the contests decided by a goal, expect more of the same.

Selection: Vancouver (minus-170) in six over Los Angeles (plus-135)

 

No. 2 St. Louis vs. No. 7 San Jose

The confounding team in the playoffs based on regular season expectations is St. Louis. The Blues' defense was like the Hanson Brothers—“old-time hockey."

They led the NHL in goals conceded at 2.0 per game and were even better at home at 1.8. Their two goaltenders put up yesteryear numbers with 15 shutouts, with Brian Elliott posting nine zeros and Jaroslav hanging up six goose-eggs. It wasn’t just two guys and a net either, since St. Louis also permitted the fewest overall shots on goal at 26.7.

What is hard to figure about the Blues, except for a few veteran players from other teams, is their lack of one-and-done series history. This group as whole has little mid-April or beyond experience, making them impossible to read.

If understanding how the Blues might play is a mystery, the San Jose Sharks would confuse even The Mentalist, Patrick Jane. The Sharks love to pepper the net, finishing second in shots on goal (33.8), and have a plethora of talent that most hockey experts have chosen to win a Cup or two by this point.

But San Jose went through the motions most of the regular season and played with enough urgency to win seven of their last nine encounters to secure the postseason seat. With almost no expectations, will the Sharks finally show some bite?

St. Louis was 30-6-5 at the Scottrade Center this year and was a perfect 4-0 versus San Jose, limiting them to three total goals. However, experience matters, and the Sharks will stun the No. 2 seed.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Can netminder Mike Smith lead Phoenix to first-ever playoff series win?

Selection: San Jose (plus-130) in six over St. Louis (minus-160)

 

No. 3 Phoenix vs. No. 6 Chicago 

One thing can often lead to another—at least, that is what the Phoenix Coyotes are hoping. The Phoenix/Winnipeg franchise won their first-ever division crown on the last day of the regular season (33 years) and now look to win their first playoff series.

Dave Tippett is the perfect coach for this team, which is stuffed with enough blue-collar types to start a construction company. Mike Smith at the moment is the hottest goaltender on the planet and is 20-5-3 since the All-Star break with a sick 1.91 GAA.

The Yotes cannot come close to matching the offensive talents of Chicago. They'll have to work to score and hope Smith holds up.

Chicago players to a man say they are more energized than they have felt since winning Lord Stanley’s trophy two years ago. The front office addressed defensive concerns at the trade deadline, and the Blackhawks are 11-2-3 since.

Jonathan Toews claims he is ready after missing almost two months. Toews at 80 percent and on the ice with Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp gives the Hawks a lot of ways to light the lamp.

Two areas of concern are goaltending and the ability to contain the opponent, since only Ottawa permits more goals than the Blackhawks.

Phoenix took three of four this campaign and is 8-4 against Chicago the past three years. Whichever team controls the action and has a standup person in the pipes is your winner.  

Selection: Chicago (minus-120) in six over Phoenix (minus-110)

 

No. 4  Nashville vs. No. 5 Detroit  

Who would you choose to win this excellent #4 vs. #5 matchup?

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Nashville’s three-game winning streak to close the season and Detroit failing to win their last two tries was enough for the Predators to pass the Red Wings and have home-ice advantage.

Nashville has made no bones about it: This is the franchise’s best collection of talent, and they expect to be matched against a team from the Eastern Conference in June for the Finals. The Preds' sense of urgency is tied to the fact they have several quality free agents who might leave for more cash after this season.

Nashville doesn’t have quite the scoring punch of Detroit but might have more variety. The defensive duo of Ryan Suter and Shea Ryan can stifle opposing team’s top line, and the Predators added much-needed size behind them for depth. Nashville has the top power play in the league.

The Red Wings have all the ingredients for the type of playoff run their fans expect, deep into June. When studying the skills of their top-six players, it’s almost impossible to pick someone else other than Detroit.

Besides skill, talent abounds, but the one element that blows future projections apart is the team’s health, which is a legitimate concern. If Detroit avoids injuries and stay healthy, they can raise the cup.

However, this is not the same grade of excellence as the last squad to bring home the hardware to the Motor City in 2008. This group is average-to-below in special teams situations and is 17-24 SU on the road.

These division partners were 3-3 during the regular season. Goalie Jimmy Howard was on his way to a special season before getting injured and has to play well for Detroit to move on. Nashville’s last line of defense, Pekka Rinne, played in 73 games and appeared tired at times late in the season. The series could come down to these two players.

Selection: Nashville (minus-120) in seven over Detroit (plus-110)

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