NHL Playoff Previews: Ducks/Sharks, Blues/Canucks, Jackets/Wings
No. 8 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 1 San Jose Sharks
Season Series: Sharks won, 4-2
The Sharks have been a perennial disappointment when it comes to their performance in the playoffs. Every year, no matter if they’re the favorite or the underdog, they always seem to lose. Despite their previous struggles, it’s hard to imagine this year’s squad having many problems come playoff time.
To start, they have one of the most tried-and-true playoff net minders in the league in Evgeni Nabokov, who seems to make any impossible save look easy in a big game.
The Sharks fortified their defense this previous offseason by acquiring Dan Boyle from the Lightning, and that turned out to be a genius acquisition, as he has been extremely solid on the blue line for them.
They’ve also developed the best group of forwards that any team in the league has had this season, thanks to the emergence of Devin Setoguchi as a 30-goal scorer, the resurgence of Captain Patrick Marleau, and a bunch of other skilled guys who give the Sharks tremendous depth up front.
The Sharks won the Presidents Trophy as the league’s best team during the regular season, and they have their eye on the Cup for sure.
The Ducks failed to repeat last year after getting knocked out in six games by the Stars in the first round (just like the Sharks were in the second round). They still have a lot of the key players left over from their 2007 Stanley Cup championship team, but their goalie that team, J.S. Giguere, has not been himself this season.
His save percentage has plummeted to .900, and his goals against average is a whopping 3.10. Jonas Hiller, the Ducks other net minder, has fared better than Giguere this season, but it is Giguere’s experience that will likely give him the starts come playoff time.
Giguere is going to have to be very strong in net if the Ducks are going to return to their championship form, and he’s going to have no margin for error against the Sharks’ high-octane offense.
All things considered, the Ducks definitely have the ability to make another title run. Keeping the same core from their championship team gives them a lot of experience and makes them play well as a team, and the additions of Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski on defense will definitely boost their chances.
However, when the Blues won their final game of the season, it changed the Ducks playoff opponent from the Canucks (who they would have played with a Blues’ loss) to the Sharks, and that dealt a major blow to the Ducks’ chances.
They’re going to make the Sharks work for it, but in the end, San Jose is just too strong to pick against.
Sharks in Seven
No. 6 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 3 Vancouver Canucks
Season Series: Tied, 2-2
The fact that the St. Louis Blues are back in the playoffs is nothing less than astounding. After losing captain Paul Kariya and key forward Andy McDonald to injuries early in the season, the team fell into the Western Conference cellar.
It looked like they would remain there for the rest of the season, until backup goalie Chris Mason got a routine start on Jan. 17. Mason led the Blues to a key 5-4 shootout upset victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins- and he hasn’t taken a day off since.
A convincing 4-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers in St. Louis—his second in three games—on Jan. 31 marked the start of a new life for the Blues, as they have posted a record of 24-8-6 during Mason’s streak of 38 straight starts.
Mason has undoubtedly been the team’s most important player during their stretch run, while 33-goal scorer Brad Boyes, emerging star David Backes, and veteran Keith Tkachuk have carried the torch on offense for the Blues.
The Canucks season took what many thought to be a pivotal turn when they inked Mats Sundin to a two-year, $20 million contract after it had originally appeared that Sundin might retire.
However, once Sundin joined the team in January, things quickly began to look a bit different than expected. Sundin had trouble getting his offensive game going, but somehow, the team didn’t suffer.
Indeed, the Canucks had already put the right pieces in place to make a strong playoff run, and the addition of Sundin may have served best as a moral boost to push the team to the top.
They were no doubt assisted in their Division Title run by a late collapse by the Calgary Flames, but there’s no questioning the talent that the Canucks have.
They employ the deadly Sedin twins as well as numerous other weapons on offense, and have of the best defenses in the league—and, of course, they have one of the league’s best net minders in Roberto Luongo.
This series will no doubt be a close one, with the Canucks the pretty obvious favorite. However, the Blues have a ton of momentum on their side, and it can be difficult to stop a team like that in the playoffs. Often times, the one thing that can cause a team like the Blues to fizzle is relief.
When a team has worked so hard just to make the playoffs, sometimes they feel so tired and satisfied from the effort that they won’t be able to focus on the task at hand. Sometimes it seems as if the team is just happy to be in the playoffs, and isn’t really thinking all that hard about making a run at the cup.
I see the Blues as that sort of team. Chris Mason has got to be downright exhausted at this point, and while fatigue hasn’t been too much of a problem for him so far, it might be come playoff time. The layoff might give him some rest, but it will also give him time to get nervous, and will also let the adrenaline wear off a bit.
It takes an experienced net minder to successfully make this transition, and Mason just isn’t that guy. He is, without question, the only reason the Blues have made the playoffs, but I think he’s going to reach a breaking point come playoff time.
They simply do not have the weapons to contend with the Canucks if Mason isn’t at the top of his game, and I’m afraid that’s what going to happen.
Canucks in Five
No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets vs. No. 2 Detroit Red Wings
Season Series: Tied, 3-3
The Blue Jackets have finally made it to the playoffs, doing so thanks to a boost given this season by the emergence of rookie goaltending sensation Steve Mason.
Mason has played this season with a calm poise that is quite unusual for a rookie net minder to have. The big question is whether or not he’s really ready to continue to carry the team in the playoffs.
The Blue Jackets are a good team, but they would never even have come close to making the playoffs had it not been for Mason’s 2.29 goals against average and league-leading 10 shutouts.
They only really have three strong forwards in Rick Nash, Kristian Huselius, and R.J. Umberger, meaning that Mason and the Jackets’ defense will have to be stellar if they are to beat a team with as much firepower as the Red Wings.
As for the Red Wings, there isn’t much that needs to be said about the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Their one Achilles' hill this season has been their goaltending, as Chris Osgood has been unable to play as well as he did last season.
However, with the immense talent the Red Wings have to back him up, Osgood doesn’t have to be amazing if the Red Wings are going to beat the Jackets- he just has to be good.
Given the amount of experience that Osgood has, as well as his track record from last season’s Stanley Cup run, it’s safe to say that Osgood will be as good as he has to beat the Jackets. Experience will be the x-factor in this one without a doubt, and the Red Wings will continue on their quest to repeat.
Red Wings in Four
Check out Ben Livingston's other playoff previews, which can be accessed in the module to the right of this article. More will be posted on Bleacher Report in the days to come.
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