With the rest of the NHL community providing ridiculously early playoff picks (there is not much more to write about during mid July), I figured it wouldn't hurt to join the party.
But instead of offering which 16 teams I feel will be playing come mid April 2010, I will offer which two teams are most likely to be playing come mid-May.
Now, with the Sharks currently being labeled as "the biggest chokers in the NHL" many might say that my personal bias towards them may inhibit my objectivity on my WCF selections.
However, despite the recent stretch of early playoff exits, the Sharks are still a major threat to make a deep playoff run. When they still have Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, and Evgeni Nabokov, you cannot count them out.
But the main reasons that the Sharks should be feared this year more than any other is because they have brought character guys back to the roster and their top guns are in their contract years.
Let's face it, although Patrick Marleau carried the Sharks' offense back in 2003-04, it was guys like Mike Ricci (as seen above in the article photo) and Vincent Damphousse who were the keys to that team going as far as they did in the 04 playoffs.
This time around, veterans Rob Blake and the newly acquired Scott Nichol bring that physical tenacity and experience to the Sharks' roster.
Now clearly Scott Nichol is no Vincent Damphousse or Mike Ricci in terms of offensive production, but in terms of character and energy, he brings the same intangibles that have been missing amongst the Sharks forwards since the 2004-05 lockout.
Plus, with San Jose having both Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov in contract years, the performance from all three of the big dogs (including Thornton) are going to be vastly improved.
Essentially, if this year's team doesnt perform (ie get back to the WCF at the least), the current core of the team will be gone. Both Nabokov and Marleau will most likely be out of San Jose next season if the Sharks suffer another early exit.
Two of the Sharks' biggest nemesis' have lost significant talent and have come nowhere near replacing it.
Therefore the Sharks have a better chance of getting over the hump this season than they have had the last couple years.
But their main competition this season is going to come from the Calgary Flames. Yes, many would say I am over looking the Chicago Blackhawks but I am from the viewpoint of good pitching beats good hitting and therefore good defense beats good offense.
And can you say the Calgary Flames hit the jackpot?
Dion Phaneuf and Jay Bouwmeester on the same team? Both of them on the power-play? That is just ridiculously unfair.
As much as Phaneuf has been a pest in the minds of Sharks fans, the guy is arguably the best all around defenceman in the Western Conference. But to bring in one of the top three defencemen from the Eastern Conference to be his defense partner on the power-play instantly makes the Flames the favorite to win the Northwest division.
The Flames now have a potential man-advantage unit of Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen and Daymond Langkow to go along with Phaneuf and Bouwmeester.
Now whether or not they would use two centers on the top power-play line is yet to be seen (perhaps David Moss or Curtis Glencross will be a wing on the top unit), but either way, the power-play is going to be absolutely lethal.
But the potential power-play unit isn't the only reason that the Calgary Flames will make the WCF. The reason I have them in the WCF is because of a former Shark named Miikka Kiprusoff.
Despite last seasons numbers being above his career totals, Kiprusoff has a knack for stepping up his game and the guy just flat out wins hockey games.
With "Kipper" in net, the Flames seem better suited than the Blackhawks for a deep playoff run. As for Chicago, it is still to be determined whether Cristobal Huet can be an elite playoff goal-tender.
Therefore, my WCF picks are the San Jose Sharks and the Calgary Flames. Both will win their divisions and therefore are more likely to meet later in the playoffs than in the first round.
Now for the longest time, I believed the most ideal matchup for the NHL in the WCF would be Sharks-Red Wings but with Niklas Lidstrom and Chris Osgood not getting any younger and Detroit losing Marian Hossa and Mikael Sammuelsson, that is no longer the case.
A Flames-Sharks WCF rematch would be great for the NHL because if you have followed games between these two teams over the last few years (in the playoffs and regular season), you know these games are as entertaining and dramatic as hockey games can get.
With the natural rivalry that has been created between these clubs, there is no better WCF matchup.
Iginla vs Marleau, Nabokov vs Kiprusoff, Boyle and Blake vs Phaneuf and Bouwmeester.
Talk about a fast-paced, hard-hitting, dramatic seven game series in this year's Western Conference Final.
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