The NHL’s Eastern Conference ran more hot and cold than a kitchen faucet, leaving little to the imagination on the prediction front.
And while the sun may set in the East, it rises higher than ever in the Western Conference, where surprise runs and miraculous comebacks contribute to a list of the top NHL stars both young and old.
The West nearly made 100 points a requirement to make it this far and now, with something left to prove, eight teams take it to the next level.
Storyline: Early season magic turned the Avs from a potential laughing stock to a definitive threat, but with the gas tank running on empty, a shark attack could be just what the doctor ordered for a consistently shaky San Jose.
Offense: Years of shuffling and reshuffling their deck gave San Jose (and subsequently the rest of the NHL) a plethora of wingers that couldn’t seem to keep up on a year-to-year basis.
With another disappointing finish in 2009, the Sharks retooled with the biggest deal since acquiring Joe Thornton. San Jose’s top line may be the most dangerous from all ends in the NHL, as Thornton, soon-to-be-free-agent Patrick Marleau, and off-season acquisition Dany Heatley have made the most of playing with each other.
The three Canadians claimed gold in the Olympics together and look to prosper at the NHL level for the first time. But the team isn’t solely banking on their top tier (commonly known as Ottawa Senators disease), as Joe Pavelski’s game has finally elevated to that next level and Devin Setoguchi is out to prove that he isn’t an off-wing wonder.
For the Avalanche, we start with a simple trivia question: Who was their leading goal scorer this season?
If you correctly answered Chris Stewart, you need to either stop cheating or, like me, get a life. Stewart’s 28 goals were a welcomed change to an offense that looked like it would primarily focus on Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk.
Sure, they’re still around, but Matt Duchene is coming into his own faster than expected and a healthy Peter Mueller is playing better hockey than he ever did in Phoenix.
Both teams boast strength up the middle and on the sides, but the Sharks, if for no other reason than their top line, make themselves superior. Advantage: San Jose.
Defense: San Jose’s defense has seen massive changes nearly every year in the past five, yet the Sharks look to have finally gotten the right blend under their belt.
Electing to keep Dan Boyle on board turned into a genius move, as Boyle’s two-way play is among the best in all the NHL and yes, he’s got a gold medal as well.
Both Douglas Murray and veteran Rob Blake have learned the proper way to bruise opponents without taking too many penalties, and rookie Jason Demers is sure to get a few hacks in himself.
Meanwhile, the Avalanche’s quick turnaround can be partly attributed to a brilliant trade that brought in Kyle Quincey, a revelation that has managed to salvage what an oft-injured John-Michael Liles cannot.
Scott Hannan may well have the most interesting time in the playoffs this year, as he was once a major thorn in the side of the Avs in playoffs past…as a Shark.
With Hannan on the other side of the puck, the Avs may well be up to the test once more. Advantage: Push.
Goaltending: What does a 44-win season with a 2.43 goals against average get you if you’re Evgeni Nabokov?
No attention, praise or even mentions of a Vezina nomination.
Despite how good Nabokov has been in the NHL this year, few fans are willing to succumb to the hype, if only for the black eye Nabokov gave his country (and many of his supporters) in the biggest game of his career.
After Team Canada obliterated Evgeni to give Russia the early exit from Vancouver at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Nabokov’s reputation suffered despite his consistently great play.
Though he likely won’t have to do it during this series, sooner or later, Nabokov will have to win the masses back by standing on his head.
And perhaps no goalie knows better how to stand on his head this year than Craig Anderson, who could be considered the sole reason the Avalanche rocked the West this season.
Anderson’s first official round as a starter was a massive success for Colorado, as he recorded seven shutouts and over 2000 saves.
He’ll see plenty of action from the Shark offense and will have to do likewise if Colorado wants to pull the major upset. Advantage: Push.
Key Players: In just two games in a Colorado uniform playing the Sharks, Peter Mueller has four goals and one assist.
If he can keep it together for the post season, he’ll contend with Patrick Marleau and his three goals and two assists in four games.
History: This will be the fourth playoff meeting between the two teams and their first in the post-lockout era after creating a great rivalry in three previous sessions.
The Avalanche won two of those three sets, but split the season series at 2-2.
Outcome: In what is a more even series than expected, the Avs will come up short where it counts and San Jose will get that much needed jolt of confidence.
Sharks in six games.