Western Conference Playoff Preview and Predictions

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Western Conference Playoff Preview and Predictions

Although our primary function here at Broadway Hockey Daily is covering the New York Rangers, there is still plenty of hockey to be played this season. Unfortunately, the Blueshirts won’t be part of the post-season fun this time around, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be. With the playoffs set to begin tonight, it seems like the perfect time to preview the opening round playoff series and make some playoff predictions. We’ll start with the Western Conference and come back soon with the Eastern Conference.

Western Conference Quarterfinals (Round 1)

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche

Sharks: 51-20-11, 1st in Pacific Division

Avalanche: 43-30-9, 2nd in Northwest Division

Sharks won season series, 2-1-1

Key Factors:

Heavy Expectations—After being upset in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Sharks are under some serious pressure to advance further into the playoffs. They’ve been contenders-turned-pretenders for much of the last decade, and the acquisition of Dany Heatley this summer was made with one objective in mind: a lengthy playoff run.

Youth and Inexperience—The Avs were one of the league’s surprise teams this season, but they sputtered a bit down the stretch, as the 82-game season took it’s toll on one of the league’s youngest squads. They were just 8-10-3 following the Olympic break. How tired and beat up these youngsters are could have a significant impact on Colorado’s chances in this series, and the rest of the playoffs, should they advance.

Firepower—Both of these teams were among the league’s highest-scoring clubs, with the Sharks averaging 3.13 goals per game (4th in the NHL), and the Avalanche scoring at a rate of 2.89 goals per game (6th). With offensie stars like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle on one side, and the likes of Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Milan Hejduk and the Avs’ most surprising rookie, Brandon Yip, this series has the potential to be the highest-scoring of any of the eight opening round pairings.

Key Players:

Sharks—Joe Thornton: The Sharks’ reputation as playoff chokers has become especially associated with Jumbo Joe. His performance at the Olympics this February didn’t do much to alter that perception. As deep as the Sharks’ lineup is, they’ll need Thornton to be at the top of his game if they’re finally going to breakthrough in the West.

Avalanche—Craig Anderson: With a fairly average unit of blueliners, the Avalanche have relied on Anderson, a free agent acquistion last summer, to be the backbone of their defensive efforts all year long. The 31-year-old will be making his post-season debut, and he’ll need to be stellar if the youthful Avs hope to take a bite out of the Sharks’ powerhouse offense.

Prediction: The Avalanche have had a more than impressive season, getting an early start on what many believed would be a lengthy rebuilding effort, but it will end here. While both teams have arsenals that would make most teams around the league jealous, the Sharks are a stronger defensive team than the upstart Avs. More importantly, with so much pressure on them, the Sharks know that another disappointing post-season could result in major changes coming to the club this summer. This time around, they won’t crumble so easily.

Winner: San Jose, 4-1

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators

Blackhawks: 52-22-8, 1st in Central Division

Predators: 47-29-6, 3rd in Central Division

Blackhawks won season series, 4-2

Key Factors:

Chicago’s Goaltending—As great as the Blackhawks have been all season long, they’ve been unable to shake the stigma of shaky goaltending. Veteran Cristobal Huet was given numerous chances to lock up the job of starter, but by season’s end, he was usurped by young Antti Niemi, the Finnish goaltender. Niemi had fantastic numbers, with a 26-7-4 record and a goals against average of just 2.25. Still, at just 26 years of age, and in only his second NHL season, some still doubt whether Niemi will be strong enough to carry an otherwise top contender deep into the playoffs. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, a fellow Finn, was strong all year long, helped along by the Preds’ excellent group of defensemen.

Nashville’s Offense—The Predators (2.69 goals per game, 18th in the NHL) have made an art of out of succeeding with just balanced secondary scoring over the past few years. Wingers Patric Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan finished the season tied for the team lead in points, with 51. Several others finished close behind, in the 40s. How far will that get them, however, against a team that scores as often the Hawks (3.20 goals per game, third in the NHL) do? As strong as the Predators’ defense is, shutting down the Blackhawk attack is no easy task. They’ll have to find a way to keep up the pace offensively if they hope to win this series.

Coaching—How have the Predators managed to maintain a consistent level of success over the last few years, despite a lack of big-name stars upfront? Great coaching. Barry Trotz is one of the league’s best coaches, and his ability to get the most out of his players makes the Predators the wrong team to underestimate. Trotz is also one of the best strategists in the league, and his teams always play a smart, efficient brand of hockey. The man running the Hawks’ bench, Joel Quenville, is also one of the league’s most respected minds, but he also has the luxury of one of the most talented rosters in the league at his disposal. If Nashville wins this series, it’ll be because Trotz will have outcoached Quenville.

Key Players:

Chicago—Antti Niemi: The Blackhawks are stacked on the blueline, and just as overloaded with skill upfront. If they can get solid netminding from Niemi, it’ll be very difficult for the Preds (or any other team, for that matter) to stop them.

Nashville—David Legwand: Although the Predators’ aforementioned balanced scoring has gotten them this far, they need some of those players to step up and contribute more. Namely, David Legwand. With just 11 goals and 38 points this season, Legwand was no doubt Nashville’s most disappointing player in 2009-10. They need increased offensive production from the former second pick overal in 1998.

Prediction: The Blackhawks are without a doubt a serious contender for the Stanley Cup, but they’ve got one of the most difficult matchups in the first round. The Predators are a smart, disciplined hockey team that can compete with any team in the league. Their dominating blueline, with the likes of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, can be intimidating even for offensive wizards like Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews. In the end, however, the Blackhawks simply have too much talent for even the Predators defense to stop. Chicago is just too strong of a team to go out in the first round.

Winner: Chicago, 4-3

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings

Canucks: 49-28-5, 1st in Northwest Division

Kings: 46-27-9, 3rd in Pacific Division

Canucks won season series, 3-1

Key Factors:

Depth Scoring—Both of these teams got solid scoring from their role players this season. Each team boasts some big-time scorers like Anze Kopitar for the Kings, and of course, the Art Ross winner as the league leader in points, Henrik Sedin (as well as his twin brother and linemate, Daniel) for Vancouver, both clubs also need their second and third liners to come through offensively in this series if they hope to keep up with one another. Players like Dustin Brown (24-32-56), Michal Handzus (20-22-42), and Alex Frolov (19-32-51), as well as stud defenseman Drew Doughty (16-43-59) will need to chip in if the Kings are to win this series. For the ‘Nucks, this responsiblity will fall on Mason Raymond (25-28-53), Alex Burrows (35-32-67), and center Ryan Kesler (25-50-75), each of whom experienced something of a breakout season in 2009-10.

Veteran Leadership—A relatively young team making their first playoff appearance since 2002, the Kings acquired veterans like Jeff Halpern and Freddy Modin, a former Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, at the trade deadline to add some experience and wisdom to the club. Los Angeles will also look to right wing Justin Williams, a former Cup winner himself with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, to provide leadership. Vancouver added Swedish winger Mikael Samuelsson during the summer for much the same reason. A 2008 Cup winner with the Detroit Red Wings, Samuelsson paid big dividens for the Canucks, scoring 30 goals and notching 53 points this season. Of course, Olympic gold medal winner Roberto Luongo, the Canucks’ captain, will also play a major leadership role for Vancouver.

Consistency—Both the Kings and the Canucks have struggled with consistency. Vancouver, for example, relies on a puck posession game that sees them anchor the puck in their opponent’s zone and control the clock, thus controlling the game. When the Canucks get away from this style, they become vulnerable. They’re a much stronger team when they have the puck than when they don’t. The Kings, on the other hand, sometimes tend to forget the game they need to play: tough and physical along the boards, with an emphasis on controlling the flow through the neutral zone. When they start to get too fancy offensively, things go wrong for them. Each team must stay focused on their gameplan. Straying too far from it could mean a post-season exit.

Key Players:

Vancouver—Roberto Luongo: His Olympic performance aside, this hasn’t been Luongo’s strongest season to date, especially since the games in Vancouver concluded. If he is on his game, the Canucks will win this series.

Los Angeles—Justin Williams: Struggling with injuries throughout his career, Williams is sometimes forgotten, but he is a quality offensive winger, and if he can get hot for a series, he’d make the Kings’ attack that much more difficult to stop.

Prediction: The Kings have a lot going for them, and the acquisitions they made at the deadline were shrewed moves that should help them. Vancouver, however, is just too deep a team, and if Luongo can handle the Olympics, then he should be able to come through here. Like the Blackhawks, the Canucks are just too deep and too strong to go out in the first round.

Winner: Vancouver, 4-2

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings

Coyotes: 50-25-7, 2nd in Pacific Division

Red Wings: 44-24-14, 2nd in Central Division

Red Wings won season series, 2-0-2

Key Factors:

Defense Galore—The ‘Yotes (3rd) and Wings (7th) both ranked among the team’s best defensive teams this season, with Phoenix especially riding their defense-first system to the best season in franchise history. Don’t expect too much goalscoring out of this series. Instead, look for the puck to spend a lot of time in the neutral zone. The Coyotes play a trap-style defensive system that shuts down most transition games effectively, while the Wings simply outsmart most opponents by cutting off passing lanes better than anyone in the league.

Who Will Score for Phoenix?—Goalscoring is not exactly a strength for the ‘Yotes, who averaged 2.57 goals per game, good for 24th in the league and the lowest such statistic for any Western Conference playoff team. With just one 20-goal scorer (Radim Vrbata with 24 goals), someone is going to have to step up for Phoenix offensively if they hope to defeat a savvy team that excels at both ends of the ice like the Wings.

Health of the Wings—The biggest reason the Red Wings, Stanley Cup winners two seasons ago and Cup finalists last year, finished as low as they did was injuries that plagued them early in the seaso. Detroit is getting older and more injury prone, and while they just started getting healthy towards the end of the campaign, the issue will certainly be something of a concern throughout the post-season.

Key Players:

Phoenix—Lee Stempniak: Acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline, Stempniak has been a bit of a miracle man for Phoenix, lightning the lamp 14 times in 18 games with the Desert Dogs. If the former St. Louis Blue can continue his hot streak, some of Phoenix’s goalscoring worries will subside.

Detroit—Jimmy Howard: The young goaltender quieted a lot of doubters this season, helping lead the Red Wings back to the playoffs. He’ll have to maintain that level of play if Detroit is going to win this series. His Phoenix counterpart, Ilya Bryzgalov, is arguably the ‘Yotes most valuable player, so there will be some pressure on Howard to hold down the fort.

Prediction: The feel-good story of the year, Phoenix opened a lot of eyes this season. Their lack of goalscoring, however, is going to be  problem against a Detroit team that is as adept at scoring as they are at defending. Detroit, predicted by some to begin their inevitable decline this season, will be hungry to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with. Featuring two of the league’s top ten forwards (Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg), as well as an aging but still effective Niklas Lidstrom, the Wings are just too deep at both ends of the ice for the Coyotes to overcome.

Winner: Detroit, 4-2

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