The first round of the Western Conference playoffs in the NHL were exciting, but did not have all the upsets that littered the Eastern Conference. Every series but one was won by the higher seed in six games.
Also, three of the top four seeds advanced in the Western Conference. The one series that went to a seventh game in the West was the four seed versus five seed matchup.
In that series the Phoenix Coyotes, a franchise that is bankrupt and had questions swirling about what will happen to the team, pushed the Detroit Red Wings to the brink. The Red Wings were able to prevail over the feel good story Coyotes, blasting Phoenix at home in Game Seven 6-1.
After a batting through a grueling seven game series, what is the Red Wings reward in round two? They get to play the No. 1 seed San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks bounced back this postseason after losing in the first round as the No. 1 seed last season. In the other second round Western Conference playoff series, two exciting offensive teams will face each other.
Vancouver and Chicago were the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in goals scored per game during the regular season. Both the Blackhawks and Canucks have a ton of players who can put the puck in the back of the net.
These two playoff series should be fun and exciting. Can the older Red Wings keep charging toward their fourth straight conference final? Can the Sharks find a way past the semifinals for the first time since the 2004 playoffs?
Can the young Blackhawks show that they have arrived as Stanley Cup contenders? Can the Canucks move past the conference semifinals after losing in this round in their past two playoff appearances? These questions and more will be answered in this preview and prediction of the 2010 NHL Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals.
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
In the first round the Sharks were able to put away the Colorado Avalanche in six games, winning the series 4-2. There are several things to take away from that series.
The first is that big three of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Dany Heatley have scored a combined one goal so far in these playoffs, and are -7 combined as well. On the plus side, these three players have combined for nine assists.
Carrying the load in the playoffs has been Ryane Clowe, with seven assists and one goal, and Joe Paveliski, with five goals and three assists. Dan Boyle and Devin Setoquchi have added five goals and seven assists combined to help this team advance past the first round.
In net, San Jose has gotten solid goal keeping from Evgeni Nabokokov, who has saved 138 out of 149 shots with one shutout and a .926 save percentage. Nabokokov is only allowing 1.76 goals per game in the playoffs.
The Sharks have averaged 3.16 goals per game in the playoffs and have won two of three overtime games played. If this team can get Marleau, Thornton, and Heatley going, along with Clowe and Paveliski, a trip to the conference finals is not impossible.
Standing in San Jose’s way are the Detroit Red Wings. This team has player after player that strikes fear in opposing teams.
Players like Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, and Valtteri Filppula, who have combined for 15 goals and 18 assists. If that does not worry their opponents, the Red Wings also have players like Nicklas Lindstrom, Brad Stuart, Todd Bertuzzi, Brian Rafalski, and Niklas Kronwall.
This is a veteran laden team that can rely on a ton of playoff experience. On the downside, this team is long in the tooth and has logged a ton of playoff games over the last few seasons.
Between the pipes the Red Wings have turned to Jimmy Howard, a player with three years of NHL experience, over Chris Osgood. Howard has not disappointed, saving 203 out of 221 shots on goal. He has a .919 save percentage and is allowing 2.59 goals per game.
There are two keys to this series. The first key will be if San Jose can get Marleau, Thornton, and Heatley going.
If those three can start scoring goals, along with Clowe and Paveliski, the Sharks should not have problems advancing. San Jose also needs Boyle and Setoquchi to keep playing solid. But if the big three keep on struggling it will put tremendous pressure on Nabokokov.
The second key is if the Red Wings can turn back the clock and find away to help a young goaltender. Detroit is an aging team that might wear down as the long, grueling playoffs wear on.
I have to believe that the Sharks will find a way to get their stars going without disrupting the play they are getting from other players. The Red Wings might have a lot of names to be fearful of, but those names have a lot of age and wear on their legs as well.
The NHL playoffs is all about who is in goal, and Nabokokov has been here before, whereas Howard is making his first appearance in the playoffs. Goaltending matters more than anything in the playoffs, so the edge has to go to San Jose. But do not expect Detroit to go gently into that good night.
Winner: San Jose Sharks 4-3
(2) Chicago Black Hawks vs. (3) Vancouver Canucks
This is the most exciting series—now that the Washington Capitals have been eliminated and there will be no Sidney Crosby/Alex Ovechkin matchup. Two of the three top scoring teams will battle for a spot in the finals of the Western Conference.
Chicago has gotten great playoff performances from regular season stars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp. Combined, these four players have scored 10 goals and 19 assists in a first round win over the Nashville Predators.
The Blackhawks have had some players disappoint in the playoffs as well. Two of those players are Duncan Keith, who had 69 points in the regular season, and Kris Versteeg, who had 44 points in the regular season.
So far in these playoffs, Keith and Versteeg have combined to score one goal with three assists, and are -6 in the plus/minus stat. While it would be nice to get Versteeg going, there is no question the Blackhawks would really love to get Keith going for the rest of the playoffs.
Chicago has also had some players step up their game in the playoffs. Two of those players are Brent Seabrook and Brent Sopel.
Seabrook and Sopel have not scored a goal in the playoffs, but have seven assists combined. The two defense men are helping out on the offensive end to help struggling defenseman Keith.
Minding the net for the Blackhawks is rookie Antti Niemi, who has stopped 151 of 164 shots on goal and has two shutouts. Niemi has a .921 save percentage and is allowing 2.15 goals per game.
Niemi got the nod over more experienced goaltender Cristobal Huet. The move has paid off so far this postseason, but after one series no one can say Niemi is truly playoff tested.
Standing in Chicago’s way of a trip to the Western Conference Finals is Canada’s best hope to bring back the cup, the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks dispatched the Los Angeles Kings in six games, winning the series 4-2.
Everyone knows Vancouver will go as far as the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrick, can carry them. So far these two have not disappointed, with five goals and 13 assists between them.
One Canuck that is on a tear in these playoffs is Mikael Samuelsson, who has seven goals and four assists. Samuelsson terrorized the Kings and needs to keep his play up for the rest of the playoffs.
Vancouver has also gotten a good regular season and postseason out of Ryan Kesler, who has one goal and five assists so far. The Canucks would love to get more production out of Alexander Burrows and Mason Raymond, who have two goals and no assists between them.
On the bright side, much like with Chicago, Vancouver has had two players raise the level of their game in the playoffs. Those two players are Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier.
Demitra and Bernier have six goals and three assists combined. The two right wingers have had a solid postseason so far.
Keeping opposing pucks out of the net for the Canucks is Roberto Luongo, who has stopped 142 out of 159 shots. Luongo has a .893 save percentage and is allowing 2.92 goals per game.
After helping Canada win a gold medal in the Olympics this year, Luongo has a chance to become one of the top goalies in the NHL. To do so, he will have to lead Vancouver deep into the playoffs and prove he is a strength, not a liability.
Both these teams can score goals and score goals in bunches. The key to this series comes down to the goaltenders. Whichever team gets the best play between the pipes will advance on in the playoffs.
Luongo has a lot on the line and will have a lot more playoff experience than his counterpart. He does not have to be stellar with all the goal support he will get, but he needs to be just a little better.
Niemi has had playoff pressure on him before, so how he reacts will be something to watch closely. He does have home ice advantage, but will he crack under the pressure or embrace it?
I have to believe that Luongo will outplay the rookie in this series. Niemi has never been here and does not know what the pressure is like. Luongo had a breakthrough moment this year, winning the gold in Vancouver, and now knows what it takes to lead a team to a championship.
Winner: Vancouver Canucks 4-2
Up next will be an Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction. Also, after these two series will be a Western Conference Final preview and prediction. Hopefully you have enjoyed these NHL Playoffs as much as I have.
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