NHL Playoffs: Top 3 Questions Facing Each Western Conference Playoff Team

John PhenAnalyst IIIMarch 23, 2011

NHL Playoffs: Top 3 Questions Facing Each Western Conference Playoff Team

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    It’s the stretch drive in the NHL and that means teams are getting their games into high gear in preparation of the playoffs. The following teams were selected given their position in the standings and relative likelihood of making the playoffs.

    Broken down in order according to their record, their positioning is obviously far from set in stone even with just a handful of games remaining.

    Whether the team has secured a playoff spot, or fighting for their playoff lives, every team has some question marks about them. These questions will need to be answered for these teams to make any kind of real noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    With all due apologies to Calgary Flames fans, here then are the top three questions facing each postseason team in the Western Conference.

Dallas Stars

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    Is Kari Lehtonen for real ?

    It’s a fair question for the goaltender that chased Marty Turco out of town and has enjoyed his best season since 2002. Sporting a 30-22 record with a 2.55 goals-against average, Lehtonen has held the fort with a .912 save percentage. While he’s been solid and some nights spectacular, the proof will be in the playoff pudding as it were.

    How much impact will Brad Richards have?

    Richards has returned to the lineup and is understandably rusty after missing considerable time earlier in the year. With 25 goals and 42 assists so far this season, he’s no stranger to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His linemates Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson will be huge keys to a long playoff run for the Stars with Richards back.

    Is Jamie Benn the X-Factor?

    After James Neal was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Brad Richards left with a concussion, Jamie Benn has been their secret weapon. With 21 goals and 26 assists this season, could Benn be the X-factor in the playoffs?

Anaheim Ducks

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    Can the Ducks' stars carry the load?

    What top seed in the West really wants to face the Ducks top line of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan in the first round?

    Amidst a season of inconsistent play and lacking defensive focus, the Ducks are back in the playoff picture behind the key play of their top line. These guys are big, nasty and clutch and could spell trouble for the Red Wings and Canucks should they face off in the first round.

    Do they have enough defense?

    Outside of Lubomir Visnovsky who is among league leaders in scoring, the Ducks defenders have been inconsistent all year. Andreas Lilja has been especially bad and has looked like an orange traffic pylon on some nights.

    Francois Beauchemin and Luca Sbisa have quietly become a very effective shutdown pair, and rookie Cam Fowler just may have a impact in the playoffs..

    Will Jonas Hiller return?

    Despite Ray Emery’s comeback story the Ducks simply have to get Jonas Hiller back to have a real shot in the playoffs. Hiller was one of the NHL’s best goalies not named Thomas or Price in the first half of the season, and Dan Ellis is not the answer.

    Without Hiller it will be tough for the Ducks to go far in the postseason.  

Nashville Predators

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    Is Nashville deep enough?

    It's an easy enough question for the Predators who have scored the least amount of goals (190) of any team currently contending for the playoffs. While their defensive style and tempo dictating play is made for the postseason, the Preds will be hard pressed to rally should Rinne spring a leak.

    Can Pekka Rinne carry this team?

    With some huge games last year in the playoffs under his belt, Rinne will again carry the hopes of Nashville fans on his back. With 27 wins this year and a .930 save percentage, Rinne will have to step up his game for the Predators to enjoy any success in the playoffs.

    Should Rinne falter however, the Predators can turn to Anders Lindback who is also a very big, positionally sound goaltender who has looked excellent at times this year.

    Was Mike Fisher Enough?

    With the lack of top end scoring on this team, one has to honestly wonder if the Predators did enough at the deadline to go anywhere in the playoffs. Fisher has been a great pickup for this team, but with just one goal and three assists since joining the team, one has to wonder if they did enough.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    How will Corey Crawford play?

    After seemingly shelving the Turco experiment, the Blackhawks turn to young Corey Crawford, who has faltered of late. Crawford has been pulled twice in the last five games after being a key factor for the Blackhawks this season. He has given up three goals or more in eight of his last 11 starts, but rebounded nicely against Phoenix.

    He'll need to keep his mental toughness about him, a trait Blackhawk fans are very familiar with after their championship run behind Niemi a year ago.

    Will they be healthy enough?

    The Blackhawks like many other teams are a little banged up with just three weeks left in the season. However unlike other teams, they have lost several players in the offseason salary clearing that had to commence following their championship run.

    Their depth players will have to step up to make up this difference, and any injury to a top-six forward will put a heavy dent into their playoff hopes. 

    If Patrick Sharp cannot return for the playoffs the Blackhawks will sorely miss his contributions as he's one of the most underrated players in the West. The Blackhawks also lost Dave Bolland for the rest of the regular season and perhaps the playoffs, I don't think the Sedin twins will miss him. 

    Can Toews carry the Hawks to another Cup?

    Captain Serious has been seriously hot of late and led the Blackhawks on their warpath up the standings in February. During this span, he's been almost embarrassingly clutch scoring 10 goals in a stretch of 10 games in leading the charge.  

    He hasn't been afraid to call out his teammates either, following a 5-0 drubbing the Hawks endured at the hands of the Stars. His play and leadership will be paramount if the Hawks plan on winning it all again this year. If his play is anything close to last year's postseason performance, the rest of the West better watch out. 

Phoenix Coyotes

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    Do the Coyotes have enough depth?

    With no bona fide go to guy, the top six forwards for the Coyotes get the job done with a scoring by committee approach. The lack of their bottom six scoring may cause some problems as the playoffs approach considering the parity in the West.

    Lee Stempniak has been hot recently scoring three times in the last four games after going without a tally in the previous 21. Phoenix needs all the help they can get, and Stempniak needs to continue his hot play in the postseason.

    Could Kyle Turris be the x-factor and surprise everyone by making a huge contribution in the playoffs? Will Ed Jovanovski return in time for the Coyotes? Could Martin Hanzal return soon?

    What impact will Keith Yandle have?

    Yandle has quietly become one of the best young defenceman in the NHL this year, and is consistently contributing for the ‘Yotes.

    The 24-year-old blueliner has the stats, the skill level and the heart to hang against the opponents’ top guns and Coyote fans can’t wait to see what he can do in the postseason. He has 11 goals and 46 assists this year with a solid +8 rating, and just could surprise a few folks in the playoffs.

    How will Ilya Bryzgalov play?

    Ilya Bryzgalov has been the best player for the Phoenix Coyotes this year, and as Bryzgalov goes, the Coyotes go. His clutch play and ability to be dominant on any given night gives the Coyotes more than a shot in a seven game series.

    Problem is, his workload has been a heavy burden once again and the Coyotes don’t look much different than last year’s team. Can Bryzgalov shine in the playoffs and bring some much needed playoff success to the desert?

Los Angeles Kings

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    How much will they miss Justin Williams?

    The Kings were dealt a huge loss when Justin Williams was checked into the boards during their 2-1 victory over the Flames. Williams is the Kings' second leading scorer with 57 points and will miss at least a month with a separated left shoulder.

    More importantly, his ability to rise when the stakes are high will be missed for a team not known for their offensive explosiveness. 

    Can Drew Doughty be the difference maker?

    Doughty is one of the most surprising young players to come along for the Kings in a long time. In short order, he has quickly become a force on the LA blueline and is dangerous every time he touches the puck. Could he have a breakout postseason for the Kings, improving from his already very solid playoff performance from a year ago?

    With 11 goals, 26 assists and a +15 rating, Doughty leads the Kings with confidence and poise out of their own zone. His end to end rush against the Rangers is the type of play that can break a team's back in a seven game series. 

    What impact will Dustin Penner have?

    Dustin Penner returned to Southern California at the deadline, as the Kings sent prospect Colten Teubert, a first-round 2011 draft pick and a conditional third-round pick to Edmonton. With six points in nine games since being dealt, Penner has provided a decent return for the Kings but will need to step it up in the playoffs.

    With Williams out, Penner will have to pick up the slack and needs to find some chemistry quickly having gone scoreless in his last four games.

    Can Dustin Penner recapture the success he had in 2007 with the Ducks and their championship run? Or will he make the Kings regret they didn’t pay more for Hemsky or Richards?

San Jose Sharks

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    What impact will Logan Couture have?

    Thankfully for Sharks fans, their best two way forward should be making his return against Calgary after crashing into the boards awkwardly. Couture has been a revelation this year, and has consistently been the difference for San Jose early when the team struggled.

    Couture is among team leaders with 27 goals and 21 assists this year, and is also a +15 for San Jose. He’s done that on a multitude of line combinations, and in every imaginable game situation. The coaching staff trusts young Logan in crucial points, and he’s delivering for them in spades.

    Among the team leaders in blocked shots, faceoff percentage and plus minus, his impact goes far beyond the stats for the Sharks.

    Did Doug Wilson do enough this season?

    Picking up Ian White, Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood has provided a big boost to depth and talent to the Sharks roster. However the question should be posed considering that this team’s blueline is still largely the same unit that came up short in the season-ending sweep vs. the Blackhawks. By standing pat and passing on some key free agents, and not making a play for others at the deadline, Doug Wilson has put his faith in the roster as is.

    We’ll see if his gamble pays off, or if his inaction may result in San Jose coming up short again in the postseason.

    How will Antti Niemi play?

    Last year’s Stanley Cup winning goalie returns to the playoffs with a markedly different supporting cast in front of him. Struggling through the first half of the season, Niemi has been the Sharks MVP in the new year, and singlehandedly carried the Sharks to the top of the Western Conference.

    Many people may seem too alarmed in regards to Niemi’s workload this late, but the Finnish goaltender has flourished starting 28 consecutive times.  The Sharks outshot the Blackhawks in three out of the four contests, but couldn’t beat Niemi. With Antti showing the same form and play from a year ago when he took the starting job for the Hawks late in the season, Sharks fans are hoping he can win it all again.

Detroit Red Wings

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    Will Mike Modano make a impact in the playoffs?

    Modano has missed 41 games this season after suffering a deep laceration to his right wrist on Nov. 26th. Although he made an immediate impact upon his return, his play had been less than effective in late Feb which led to a talk with head coach Mike Babcock.

    While he hasn’t exactly been the player some Red Wings fans had envisioned or hoped for this season, I wouldn’t count him out in the playoffs. If healthy, the third line of Cleary, Hudler and Modano could be a tough task to draw for opponents.

    Can the Red Wings stars come through?

    This is almost a ridiculous question considering the incredible mixture of talent, experience and clutch play of this team’s core. Go right down the line and you can rattle off name after name of proven playoff performers that can be the difference when the stakes are high.

    The Red Wings have been a dominant force for the better part of two decades in the West, but could their time be running out? Outside of a lone blowout last year, the Red Wings top guns were silenced by the San Jose Sharks in five games.

    They still have Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg, their power play is still deadly and they are dominant this season on the road. Having said all that though, they have struggled this year at the Joe, and this team’s penalty kill has been subpar for Detroit’s standards.

    Can Jimmy Howard Carry the load?

    Jimmy Howard has had a rough season compared to last year where he almost singlehandedly carried the Red Wings through a bevy of injuries. His sophomore season has been slightly disappointing considering his goals-against and save percentage, ranking near the bottom of the league.

    Despite that, with 71 wins, he still ranks in the top five winningest goalies in the past two years.  He figures to play a huge role in the Red Wings' chances to advance to yet another Stanley Cup Final appearance.

    He’ll have to rebound from a poor series against San Jose from a year ago, and needs to be the difference in the playoffs for the Wings. A huge playoff run will do wonders for the young Howard after signing a two-year extension earlier in the year.

Vancouver Canucks

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    Are they ready for the playoffs?

    It’s almost comical to even pose this question to be honest, considering Vancouver is probably the deepest and most talented team in the NHL. But hockey can be a cruel game, and the Canucks will be facing some incredible pressure in the playoffs.

    With just a few weeks left in the regular season, and the President’s Cup within their grasp, the Canucks just don’t look like they’ll be slowing anytime soon. No Canuck team has ever entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed, but maybe that’s a good thing.

    San Jose, Washington, St, Louis and Buffalo have all been President Cup winners since the lockout, and none have a Stanley Cup to show for their efforts.

    Can they get through the Malhotra injury?

    To the casual observer, the Canucks losing Manny Malhotra would not seem to be a big loss for a team as deep and as good as Vancouver. After all 11 goals, 30 points and a plus 9 rating isn’t a huge deal when you look at the grand scheme of their roster.

    In reality though, losing Malhotra may spell disaster for the Canucks before  all is said and done, especially in the playoffs. He’s second in the league in faceoff percentage and second on the team in faceoffs taken right behind Ryan Kesler. Manny leads the team in shorthanded ice time and has played a huge role in taking the Canuck penalty kill from 18th a year ago to 2nd place this year.

    Will Luongo rise in the playoffs?

    Roberto Luongo has been excellent again this regular season and faces yet another huge test in the postseason. Without the added burden of captaincy, Luongo now has to be the goalie in the playoffs that the Canucks fans believe he can be.

    As deep and talented as the Canucks' blueline is, Luongo will still have his work cut out for him, especially in the first round. The Canucks enjoy an 11 point lead currently in the West, and with Cory Schneider taking more starts and Luongo resting, the first round will be key.

    Teams and goaltenders such as Nashville and Pekka Rinne, Calgary and Miikka Kiprusoff, Dallas and Kari Kehtonen will be playing every game in the fight for a playoff spot.

    Will the rest hurt Luongo and the Canucks in the first round? Time will tell.