NHL 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview, Western Conference
As April Fool's Day came to a close, the playoff picture is pretty clear.
The Vancouver Canucks already clinched the President's Trophy, six other teams have clinched a playoff spot and seven have been eliminated. Two more are likely to be out by the end of Saturday's games.
Division winners are all-but determined, with no division leader is more than five points away from clinching. Among teams not currently in the top eight in their conferences, only the Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars have legitimate chances of making the playoffs.
Still, only a true April Fool previews teams' Stanley Cup chances with over a week to go, so here are mine for Western Conference teams, in order of their chances of playing for the Cup:
The Vancouver Canucks have everything wrapped up with five games to go—a potential weakness, as is having so many injuries on a blueline lacking in star power. Still, they are deep enough there and strong enough elsewhere to be the favourite to win the conference.
The San Jose Sharks have been getting stellar goaltending and present match-up problems for other teams because they have three lines that can score. They have a skilled and deep blueline and should be able to correct their penalty-killing woes when Scott Nichol and Kent Huskins return from injury (top 10 with them, fell to the bottom 10 in just six-plus weeks without them).
The Detroit Red Wings are struggling without Howard in net, but expect his return this weekend—will he be 100 percent, and if so, can he perform better than he did last post-season? While he is not the only injury they have suffered, they can overcome the others that have allowed them to rest players because of their depth. They have everything else they need: Stanley Cup-winning experience and among the best forwards and defence in the league.
Who will win the Western Conference title?
The Anaheim Ducks have been hot, and have good goaltending as well as a couple good lines and a defence that is a threat to score. But if you can shut down the Perry-Getzlaf combo, you will get enough goals against them to beat them in a seven-game series.
The Los Angeles Kings already have one of the top five bluelines in the game and fantastic goaltending. Unfortunately, they are without two of their top three scorers for at least the first round of the playoffs and likely do not have enough left to advance until they can get one of them back; should they make it past the first round, they will still lack the punch to beat the division winners in four of seven games.
The Phoenix Coyotes have only four games left, and two are against the San Jose Sharks who they have not beaten since 2009. Unless San Jose has the second seed locked up before the final game of the year, the Desert Dogs will lose ground in the tight Western Conference race. They are a solid all-around team in front of a great goalie, but in reality are middle of the pack both in goals scored and allowed; it would be an accomplishment to simply make it past the first round.
The Nashville Predators have some of the best goaltending in the league and play great defence in front of them. But the reality is they lack a potent power play to keep teams playing disciplined or enough scoring to be a threat to any of the division winners.
The Chicago Blackhawks will be able to hold off the Stars over both teams' final six games thanks to a 1.5-game lead and the tiebreaker advantage established by Dallas' loss in San Jose Thursday night. But Chicago lost enough of last season's forward depth to be vulnerable, and six of the seven teams ahead of them have far better goaltending—an elite blueline will carry you only so far.
Look for the Eastern Conference preview before the weekend is over.
MJ Kasprzak is the NHL beat writer for Sports Haze, for whom this piece was originally written.
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