The Blackhawks and Canucks have met the past two seasons in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Each series was extremely physical, and it’s safe to say that neither team is fond of the other. Chicago was victorious both occasions, and will look to spoil the top seeds' hopes for a Cup run.
The Blackhawks lack depth on both sides of the puck. Their top six forwards and top two defensemen are, without question, some of the best in the NHL. Beyond that, however, they have many untested players.
The Canucks are deep, and have many veterans eager to get the monkey off their backs against the Chicago Blackhawks. Vancouver’s window to win is quickly dwindling for their core group, who are getting up there in age. This should be one of the most entertaining series of the first round.
The Chicago Blackhawks sneaked into the playoffs by the slightest of margins. The 'Hawks have struggled all season long to find consistency in their play. Their team was dismantled last year after the Cup run, and they had to rebuild the bottom half of their roster. Without rookie goaltender Corey Crawford, who has been rock solid in the net for the majority of the year, the Blackhawks would not be in the position they're in now.
Lately, the Blackhawks have been spurned by the injury bug as well: Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland and Troy Brower all have been on the shelf, with Sharp coming back for the final two regular season games. They might be getting C Dave Bolland (concussion) back just in time to help slowdown the high-powered first line of the Canucks. Bolland might just be the key to the series if he can come back and lighten the load put on Jonathan Toews and others against opponents' top lines.
The Canucks, on the other hand, have played fantastic hockey from start to finish. They have the stat-filling Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and, of course, veteran Roberto Luongo in the cage. The great play of backup goalie Cory Schneider (16-4-2) has allowed Luongo’s games played (60) to be well below his average of 69 per year since 2002. He should be well-rested and sharp for a deep playoff run.
Talent is abundant, and veterans are a dime a dozen for this team. They lead the league in goals scored and goals against. Is this the year they get passed their nemesis?
Luongo should be well-rested heading into these playoffs. We will see if it pays off for Alain Vigneault and company. Luongo gave up 21 goals to the 'Hawks in six games in the 2010 playoffs. The 'Hawks are definitely in his head, but if he plays well, this could be a quick series for the Canucks.
The Blackhawks' best player, Jonathan Toews, always gives you a chance to win. But the difference maker in this series should be his linemate Marian Hossa.
When Hossa is healthy and playing with purpose, there is not a better two-way forward in the NHL. If the Blackhawks want to win this series, they must get great play from Hossa. In the 39 games Chicago has won with Hossa in the lineup, he has 21 goals and 46 points. In the 26 losses, he has four goals and only 11 points.
The Blackhawks go as far as Hossa can take them.
Prediction: Blackhawks in Seven
The Blackhawks have had the Canucks' number for the better part of three years. Nothing changes here, as a physical series turns into a goaltending battle. Whichever goalie can handle the specialty situations better will move on.
This series will be physically demanding and may hurt the winner’s chances for moving past the second round.
The Battle of California has begun. For only the third time ever, the two teams from California will meet in the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Kings have had an up and down year, but might be peaking at the right time to make a run in the playoffs. They look to knock off the San Jose Sharks, who, for the last seven years, have been a staple atop the West.
The Sharks are 9-2-1 coming into the playoffs. They have put all their fruit in the Antti Niemi basket, who has started every game but two since January 13th.
For the last decade, the Sharks have been a perennially "great" regular season team. They have yet to get over the hump in the playoffs, and usually end up sitting on their couches watching the Cup get raised. They desperately need good performances from their top line of Thorton, Setoguchi and Heatley. They have the ability to roll all four lines during these playoffs, which should help them stay fresh if they are able to make a deep run.
The Kings limped into the playoffs, going 2-4 in the last six games to barely get in. They benefited from having a fantastic March, when they went 9-3-2.
Justin Williams was out for the last nine games of the season, but is almost ready to be reinserted into the lineup. The roster is young, talented and has great depth on both offense and defense. They also have a talented net-minder in Jonathan Quick (35-22-3), who is in the Top Five in GAA with a 2.24.
Do the Kings have enough firepower to score with the mighty Sharks?
San Jose—Joe Thorton
Joe Thorton, who has a miserable playoff resume, needs to be an impact player for the Sharks to be considered a threat in the West. In 91 career playoff games, Thorton only has 15 goals. He must lead the Sharks by his actions and get them through the playoff demons that have haunted him throughout his career.
Los Angeles—Justin Williams
Justin Williams has begun practicing again with the Kings, and looks ready to shake off the dislocated should that he sustained against Calgary on March 21st. If he can come back and fill the shoes of leading scorer Anze Kopitar (ankle), who is out for the season, the Kings have a very slight chance of upsetting the heavy favorite Sharks.
Prediction: San Jose in Five
The San Jose Sharks have too much firepower for the injured Kings. Trying to win in the playoffs is hard enough. Doing it without your leading scorer is near impossible. Look for the Sharks to jump on them early and often.
This short series should bode well for the Sharks, who will be looking to get back into the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year.
The Red Wings, who almost kept their rivals (Blackhawks) out of the playoffs on the final day of the season, are trying to get healthy to make a deep run. They are finally getting healthy at the right time of the year. Pavel Datsyuk just returned from injury, and had an immediate impact in the final game with the game-winner against the Hawks. Zetterberg is the question mark for the Wings, and his return could come at any time during this series.
The Coyotes are getting healthy as well. Ed Jovanoski and Martin Hanzal have just returned for the Coyotes. Hanzal is the checking line center, and the matchup against the Wings' top line is very important. Ilya Bryzgalov has to be the Coyotes' best player in order for the young 'Yotes to get out of the first round.
Can Zetterberg come back healthy? If he can, he makes Detroit a formidable opponent for anyone that steps out onto the ice. Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Norris Trophy-favorite Niklas Lindstrom make scoring on the power-play that much harder for the Coyotes. Zetterberg will be the key to the Wings' playoff run.
This may be a coming out party for the 24-year-old Korpikoski. He has made a drastic jump in production this year. He has assumed the responsibility of defensive stopper, and is one of the more talented offensive forwards the Coyotes have. Look for a few goals this series, possibly a multi-goal game as well.
Prediction: Detroit in Five
I don’t think the Coyotes have what it takes this year. The Wings are a puck possession team, and have plenty of hungry veterans looking for another Stanley Cup. The young Coyotes will have to wait another year before making a dent in the playoffs.
The Anaheim Ducks are the hottest team coming into the playoffs. They are 15-5-0 since February 27th. The Predators are on a tear as well, going 13-4-3 over that same time. Something has to give.
The Ducks have the best player in the series in Corey Perry, who scored a hat trick in the finale to reach 50 goals on the year. They are a big physical team, with plenty of playmakers on both sides of the puck.
Teemu Selanne defies the odds and continues to put up Hall of Fame stats (31G, 80 points). They only have one problem I can see: They will have to choose a goaltender for the playoffs. Goalies Ray Emery, Dan Ellis and Jonas Hiller have all seen plenty of action this year. They have all had injuries as well. Ellis is lined up to be the starter in the opener with Hiller the backup.
We will see how this team handles the possible carousel at that position.
The Predators will have trouble in this series scoring. They must keep the games low-scoring affairs. They will try to dump and chase the puck as much as possible, and take their chances on the power play. They do not have much playoff experience on their roster, so look for them to play loose and with nothing to lose.
Corey Perry has been a high-20s goal scorer for a few years now. Flash forward to 2011, Perry has scored an NHL-leading 50 goals to go along with 48 assists. He should win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. If the Predators can limit his scoring and pester him in the offensive zone, the Ducks offense will become stagnant.
Mike Fisher has the most playoff experience on this young Nashville team. They will look to Fisher for leadership. The Predators' trapping style almost earned them an upset last year in the first round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. They will always play hard, and Fisher has quickly become the locker room presence they need to get over the hump.
Prediction: Nashville in Seven
Even though the Ducks have been playing well, I think the style the Predators' play will give them the advantage they need to pull off the mini upset. They are second in the league in goals against, and will have to do more of the same to keep their success against the Ducks going. They were 3-1 versus the Ducks this year.
Look for a low-scoring, grind-it-out type of series, which plays right into the Predators' plans to spoil the Ducks' run.
Check back later in the week for more predictions on the 2011 NHL Playoffs. Follow me on twitter @lj3315