With my Eastern Conference playoff predictions out of the way, it’s time to set my sights on the Western Conference.
Parity is alive and well throughout the NHL, but nowhere is it more apparent in the Western Conference where the difference between fifth and 10th place was just five points.
Looking at the four Western Conference matchups, there is not much to choose between most of the teams. That said, a few favorites should emerge, with the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings garnering a lot of attention from poolies and fans alike.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the first-round matchups and how it should all pan out.
(1) Vancouver Canucks Vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks
Given the fact that the Chicago Blackhawks have ended the Vancouver Canucks playoff drives in each of the past two seasons there is plenty of reason to believe that the Canucks were hoping to avoid a matchup with the Indian.
The Canucks were this seasons Presidents' Trophy winners, while, after winning the Stanley Cup last season, the Hawks were lucky to make the playoffs this season as they played a very inconsistent brand of hockey throughout the year.
The Hawks depth took a huge hit this summer as Chicago had to say goodbye to several very valuable depth players including Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, and Andrew Ladd—not to mention the loss of goaltender Antti Niemi, who put together a solid 35-game winning season with the San Jose Sharks.
As good as the Hawks were, they are not the same team that won the Cup last season. On the other side of the coin, the Canucks appear to be a much improved squad, capable of making and, perhaps even winning the Stanley Cup this spring.
Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo suffered with the likes of Byfuglien in his face in the 2010 playoffs. He will not have to worry about that this year, which should make a huge difference.
The Sedin Twins have found another gear, and the Canucks defense is amongst the league's best, which is always key to playoff success.
The Canucks owned the best regular season power play at 24.3 percent and the second ranked penalty kill at 85.6 percent.
Special teams is also an important part of playoff success, especially the penalty kill, which will have to be excellent with the likes of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane firing pucks all series long.
If the Hawks can manage to get into the Canucks heads they may have a shot to pull off the upset in this series, but with so many things going right for the Canucks this season it is hard to look past them.
Prediction: Take the Canucks, in six games
(2) San Jose Sharks Vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings
Anyone who follows hockey is well aware of the San Jose Sharks inability to find playoff success. That said, it’s not as if the Los Angeles Kings have a better history in the playoffs. Both teams have something to prove.
The Kings enter the playoffs without the services of Anze Kopitar, who has been their best offensive player for years now.
Dustin Penner was added to the Kings roster at the deadline, but it is hard to imagine a player of his ilk (on again, off again) will rise to the occasion against a team like the Sharks.
After a tough start to the 2010-11 season the San Jose Sharks quietly went about their business, finishing with a 105-point season.
Special teams will be one of the keys to winning the series. The Sharks are entering the playoffs with the second-ranked power play in the league and the 25th-ranked penalty kill, while the Kings own the 21st-ranked power play and fourth-ranked penalty kill.
The team that stays out of the box will likely be victorious on more nights than not. That said, given the Sharks inability to keep their opposition off the scoreboard in penalty kill situations and the Kings tremendous power play success, it appears as if a patient/disciplined game will have to be a must for the Sharks.
The Sharks have a well-balanced offense, playoff experience throughout the lineup and a Stanley Cup winning goalie between the pipes. For all of those reasons and the fact that Los Angeles is missing Kopitar I’ll take the Sharks in this series.
Prediction: Take the Sharks in five games.
(3) Detroit Red Wings Vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes
The Detroit Red Wings had yet another 100 point season—no news there. The Red Wings also feature one of the most successful playoff records over the past 20 seasons—no news there either!
On the other hand, the Phoenix Coyotes have been looking to solidify their ownership for what seems like forever and have very little playoff success, in fact, they have had none since leaving Winnipeg—no news there either!
Last season the Red Wings needed seven games to dispose of the Coyotes as ‘Yotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov stood on his head until the seventh game when Detroit torched him for six goals.
History points to the Red Wings having yet another long playoff run. They are healthy (although Henrik Zetterberg may miss a game or two in this series), well-coached and have adequate goaltending in Jimmy Howard.
Try as I might I cannot see the Red Wings losing this series, they are just too experienced, too deep and too dangerous not to get by Phoenix.
Prediction: Take the Red Wings in six games.
(4) Anaheim Ducks Vs. (5) Nashville Predators
With Anaheim Ducks starting goaltender Jonas Hiller expected to continue an extended period on the disabled list and the one-time, left-for-dead No. 1 goaltender Ray Emery expected to join him on the sidelines for a game or two, the Ducks will be forced to play streaky netminder Dan Ellis between the pipes.
Prior to joining the Anaheim Ducks, Ellis posted a decent 13-7-6 record with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but his goals against average of 2.93 and save percentage of .889 were both well below average and well below his 2.39 goals against average and .917 save percentage with the Ducks.
Clearly, if Eliis remains between the pipes for the Ducks he will have to be stellar even with the Nashville Predators struggling to score goals (they were 21st overall in that department).
Nashville owned the third-best goals against average in the regular season. One of the main reasons their GAA was so good was the tremendous goaltending of Pekka Rinne, who registered a 33-22-9 record to go along with a sparkling 2.12 goals against average and .930 save percentage.
The trio of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan will be a force to be reckoned with. Throw veteran Teemu Selanne into that mix and you have yourself four very capable offensive threats.
On the backend the Ducks will feature rookie defenseman Cam Fowler and Lubomir Visnovsky—both of whom will be expected to contribute offensively.
Veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin should continue to log heavy minutes and lead by example. Overall, the Ducks defense is good, but not on-par with the defensive roster the Preds will ice.
The Predators backend will feature Shea Weber and Ryan Suter—both of whom can bring it in the scoring and physicality departments.
Weber will be key to the Preds success. If he can keep the trio of Perry, Ryan and Getzlaf in check the Preds have a great chance of winning, if not...not so good!
Up front the Predators really struggle to score goals, which they will have to overcome if they are to be successful. Sergei Kostitsyn lead the Preds with 23 goals and 50 points on the season, while Martin Erat also had 50 points.
The only other 20-goal scorer in the Predators lineup was Patric Hornqvist with 21 on the season.
A trio of Erat, Kostitsyn and Hornqvist hardly puts the fear of God in any NHL opponent, which is why so many people will be inclined to take the Ducks in this series.
Could this be the year the Predators finally win a playoff series? Perhaps. But the smart money is going to be on the Ducks—even with their apparent goaltending issues.
Prediction: Take the Ducks in seven games.
****For a complete look at my Eastern Conference playoff predictions click here***
Until next time,