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2011-12 NHL Western Conference Playoff Predictions

MJ KasprzakSenior Writer IIOctober 4, 2011

2011-12 NHL Western Conference Playoff Predictions

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    The NHL Western Conference was dominated by three teams from 1996 through 2002. The Detroit Red Wings won three times and the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars twice each.

    Their dominance was carried over to the Stanley Cup Finals, where only Dallas lost in 2000...and did not win legitimately in 1999.

    In the eight seasons since then, parity is ruling the conference. Only Anaheim (2003, 2007) and Detroit (2008, 2009) have won the Campbell Trophy for being the western representative more than once. That parity is hurting their success in the finals, as only three of the eight titles have gone to the Campbell winner.

    Part of this may be because the Eastern Conference travels all within the same time zone during the season, and most teams are within an hour of almost their entire division. By comparison, Dallas is over three hours away from rival San Jose and over two away from all three other teams.

    But before we can know how the travel will affect the winner this season, we have to know who that winner will be. Before we can know who that winner will be, we have to know who makes it and who matches up against whom. Here are my predictions for how the Western Conference playoffs will unfold...

1. Vancouver Canucks over 8. St. Louis Blues

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    The Vancouver Canucks were within one game of winning the Stanley Cup last season.

    They were also within one goal of being eliminated for the third consecutive season by the Chicago Blackhawks, this time in the first round.

    That is the Canucks in a nutshell. They have always been supremely talented, and last season had a coach, goalie and two forwards nominated for or winning six major awards, coming away with four individual honours.

    They have also been viewed as lacking killer instinct. When the going got tough last season, they tended to look outward rather than inward for reasons they were failing.

    For better and worse, they still have almost the exact same team. There is no doubt they have the second-best goalie tandem (behind Boston) in the NHL, and they have arguably the best forwards and a blue line in the top third of the league.

    They also have the weakest divisional foes in the entire NHL, and that spells the best record in the NHL. That will pit them against the St. Louis Blues.

    Before last season, St. Louis added what was expected to be the final piece. In the offseason, they traded for the goaltending standout of the 2010 playoffs, Jaroslav Halak.

    That might have gotten them into the playoffs last year were they not entirely decimated by injury

    Technically, since decimation is one in 10 and there are 20 players active for every game, they were double-decimated: St. Louis lost about four man-games per contest last season.

    This year they added more talent than they lost, boasting depth at forward and a very solid blue line. They should outlast the Colorado Avalanche even in a tougher division, and have just enough to squeak past the Dallas Stars—a similar team in many respects but not as good in net.

    However, Vancouver is better in all three units, will have home ice and their playoff experience will mean more than the Blues additional hunger. St. Louis will win a game when Vancouver lacks intensity and might beat Vancouver once more.

2. San Jose Sharks over 7. Nashville Predators

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    The Nashville Predators have one of the four-best blue line tandems in the NHL in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Behind them on the ice is 2011 Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne.

    But behind them on the depth chart are only unproven or third-pair defencemen. And not one of the Predators' forward lines would be among the top half of the league for its role.

    The team they face has a better second line than Nashville's top line. If a team has two lines they can roll out against your two studs on the blue line, you better hope they do not match up as well against your forwards. Instead, their foe has two elite defencemen of its own and more depth at the position.

    The only place Nashville has an edge is in net. Barry Trotz will get the most out of his team, and they know how to win in a first round. However, he does not have enough to overcome the San Jose Sharks.

    Contrary to popular belief, the Sharks rarely lose in the first round. In their run of seven straight playoff  appearances that began in 2004, the San Jose Sharks have dropped only one first-round series. Twice in that span, they eliminated the Predators in five games.

    For that reason, Nashville will have extra motivation. The Sharks have still had trouble matching the other team's intensity, and they will give up one game. Two elite defencemen and an elite goalie will earn a team a win against anyone in a series, even with sub-par (but certainly not bad) team support. But it will be hard for them to win more than two games against the Sharks.

6. Chicago Blackhawks over 3. Detroit Red Wings

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    There has been much hype surrounding the retooled Chicago Blackhawks this summer. I do not get why.

    Chicago won the Stanley Cup with a completely different team. The formula they now have in uncertain. Not only are just about all the role-players gone, but top players like Brian Campbell and Dustin Byfuglien.

    Getting rid of both was absolutely the right choice given the team's cap limitations. They still have easily the best blue line in the league, with the best one-two punch on that unit and a very good supporting cast that extends to two of the best forward lines in hockey.

    But they are relying on an unproven goalie. Corey Crawford looked very good in his first full year in net, but the position is relatively uncertain anyway, with flashes in the pan (Vesa Toskala), guys the league adjusts to (Steve Mason), and guys who take a while to produce consistently (Carey Price).

    If Crawford has a sophomore slump, gets hurt, or if any of the team's top-two defencemen or top-four forwards go down, Chicago is in trouble. They had among the fewest games lost in injury last season, and if that luck runs out, they lack the Detroit Red Wings depth to absorb any loss.

    Detroit is easily top-five at forward and may have upgraded on the blue line, as Brian Rafalski was breaking down while Ian White was the third-best defenceman on the team that eliminated them last year. Jimmy Howard is a talented netminder who should only be getting better.

    Moreover, Detroit's efficient play is perfect for the regular season. Unfortunately, they just have too much age to find that next gear in the playoffs. Chicago knows them and will be able to wear them down in a long series, when they can lean more heavily on their superior talent at the top.

4. Los Angeles Kings over 5. Anaheim Ducks

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    The Los Angeles Kings are going to give the San Jose Sharks a serious run for the Pacific Division. In comparing the two teams, it was noted that the title should come down to the season finale between the teams.

    L.A.'s forwards and defence are easily in the top-10 of the league. They have one of the top-five goalie combos in the NHL. They battled adversity with major injuries last year, and still worked hard enough to get two wins against the Sharks in the first round.

    But Anaheim would likely not have lost in the first round last year had they not been without a very good goalie in Jonas Hiller. This team has a deeper blue-line and more playoff experience.

    Except that experience is not as important as youth and hunger. The Kings have both in more abundance, having not made it out of the first round in 10 seasons.

    More than that, the Kings are as good or better than Anaheim in all three units. They find a way to get this one done in what promises to be a long series since both teams know each other well.

1. Vancouver Canucks over 6. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Somehow, the Vancouver Canucks let up against the team that had beaten them two years in a row.

    If one would ever have a killer instinct to put a team away up 3-0, you would think that would be the time. But my prediction is that Vancouver learned a lesson then.

    They have the better forwards and goaltending. Roberto Luongo has to prove he can play great in a big game on the road, but more faith should be placed in him than Crawford. Chicago's edge on the blue line is not enough to counter that.

    Vancouver is at home, should be more rested, has more speed and more depth than Chicago. There is a good chance this one goes the distance, but Vancouver comes out on top.

2. San Jose Sharks over 4. Los Angeles Kings

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    The Sharks were barely better than the Kings during the regular season, earning home ice advantage. That slight edge will not change, and by the second round, home ice starts to mean something.

    As close as these teams are and as hungry as the Kings are, this one is going seven games. While road teams have actually had more success in game sevens in recent years, it should be easier on the Sharks with their superior experience in and beyond the first round. They may even be more rested.

2. San Jose Sharks over 1. Vancouver Canucks

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    The Vancouver Canucks had too much speed for the San Jose Sharks last season in the Western Conference Finals. San Jose looked fatigued, as well, and should once again be at least as much as Vancouver.

    The Canucks had better forwards and better goaltending. Even though they lost Christian Ehrhoff, they should be at least as good on the blue line as last postseason, unless they once again have multiple players injured.

    But San Jose will still be better there unless they are without one of their studs. And Antti Niemi may actually be better in the clutch than Roberto Luongo.

    The Sharks have cap space they are almost certain to use to upgrade their already elite units. It will be just enough to balance their hunger with the talent to pass the Canucks in a long series.

    So who will the Sharks play and will they win the Cup? Stay tuned for my Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions...

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