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NHL Playoffs: Fresh Faces Make for Great Western Conference Matchups

Andy Bensch@@AndyBenschSenior Writer IApril 14, 2009

DETROIT, MI - MARCH 7:  Rick Nash #61 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates in front of Henrik Zetterberg #40 of the Detroit Red Wings in a game on March 7, 2009 at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

People thought I was crazy when I picked the Dallas Stars to miss the playoffs, while having both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Columbus Blue Jackets (who haven't ever made the playoffs in team history) to make the playoffs prior to the 2008-09 NHL regular season.

However, as we sit here today at the end of the 82-game campaign and await the playoffs, the Blue-Jackets playing in the postseason isn't the only out of the box pick that has come true.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who had fallen on a hard times over the past few seasons, return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001-2002 season. This year, the Blackhawks are backed by young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, as well as being back-stopped by a former Stanley Cup winner, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.

Lastly, the only team not to make the playoffs from the final four teams standing last year is the Dallas Stars, who failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-2002 season.

All in all, this season has shown how each year can be completely different from the previous year, with four new teams making the playoffs in the western conference that didn't make it a year ago.

The Minnesota Wild (last year's Northwest Division Champions and No. 3 seed), Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, and the previously mentioned Dallas Stars are all absent from this year's playoffs after making the postseason last year.

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In their place are four teams that finished 10th, 11th, 13th, and 14th in the conference last season. In order, they are the Chicago Blackhawks, who moved up six spots to the No. 4 seed, the Vancouver Canucks, moving up eight spots to the No. 3 seed, the Columbus Blue-Jackets, moving up seven spots to the No. 6 seed, and lastly the St. Louis Blues, moving up seven spots to the No. 7 seed.

The fresh faces in this year's playoff picture looks to provide a jump in the TV ratings, as two very important markets to the NHL, Chicago and St. Louis, have teams back in the postseason.

Now, there are fans out there that don't agree with the "three-point" games that allow for skewed point totals in the league, but the format has provided for some extremely close races toward the end of the regular season and helps provide that sense of parity  the NHL had been missing for quite some time.

In fact, an article written earlier this season showing who would still be in the playoffs without the "three-point" game had only a couple of changes in the playoff picture, with most of the teams remaining the same.

Therefore, it is hard to argue against the three-point game. It has made for an exciting finish to the regular season and some playoff matchups that are dream matchups for particular regions.

First off, the No. 1 team in all of the NHL, the San Jose Sharks, will be taking on their Southern California rival Anaheim Ducks in the first round. It is a series that has never happened before and should create even a big buzz for California hockey, which is already growing exponentially.

The No. 2 seed and defending Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings take on the epitome of underdogs in the Columbus Blue-Jackets. How fitting is it to have the defending champs play the team who is making its first playoff appearance in franchise history?

Columbus has the presumed Calder Trophy winner (rookie of the year) in goal-tender Steve Mason, and their captain, Rick Nash, is a perennial all-star who is a threat to score every time he touches the puck.

Vancouver won the Northwest this season, giving them the third overall spot in the West, thanks in large part to the play of their goaltender, Roberto Luongo. With Canada being the birthplace of hockey, it is always beneficial to have multiple Canadian teams in the playoffs, and this one will be facing the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues being back in the playoffs is great for hockey, as the once proud franchise has not made the playoffs since the year before the lockout.

Lastly, we have the four seed Chicago Blackhawks facing off against the five seed Calgary Flames in another matchup that will do wonders for growing the game.

Chicago is no longer just about the Cubs and the Bears, ladies and gents. The Blackhawks are once again a hot ticket, and it couldn't be better for the league. Their series against Calgary is arguably the hardest series to pick because they match up extremely well with both teams, having goalies who have plenty of big-time playoff experience in Kiprusoff and Khabibulin.

Also, just for kicks, the Eastern Conference matchups aren't any snoozers either, with the Bruins at No. 1 taking on their long-time rival Montreal Canadiens, who are the No. 8. It's the same opening round matchup as last season but the seeds are flipped.

And the four vs. five seed in the east is the all Pennsylvania matchup, as "Sid the kid" Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the Philadelphia Flyers.

Look for network ratings to increase from last year's playoffs with the fresh new faces and intricate first-round matchups.

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