NHL Predictions: 5 Western Teams Who Can Knock Off the Vancouver Canucks
As the puck drops to start the 2011-12 NHL season tonight, the Vancouver Canucks have a target on their jerseys that the other 14 Western Conference teams will be aiming for. That’s what happens when you run away with the President’s Trophy and then win the conference title in the playoffs while gaining a reputation, fair or not, for being a dirty team.
With a similar team on paper to the one that ruled the West last season, the Canucks are favored to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals again this season despite the targets on their backs. However, they’re far from a shoe-in to win the Conference crown and there are five teams with a realistic chance of beating them in a seven-game playoff series.
These teams are chosen based not only on how good they are, but also because of how they match up with the Canucks. Recent history tells us that Vancouver is more comfortable playing some teams, while others have a tendency to give them headaches regardless of where they sit in the standings. This doesn’t necessarily mean the Canucks can’t beat these teams, but it certainly won’t be easy.
In no particular order, here are the teams most likely to wreak havoc on the Canucks' quest to get back to the finals in 2012 and potentially capture their first Stanley Cup in team history:
This is the perfect example of a team the Canucks just aren’t comfortable playing against. Forget about the playoff victories by the Blackhawks over the Canucks in 2009 and 2010. The fact that the Canucks needed overtime in Game 7 to beat a much weaker Blackhawks team who entered the playoffs as an eight seed in 2011 shows how poorly they match up with Chicago.
The Sedins don’t produce many points when they have to face Duncan Keith and they have all sorts of trouble dealing with one of the game's ultimate checking centres in Dave Bolland.
Some people say the Canucks got over the hump and conquered their psychological demons by defeating the Blackhawks last spring. In reality, they were nearly upset by a team who had a down season and could have played much better throughout 2010-11.
Many experts are predicting a better 2011-12 regular season from the Blackhawks, which could spell trouble for the Canucks once again if the two teams meet in the 2012 playoffs.
Detroit Red Wings
If there’s any team in the West that can beat the Canucks at their own game, it’s the Red Wings. After all, the Canucks have openly admitted to emulating Detroit’s model of success in order to build a winner of their own.
The Red Wings, much like the Canucks, are a puck control team that doesn’t like to get involved in many physical confrontations after the whistle. Instead, they let other teams take the penalties and win with their lethal power play.
They have one of the best two-way players of all time in Pavel Datsyuk, and if he and Henrik Zetterberg can stay healthy, they can be just as lethal of a duo as the Sedin twins. Combine that with a constantly improving Jimmy Howard in goal and Detroit has what it takes to knock off the Canucks and get back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Los Angeles Kings
The L.A. Kings have stacked their roster with more talent up front and are a vastly improved team on paper. Obviously the game isn’t played on paper, but the Kings have been a formidable opponent to the Canucks on the ice over the last two seasons as well.
In 2009-10, L.A. took three of four regular season games from the Canucks and went toe-to-toe against them in the first round of the playoffs. The Canucks may have won that series in six games, but every game but one was close and the Canucks were in serious jeopardy of going down three games to one in the late stages of Game 4 at the Staples Center.
Last year, the Kings managed a 2-2 split with the President’s Trophy-winning Canucks and that was without their key offseason acquisition, Mike Richards. Not only will Richards provide plenty of offense, but his tough play should help potentially contain the Sedins in a long playoff series, much like Patrice Bergeron did in the 2011 finals.
The Ducks might be the most surprising of the five potentially dangerous teams for the Canucks. Many people don’t see them getting out of the first round if they even make the postseason. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t present a potentially challenging matchup for the Canucks if they happen to meet in the playoffs.
Anaheim’s physical and abrasive style is somewhat similar to how the Boston Bruins play and while the Ducks don’t have a shutdown defenseman like Zdeno Chara on their roster, they’ve still been fairly successful against the Canucks over the last two years.
Believe it or not, the Ducks are the only Western Conference team with a winning record against the Canucks in both 2009-10 and 2010-11, boasting a 2-1-1 record against Vancouver in both seasons.
Anaheim has the firepower, the grit and the playoff experience to pull off the upset against a higher seeded team like the Canucks. After all, it was only two and half years ago that they knocked off the top-seeded San Jose Sharks as an eight seed in the first round of the playoffs.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks have come a long way from the playoff choke artists they once were. They’ve reached the Western Finals in each of the last two years and with the addition of Brent Burns on defense and Martin Havlat replacing Dany Heatley on the wing, they’re clearly serious about finding the right mix of players in order to win it all.
Outside of the Canucks, this is probably the best team in the West and it wouldn’t be a bold prediction to pick these two teams as your top two seeds in the conference.
Vancouver may have dominated the Sharks in both the season series and the playoffs in the 2010-11 campaign, but that’s no reason to think they’ll automatically have the same success again this time around. These teams are too evenly matched for the Canucks to win seven of the nine games against San Jose in 2011-1. If anything, the law of averages might help the Sharks as they seek revenge on the Canucks.
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This article also appears on Bottom Line Hockey