Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Western Conference Playoff Previews and Picks
(1) San Jose vs. (8) Colorado
Season Series: 2-2
All the playoff pressure will be on the San Jose Sharks as they once again go into the playoffs as the first seed. The upstart Colorado Avalanche enter the series limping with injuries to top forwards Matt Duchene and Peter Mueller.
The low down on the San Jose Sharks: Most importantly the Sharks need to get over the mental hurdle of losing in the playoffs. Game one is very significant for the Sharks as they need to get off to a fast start in this series and not give the underdog Avalanche any reason to think of an upset. The Sharks have the fourth best offense in the NHL, were ranked in the top five in penalty killing and power play, and are very solid on home ice. San Jose is loaded upfront with the line of Patrick Marleau(44 goals), Dany Heatley(39 goals), and Joe Thornton(20 goals). They will rely heavily on this line but will also need the likes of Devin Setoguchi, Ryan Clowe, and Joe Pavelski to contribute offensively. In years past, San Jose has not had production from their 3rd and 4th lines. Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol, and Jed Ortmeyer will attempt to change that. On defense they are led by playoff vet and Stanley Cup winner Dan Boyle. who will get tons of ice time along with the rugged Douglas Murray. For the most part the Sharks have a veteran defense that is not overly fast or physical. Goalie, Evgeni Nabokov will be looking to make amends for getting outplayed by Jonas Hiller last season in round one. If he is on his game, the Sharks can go far in the playoffs, but he has been inconsistent during stretches this season. Head coach Todd McLellan leads the Sharks in his second year. He had playoff success as an assistant with Detriot, and once again will try to translate that in San Jose. he is popular among the players and is known as a well respected coach around the league.
The low down on the Colorado Avalanche: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Denver, but rookie coach Joe Sacco had the Av's playing well from the start of the season and surprised the NHL by making the playoffs. What they bring to the table is young and dynamic scorers, Paul Stasny, Chris Stewart, and first round pick last year, Matt Duchene. The Avalanche do possess playoff veterans in Milan Hejduk, Darcy Tucker, and Stephane Yelle and finished with the sixth best offense in the NHL this season. They are average on special teams and will need to stay out of the box as much as possible against the Sharks explosive power play. Colorado's leading scorer on a balanced defense is the inconsistent, John Michael Liles(31 points). Veterans, Adam Foote, Scott Hannan and Ruslan Salei will be counted on to contain the Thornton line. Craig Anderson was one of the biggest surprises this season carrying the Avalanche in goal, but wore down late in the season. That being said, he is capable of frustrating the Sharks and stealing a game. We're not sure what type of home ice advantage the Av's will have as they have struggled to draw fans to the Pepsi center this season. On the injury front, it appears that Matt Duchene will play in Game 1.
The Pick: Sharks in six
Colorado is the faster team and the younger team, but does not have the talent that San Jose has. The Shark players realize that their window for winning the Stanley Cup is closing and should be primed to get out of the first round. The Avalanche will play scrappy and give the Sharks a hard fought series, but in the end the Sharks talent, and the fact that they are tired of hearing about playoff failures will win this series.
(2) Chicago vs. (7) Nashville
Season Series: 4-2 Chicago
Central Division rivals renew acquaintances in which promises to be a hard fought series as Nashville will be a difficult opponent for Stanley Cup champion hopeful Chicago.
The low down on the Chicago Blackhawks: Talent, Talent, and more talent. The Blackhawks are loaded with six forwards that scored more than twenty goals. They have skill, grit, and speed which are all necessary components to winning the cup. Chicago can roll out four solid lines all of which will test Nashville. Patrick Kane leads the charge registering 88 points to lead the team in scoring. His center, Jonathan Toews put up 68 points and Marian Hossa scored 24 goals in only 57 games. The Hawks gained valuable playoff experience last season making the Western Conference Finals. That should only help them this season and make them more dangerous. The defense is led by Duncan Keith who does everything and is favored to win the Norris trophy. Brent Seabrook, Kim Johnsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Brent Sopel make up a very solid defense. They may feel the loss of Brian Campbell who is out for the season, at certain points of the playoffs, but are still deeper than most teams on the blue line. The key for the Hawks will be the play of goalie, Antti Niemi who posted a 2.25 GAA, and .912 save percentage. Those are very solid numbers, but he has never appeared in a playoff game. Backup goalie Cristobel Huet played in three playoff games last year, but has not posted great numbers in the postseason. Head coach Joel Quenneville is a veteran coach who has been to the playoffs before with the St.Louis Blues and the Blackhawks, but his teams have never advanced past the conference finals. No team will have a better home ice advantage than the Hawks as the United Center will be rocking for sure as it has all season.
The low down on the Nashville Predators: Not a flashy team by any means as the Predators leading scorer, Steve Sullivan only put up 51 points. They do have a thirty goal scorer in Patric Hornqvist and have perhaps the most underrated defense in the NHL. Expect the Predators to put Shea Weber and Ryan Suter on the ice to match up with the Patrick Kane line. Nashville will also has a solid stopper line in Marcel Goc, Steve Sullivan, and Joel Ward to attempt to contain the explosive Blackhawks. Martin Erat, Jason Arnott, and JP Dumont are very capable scorers and they will need to notch goals for Nashville to have a chance. On defense, the Predators have the players to frustrate the Hawks. In addition to Weber, and Suter, they also have Dan Hamhuis and one of the teams best shot blockers in Kevin Klein. Pekka Rinne is a very solid goalie, and the question is if he can translate his regular season success to the playoffs. Very rarely do the Predators get out worked by any opponent and that has to do with longtime coach Barry Trotz. He has never advanced past the first round, but does a tremendous job getting the low budget Predators into the playoffs. Nashville does not have a strong power play and was not great penalty killing this season either. They are a fast team, and can be an annoyance to play against because they do not give opposing teams much room to work with on the ice.
The Pick: Blackhawks in six
We're expecting this to be an entertaining and grueling series that should go six games. The Predators have never won a game on the road in their history and will have difficulty winning in the United Center. Offensively, the Hawks clearly have more talent and are a much better team on face offs which is critical. On defense, Nashville may be slightly deeper, but Chicago does not give up many shots on goal, in part because they spend so much time in the offensive zone. Both goalies will have to prove themselves, but this should be a good match up for Antti Niemi because Nashville should have trouble generating offense.
(3) Vancouver vs. (6) Los Angeles
Season Series: 3-1 Vancouver
Very interesting series between the Vancouver Canucks led by Art Ross trophy winner, Henrik Sedin, and the up and coming Los Angeles Kings, making their first post season appearance since 2002. Both teams finished with similar records, and both were ranked near the same in power play and penalty killing.
The low down on the Vancouver Canucks: When looking over their roster, the first thing that jumps out is that they have six players that scored more than 25 goals. Henrik Sedin led the charge by putting up the most points by anyone in the league with 112 points. His brother Daniel scored 29 goals in only 63 games. Contrary to years past, the Canucks have balanced scoring and rely heavily on secondary scorers, Alex Burrows(35 goals), US Olympian, Ryan Kesler (25 goals) and Mason Raymond who chipped in 25 goals as well. The offseason pickup of Mikael Samuelsson from Detroit not only provided 30 goals this season but he also supplies valuable playoff experience. The Canucks have agitators in Tanner Glass, Rick Rypien, and one of the biggest pests in the league, Darcy Hordichuk. Look for them to try to get under the skin of the young players on the Kings. The defense for Vancouver has been banged up lately. They will sorely miss Willie Mithcell, who is battling concussion issues, and Sami Salo and Christian Ehrhoff are battling injuries as well. The latest reports were that they should be ready to go for Game 1. Still this could be a concern against the Kings who have had success this season with working the puck down low and wearing down other teams defenses. It's surprising that goaltending may be a slight concern in Vancouver, but Roberto Luongo has not been sharp of late. He is an all world goalie who is capable of dominating, but he was inconsistent at times, including yielding 8 goals to the Kings in LA on April 1st. Vancouver is a dominate team at home and they defeated the Kings in both meetings at GM Place. Head coach Alain Vigneault has guided the Canucks to the second round three times, but has never advanced past that point. This is a team that is fast and very physical. The only concern really is the depth on defense, especially if they have injuries.
The low down on the Los Angeles Kings: The goal for the Kings at the start of the season was to make the playoffs, and they did so in a big way by eclipsing 100 points, and setting a team record for most road wins. Offensively, they are led mostly by players 25 and younger. Anze Kopitar leads the Kings charge scoring 34 goals this season and forming a lethal line with veterans Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams. The best line for the Kings to end the season was the second line of captain Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov, and Jarret Stoll. The Kings are a big team that is not overly fast. They like to cycle the puck deep and have success when players such as Smyth, and Michal Handzus are camped in front of the net. The Kings had 11 players score double digits in goals, so similar to Vancouver, they have balanced scoring top to bottom. The defense is led by 20 year old Drew Doughty who has drawn comparisons to Ray Bourque and Scott Niedermayer. He's very slick with the puck and logs plenty of ice time and is the Kings best point man on the power play. He is usually paired with Stanley Cup winner Rob Scuderi, who is a shut down defenseman that will be asked to contain the Sedin's if that's possible. Matt Greene is another defenseman that plays mean and is physical. Jack Johnson, Sean O'Donnell, and Randy Jones, round out a very formidable defense for the Kings. Johnson showed flashes of brilliance late this season. The Kings finally solidified the goaltending position with Jonathan Quick who won 39 games. However, he did not win a game in his last eight starts and appeared worn down the last couple weeks of the season. He is by far the biggest key for the Kings, as he will be playing in his first post season series. Head coach Terry Murray, has had playoff success in the past reaching the Stanley Cup Finals with the Philadelphia Flyers. Los Angeles was not one of the better teams at home this season, but one would think after an eight year absence that building will be hostile.
The Pick: Kings in seven
Very difficult series to predict. At one point this season we thought Vancouver could win the cup, but the injuries on defense is worrisome. This series may go down to overtime in game seven, it's that close. We'll take the Kings because they are healthy and we're expecting Jonathan Quick to play the way he did for most of the season. The pressure of all of Canada will be on the Canucks as they very well could win this series but we'll take the Kings for the mild upset.
(4) Phoenix vs. (5) Detroit
Season Series: 2-2 Both Phoenix wins occurred in Overtime.
There has been no bigger story in the NHL this season, than the shock of the Phoenix Coyotes, battling through bankrupcy and potentially moving this summer, to making the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The prize for being the 4th seed, are the Western Conference Champion Detroit Red Wings, who were one of the hottest teams in the league after the Olympic break. This should be the series with the most story lines as well as one of the most exciting match ups we have in the post season.
The low down on the Phoenix Coyotes: What more can be said for a team that was picked to finish dead last in the league by almost every expert in hockey, other than they deserve all the credit they are receiving. Starting with the front office making schrewd moves at the deadline, this team has been terrific in competing in one of the leagues most difficult divisions. Captain, Shane Doan, anchors the Coyote forwards that also consists of top center, Matthew Lombardi(19 goals), and leading goal scorer Radim Vrbata(24 goals). This is a team that has no superstar, no ego, just a group of young players and veterans that play very well as a team. The surprise of the season for the Coyotes is the play of Lee Stempniak who scored a whopping 14 goals in 18 games after being acquired from Toronto. Wojtek Wolski, another player acquired at the trade deadline added 18 points in 18 games since becoming a Coyote. The defense is mostly a veterean defense which is helpful in the playoffs. Yes, Mathieu Schneider is still in the league and he logs plenty of ice team as well as fellow veterans Adrian Aucoin, Ed Jovanovski, and Derek Morris. The MVP of the Coyotes was goalie, Ilya Brzgalov, who ranked in the top ten in all major goaltending categories. He posted eight shutouts this season and makes certain saves look very easy. Dave Tippet will no doubt be named coach of the year, and enjoyed playoff success during his reign in Dallas. Phoenix finished 29-10-2 at home, playing in front of some scarce crowds which grew near the end of the season. If the Coyotes play with that nothing to lose attitude they had most of the season they are a scary opponent for the Red Wings.
The low down on the Detroit Red Wings: Year in and year out this team is a model of consistency. They may not be as explosive as in years past, but still have a solid group of forwards, most of which have came back from early season injuries. The names are familiar, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterburg led the Wings with 70 points apiece. Johan Franzen only played 27 games this season and is fully healthy, Tomas Holmstrom has scored plenty of big goals in his career, and Kris Draper and Dan Cleary are experienced playoff performers. On special teams Detroit had the tenth ranked PP, which is remarkable considering the injuries this season. The penalty killing improved dramatically from last season and finished in the top ten. Detroit has the looks of a team that is healthy and peaking at the right time. On defense, Niklas Lidstrom leads the charge as usual, logging an average of 25 minutes of ice time. Brian Rafalski adds offense form the blueline and Niklas Kronwall has played well since his return from injury. Expect the Coyotes to be opportunistic and try to wear down the Red Wings defense that is very solid, but up in years. The man in charge of leading the Red Wings turnaround is rookie goalie Jimmy Howard. His numbers are off the charts as he enters his first post season as a starter. He was especially terrific near the end of the season and is mostly responsible for the success of the Red Wings this season. Don't forget that the Red Wings were in danger of missing the playoffs up until the last month or so of the season. In my opinion, Mike Babcock is the best coach in the league and Joe Louis Arena is always a difficult place to play in, especially during the post season.
The Pick: Red Wings in six
Unfortunately, Phoenix drew the team that nobody wanted in the first round. It wouldn't shock us if Phoenix won the series, but with the fact that the Red Wings are playing so well, and that they have had so much playoff success in the past makes it hard to pick against them. The 16-3-2 record that Detroit has posted since the Olympics tells the story about how in the zone this team is right now. Goals should be hard to come by, but the Wings have more scoring threats than the Coyotes do.