The marathon of the NHL regular season is finally behind us and the most exciting postseason in sports begins Wednesday night. Before we focus on the 16 teams who are in the playoff, how about a moment of silence for the Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes and their fans. Both clubs had their playoff fates in their own hands only to lose the final game. Has to be gut-wrenching for those clubs.
It's now onto playoff beards, extra overtimes, and the drama and upsets that always surround the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This time of year is when third line players mean as much to a team as first line players. Gritty players who block shots, win face-offs and discourage the opponents best players are what is needed to win a series. Pretty plays may win in the regular season but one-on-one battles, back checking and outworking opponents is the difference between playoff failure or a Stanley Cup parade.
In the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks are heavily favored and give Canada it's best chance to see a Stanley Cup winner since Montreal won in 1993. They clearly have the most talent and have assembled a roster that on paper seems to have all the necessary ingredients to win the Cup. But as history has shown, anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs which always guarantees surprises and makes it the best tournament in sports.
#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Chicago
One of the more compelling playoff match-ups in the first round. This is a rematch of last seasons second round which was won by Chicago in six games. Vancouver has been waiting for this opportunity since the day the Canucks were eliminated by Chicago. Since winning the Stanley Cup last year the Hawks have lost Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, and Brent Sopel among others. The pressure is on all of the Canucks but Roberto Luongo will feel it the most as he attempts to erase past playoff failures. The Canucks will be trying to avoid the President's trophy jinx of the past two seasons when both top teams were knocked out in round one.
Why the Canucks will win: The Vancouver Canucks are what the Chicago Blackhawks were last year. They have the most explosive forwards in the league led by the Sedin twins, a 40-goal scorer in Ryan Kesler, and four solid lines. The defense has gone through injuries all season and for that reason is stacked from one through eight. The Canucks led the NHL in Power Play percentage and were third in the league on the PK. Like Chicago last season, Vancouver is the deepest team in the league. The one worry for Canuck fans is the fragile playoff performances by Roberto Luongo in the past. The fact that Luongo did not play as many games this regular season, has changed goalie coaches, and more importantly has given up the captaincy should bode well for him this year.
How the Blackhawks could win: We really didn't like the way the Hawks played the last couple weeks of the season as they literally backed into the playoffs. They are however, the reigning champions and that can go a long way. Their star players will need to carry them if they have a chance in this series. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Kane are terrific players. It's the third and fourth lines that could be a problem against the deeper Canucks. If Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook somehow contain the Sedin line and the Hawks star players outplay the Canucks star players they may have a chance. Their biggest chance could be the mindset of the Canucks if by chance they drop a game early. It can't be overstated how much pressure is on Vancouver throughout Canada.
Prediction: Canucks in 5
This could be the most lob-sided series of the Western Conference. There are too many if's with Chicago and Vancouver is better at every position. We've seen Chicago have too many mental lapses and blow too many games late which almost cost them a playoff berth. The Chicago penalty killing was very weak this season which isn't a good sign when you're facing the leagues' best power play. We'll have trust that Luongo outplays Chicago rookie Corey Crawford in goal and the Canucks march towards the Cup.
#2 San Jose vs. #7 Los Angeles
For the first time ever two teams from the state of California meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The San Jose Sharks struggled early in the season but caught fire the last two and a half months to clinch their fourth straight Pacific Division title. They have enjoyed stellar goaltending from last years Stanley Cup winner, Antti Niemi. The Sharks no longer rely on one line to score as they finally have the secondary scoring necessary for the playoffs. The Kings were picked by some to win the Pacific, but a couple of long losing streaks prevented that from happening. The Kings strength is their defense, but they will really feel the effects of the season ending injury to Anze Kopitar. Los Angeles really struggles to score goals, by only averaging 2.55 goals per game which was 25th in the league.
Why the Sharks will win: Even though San Jose was swept from the Western Conference finals last season they still got over the hump of previous first and second round failures. Once a team that depended solely on Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, they now have four solid lines. In this series the Kings can't match the Sharks upfront. If the Kings focus on the Thornton line, what will they do against the Pavelski and Couture lines? The fact that the Sharks should receive secondary scoring from guys like Clowe, Pavelski, Mitchell, Wellwood, and Eager could doom the Kings who are also a much slower team than San Jose.
How the Kings could win: If they find a way to steal a game at HP Pavilion on the shoulders of Jonathan Quick and their strong blueline anything can happen. The Kings will have to win with goaltending and defense. Their penalty killing was brilliant this season which will be needed against the Sharks lethal power play. San Jose is not a great 5 on 5 team. When all's even, the Sharks' offense ranks at the bottom 10 of the league. It's going to be difficult to score goals without Kopitar, but they have many grinding type of players on all four lines. Dustin Penner, Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll, and Justin Williams, if he returns, have all had previous playoff success. The power play must get better for the Kings to make this a series. It never got on track in the regular season but was fabulous in last years series against Vancouver. The fact that the Kings have played so many tight checking 2-1 type of games all season could bode well for the postseason.
Prediction: Sharks in six
San Jose just appears to be much deeper at the forward position than the Kings. If Kopitar were healthy perhaps the Kings would have a shot at the upset. Antti Niemi could be the difference for the Sharks this playoffs because Evgeni Nabakov had some poor playoff seasons for the Sharks in years past. This will be a close series with most games being decided by one goal with the Sharks getting the secondary scoring they will need.
#3 Detroit vs. #6 Phoenix
Another rematch from last season. Last year it took the Red Wings seven games to eliminate the pesky Coyotes. For the Detroit Red Wings this is their 20th consecutive playoff appearance which is astonishing. They will be dealing with injury issues as Henrik Zetterberg will not be playing in the first game and possibly more games after that. Detroit has a potent and balanced offensive attack, but have given up the most amount of goals of any playoff team. The Coyotes do not have nearly the fire power as Detroit, but they are hard to score against and usually get exceptional goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov. As a matter of fact, the Coyotes had only one player, Shane Doan, score 20 or more goals.
Why Detroit will win: This is going to be a close series and could go either way, but there is something about the mystique of the Detroit Red Wings. Niklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Brad Stuart, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, just bring it when the postseason arrives. The Wings did struggle near the end of the season and they are getting older but they should have enough firepower to take care of Phoenix. The Wings are well coached, as is Phoenix, disciplined, and battle tested. Jimmy Howard has been inconsistent at times but still led the league in wins.
How Phoenix could win: Ilya Bryzgalov is capable of winning a series on his own. The pending free agent is the biggest reason why the Coyotes win and they have an edge in goaltending during this series. The Coyotes have balanced scoring, though none is a true superstar, but they have plenty of solid second and third line forwards. They are led by one of this seasons' best defensemen in Keith Yandle. The rest of their defense is experienced and blocks many shots. The truth is that the Red Wings have eight players that are 36 and older. Perhaps, Phoenix can ware them down in a long series.
Prediction: Detroit in seven
We just can't go against the Red Wings in this spot. They should be eager for the playoffs to start and showed a lot of character in beating Chicago the last game of the season which meant everything for the Hawks and nothing for Detroit. With their age issues and somewhat inconsistent goaltending they may struggle in the next round but should be able to squeak by the Coyotes who will not go down easy.
#4 Anaheim vs. #5 Nashville
Nashville has never won a playoff series and should be glad to finally play another opponent other than Chicago, San Jose, or Detroit. It could be argued that the Predators gave the champion Blackhawks their most difficult series last year. Anaheim may be a team of destiny, as they didn't miss a beat when Ryan Getzlaf and Jonas Hiller went down to injury. Corey Perry is a goal scoring machine and this team is getting hot at the right time. This is a classic match-up of defense vs offense. The Predators gave up the second fewest goals in the NHL this year and the Ducks may have the best line in hockey with Perry, Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan.
Why Nashville will win: They're do, right? Barry Trotz is a terrific coach who has guided the Predators to the playoffs five of the last six years but has yet to win a round. Nashville can win this series if Shea Weber and Ryan Suter shut down the Perry line. Nashville normally outworks it's opponents and should get spectacular goaltending from Pekka Rinne. On offense, the Predators will look to get goals by committee. There is no elite goal scorer on the roster which puts added pressure on Martin Erat and Patric Hornqvist. It would help the Predators if Mike Fisher can add some offense that they expected when they traded for him in February.
How the Ducks could win: Anaheim has a much better group of forwards than Nashville. Plain and simple. Even if the Predators have Weber on the ice to contain Perry, Nashville will still have to stop the Ducks lethal second line of Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, and Jason Blake. The Ducks are among one of the most penalized teams in the league but Nashville's power play is the poorest among playoff teams. Anaheim is getting career seasons from Lubomir Visnovsky and Toni Lydman on defense. What was thought to be a weakness, has turned into a solid group on the blueline for Anaheim. The Ducks have difficult players to play against on the third and fourth lines. A player like Brad Winchester or Jarkko Ruutu could disrupt and frustrate the Nashville forwards.
Prediction: Nashville in 7
We'll say this series goes down to game seven, maybe overtime, and Rinne outplays Emery. This may be the most intriguing and difficult series to handicap.