While the Eastern Conference matchups seem to be a bit predictable, good luck making any sense out of the situation in the West. There are some impressive favorites at the top, but you could make a case for any team out West to go far, and you wouldn't get much argument from me. Any one of these 8 teams could ultimately find themselves in the finals without surprising too many fans. Don't forget that over half of these teams led the Conference at one point during the season.
San Jose Sharks (1) -vs- Colorado Avalanche (8)
Haven't we been here before? The Sharks find themselves at the top of the West yet again, yet surprisingly few fans are banking on them to come through. Guess we've just been burned too many times. So is the 2010 version of the Sharks story different enough to matter? It just might.
Evgeni Nabokov just hasn't been the same since getting rattled by Canada in the Olympics quarter finals. Coming off that embarrassing performance, he's played at a about .500 winning percentage with a save % around .900. Those are not typical numbers for the normally steady Russian. The good news for the Sharks is that we're looking at a similar story on the other end of the rink. Craig Anderson looked like a Vezina candidate half way through the season, before going into a serious funk of his own after the break. Both goalies are limping into the playoffs, and the guy who can find his form may ultimately decide this series.
Both teams light the lamp at a pretty good pace, so this series has the potential to be pretty high scoring. Only Washington and Vancouver put up more than the Sharks this season, thanks in large part to the star trio of Thornton, Marleau and Heatley. When together, this may be the most lethal line in the NHL. Beyond that line, the Sharks still have some depth scorers, such as Clowe, Pavelski, and Setoguchi. All told, this is a hard team to keep off the scoresheet.
The Avalanche surprised everyone this season, particular when it came to their goalscoring. Few expected this team to put up the totals they did, featuring a host of youngsters. 9 players chipped in ten or more goals, and that's not counting Peter Mueller's 9 in 15 games with the Avs. If Mueller can return from his late-season concussion, this team can run with just about anyone offensively.
This is one area that the Sharks clearly outclass the Avalanche. The Sharks possess several quality defensemen, including one of best puck movers in the game in Dan Boyle. Rob Blake has shown that he still has the fire in his 40's, and can still fire the puck. They also have the likes of Douglas Murray and Marc-Edward Vlasic to shut down the opposition.
The Avalanche don't possess the star power that the Sharks can boast. They've done a respectable job this season, but it's unlikely they can withstand the Sharks' offense over a 7 game series.
Should be a fun one to watch, but don't expect a repeat of last year's meltdown. The 2010 Avalanche are not the 2009 Ducks. Sharks in 5.
Chicago Blackhawks (2) -vs- Nashville Predators (7)
The temptation is to see this as an easy pick for the home team, but a closer look reveals that these two teams are not that far apart. Both squads enter the playoffs 6-3-1 in their last 10. Their road records are almost identical. The separation comes at home, where Chicago won 29 compared to 25 for Nashville.
Until he gets in there and wins a couple of games, the doubters will point to goaltending as the potential weak link in a powerful Blawkhawk lineup. That's a bit perplexing, given the fact that only 4 playoff teams allowed less goals than Chicago this season. Niemi's GAA of 2.25 places him 4th in the league. His 7 shutouts in 39 games is also pretty impressive. Niemi has clearly ousted Huet as the goalie of choice in the Windy City and I wouldn't hesitate to consider him a potential Conn Smythe candidate if things go as planned for the Hawks.
The Predators have had a hard time nailing down one guy as the undisputed starter from season to season. However, that's not necessarily due to poor play. It just seems that every year, a different guy steps up and goes on a tear. This season, it's Rinne's turn again. 32 wins and a.911 save percentage are good numbers, and he tied for second in the league with 7 shutouts. Tough to say who has the edge here, but neither squad should be too nervous about their goaltending.
These two teams couldn't be more different when it comes to putting points on the board. The Predators rely on timely goalscoring up and down their roster, with just two 20-goal scorers in their lineup (Hornqvist and Erat). The Hawks boast 8 such scorers and another 3 who put up 10 or more. With stars like Toews, Kane, and Hossa, the Hawks are the best in the West at putting the puck in the net.
If you had to rank the top 3 defenses in the league, it would be hard to keep either of these teams off the list. Nashville has some of the best young blueliners in the game with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Cody Franson, and Denis Grebeshkov. All five of these players are responsible in their own end and can contribute offensively. If the Predators are to win a series or two this time around, it will be mostly due the play of these fellows.
The Hawks aren't all that far behind when it comes to star power on the back end. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith showed the world what they can do in the Olympics. Keith is a front runner for the Norris Trophy. And we haven't mentioned the big money man, Brian Campbell. If he can be ready to play in the first round, the Hawks will match the Preds evenly on defense.
The Preds will give the Hawks more trouble than they had hoped for in the opening round, but Chicago will ultimately prevail and take a big step toward ending their half a century Cupless run. Chicago in 6.
Vancouver Canucks (3) -vs- LA Kings (6)
This is the hardest series in Round 1 to call. Both teams have shown streaks of inconsistency throughout the season, and neither squad enters the playoffs on much of a high note.
You'd think after winning the Gold medal that the doubters would leave Roberto Luongo alone. Unfortunately, he hasn't done much lately to help his cause. In terms of numbers, Luongo has been downright awful since winning Olympic Gold. With a GAA of 3.42 and a save percentage of .874 since February, it's a wonder this team is even in the playoffs, let alone starting off on home ice. And the memory of the final game in last year's playoffs is still burned in the minds of Vancouver fans. More than anyone else this post-season, the heat is on Mr. Luongo.
The Kings have a similar story to tell in net. Jonathan Quick stormed out of the gate this year. He led all goalies in wins going into the break. Since then, he's had a whale of a time winning at all. He finished the year with an impressive 39 wins. The problem is that he hit that mark 9 games ago. If Quick falters in the first two games, don't be surprised to see Bernier make an appearance. Although used sparingly, he's a perfect 3-0 on the season, including 2 wins in the last two weeks.
The Canucks have had a reputation over the years as a team without enough firepower up front to win. Something obviously changed in Vancouver, as the Canucks find themselves as the highest scoring team in the West this season. Obviously, much of that has to do with the play of the Sedin brothers. No one in the world would have picked Henrik Sedin to win the scoring title, particularly with his brother missing a month of action. The reality is that if Daniel hadn't missed so much time, he might have given Henrik a good run for his money at the title himself. Unfortunately for the Kings, the story doesn't end there, as the brothers only finished 3rd and 4th in team goal scoring. Alex Burrows and Mikael Samuelsson both topped 35 on the year, while Ryan Kessler and Mason Raymond provided 25 more a piece. That's a lot of goals to go around on the top two lines.
Had the playoffs started in December, the Kings would have been a much more intimidating bunch, particularly on offense. Out of the gate, the line of Ryan Smyth, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams was the best in hockey. Then injuries kicked in. While Kopitar still enjoyed his best the best numbers of his career, his pace slowed considerably in the second half. Smyth and Williams are also still looking to find that early season magic, which doesn't bode well for LA's chances.
What used to be Vancouver's biggest strength has become a bit of a weakness in the past couple seasons. Salo, Ehrhoff, and Edler are respectable options, but don't strike much fear in the hearts of opponents. With Willie Mitchell still out with a concussion, the Canucks are missing their best defenseman. The Kings are in a little better position on the back end. They boast one of the best players in the game in Drew Daughty. Daughty has emerged as a Norris candidate in just his second season. Penguin fans will also tell you the value of Rob Scuderi come playoff time. He'll block as many shots as the goalie on some nights.
Flip a coin on this one. If the Sedins can keep dishing up the magic, and Luongo can shake the funk out of his head, Vancouver can do some damage. I'm going with the underdog in this case. LA can bring three lines at the suspect Vancouver defense and will ultimately wear them down. LA in 7.
Phoenix Coyotes (4) -vs- Detroit Redwings (5)
Does anyone really consider the Redwing to be the underdog in this series? Detroit's reputation, and recent hot streak would make them favorites against just about any opponent. It's a shame that after such a great season, the Coyotes draw Detroit in Round 1. Then again, perhaps the feel good story has just begun.
Despite the overdue, yet unexpected emergence of Jimmy Howard, the advantage in this category without a doubt goes to Bryzgalov. Since being picked up off waivers by Phoenix, Bryzgalov has been one of the best and most consistent goaltenders in the league. When given the chance in Anaheim, he performed admirably in a short playoff debut. He's undoubtedly the MVP of the Coyotes team and can win a couple of games for his franchise on his own. The jury is still out on Howard. His play in the second half of the season has been enough to put him at the top of the Calder candidates. Since the break, he's won more games than any other goalie, and his GAA is approaching 2.00 over that span. And don't forget, should he falter, their backup goalie may be the best playoff goalie of the past decade.
So just how did Phoenix win 50 games with this offense? Their 225 is the least of any playoff team in the West. They had just one 20-goal scorer in Radim Vrbata, and their leading point getter (Shane Doan) totaled a measly 55 points. The most threatening players on this squad were cast offs of other teams acquired at the trade deadline. Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak have both contributed at a point a game since coming to the desert, and may represent their best hope of squeaking out a couple of wins.
The Redwings are a tale of two season, particularly on offense. With key injuries all over the lineup, the Wings stumbled mightily out of the gate. Their team, and their offense, found their form over the past couple months. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are back to playing keep away with the puck and managed to salvage respectable seasons of 70 points a piece. Franzen and Holmstrom are back to sticking to their rear ends in the face of frustrated goaltenders, while deflecting blind shots in the upper corner. In other words, what you would expect from the Wings heading into the playoffs.
Yes, he's slowed down a bit at age 40, but Niklas Lidstrom is still the best the game has to offer when it matters most. And if you watched the Olympics, you'll recall a guy named Brian Rafalski who took control of the USA offense when they needed some key goals. Add in the intimidation of Kronwall, and you start to see a pretty steady crew helping out their rookie goalie.
As for the Coyotes, they must be doing something right. Phoenix allowed just 202 goals on the year, which is the best in the Conference. Ed Jovanovski missed his normal couple of weeks, but still finished with 10 goals on the year. Keith Yandle has recently emerged as a power play genius for Phoenix and will be a key to any success they have.
As much as it pains me, it just doesn't make sense to bet against Detroit at this point, particularly against a team so incapable of scoring goals. Detroit in 4.
And so we come to the Predictions. Who will we see shaking hands in early June? Out West, I have a hard time seeing anyone matching the Blawkhawks. Up and down their lineup, they're strong at every position. They took a huge step forward last spring and should go even further this time around.
In the East, it's a tougher decision. Something about Ryan Miller tells me that they'll be making an appearance in Round 3, but I see them falling to the defending Champs. Pittsburgh's strength down the middle is too much for any defense to handle.
It will certainly be a familiar storyline when Marian Hossa goes up against the Penguins once again with the weight of potential regret on his shoulders over choices made. I see this rematch of the 1992 series playing out in 7 games, with the Pens lifting the Cup once again on Chicago ice.
Pittsburgh 4 - Chicago 3. Sidney Crosby is your MVP.