Are you concerned about carbon dioxide emissions? Don’t worry, for the next few months, NHL fans around the world won’t be exhaling at all. The NHL playoffs are back! It’s time for my absolute favorite part of the sports year and, in case you didn’t know, every single game will be televised this season. It’s going to be a blast.
So without further ado, let’s get to some predictions. Tonight, we’ll be looking at the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Tomorrow, I’ll preview the East…
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings
Well, the President’s Trophy winning Canucks are heavy favorites for good reason against the Kings. Yes, the Canucks very nearly lost in an upset against the Blackhawks by coming about as close as you can to choking away a 3-0 series lead last season, so anything can happen, but I’ll play the odds on this one.
Led by the Sedin twins, the Canucks have a powerful offense and one of the better power plays in the league as well. They’re not seen quite as dominating as they were last season headed into the playoffs, but after a rough postseason, Roberto Luongo seems to have gotten back on track with a good defense led by Alexander Edler in front of him. They were good enough to be ranked 4th in the NHL in goals against per game, thanks in part to the play of backup goalie Cory Schneider. But let’s not get into Luongo/Schneider debates right now. If the Canucks are to lose, it’s going to be because Luongo’s letting in 4 softies every game.
If the Kings have any chance of winning, they’re going to have to rely very heavily on what got them into the playoffs to begin with: a very stingy defense. They ranked 5th in the league in shots against per game, and goalie Jonathan Quick has been one of the best in the game ever since he’s entered the league. He spotted his team with 10 shutouts and a few in this series might be necessary for any talk of advancement. And even though they have a top penalty kill, if they continue to rank towards the bottom of the league in times shorthanded, it’s dangerous to keep giving Vancouver chances on the man advantage. Heck, it’s dangerous to do it against any team.
It’s no secret that the Kings struggled to score goals this season despite having talented offensive forwards. The addition of Jeff Carter at the deadline brings along an important dose of firepower but their top players like Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Drew Doughty are going to have to really step it up and play well above their regular performance.
Mike Richards is my player to watch for the Kings. His 44 points this year was a disappointment, but he’s a warrior and always brought it in the playoffs for the Flyers. Along with Carter, Richards formed a great 1-2 punch at center while in Philly that could score a lot of goals and also shut down the opposing team’s top players. If Richards can frustrate the likes of the Sedins, Kesler, and Burrows, the Kings’ chances will be that much better. On the other side of the matchup, Daniel Sedin is my player to watch for the Canucks. I hate picking superstars for this, but Sedin is coming off a concussion, and an early injury exit could have major mental implications for both teams. If Sedin comes back and picks up where he left off, the Kings better buckle down and hold on for their lives.
My prediction: Vancouver Canucks in 6. I think the series will be closer than people will give it credit, as the Canucks won’t be able to score at will, but the superior depth of the Canucks will win out in the end.
#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks
It’s kind of funny seeing the Sharks ranking this low in the standings, they had a so-so season in a very weak division. The Blues, on the other hand, took everyone by surprise and nearly sported the league’s best record. And no, this isn’t Blues of Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Chris Pronger, and Al MacInnis. This is the Blues of TJ Oshie, David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, and Kevin Shattenkirk. And you can throw in the best goaltending duo in the league in Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak to that mix.
The Blues are an unbelievably stingy team, giving up only 2 goals per game. They also give up the least amount of shots in the league. Getting anything past a Blues goalie is a serious chore. And it’s going to be even tougher for the Sharks because they don’t even know which goalie they’ll be facing yet. Coach Ken Hitchcock hasn’t made the announcement yet, but I’d put my money on Brian Elliott. The guy’s had an insane season and there’s no reason to expect it to not continue.
The Sharks do have the advantage in their top six forwards even if Martin Havlat has (not surprisingly) had an oft-injured and disappointing regular season. But Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski each potted at least 30 goals this season and Jumbo Joe Thornton once again led his club in points. Overall their offense has been quite average, but you’re playing with fire if you take these guys for granted. The Blues defense isn’t the biggest group in the world, so there’s a possibility that the Sharks could begin to have the advantage tilt in their favor if the series wears on for awhile.
The Blues might not have the stacked offense up front, but they do have a superior scoring depth. Despite David Backes and TJ Oshie tied for the team lead in points with only 54, they boast nine players with at least 10 goals on the year and have defensemen in Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk who combined for 94 points. And there might be offense in the bucket than people realize. David Perron has come off serious concussion problems to have a pretty good 21 goal season and Andy McDonald is finally healthy after dealing with injuries for most of the season. If Chris Stewart ever wakes up, the Blues have three forwards who could pack a solid punch offense in addition to the rest of the team.
Regardless of whom the Blues put between the pipes, there is a heavy advantage over Antti Niemi. He’s not a bad goalie, but the Sharks better not ask him to win more than one game this series. Niemi is someone to keep an eye on, but my player to watch on the Sharks is Dan Boyle. Given the defense of the Blues, the Sharks will really have to look to their power play to provide them offense. Dan Boyle is one of the better power play quarterbacks in the league and really has a knack for scoring goals and has been pretty productive his last two seasons. For the Blues, my player to watch is Andy McDonald. He’s always been a very productive player, but injuries have held him back. He might be able to fly under the radar a bit, and if the Sharks forget about him, he’ll make them pay.
My prediction: Blues in 6. What’s the old saying, defense wins championships? It’s true. By the time Game 4 or 5 rolls around, you’ll know who’s controlling this series.
#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks
Just like in the Eastern Conference, the West features a matchup where the 6th seed has a significantly better record than their matchup. Cue the usual “winning your division shouldn’t guarantee you a top seed” debate, but that’s for another time and another place.
The Coyotes are, well, the Coyotes. No one really expected much out of them even though they’ve been moderately successful recently. Mike Smith has had a surprisingly good season in net. Maybe an even bigger surprise was Ray Whitney still getting it done a 39 years old with a 77 point campaign. Or how about Radim Vrbata’s 35 goals?
All biases aside, on paper, it looks like Phoenix has the advantage here. Given their home ice advantage, Chicago has a mediocre road record and the Coyotes have superior goaltending and penalty kill along with a winning head-to-head record this year. But that’s why we don’t just look at the obvious regular season numbers. The biggest story in this series is the hopeful return of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews to the lineup. He’s the team’s best player and makes an already hot team even more dangerous. Chicago appeared to be dead in the water and falling out of contention, but they found a way to rally without their captain and are now in good position to add him back into the fold. A miserable power play will be happy to get Toews on it.
The Coyotes are really going to need to jump out to a lead early on or else they’d better forget about their putrid 0.231 winning percentage when giving up the first goal. And they’d also forget about their bottom of the bucket winning percentage in one goal games as well. Phoenix has to come out hot and strong and not allow any sort of rhythm for the Hawks. If Phoenix wants to win, they have to create a sloppy, frustrating environment and make the Hawks really scratch out any goal they get. Mike Smith has been good but he’s had a very short NHL playoff resume and the Coyotes did get swept last season with a superior goalie and arguably a better team.
The Hawks have been a bit enigmatic the past two seasons. They looked terrible most of last year and nearly pulled off a huge upset against the Canucks after squeaking into the playoffs. This year, they’ve looked like one of the most dominant teams in the league and at other times couldn’t buy a stretch of wins. But guys like Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, and Duncan Keith have all been here before. They know what it takes to win and are all capable of really stepping it up. And with the addition of Toews, they have the same core of players who brought home the Stanley Cup not too long ago.
I have two players to watch on the Hawks. The first is Viktor Stalberg. He scored 22 goals in his breakout season and has absolutely embarrassed his fair share of defenders with his blazing speed. With all of the attention that the top guns will get, Stalberg should have some room to operate. The other player is Corey Crawford. His numbers took a hit from his rookie season last year and lost a considerable number of games to Ray Emery. I’m not so certain that his leash would be short, but any early faltering (or at least perceived faltering) could spell trouble. If the Hawks defense doesn’t do its job, there are going to be a lot of people upset with Crawford whether it’s his fault or not. The player to watch on the Coyotes will be Ray Whitney. At 39 years of age, does he have enough left in the tank after a long regular season to lead his team offensively? He did finish strong, but the playoffs are a whole different monster.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 7. I see this being a lot tougher for the Hawks than a lot of people think, but the superior depth and experience wins out in the end.
#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings
It’s kind of weird seeing the Preds finish higher in the standings than the Wings even if only by 2 points. The Red Wings are just a flat out awesome team at home but have a surprisingly poor road record of 17-21-3. The Red Wings really need to split the first two games in Nashville. If they don’t, they’re going to have to win every game at home and then hope to scratch one out on the road later in the series.
Jimmy Howard is an excellent goalie, but the goaltending advantage for me goes to the Predators with Pekka Rinne. Rinne is large and in charge and is always capable of stealing a game. There is some youth on the team, including on defense, but the additions of Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad bring solid veteran presence that should help calm some things down for the team. But hey, I wouldn’t have a problem relying on Ryan Suter and Shea Weber to keep things calm for my team though. They are the best duo of defensemen in the league. They eat up a ton of important minutes and add a lot of offense to a team that doesn’t historically melt your face with offense. Weber easily leads the team with 10 power play goals while he also combines with Suter to play 44% of the average game.
And this is where home ice will play a very key role for these teams. In Nashville, coach Barry Trotz will do his best to pair Suter and Weber against the most dangerous players of Detroit: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen. While Niklas Lidstrom is still one of the best three defensemen in the league, the Red Wings do have a good overall defense and the Predators don’t have a single player who is a threat to really light you up offensively on a given night. So the matchups of defense pairings on forwards are more important to the Predators. In Detroit, the Wings can try to put the bigger, more powerful forwards like Franzen, Tomas Holstrom, and Todd Bertuzzi against Suter and Weber to wear them down and try to get the speedier guys a la Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula against a slower Hal Gill.
As mentioned earlier, the Predators employ a scoring by committee offense as Mike Fisher, Martin Erat, and David Legwand all put in solid seasons, but the return of Alexander Radulov from Russia gives them a great shot in the arm and is maybe enough to cause Detroit enough of an ulcer to tip the series. He’s my player to watch for the Predators. He has 7 points in 9 regular season games, so it looks like he’s still got the touch for the NHL game. For the Red Wings, my player to watch will be Ian White. He was a surprisingly good pickup and led the Wings defensemen in plus/minus and plays good minutes on the power play. He could be an important cog in stopping the steady stream of double digit goal scorers of Nashville.
My prediction: Red Wings in 7. The Wings take one of the first two games in the series and each game is close with the Red Wings eventually proving the importance of playoff experience.
Come back tomorrow for our Eastern Conference predictions!