The Western Conference boasts three teams I could see competing for the Stanley Cup come late May and June and four really fun matchups to look forward to. I can’t see either of the top seeds going out in the first round, but I have less confidence in the three and four seeds. The best part of my predictions is the potential for another Vancouver-Chicago second round matchup.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)
Coming off a second straight President’s Trophy, the Canucks are scary once again and I can’t see the Kings, or any of the other potential eight seeds, upsetting them. I really like the Kings and I really like Jonathan Quick in net. In fact, I think Quick is the best goaltender among the eight in the Western Conference playoffs, and there’s no question he’ll be able to spur his team on to a win or two. That said, the Kings just aren’t deep enough to beat the Canucks, at least as I see it.
Two injured stars are focal points in this series, starting first with LA’s Jeff Carter. He has proclaimed himself good to go for game one on Wednesday night, but Head Coach Darryl Sutter was a little less sure. That said, it’s a good bet Carter will be back in game action before Vancouver’s injured sniper in Daniel Sedin. While gradually recovering from a concussion, it doesn’t sound like Sedin will be ready to return to start the series. Even so, Vancouver has the depth to make up for the loss of their leading scorer, even in a playoff series.
Even though names like Henrik Sedin (1 goal in final 23 games) and Ryan Kesler (no goals, 2 points in final 12 games) struggled down the stretch, I don’t read a whole lot into those struggles. They are two of many players on the Canucks able to flip switches, and I think Kesler’s line will do a solid job matched up against either the Richards or Kopitar unit on the other side. I see Vancouver’s depth lines, specifically Sammy Pahlsson’s, to do a good job on LA’s bottom six which will be the difference in this series for me. A decent Roberto Luongo should be what the doctor ordered for the defending conference champs. Canucks in 6.
St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)
This series should be a long one and it gives us the opportunity to watch a really good matchup of center icemen. David Backes and Joe Thornton may have underwhelmed some with their point totals, but their importance to their teams this season cannot be understated. Both saw some of the toughest matchups the NHL had to offer and both did an exceptional job with those assignments. On top of that, both top lines have outstanding wingers that maybe don’t get the pub they deserve.
Joe Pavelski’s move from center to wing has put him in a much more prominent scoring role, and he put up very good numbers playing regular high end opposition for the first time. It’s not like Pavelski hadn’t played against the best in prior seasons, but this was the first year the former seventh rounder did it game in and game out, putting up 61 points along the way. On the other side, David Perron’s recovery from a major concussion has been slow, but he found his former late in the season, putting up 11 points in his last 15 games for the stingy Blues. Perron and Backes have T.J. Oshie on their other wing while Thornton and Pavelski are flanked by Patrick Marleau, so we’ve got two great top lines to watch.
In the end, I like the depth of St. Louis in a long series though. They’re healthy and well coached and I like their depth down the middle a whole lot more once you get past the top two. Jason Arnott, Vladimir Sobotka, and Andy McDonald have all taken turns centering the third or fourth lines for the Blues this year, and I’ll take that over Dominic Moore, Andrew Desjardins and Michal Handzus. Jaroslav Halak was great for St. Louis this year while Antti Niemi struggled, which is another reason while I’ll lean the way of the two seed. Blues in 7.
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)
Congratulations to the Coyotes for winning the Pacific Division, and they absolutely deserved it this year. The Yotes won their final two games, split the Kings and Sharks down the middle, and hammered their way to the three seed. Unfortunately, this deep but not overly skilled lineup just isn’t going to be able to get it done over seven games against the Blackhawks, I just don’t see it. With Jonathan Toews seemingly ready to return to the lineup to start this one, it adds another element to Chicago’s game and even with suspect goaltending, I think they’ll be able to advance.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no way the Coyotes go quietely in this series, and there’s no way they get swept like they did against Detroit one year ago. Phoenix has gotten top end goaltending from Mike Smith all year long (a stupid .936 ES save percentage in 67 games doesn’t lie) and they play a solid, team game in front of him. They’ll win some games and frustrate the Hawks, because Smith has done the job all year long and Martin Hanzal is a quality shutdown center playing with two potent wingers in Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata.
The head-to-head matchups are interesting, but the Toews line will do just fine in a series against Hanzal’s and I’ll take the Patrick Kane and Dave Bolland trios over those of Antoine Vermette and Daymond Langkow, mostly because of the scoring depth. Patrick Sharp and Andrew Shaw seem more dangerous as threats off the wing than the likes of Shane Doan, Raffi Torres, and Gilbert Brule. Even with suspect goaltending, Chicago’s potent attack (248 goals, second in the West) will be the reason they win. Blackhawks in 6.
Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)
The Predators made themselves significantly better prior to the trade dealine, picking up forwards Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad, and Alexander Radulov along with defenseman Hal Gill without sacrificing anything from their regular roster. In my eyes, even without Joel Ward in the fold anymore, they’re a better and more deep team than they were one year ago when they eliminated the Anaheim Ducks in the first round. Unfortunately, they’ve got a Red Wings team that I just can’t see losing in the first round.
Maybe I’m too much of a believer in this Detroit group, but I truly believe they are a team primed to go deep this year if they remain a somewhat healthy group. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg may have had relative down years in terms of points, but they’re still two of the best even strength players in hockey. I expect the lines they anchor to do a very strong job against the likes of Kostitsyn, Radulov, David Legwand, and Martin Erat, and it’s Detroit’s top end that I see paving the way for a tough series win.
I like Nashville’s depth a little better to be perfectly honest, even if Dan Cleary is back for Detroit to start things off. I think Gaustad, Jordin Tootoo, and Patric Hornqvist are slightly more attractive options than Cory Emmerton and Gustav Nyquist. No Darren Helm for Detroit will hurt them a tad. If this were last year, I’d give a huge goaltending edge to Pekka Rinne and the Preds, but Jimmy Howard has won me over this year, and with him in net for the Red Wings it’s almost a wash for me. It’s the top end that will get this done for Detroit, but it won’t be easy, especially having to win at least once on the road. Red Wings in 6.