We’ve all been waiting 10 months for the NHL playoffs. The real season begins tonight. Without further adieu, our first round playoff predictions. Nolan takes the Western Conference, Calyn takes the East.
Western Conference Playoff Preview
Parity. It’s what the NHL playoffs are all about. Unlike, say, basketball, where everyone in the universe knows the Heat or Bulls will face the Thunder or Spurs in the finals, parity is stronger than ever in the NHL. And the West is proof of that.
It’s easy to imagine any one of the eight Western Conference playoff teams in the finals this season. Even Phoenix, the consensus long shot, has a goalie capable of stealing multiple series.
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) LA Kings
Hate to say it Canucks fans, but this one is a tossup. You never want to be a President’s trophy winner in a tossup first round series, but such is the Western Conference this season.
The Canucks have struggled all season to find their form. Say what you want about the whiney nature of a fan base that complains about a team that won the Presidents trophy – we all know this the Canucks hugely under achieved this season.
But we’re all hoping the underachievement came from the player’s realization that the President’s trophy is meaningless – no point in wearing yourself out during the regular season, when it’s far more important to remain fresh and healthy for the post season.
These two teams split the season series two apiece, but the absence of Daniel Sedin, and the addition of Jeff Carter to the Kings line-up, renders prognostication derived from the season series meaningless.
The Kings have put their offensive woes behind them, averaging 3.16 Goals per game since the trade deadline. Compare that with the 2.12 goal per game the averaged during the first 63 games of the season, and it’s easy to see why this one vs. eight matchup is much more even than the rankings would suggest.
Vancouver wins if: They play a gritty tight game, shutdown LA’s top line and get the power play going.
LA wins if: Goaltender Jonathan Quick steals a couple games and their scorers play up to their full potential.
Prediction: This is sooooo painful, but...Kings in six.
(2) St Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks
On paper this is a mismatch. 13 points separate these teams in the standings, and the Blues won the season series 4-0. In fact, San Jose only scored 3 goals in four games against the Blues.
But the oft-underachieving Sharks are right where they want to be. They are facing less pressure than in years past, as regular season disappointment has given way to low playoff expectations.
This season, the Sharks have more defensive depth with the addition of Brent Burns, and the return of injured forward Martin Havlat – who has a very solid playoff track record – gives the team two elite scoring lines.
The Blues on the other hand, started winning in November, and haven’t stopped since. After a 6-7 start, they fired head coach Davis Payne, hired Ken Hitchcock and proceeded to go 43-15-11 – the best mark in the NHL over that span. The Blues can roll four lines, and have some great veteran depth on the third line with Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner.
The Blues win if: They get great goaltending and timely scoring.
The Sharks win if: They play up to their full capability. On paper they are as talented as any team in the NHL. Antti Niemi will have to step up.
Prediction: Blues in seven.
(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks
Two questions for this one: Can an injured Jonathan Toews put the Blackhawks on his back if they’re struggling? Can Mike Smith steal at least two games?
Most a predicting a Blackhawks win – and they did finish more points than the Coyotes this season. But outside of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the Blackhawks lack depth on the back end. Goaltending is also a huge question mark for the Hawks, as starting net-minder Corey Crawford struggled and backup Ray Emery battled injury, down the stretch.
Phoenix is fairly deep, loaded with savvy veterans and is currently riding the hot hand of goaltender Mike Smith. Aging veterans Shane Doan and Ray Whitney know their time to win a Stanley Cup is running out
Coyotes win if: Mike Smith. That is all.
Chicago wins if: Toews comes back and ignites a fire under a talented but underachieving squad.
Chicago isn’t scaring anyone this year.
Prediction: Coyotes in seven.
(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings