2012 NHL Playoff Preview: Western Conference

It really stinks that the Sabres won’t be a part of the NHL playoffs this year, but there is still plenty of phenomenal hockey yet to come this year. Here is my breakdown of each Western Conference series.

 

– (1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings (Season series tied 2-2) 

Key Players:

Vancouver- Henrik & Daniel Sedin, Alex Edler, Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider, Ryan Kesler, Sami Salo, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa

Los Angeles- Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Willie Mitchell

 

Special Teams:

Vancouver- PP (4th), PK (6th)

Los Angeles- PP (17th), PK (4th)

 

LA has been an improved offensive team since swapping out defenseman, Jack Johnson for former Columbus Blue Jacket, Jeff Carter. Their strong defense and goaltending stayed the same during that stretch which allowed LA to get back into the playoff picture and have the opportunity to compete for a division title on the last day of the season. However, Carter had to miss the final five games of the season due to a foot injury. He’s still questionable at this point and it remains to be seen how much that foot injury will affect him whenever he’s reinserted into the lineup.

Meanwhile in Vancouver, the Canucks have just wrapped up their 2nd President’s Trophy for the 2nd year in a row. They’ve done it with essentially the same formula as last season: a strong puck possession system that has the defense aggressively jumping into the play offensively, anchored by the Sedins and the top-4 defensemen, Edler, Hamhuis, Salo, and Bieksa. In goal, they’ve got one of the strongest tandems in the league in Luongo and Schneider. Like LA, Vancouver is also missing Daniel Sedin, the recently acquired right-winger, Zack Kassian, and defenseman, Keith Ballard. The status of all three guys is currently unknown. Obviously, Sedin is a big loss for them.

The system Vancouver employs will always yield some very good scoring chances for the other team. Whether the Kings can capitalize on those chances is a pretty big question-mark with Jeff Carter’s health being in doubt; Kopitar can’t do it all and Richards doesn’t exactly have reliable linemates. All that aside, any chance the Kings have of winning this series will depend on Jonathan Quick playing every bit like the Vezina-calibur goalie he was during the regular season.

 

Prediction: Quick along with their strong team defense and penalty-killing will manage to snag a couple wins for the Kings, but ultimately, the Canucks superior depth at forward coupled with comparable defensive play and goaltending will prevail. It’s going to be a heck of a battle though. Vancouver in 6. 

 

-(2) St. Louis vs. (7) San Jose (St. Louis won season series 4-0)

Key Players:

St. Louis- Alex Pietrangelo, Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliot, David Backes, TJ Oshie, David Perron, Andy McDonald, Kevin Shattenkirk

San Jose- Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe, Patrick Marleau,  Antti Niemi, Brett Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlassic, Douglas Murray, Brian Boyle

 

Special Teams:

St. Louis- PP (19th), PK (7th)

San Jose- PP (2nd), PK (29th)

 

I thought the Blues would contend for a playoff spot this year, but I did not expect them to have the resurgence that they’ve had since hiring Ken Hitchcock as head coach part-way into the season. This Blues team has the strongest commitment to defense of any team in this playoff race and employs some very heavy forechecking. Halak and Elliot have also been the best goaltending duo in the league by far. It’s unknown which one will be the starter, but the smart money would probably be on Halak since he does have plenty of playoff experience from his time with Montreal. The rest of the team is pretty green in that regard though. St. Louis does have some nice forwards in Backes, Perron, Oshie, McDonald, etc, but they lack high-end scoring punch which may haunt them a bit during this series. Their defense, led by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk and goaltending is usually good enough to win lots of 1-0, 2-1 kind of games though.

Conversely, I didn’t expect to see the Sharks finish in 7th with how much talent they have on paper. I guess that’s why they play the games. At forward, they’ve got two very strong lines with players like Couture, Pavelski, and Thornton populating them. However, there’s a sizable drop-off after that. The Sharks did add Daniel Winnik and TJ Galliardi at the deadline to help improve that, but it’s still a problem. The defense is very good and deep though and recently got hard-hitting Douglas Murray back in their regular season finale. San Jose’s real Achilles’ heel is their goaltending and penalty kill. The former can be very good, but is inconsistent and the latter is just flat-out awful. Niemi is going to have to play like he can for the Sharks to have a chance of winning this series. Soft goals are damaging to any team, but giving a team like the Blues easy goals is really asking for trouble.

 

Prediction: San Jose has way too much firepower on offense to go away quietly and has a strong enough defense to cover up for Niemi to a point. If they can get a split in St. Louis for games 1 & 2, this series should get extremely interesting. If not, then I think this will be all over in five. Ultimately, I see the playoff experience of the Sharks being somewhat of an equalizer though. This series will go the distance with the Blues winning in 7.

 

– (3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks (Phoenix won season series 3-1) 

Key Players:

Phoenix- Mike Smith, Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Radim Vrbata, Rotislav Klesla

Chicago- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, Dave Bolland

 

Special Teams:

Phoenix- PP (29th), PK (8th) 

Chicago- PP (26th), PK (27th)

 

Ken Hitchcock is pretty much a lock for the Jack Adams award this year, but considering how the roster looked coming into this season, Dave Tippett has to be a close 2nd. Phoenix appeared to really lacking in scoring, but has gotten very good contributions from the likes of Vrbata, the ageless wonder, aka Ray Whitney, and captain, Shane Doan. They still have trouble scoring at times though. After struggling for most of his career, Mike Smith has come in and has been spectacular in goal, outperforming Ilya Brysgalov, who left Phoenix in the off-season for Philadeplphia. Tippett’s defensive system has yielded great regular season success, but very little in the way of playoff success. Their offensive woes have really reared their ugly heads in their last couple of playoff series and the strong goaltending had also fallen apart. If Smith can play like he’s played this season, the Coyotes will have a big edge in goal due to the inconsistency of his counter-part, Corey Crawford.

Crawford, like Antti Niemi in San Jose has shown that he can play well, but has hard time stringing good performances together. On top of that, Jonathan Toews hasn’t played since February 19th and they have a void at that 2nd line center spot behind Toews. He is expected to be back for the playoffs though. How effective he’ll is still up in the air. Special teams has also been all sorts of awful the whole season. They do have the talent to be deadly on the power play though and if they can get that up to snuff during this series, that would be huge against a team who sometimes has trouble scoring in Phoenix. Even without Toews, the Blackhawks are fairly deep at forward and have elite snipers like Kane, Sharp, and Hossa who can be major game-breakers.

 

Prediction: If the Coyotes receive the goaltending performances they’ve been accustomed to having from Mike Smith, this series will last awhile. If not, then Chicago’s superior offensive talent will make short work of Tippett’s squad. I like Phoenix to get that great goaltending and ride the momentum they’ve picked up from winning their first-ever division title to their first-ever playoff series win. Coyotes in 6.

 

– (4) Nashville vs. (5) Detroit (Season series tied 3-3)

Key Players:

Nashville- Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne, Mike Fisher, David Legwand, Martin Erat, Alexander Radulov, Patric Hornquist

Detroit- Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterburg, Valtteri Filippula, Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Jimmy Howard, Todd Bertuzzi

 

Special Teams:

Nashville- PP (1st), PK (10th)

Detroit- PP (22nd), PK (18th)

 

Nashville’s certainly moved up in the world this year. Known for being carried by their goaltending and defense, they’ve actually got some firepower upfront this year and are much-improved on special teams. That power play of theirs is lethal with Weber firing bombs from the point. The other half of that dynamic duo on defense, Ryan Suter has been superb as usual too. Same goes for Pekka Rinne in goal. With Weber and Suter’s contract situations still in doubt, the Preds have gone all in this season, making moves like obtaining the likes of Hal Gill, Paul Gaustad, and reuniting the Kostitsyn brothers. Most-notably, Alexander Radulov has returned from the KHL to his old team and is still every bit the top scoring threat he was when he left. They’ve gotten a big boost offensively since his return.

Over in Detroit, they’ve had yet another great season that has gotten them in the playoffs for the 21st year in a row. The usual suspects in Lidstrom, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg have been steering the ship. Jimmy Howard’s been solid in goal and Filippula has had a break-out season upfront. They’ve also got solid depth with forwards like Abdelkader, Helm, and Miller being a part of that bottom-6.  Their prowess on home ice has been discussed ad-nauseum. What you don’t hear as much about is their road issues. They finished up 17-21-3 for the year away from Joe Lewis Arena. This group has the talent, moxy, and veteran savvy to go the distance, but they could be in a little trouble since they don’t have home-ice advantage in this series. Special teams could also use plenty of work still.

 

Prediction: Seriously, flip a coin. It’s going to be a tight one. Despite the significant advantage the Preds have on special teams, I like this series to go to all the way. This Red Wings team has too much experience and is too good at home to go down quickly. Nashville is primed for a deep playoff-run and having home ice will ultimately tip things in their favor. Predators in 7.

 

Look for my Eastern Conference playoff preview Tuesday morning. Happy Dyngus Day everyone!

Advertisements