NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Semis Preview

We’re almost done with the 1st round of the NHL Playoffs. The Eastern bracket still has to be determined, but the West is all set. Let’s take a look at the two series.

 

(7) Los Angeles Kings vs (2) St. Louis Blues (Season Series: LA won 3-1)

Key Players:

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

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

 

Playoff Scoring Leaders:

St. Louis- Andy McDonald: 8 pts (4 G, 4 A), Patrik Berglund: 7 pts (3 G, 4 A), Alexander Steen: 3 pts (1 G, 2 A). David Perron: 3 pts (1 G, 2 A), Alex Pietrangelo: 3 pts (3 A), Two others tied at 3 pts (TJ Oshie, Carlo Colaiacovo)

Los Angeles- Dustin Brown: 5 pts (4 G, 1 A), Anze Kopitar: 4 pts (1 G, 3 A), Justin Williams: 4 pts (4 A), Mike Richards: 3 pts (1 G, 2 A), Jarret Stoll: 2 pts (2 G), five others tied at 2 pts (Willie Mitchell, Trevor Lewis, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Dustin Penner)

 

Special Teams:

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

…Playoffs- PP (2nd), PK (5th)

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

…Playoffs- PP (13th), PK (7th)

 

Oddly enough, these two teams would have met in round one if the Kings had beaten the Sharks on the last day of the regular season, but I digress. LA is coming off an impressive five-game knockout upset of the President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks. In that series, the Kings were much better on special teams than the Canucks for the first three games and got great production from the Brown-Kopitar-Williams line. Mike Richards also chipped in a little on the scoresheet and did a great job in the shut-down role. Jonathan Quick was his usual, virtually-unbeatable self in goal and the defense, anchored by Drew Doughty was solid in front of him.

Most importantly, the entire team played great defense like they did in the regular season. That, coupled with the boost in scoring was just too much for the Canucks who were playing without Daniel Sedin for the first three games. The caveat to all of this success is that LA had a hard time with Vancouver in the two games that Daniel played in. They weren’t as good on special teams, especially on the penalty kill. That might come back to haunt them in this series if they don’t clean it up.

The reason it could come back to haunt them is because the Blues were very strong on special teams throughout their series against the Sharks. Like LA, St. Louis got some really good production from one line (Berglund-McDonald-Steen). The other lines on the team chipped in a bit, but it was that line that had the lion’s share of the production. David Backes and co. will need to step it up in round 2.  Jaroslav Halak went down with an injury in round one, but Brian Elliot was more than up to the task of relieving Halak. Goaltending obviously isn’t going to be an issue. The defense, led by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk was up to its usual high standards of play. Also, the Blues’ exceptionally strong commitment to defense and their heavy forechecking that we saw in the regular season carried over to their 1st round series. One thing I did notice in their series with San Jose is that St. Louis would sometimes take their foot off the gas when they had lead. They can’t afford to get away with that all the time in this series with a well-disciplined opponent like the Kings.

 

Prediction: This should be a really low-scoring series when you consider the goaltending and strong team defense both teams play. I fully anticipate each team being able to shut down the other team’s top line, so it will be up to the other players to pick up the slack. On paper, St. Louis has the deeper team and the stronger special teams, but you can never count out Quick being able to neutralize any offensive advantages they have. With all of that being said, I’ll pin my hopes on the Blues’ advantages shining through enough to win this series. I’ll take St. Louis in 6.

 

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (3) Phoenix Coyotes(Season Series: Phoenix won 2-1-1)

Key Players:

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

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

 

Playoff Scoring Leaders:

Phoenix- Antoine Vermette: 5 pts (4 G, 1 A), Keith Yandle: 5 pts (5 A), Mikkel Boedker: 4 pts (2 G, 2 A), Rotislav Klesla: 4 pts (1 G, 3 A), Oliver Ekman-Larsson: 3 pts (1 G, 2 A), four others tied at three pts (Taylor Pyatt, Gilbert Brule, Daymond Langkow, Ray Whitney)

Nashville- Alexander Radulov: 5 pts (1 G, 4 A), Gabriel Bourque: 4 pts (3 G, 1 A), David Legwand: 4 pts (2 G, 2 A), Kevin Klein: 3 pts (2 G, 1 A), Shea Weber: 2 pts (2 G), five others tied at 2 pts (Paul Gaustad, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Fisher, Martin Erat, Nick Spaling)

 

Special Teams:

Phoenix- PP (29th), PK (8th) 

…Playoffs- PP (6th), PK (1st)

Nashville- PP (1st), PK (10th)

…Playoffs- PP (14th), PK (10th)


Not too many people were expecting the 3rd seeded Coyotes to take out the Blackhawks (*Insert pat on the back here*), but they did it. Their series came down to goaltending and special teams and Phoenix absolutely destroyed Chicago in both categories. Mike Smith was phenomenal throughout the series and as you can see from the rankings above, the Coyotes had a pretty easy time on the penalty kill and the power play.

One thing that really needs to improve is Phoenix’s 5-on-5 play. There were long-stretches in almost every game in their 1st round series where the Blackhawks were just flat-out dominating them. The Coyotes got away with that because they had such a massive advantage in goal and special teams. They won’t have any such advantage against the team they’ll be playing next. They’ll need much more production from guys like Shane Doan, Martin Hanzal, and Radim Vrbata. The good news for Phoenix is that their top-2 defensemen (Yandle and Ekman-Larsson) have been as good, if not better than Nashville’s top-2 of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter

Nashville was thought to be the favorite in their series with Detroit, but no one expected them to dispatch them in only five games. They did it with smothering defense and very strong goaltending from Pekka Rinne. Surprisingly, the Predators’ special teams wasn’t that good in their series. Phoenix might have an edge there if that carries over to this series. The acquisition of Alexander Radulov really paid dividends in round one. He’s leading the team in scoring so far. As usual, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were studs on defense and barring some fluke, that should continue in round two.

Like Phoenix, Nashville did have some moments where they were badly outplayed by Detroit, but were saved by Pekka Rinne. However, Phoenix isn’t even close to being as good as Detroit 5-on-5, so I doubt we’ll see any stretches of play where the Predators will just be overwhelmed at even-strength. Because of that, I think you’ll see some more scoring from forwards like Mike Fisher, Martin Erat, Patric Hornqvist, and Andrei Kostitsyn who were pretty quiet in the 1st round.

 

Prediction: This will be a grueling chess match between Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz. For my money, they are the two top head coaches in the league. If you look at the match-ups, I’d say that both teams are pretty much even, except for 5-on-5 play. Nashville has much better depth than Phoenix at forward, which should give them the edge in this series. However, you cannot discount Phoenix with how good they’re playing defensively and on special teams right now. Mike Smith is also capable of stealing games as we saw against Chicago. Phoenix winning this series wouldn’t really surprise me after all they’ve done this year, but I’ve got to go with the team that has the decided advantage at forward on paper. Nashville in 6.

 

Look for my Eastern Conference Semis’ Preview on Saturday. Enjoy the two game 7’s that are on tonight!


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