First Round Playoff Preview: Western Conference
Vancouver vs. Chicago: While the Blackhawks have knocked the Canucks out of the playoffs in the second round of each of the last two playoffs, several indicators point to a different outcome this postseason. For one, Canucks' nemesis Dustin Byfuglien is no longer playing for Chicago. Byfuglien scored four goals and six points in six games during last year's playoff series with Vancouver. He thrived on the power play, setting up shop in front of the Vancouver net to both screen Roberto Luongo and also tip in shots. At 6-4 and 260, Byfuglien was very hard to move. Nobody on this year's Chicago squad has his size nor poses the same kind of problem for Vancouver. Another effective player for Chicago in last season's success over Vancouver was center David Bolland, who scored two goals and five points in the six games. Though Bolland is still a Hawk, his availability for the first round is questionable, due to a concussion that knocked him out of the lineup on March 10. Meanwhile, Vancouver is stronger now on defense than they have been all season. Due to a myriad of injuries on the blue line their best six D-men have only been together a few games. Now they are ready to take advantage. The puck should be moving out of their zone deftly and quickly. The shutdown pair of Hamhuis and Bieksa don't have to play as many minutes with a healthy Alex Edler back in the lineup, and this has a trickle-down effect for the other three – Ehrhoff, Ballard, and Salo. Fewer minutes for most of them will mean more in the long run. While the loss of Manny Malhotra will be felt, especially on face-offs in their zone, the Canucks have an array of serviceable grinders such as speedy Mason Raymond, the gritty two-way threat Raffi Torres, late bloomer Jeff Tambellini and the persistent provoker Maxim Lapierre (who played in the Eastern Conference finals last year for Montreal). Even Chris Higgins, three seasons removed from three straight 20-goal seasons, has a chance to make a contribution playing on the second line with Mr. Canuck, Ryan Kesler, and Mikael Samuelsson. This is Luongo's chance to exorcise some playoff demons and we like Vancouver to take the series in a grueling seven games.
San Jose vs. Los Angeles: Some injuries are simply too difficult to overcome, even in a team game like hockey where unsung playoff heroes often emerge. The Kings' loss of leading scorer and No. 1 center Anze Kopitar, who led the team with 73 points in 75 games, has severely cut into the team's scoring. They've only scored 12 goals in the seven games he's missed and he's not coming back. Here's a very small sample size of what we're talking about: the last game they played the Sharks with Kopitar they won 4-3, the next game without Kopitar they lost 6-1. Can Jonathan Quick steal a game? He is 6-3 lifetime vs. San Jose (2.59 GAA, .908 SV%) with one shutout (3-2 this season with a 2.19 GAA and .910 SV%). Still, without Kopitar, we're not sure there'll be enough offense with just Dustin Brown, maybe Justin Williams (day-to-day after March 21st dislocated shoulder), Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll and a third former Oiler in Dustin Penner (two goals and six points in 19 games as a King). Potting just 12 goals in seven games doesn't inspire confidence. The Sharks are healthy, fully and completely. They are hip to being somewhat under the radar with Vancouver and Detroit generating the most attention. The difference between this year's team and last is that this season Logan Couture is a 30-goal scorer and their new goalie – Antti Niemi - has actually enjoyed postseason success as a Cup-winning No. 1 guy for Chicago last June. Even Devin Setoguchi, warming up with 20 points in his last 22 games, ended up with a 22-goal season. Little Joe Pavelski has been their best forward of late with 20 points in his last 13 games while newcomer Ian White has given them another competent puck moving defenseman. Now they just need Dany Heatley to wake up and they have a chance at a long playoff run. We like the Sharks in six games.
Detroit vs. Phoenix: One thing that the Coyotes have going for them, other than the excellent goalie play of Ilya Bryzgalov, is that they're used to prevailing in tight checking close games, the kind you usually witness during the playoffs. Case in point – the team won 43 games and lost 26 in regulation play (the other 13 were a mix of seven overtime losses and six shootout losses) scoring only five more goals than they allowed all season (231 for, 226 against). They score 2.82 per game and they allow 2.76. That's pretty tight yet they won or played into overtime in 56 out of 82 contests. The fly in the ointment for Phoenix is that they draw the league's best-coached team with the veteran laden Red Wings, a team that has racked up at least 100 points in 11 straight seasons. More importantly they've been to the finals two of the past three years and virtually all of the vital cogs remain. They will be missing perhaps their best forward in Henrik Zetterberg for at least the first game but they are loaded with depth. The Red Wings are the best in the league at puck possession and their cohesiveness sets them apart from most teams. They do have weaknesses, however, including age and a lack of shot blocking. They have also been turning the puck over more in their zone lately and that hasn't helped Jimmy Howard, who has had mediocre peripheral numbers (2.79 GAA, .908 SV %) while racking up 37 wins. If the Yotes are smart they foreheck like madmen and hit old-timers like Niklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom at every opportunity. That, ultimately, may just slow them down. They can only wound the Wings they can't terminate them. Detroit in six games.
Anaheim vs. Nashville: Though this matchup doesn't roll off of the tongue nor will likely draw the attention like Vancouver-Chicago or Boston-Montreal, it should be a long hard-fought series. Both teams play physical hockey, though the Ducks' brand of physicality is a little more hostile. One thing to watch is how successful Predators coach Barry Trotz will be at deploying his top defensive pair of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter when the Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line is on the ice. Another storyline just as big, if not bigger, is the situation in the Ducks' goal. All-Star Jonas Hiller hasn't won a game since Feb. 13 due to vertigo (though he's been well enough to dress as the backup for the past two games) while late season savior Ray Emery (7-2 with 2.28 GAA and .930 SV %) is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Dan Ellis has been no slouch himself since his latter season arrival from Tampa Bay - he's 8-3-1 with a 2.39 GAA and .917 SV %. Despite the success of both Emery and Ellis, their sample sizes as Ducks remain small while the Preds boasts one of the league's best in Pekka Rinne. The difference could simply come down to home ice, as both Anaheim (26-13-2) and Nashville (24-9-8) have been dominant at home. Anaheim just has a bit more intangibles (more Cup winners, more Olympic medalists) a better class of top scorers, and a potentially lethal power play (5th in the league at 23.6 % while Nashville sits 25th at 15.7 %). We'll take the Ducks in seven games.