First thoughts on the Western matchups

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We looked at the East a couple of days ago, and that’s of most interest to Habs fans. But there is a whole other conference out there, somewhere beyond Ontario, Pennsylvania and Georgia — you know, that’s where Saku Koivu, Guillaume Latendresse, Jaro Halak, Maxim Lapierre, and Sergei Kostitsyn went.

Here’s some thoughts on what might happen in the West:

Canucks (1) vs. Blackhawks (8)

The Canucks deservedly finished on top of the pile with room to spare. They got stronger as the season progressed, contending with the adversity of a plague of injuries to their defense corps. Their depth at every position and their determination to succeed has to be the envy of the rest of the league. The Blackhawks, who have knocked Vancouver out in each of the last two years, would love to make it a hat trick and derail the Canucks’ Stanley Cup run before it gets started.

How much the Hawks are in the Canucks’ heads is uncertain. Would a split in the first two games shake Vancouver, cause them to upchuck all the confidence they’ve built over 82 games? It seems unlikely, but some think so. Without the fine defensive play, faceoff prowess and leadership of Manny Malhotra (not to mention the two games they’ll be missing suspended Raffi Torres, the Canucks have a vulnerability that Chicago will look to exploit. GM Mike Gillis wisely added Lapierre and Chris Higgins at the deadline and now he’s using them as regular fourth liners.

As we wrote when they visited Montreal, these Hawks are stripped down from last year’s Cup champion version. Missing key players though trades and injuries, they needed an unlikely win by Minnesota in the last game of the schedule to secure the final playoff spot, and the Hawks have to be grateful for this chance.

No, they are not as deep or physical as they were last year (losing Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and John Madden), nor are their special teams as strong (their penalty kill fell from fourth best to 25th overall and they’re 29th at home).

Nor are they as deep as they were last year, when they could boast of four strong centres: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland (who was key in shutting down the Sedin twins last spring) and a multiple Cup winner in Madden. It’s different now. Madden left via free agency. To get more scoring punch, Coach Joel Quenneville moved Sharp to the first line and Bolland to the second line. Bolland is currently out with a concussion (he’s just started skating again and his return is uncertain) so the depth chart at centre now looks like this: Sharp or Toews on the first line, followed by Michael Frolik, rookie Jake Dowell and journeyman Ryan Johnson. Not quite the same, is it?

Still, the Hawks have some high-end skill up front, strong defending led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and have gotten good goaltending from local product Corey Crawford. And they have lots of Cup experience. So they cannot be counted out. The key for them is whether they can stop the Sedins on the top line and 41-goal man Ryan Kesler on the second. Without even having Bolland, that’s a big unknown.

Sharks (2) vs. Kings (7)

This may be the series with the most obvious favorite. The Sharks had a stupendous second half (27-6-4 after Jan. 15, climbing from 12th spot in the West to second) in which they developed offensive balance beyond their “Big Three,” thanks to the play of rookie Logan Couture, revivals by Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi, the continued underrated contribution of Ryane Clowe, a physical dimension personified by Douglas Murray and Ben Eager, and the second best power play in the league.

They also found a goalie, Antti Niemi, who their media named the team’s MVP and, more importantly, has a Stanley Cup ring. After Dec. 1, he posted a .926 save percentage and a 2.16 goals against average and started 34 consecutive games from Jan. 15 through April 4, going 25-4-4 with a 2.05 GAA and a .929 save percentage.

The Sharks scored 248 goals, sixth best in the league, But — and it’s a big but — 68 of them came on the power play. At full strength, the Sharks are just an average club. Their 154 5-on-5 goals tied for 12th best in the league.

The Kings will be without their top scorer and most creative player, Anze Kopitar while their second leading scorer, Jason Williams, will be trying to play with a bum shoulder. It’s not as if they don’t have any gifted scorers remaining. Captain Dustin Brown, Ryan Smith, Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll are all 20-goal scorers but offense is just a problem for this L.A. club: Their 219 goals scored in the regular season is the tied for the lowest total of any Western Conference playoff team.

So they rely on a deep defence corps, led by Drew Doughty (who many believe took a step backward this season), Willie Mitchell, Jack Johnson and Rob Scuderi, who will have to keep the Sharks shooters to the outside and goalie Jonathan Quick, who will have to, as they say, stand on his head when they can’t.

The Kings’ penalty killing, fourth best in the league, could be a deciding factor here. Facing the Sharks’ potent power play, if they go through one of their hot streaks in which they don’t allow any man-advantage goals for a number of games, and get some timely opportunistic goals of their own, they could frustrate San Jose and pull the upset. If they can’t hold the Sharks down, the lack of offensive punch could doom the Kings.

Red Wings (3) vs. Coyotes (6)

Detroit was a pre-season Stanley Cup pick for many and many pick them to win this round. If you line up these two rosters and their scoring stats, it doesn’t seem like much of a series. The Red Wings have world class talents up front and on the blue line, strong role players and a style of play that often forces opponents to chase the game.

The Coyotes are a team of role players, with only one 20-goal scorer, Captain Shane Doan, and for most of the year, their fine defenseman Keith Yandle was their points leader. But under Coach Dave Tippett, Phoenix has surprised observers for two years running and they cannot lightly be dismissed. Plus, this is a rematch of last season’s seven-game first round series and the Red Wings don’t appear to intimidate the Coyotes.

This could be a series where goaltending — or lack of it — tells the story. Detoit has Jimmy Howard, the young netminder who slumped as a sophomore. Although he played the same number of games both years, he could not be rested this season when he needed it while veteran Chris Osgood battled injury. Howard’s rebound control grew questionable and his overall stats, a 2.78 average with a .908 save percentage, dropped from a 2.26 and .924 last season.

Phoenix has Ilya Bryzgalov, the veteran who was one of the busiest netminders in the league, facing an average of 31.3 shots a game (second only to Cam Ward’s 32.1), and stopping over 92 percent of them, posting a 2.48 average. Last spring, Howard outdueled Bryzgalov, but that was last year.

The Red Wings are puzzling. Their usually reliable and smothering D-zone play has not been very Wing-like this season and they seem turnover prone. It’s one reason Howard has struggled. Some have questioned their team speed. Their play early in games has been troubling (they’ve been outscored in first periods 84-76). Added to that has been a season-long run of injuries that has had many of their elite players sidelined and their leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg won’t start the series (although with this club, missing their top scorer is not as dire as, say, the Kings missing theirs).

Inconsistency may have characterized Detroit’s season, but the Coyotes are nothing if not consistent, although they rarely reach the heights the Wings do. With a deep defence corps led by Yandle, nine forward who hit double digits in goals and a team concept that thrives on industry and adversity, they somehow manage to get things done. They don’t quit and usually get stronger as games go along (their 85 third period goals tied for fifth best) and they manage to win games even when they are outshot (only Anaheim among playoff teams won more games when being outshot).

We know what we’ll get from Phoenix. We don’t know what we’ll get from Detroit. If the Wings don’t bring their “A” game and if Howard cannot find his, the Coyotes’ intrepid character could overcome the talent gap.

Ducks (4) vs. Predators (5)

Few series feature the contrasts this one does. The Ducks wins with a strong attack, and Predators win through repelling attacks.

Many cheered Anaheim’s late season run and no players captured the imagination of the hockey world down the stretch more than Anaheim’s Corey Perry, the NHL’s lone 50 goal scorer who might win the Hart Trophy, and 40-year-old Teemu Selanne. Few cheer the Predators, whose stifling defence and limited offence don’t make for exciting hockey. But winning in the playoffs is not about popularity.

Perry is hardly the only potent player on the Ducks. His line with Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan was hailed as the game’s best by season’s end and Saku Koivu’s second line, with Selanne and Jason Blake on the wings, wasn’t shabby either. Then there’s the offense the Ducks get from their defence, starting with Lubomir Visnovsky, the league’s top scoring blueliner, and rookie Cam Fowler. And both Toni Lydman and Francois Beauchemin give them good balance with their defending.

By comparison, the Preds had only two 20-goal scorers and — statistically at least — their top forward was Sergei Kostitsyn. But they do have six guys who scored 16 goals or more and they’re getting Steve Sullivan back from injury. Like the Coyotes, they do it by committee.

As for their strength, only the Canucks allowed fewer goals this season than Nashville. That starts in goal with Pekka Rinne, who many tout for the Vezina Trophy. Although it’s hard to think he’ll get the nod over Tim Thomas, Rinne’s excellent .930 save percentage and 2.11 average were second and third best in the league. And Nashville’s blueline corps also is getting some awards buzz. Shea Weber, who has a big shot and makes big hits, is being touted along with Visnovsky for the Norris Trophy, but some think his defence partner, Ryan Suter, may be even better than Weber.

The biggest question is this series is the Ducks’ goaltending. With both Jonas Hiller and Ray Emery injured, ex-Predator Dan Ellis will get the call. Not usually consistent over a long haul, Ellis can get hot for stretches. He’s played well of late but how long will it last?

Here’s the stat to keep in mind. The Ducks got 44 percent of their scoring from the Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line. If the Preds figure out how shut them down, it will go a long way to deciding this series’ outcome.

43 Comments

  1. Ach… what do I care.

    Go Habs.

    No answers, just opinions. Bite me. Och.

    http://www.maxpascher.com/

  2. Marc10 says:

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  3. Habitoba says:

    Anybody watching CBC? It’s all talk about what the Bruins need to do to win against montreal

  4. Steven says:

    Well, somehow, the Habs are the underdogs again.

    Along with their 30/1 chances(compared to the “I-make-the-playoffs-because-Dallas-can’t-win-the-big-one” Chicago Blackhawks’ 12/1), some sport simulation says the Habs have a 3% chance of coming out of the 1st round and should end up being swept?

    Why is there such a hate for acknowledging what our team can do? If anyone payed attention to the last 2 years, the Habs have routed the Bruins, except for that one matchup this year(Not both. The 8-6 game was close, regardless.).

    The Bruins’ Key Kog in this run(Thomas) is arguably the best in the league anywhere but Montreal, where he’s nothing short of average. Price, on the other hand, has been a Bruin Killer for some time now(Even last year, with his sub-par season, he still mastered the Bruins 4 times with a 1.00 GAA if I’m right.)

    Our special teams completely outclass the Bruins’, and when we’re on our game, it’s men vs boys.

    If people were to say: “Montreal in a VERY close Game 7 then they lose to Washington,” I’d at least say they gave us credit where it’s due, but it seems everyone in the hockey world is quick to pat the Bruins on the back for no reason, and put the Habs down when they’ve been exceptional without their top 2 D-men, injuries to Cammy, Plek, Halpern, Hammer(I think), Darche and Spacek, among others. The only player who’s made it through the entire season, all 82 games, is the Captain. I don’t think the “other teams have injuries, too” thing works here(Other than in Pittsburgh. They’ve been awesome)

    Why is it the Habs can NEVER get the credit they deserve, but the Bruins are the favourite EVERY year? They’re right on the heels of the greatest collapse in history, but that’s a non-factor. Price has an 8-game playoff losing streak, which I find irrelevant to anything at this point, since it’s a new season, but that’s constantly discussed…

  5. rogus says:

    What happened to Maxim Lapierre? His numbers fell drastically last year, and are in the tank this year. If him and Higgins are on the team that the pundits picked to win it all, then I guess anyone has a chance. Pass the booze, Higgins.

  6. For those interested, I’ve done an in depth breakdown between Carey Price and Tim Thomas on who’s more deserving of the Vezina, the results are intriguing:

    http://www.habseyesontheprize.com/2011/4/12/2106908/the-case-for-carey

    • Habitoba says:

      Excellent stat post. Hopefully those that call the shots will have something like this on which to help base their decision.

    • rocketsglare says:

      Hey Andrew, your analysis of the two goaltenders was genius. It only reinforced my belief that Price is the better of the two and possibly of
      the whole playoff group. Thanks for your astute insight.

  7. Led says:

    I find it interesting that no one has commented on the fact that the Canucks played in the weakest division this year. 1 out of 5 teams made the playoffs and the division houses the two worst teams in the league. Y’know that same criticism that was annually directed at the winner of the Southeast. Not saying the ‘nucks suck or anything, just thought it may have bore mentioning.

  8. pmaraw says:

    van isnt being ousted by chicago this year. they lost big buff along with eager who were the biggest catalysts in vancouvers downfall in their two recent playoff series. its gonna be a whole different game this time around.

  9. Mr.Hazard says:

    From NHL.com:

    “9. Kill or be killed — The last four Stanley Cup winners ranked in the top eight in penalty killing during the regular seasons when they won the Cup. The last two Cup winners, the Blackhawks and Penguins, ranked 18th and 20th on the power play, respectively, in their regular seasons.

    Seven of the top-eight penalty-killing teams reached the postseason this year. Of those eight teams, only Montreal and Vancouver ranked in the top eight in power-play efficiency. Special teams are a huge factor in a short series, so perhaps the only two Canadian franchises in the playoffs will have an edge.”

  10. As long as the ‘Couv have Horseface in net, they ain’t winning ANYTHING. ‘Hawks in 6.

  11. G-Man says:

    Chicago remains the Canucks Dragon by winning in 6. San Jose wins in 5 over LA. Detroit in 6 over Phoenix. Nashville continues Koivu’s playoff luck by dinging them in 5.

  12. db says:

    I have ANA beating VAN in the west. MTL beating PIT in the east.

    And Koivu winning the cup in Montreal. Game 7. Teemu GWG.

  13. kirkiswork says:

    Sharks have a great history of choking. I think they will continue the trend.

  14. nek25plus says:

    Vancouver, San Jose, Phoenix, Anaheim…first round winners!

  15. HabFanSince72 says:

    Vancouver might have to beat Chicago, Anaheim and San Jose just to make it to the finals.

  16. blu3chip says:

    Are we going to get an article titled “Boston aiming to dominate in Game 1″ tomorrow or Thursday Stu?

    • Stu Hackel says:

      Don’t know, blu3chip. But if so, maybe I’ll use your title.

      • blu3chip says:

        Please do.

        If management thinks those titles are appropriate for a Habs fan site like this, I guess I will just need to try harder skipping your articles, or stop coming to this site entirely.

        • LL says:

          I don’t know why you’re upset Blu. Stu is the only reason I even read SI. (He’s a closet Habs’ fan I think)

          • blu3chip says:

            SI is a hockey site. HI/O is a Habs fan site. When I come here, I don’t expect to read articles about how other teams are hoping to trump my Habs. There are plenty of those articles on CBC and TSN.

          • LL says:

            I don’t get that from his articles. I think he is one of the few who gives Habs any credit and/or attention in American and Canadian sites.
            As well as one of the few who called out Chara and you should’ve read the comments.

            But still, you can skip his articles if you don’t agree.

        • HabFanSince72 says:

          Youppi was the Expos mascot. This is a Hockey site.

          BURN HIM! BURN THE HERETIC!

        • LA Loyalist says:

          Dude, he was kidding. Really. Lighten up, we’re still 2 days out.

        • The Professor says:

          I don’t really understand what you’re trying to accomplish here… first you suggest a title, then you say that it’s totally inappropriate and blast Stu, who has (at least in my opinion) been a great contributor to the site, based on him agreeing with your first post?

          And for the record, while it’s a Habs site, I don’t think that only puff pieces should be posted on here. I also enjoy reading something with a different perspective and love that I can find all Habs related articles/links here in one place

          • blu3chip says:

            You don’t understand what I’m tying to say, probably because you have not seen the titles of some of Stu’s older posts.

          • LL says:

            I don’t recall those titles, but some of the worse slamming titles comes in our own Montreal newspapers.

          • The Professor says:

            I see pretty much every title on here as I check the site a few times throughout the day and have seen most if not all of Stu’s posts. That’s not the issue here. Rather, I still don’t understand how you’re proving your point with the method you used here.. Frankly it just makes you look immature and petty

        • G-Man says:

          Now that’s a genuine homer moment. Doh!

        • sane hockey fan says:

          SOMEONE CALL THE WHHHHAAAAAMMMMBULANCE, *I don’t like your titles so I’m going to stop coming to this site* cry me a river

      • G-Man says:

        Have to apologize for that. Some don’t understand that there are 2 sides to every story.

      • Da Hema says:

        Stu: I appreciate your input and observations, but are you not being a bit thin-skinned here?

  17. HalifaxHabs says:

    East: Caps, Sabres, Habs and Pitt win.

    West: Canucks, Sharks, Wings and Preds win.

  18. Sakus Evil Twin says:

    This is a great assessment.

    I have a sincere hunch that Vancouver might be more fragile than at first they appear, and if any team is going to get in their heads, it’s going to be Chicago.

    Time to let go of the regular season and regroup…

    If the Hawks can split the first two games, their house is going to be rockin’.

    My dark horse in the west is going to be Nashville. Pekke Rinne has been nothing short of spectacular in the run up, and they are going to frustrate the hell out of every team they play – to me they are without doubt the Habs of the West. Barry Trotz is a fine coach and he’ll have them ready… This is surely their breakout year…

    No answers, just opinions. Bite me. Och.

    • LA Loyalist says:

      Anaheim have too much firepower for Nashville. Even if they slow down Perry, Ryan and Getzlaf, they have to deal with Saku, Teemu and Jason Blake, PLUS Visnovski, who is the Ducks PK, and Fowler who for 18 years old is amazing.

      The real issue is Ducks goaltending. I’m not hearing ANYTHING about Hiller being close, I think they’ll play Ellis until he loses and then we’ll see Emery, who was excellent for them, I think he only had one bad game and usually held the opp to 1 goal. (And I was not an Emery fan at all, when we saw him in Ottawa, but he seems to have his head on straight, is experienced and is determined to make this chance work).

      As usual, special teams will be huge.

      • Sakus Evil Twin says:

        That’s what they said about the Habs vs. Washington/Penguins last year. Nashville are doing the same things.

        No answers, just opinions. Bite me. Och.

        • LA Loyalist says:

          Maybe. But when Sergei K is your leading scorer? We had a little more firepower than that (not tons, but a bit).

          • Sakus Evil Twin says:

            I always knew Sergei would come good. (not) :)
            Interesting stats:

            The Preds played the Ducks 4 times this season.

            They beat the Ducks 4-1 both times in Anaheim and lost 4-5 both times in Nashville.

            Ach… what do I care.

            Go Habs.

            No answers, just opinions. Bite me. Och.


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