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.