Just a couple quick notes before we get to the match ups:
To check out my feelings on the Eastern Conference playoffs go here.
Last night was the NHL Draft Lottery and the Edmonton Oilers got the right to choose #1 overall for the third year in a row. The poor Columbus Blue Jackets can’t even win a lottery at 88% odds… at least the have the All-Star game next year.
Vancouver Canucks (51-22-9) vs. Los Angeles Kings (40-27-15)
Yawn! The Vancouver Canucks again dominate the regular season garnering the best overall record in the NHL and will soon enough be Canadian residents only rooting interest in the playoffs. Daniel Sedin, the Canucks leading goalscorer, has been sidelined with a concussion since March 21st. He has been skating lately so it is still to be determined whether or not Wonder-Twin Powers will be activated anytime soon in Vancouver. The bigger controversy in Vancouver surrounds goaltending. Roberto Luongo is notoriously soft in pressure situations and his backup Corey Schneider has been seeing a larger load this year and dominating in that role. It will be interesting to see how long a leash the Canucks apply to Luongo or even if they have enough cajones to start Schneider outright. Either way, I still think Vancouver has enough guns and talent to get by the Kings in the first round. As short as a week ago LA was sitting in control of the 3rd playoff spot but after a wild and wooly finish to the season LA has been leapfrogged by San Jose and Phoenix to be left with the unhappy task of facing the Canucks in the first round. At least they’re in for a short flight home and LA residents can refocus on the Lakers.
Prediction: Canucks in 5 (Jonathan Quick is good enough to steal one)
St. Louis Blues (49-22-11) vs. San Jose Sharks (43-29-10)
The St. Louis Blues have been one of the most surprising stories of the 2012 NHL season. This team has been winning games from the word go and nobody expected them to continue. Looking at the team statistically you would have no idea that they were contending for the best record in hockey. No one on the team has over 54 points this season for goodness sake! There secret has been spreading their attack, 9 players in double digit goals, being tough and gritty in the defensive end and the emergence of Brian Elliot. Elliot has been lights out and while he did show signs of brilliance in the past I don’t think anyone would have guessed that he would do so well as a full-time starter. On the other side of the ice you have the San Jose Sharks who haven’t been burning down any offensive bridges themselves but do sport three 30-goal scorers in Couture, Marleau and Pavelski. The Sharks have been notoriously disappointing in the Playoffs but seem to do better as the underdog than the favorite. San Jose is definitely the underdog in this match up and failed to win any of the four meetings the clubs had during the regular season. I expect the Sharks to give the Blues all they can handle but in the end it’s defense and goaltending that wins playoff series and St. Louis has both of those categories well in hand.
Prediction: Blues in 6
Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11)
The Coyotes have done a great job of finding ways to win this year especially down the stretch where they took advantage of a couple weak opponents on the back end of the schedule to secure the 3rd spot in the West. Coyotes fans everywhere are also breathing a collective sigh of relief that they don’t have to face the Red Wings in the first round for the third year in a row. With the departure of Ilya Bryzgalov it seemed that the Yotes had narry a chance of repeating the regular season success they enjoyed the past couple years but the biggest surprise of the year is the rejuvenation of goaltender Mike Smith. Smith, like Brian Elliott, is relishing his first season as a full-time starter and has been almost as good. Also like the Blues Phoenix doesn’t have any dominant scorers but Radim Vrbata has managed to tickle the twines a career best 35 times and they have the gritty leadership of 16-years with the Coyotes Shane Doan. The Blackhawks have never been quite the same since their Stanley Cup Championship a couple of years ago but still possess a ton of good young talent. Between Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa the Hawks have plenty of guys that can put the puck in the net and Seabrook and Keith bolster a pretty solid backend. The problem with Chicago is that they don’t have a reliable goaltender and neither Corey Crawford or Ray Emery were able to post a single shutout this season. Compare that to Smith’s 8 shutouts this year and you’ve got a solid edge. Phoenix has a glaring weakness in it’s powerplay production but facing one of the worst penalty kills in the league, again see goaltending, should give them the bolster they need to turn things around.
Prediction: Coyotes in 6
Nashville Predators (48-26-8) vs. Detroit Red Wings (48-26-6)
The Predator and the Red Wings have played each other 6 times this year making them the most familiar of Western Conference opponents and the managed to split those contests evenly. These two teams also do a fantastic job of spreading out the offense with Nashville and Detroit having 10 and 11 players in double digit goalscoring respectively. Detroit has had a bit of a funny season being more streaky than you typically expect. They had two six-game losing streaks coupled with three winning streaks of 6 or more games. Amidst all of this they also set the new record for consecutive home wins at 23. Unfortunately for the Red Wings they don’t have the home-ice advantage in this series and will have to rely on overtime as opposed to shootouts for those games that go beyond three periods. This should be an interesting series as the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom faces off against the heir apparents in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. The Predators have leaned heavily on goaltender Pekka Rinne this season and it will be interesting to see if begins to become fatigued after starting an alarming 73 games this season. Much like the Penguins/Flyers match is probably going to be the most interesting to watch in the East this contest should be the crown jewel of the Western Conference first round albeit with less blood and guts.
Prediction: Red Wings in 7