Monday, April 12, 2010

Western Matchups

I think we are more likely to see more upsets in the Western Conference playoff matchups because of the strength of each team. The seeding does not necessarily indicate the strength or ability for a team to succeed in the playoffs. We all saw an example of this when the 8th seeded Anaheim Ducks uprooted the top seeded and President Trophy winning San Jose Sharks in the 2009 playoffs. The Ducks, just one season removed from winning the Stanley Cup, had much of the same roster and played with desperation right from the start which caught the Sharks off guard. The Sharks find themselves a #1 seed again this season so let’s start off with their matchup in my Western Conference outlook:

Sharks vs Avalanche

Although no one in San Jose will admit it, they were hoping to face the Avalanche in the first round. Colorado started to fizzle towards the end of the regular season, didn’t quite back-in to a playoff position, but their inexperience and possibly worn-down team is an indicator that they are arguably the weakest team in the playoffs. The Sharks have the ability to overcome last season’s disappointing first-round exit and build momentum against a team like the Avs. I think we’ll see a mentally prepared Sharks team that will come out firing against this young Avalanche squad. A perhaps rested Craig Anderson could start this series really hot but if the Sharks can pepper the goaltender with shots, especially from the blue-line, Anderson could tire. This series doesn’t go without the possibility of this Avalanche team surprising everyone like they did in the regular season. This team is as talented as they come, and when it came time for them to win (on the road against Vancouver to clinch), they came through.

My prediction: The Sharks take the series in 5 games.

Chicago vs Nashville

Question marks in goal for the Blackhawks will prove to be their major obstacle in this first-round matchup against the Predators. You have to think, Head Coach, Joel Quennville will go with Antii Niemi to start the series with the way he finished the regular season for the ‘Hawks, but still, an unproven goaltender is always worrisome for a team with high expectations. I think Chicago lucked out that they did not end up playing a team with more offensive weapons such as the LA Kings or Colorado Avalanche, where if their goaltending woes continue, they could have a major problem. Chicago has a talented group of goal scorers in Kane, Hossa, Toews, Sharp, etc., and these forwards will be relied on to break through the strong defensive system of the Nashville Predators. If they go cold, we could see an early exit for the Blackhawks. The Nashville Predators will rely heavily on their goaltender, Pekka Rinne, who boasts a 2.53 GAA and a .911 save percentage, and their defensive core anchored by Olympic gold medal winner, Shea Weber.

My prediction: If the ‘Hawks forwards go cold and their goaltending gets spotty, we could see an upset here. However, I see the Blackhawks winning this one in 6 games.

Vancouver vs Los Angeles

In what will possibly pan-out to be the most entertaining series offensively, this matchup features a healthy mix of young talent and veteran presence for both teams. The Kings have the potential to make some Canucks fans very angry with an early exit with the veterans up front and their young dynamic players. Ryan Smyth, Michal Handzus, and Justin Williams all have playoff experience to bring to the table for the Kings young forwards – and let’s not forget the playoff experience that shutdown defenseman Rob Scuderi will provide as he has made a trip to the finals each of the past two seasons including one Stanley Cup ring. Then you have to look at the young talent on this team. Captain Dustin Brown is one of the most ferocious forecheckers in the league, Anze Kopitar has been tremendous this season setting career-highs in goals, assists, and points, and how can we forget Drew Doughty and his amazing success as a second-year player finishing the regular season 2nd on the team in scoring and winning a gold medal with team Canada earlier this year. The Canucks will have their work cut out for them.

Vancouver has a cup-caliber team in my opinion. Roberto Luongo proved to the world that he can win against the best players in hockey with his gold medal performance earlier this year. The Canucks have grit in forwards such as Mason Raymond, Alex Burrows, and Ryan Kessler. All three players are seemingly getting better every season under coach Alain Vigneault and can put the puck in the net. The name “Sedin” is not going to sneak up on any team in the post season but it sure makes it difficult when you have to defend against two of them. Had it not been for Daniel’s injury that caused him to miss 19 games, we probably would have seen him with just as many points as brother Henrik at the end of the season. One area for concern for the Canucks is their record on the road, going 19-20-2 on the year.

My prediction: Canucks win in 7 games.

Phoenix vs Detroit

An unfortunate draw for the Phoenix Coyotes has them up against the Detroit Red Wings. I touched on the difficulties of playing Detroit in an earlier post but with the goaltending we've seen from Ilya Brizgolov, you can bet that Mike Babcock and the Wings are not looking past this year's surprise team. Detroit is rich with playoff veterans and know exactly what it takes for a championship run reaching the finals the previous two seasons and winning 16 of their last 21 games to finished the season in a surprising 5th seed. The big question mark for Detroit is, like other teams, their goaltending. Rookie Jimmy Howard will most likely get the nod by Babcock but if he falters, will Chris Osgood have what it takes to bail him out?

My prediction: Detroit wins in 6 games.

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