We gave you our Eastern Conference playoff picks and now we turn our attention to the West, where half of the teams that made it to the springtime ice dance weren’t invited last season.
The Sharks, Canucks and Red Wings have made the post season a habit in recent years and the Blackhawks appear set to begin a frequent playoff run as well. The Kings, Coyotes, Predators and Avalanche are all just happy to be back in the postseason derby known as the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
Some interesting match-ups should produce some great hockey, and perhaps, a few surprises as well. We take a closer look at the opening round.
San Jose Sharks (51-20-11, 113 pts) vs Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9, 95 pts)
As Yogi would say, it’s Déjà vu all over again for the Sharks—another great regular season, but oh no, here come the playoffs. Well, the overachieving Avalanche might be just what the doctor ordered for San Jose. Not to take away anything from the wonderful season the youngsters from Colorado put together, but after struggling down the stretch (three wins in last 13 games) you wonder if they’re ready to take the next step.
The Sharks are one of the few teams that roll four lines deep every night and with five 20-goal scorers and arguably the best first line in the NHL in Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley, they are tough to stop up front. Add to this the fact Marleau has taken over the locker room from the much quieter Thornton and the make up of this club has changed for the better as well.
In goal Evgeni Nabokov will have to be better than he has been in past playoffs but he has a huge edge over the Avs untested, and seemingly out of gas, Craig Anderson.
The Avs have certainly become a team to watch, just not in this series.
Sharks in five.
Chicago Blackhawks (52-22-8, 112 pts) vs Nashville Predators (47-29-6, 100 pts)
The team everyone is talking about versus the team no one ever talks about. That’s the main story line in this one as the Hawks have become one of the glamour franchises in the league once again and Predators remain a red-headed step child.
The big problem here for the extremely talented Hawks is the fact they have been planning the parade route in Chicago for months now and you actually have to win 16 playoffs games before the league lets you have one.
While goaltending is probably a wash in this series as the Hawks’ Antti Niemi and the Preds’ Pekka Rhine won’t be stealing the show, Chicago simply has too much firepower up front for Nashville to handle. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marion Hossa and company spearhead a dangerous attack and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are rocks on defense.
When veteran Steve Sullivan is your leading scorer you’re in trouble, though young Patric Hornqvist has developed into a terrific sniper, netting 30 for the first time. It simply won’t be enough to stay with the Hawks for more than a period or so each night.
Blackhawks in five.
Vancouver Canucks (49-28-5, 103 pts) vs Los Angeles Kings (46-27-9, 101 pts)
Perhaps the most intriguing match-up in the West as the Kings are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and the Canucks played their way into becoming legit Cup contenders as the season rolled along.
With the league’s leading scorer and MVP candidate Henrik Sedin (112 pts) headlining a balanced attack and a big, mobile defense led by Christian Ehrhoff, Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa, the young Kings would appear overmatched (and we haven’t even mentioned the much ballyhooed Roberto Luongo in goal).
Well, hold on a minute, because the Kings have the perfect mix of wily veterans (Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams, Alex Frolov and Rob Scuderi) and exciting youngsters (Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson)—thus, we think this could be a long, close series.
And you know what, Luongo always seems to get outplayed by the guy at the other end in April and the King’s Jonathan Quick might just be that guy this time around.
Kings in seven.
Phoenix Coyotes (50-25-7, 107 pts) vs Detroit Red Wings (44-24-14, 102 pts)
Conventional wisdom says the Wings are just too experienced and too hot right now (16-3-2 since the Olympic break) to pick against. After all, the Coyotes have to be extremely satisfied with the amazing regular season they just had after the chaotic way the season began (ownership limbo and the Gretzky debacle).
Well, we’re not buying into that. For all their talent, the Wings had as much trouble scoring all year as Phoenix did and the Coyotes’ Ilya Bryzgalov had an MVP season between the pipes while the Wings are pinning their hopes on rookie netminder Jimmy Howard. While the kid played well he was prone to the occasional softie and those kinds of goals can change a playoff series…in a hurry.
With one of the great leaders that no one knows about (outside of the Phoenix desert), Shane Doan, loading the team on his back, we think the Yotes’ magical, mystery ride of a season will continue into the Conference Semifinals.
Coyotes in seven.