As promised yesterday when I made my picks and 2010 NHL Playoff Predictions for the Eastern Conference today is the Western Conference's turn.
Though not as tight as the Eastern Conference during the regular season the West had its fair share of compelling races, with San Jose and Chicago battling for first place, the Avalanche clinching a playoff spot late in the season, and the remarkable surge of the Red Wings down the stretch. This conference is loaded with talent, and picking first round winners is going to be a lot more difficult than it was in the East.
Since I participate in a number of hockey pools I have a vested interest in picking these winners, and have done plenty of due diligence to make sure I give myself the best chance to nab first prize. That being said, like the rest of you, I am pretty much at the mercy of the hockey gods. A hot goaltender or a single bad bounce can turn a series and completely skew the results. With that in mind here are my picks for the first round winners in the 2010 NHL playoffs:
#1 SAN JOSE SHARKS vs #8 COLORADO AVALANCHE
San Jose has been one of the biggest enigmas in the NHL over the past half decade or so. Year after year they are one of the top teams in the Western Conference, routinely eclipsing 100 points. They always seem to have a good balance of offense, defense and strength in goal. Yes, despite this balance they can never seem to elevate their game during the playoffs, and that inability ultimately leads to them hitting the golf greens sooner than their talent level dictates they should. Getting upset in one or even two consecutive playoff years could be considered an anomaly, but when it becomes a three, four, five year streak bad luck starts to run out of fuel as an excuse.
So is this year's version of the Sharks any different? Some would argue that this year's victory by the Canadian Olympic team has helped teach players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, and Dan Boyle how to win. However, since that dramatic overtime victory over the United States in the gold medal game these four players have seen their respective games diminish compared to earlier in the season.
Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has been particularly brutal since getting lit up at the Olympics, and it seems pretty evident that he is suffering from a confidence problem. This isn't a good sign, considering Nabokov seems to have enough problems come playoff time as it is.
The Avalanche, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. At the start of the season they were picked to finish either 14th or 15th in the Western Conference. Over the course of the season they've surprised everyone by staying in the thick of the playoff race. However, over the last quarter of the season they've also seen their play tail off and they ultimately had to fight tooth and nail to stave off the Calgary Flames and hold onto the final playoff spot in the West.
Up front the Avs have plenty of young talent, with Paul Stastny, Matt Duschene, Chris Stewart, and Peter Mueller all capable of putting the puck in the net. Milan Hejduk will be expected to provide some veteran leadership to the forward core, something missing with the retirement of former Avs captain Joe Sakic this past off-season.
Colorado's defensive core is solid with veterans like Adam Foote and Scott Hannan providing a steadying influence for John-Michael Liles, Kyle Quincey and Ryan Wilson. Their combination of experience and speed should make life difficult on San Jose's powerful offensive weapons.
The biggest surprise for the Avalanche this season was the emergence of goaltender Craig Anderson. A back-up last season with the Florida Panthers, Anderson showed early on this season he was ready to star in a number one role, and his play, more than any other factor, is the main reason the Avs managed to exceed everyone's expectations this season. Anderson's game has fallen off a bit towards the end of the season, so it will be interesting to see if he can regain his form.
It is an intriguing match-up, but ultimately I think San Jose's depth will be too much for the young Avalanche. With the way they've played down the stretch and with the shaky goaltending of Nabokov I don't think the Sharks have what it takes to beat the top teams in the West. However, they will at least get out of the first round before crumbling once again.
PREDICTION: San Jose wins the series 4 to 2
#2 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS vs #7 NASHVILLE PREDATORS
It just goes to show how incredibly powerful the teams in the Western Conference are when the 7th seeded team still managed to reach the 100 point plateau. Normally 2 vs 7 looks pretty one-sided (on paper). That isn't the case here, and the word upset doesn't really even apply when the two teams involved are this good.
Many are saying this is the Chicago Blackhawks' year, and when you look at their talented core of forwards you can see why. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were arguably the best players for their respective teams at the winter Olympics, and they've both been stellar for the Hawks all season long. Any team would be over the moon to boast two stars of such caliber. The Hawks' offense doesn't stop with Toews and Kane though. They have a third bona fide superstar in Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg are all more than capable of contributing on any given night.
As good as the Hawks are up front their defensive core might be even better. Defenseman Duncan Keith finished second in team scoring with 69 points, and will likely compete with Mike Green of the Washington Capitals and Drew Doughty of the Kings for this season's Norris Trophy. Keith is joined by fellow Canadian Olympian Brent Seabrook, and Brian Campbell. These three will eat up a ton of minutes during the playoffs and their speed, skill, strength and poise with the puck will make it difficult for Nashville's forwards to establish a cycle.
In goal the picture for the Blackhawks starts to get murky. Cristobal Huet was supposed to take the reins as the number one guy following the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin. However, it is arguably Antti Niemi who has stolen the job. Niemi had a sparkling 26-7-4 record with an impressive 7 shutouts this season. However, he was at times inconsistent and his inexperience might be telling before all is said and done.
Nashville is a team that very much mirrors the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference. They don't feature any true game breakers, but get offense by committee from players like Jason Arnott, Steve Sullivan, Patrick Hornqvist, Martin Erat and J.P. Dumont. With the wealth spread around it makes it difficult for Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville to find a target for his top d pair of Keith and Seabrook.
On defense the Predators are strong, and Kane and Toews will have to battle against stars like Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter if they want to get to the net. Look for Weber, in particular, to play huge minutes and dole out plenty of physical punishment along the way.
In net the Preds look good as well, with Pekka Rinne establishing himself as one of the top tenders in the league. The 6' 5" Finnish goalie matched Niemi with 7 shutouts this season, and his 32-16-5 record is certainly respectable. If Rinne happens to stumble the Predators have the luxury of throwing in Dan Ellis, Nashville's former #1 and a pretty darn good goalie in his own right.
Overall this should be a bitterly contested series and look for pests like Jordin Tootoo and Adam Burish to play as large a role as their superstar teammates. Ultimately, I think the Hawks just have too much talent from top to bottom for Nashville to overcome. The Preds will give it a valiant effort, but won't make it out of round one this year.
PREDICTION: Blackhawks win the series 4-2
#3 VANCOUVER CANUCKS vs #6 LOS ANGELES KINGS
With all due respect to the L.A. Kings in my opinion this will be the biggest mismatch in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Yes, I know the Kings handily drubbed the Nucks 8-3 in their final meeting of the season, but that won't matter a hill of beans once the puck drops on this series.
Up front the Canucks are led by Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin, and his twin brother Daniel. Had Daniel not missed 19 games due to injury this season there is a good chance the brothers might have been sitting one-two in league scoring at the end of the regular season. Together they are arguably the most dynamic duo in the league, routinely making almost impossible to defend no look passes, resulting in highlight reel goals.
However, the Canucks' offensive depth doesn't stop at these two talented Swedish stars. Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows, formerly third line grinders, have come into their own as offensive stars, scoring 75 and 67 points respectively this season. Mikael Samuelsson, Mason Raymond, Pavol Demitra, Steve Bernier, and Kyle Wellwood all have plenty of potential to put the puck in the net as well. Suffice it to say this team will have no problem scoring.
On defense the team is sturdy with Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler and Sami Salo comprising the top 4. Unfortunately for the Canucks shutdown specialist Willie Mitchell is still out with a concussion suffered when he was hit from behind by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin. However, even with Malkin out the Canucks look strong on the blueline, and with backchecking support from players like Burrows and Kesler the Canucks will be a hard team to score against on the rush.
Between the pipes the Canucks have Roberto Luongo, and how he plays will ultimately determine the playoff fate of the Canucks. In years past Luongo has been far and away the Nucks' best player, and it has been an anemic offense that has ultimately done them in. Ironically, this year when the Canucks are enjoying their most powerfully offensive team in years Luongo is actually having an off-year by his standards. He has struggled to find consistency, and seems to let in at least one weak goal every night. If he can return to previous form the Canucks have to be considered a strong Stanley Cup contender.
Though they might look clearly overmatched the Kings certainly aren't going to roll over and play dead for the Canucks. They have a good young team of their own, and their recent 8-3 drubbing of the Canucks will give them plenty of confidence entering this series.
On offense they might not have the firepower of the Canucks, but Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov, Jarret Stoll and Michal Handzus are all threats. Look for veteran Ryan Smyth to spend plenty of time in Luongo's crease. By the end of the series Roberto is going to be able to pick Smyth's back end out of a line-up.
On defense the Kings boast young phenom Canadian Olympian and Norris Trophy favorite Drew Doughty. Doughty finished second in team scoring with 59 points, was a +20 and quarterbacked the Kings' powerplay. Doughty will play huge minutes against the Canucks, and you can bet will be a big factor throughout the series. Jack Johnson, though he has been overshadowed by Doughty, is another offensive threat from the back end and the Canucks back-checkers will have to be aware of him jumping up in the rush on a regular basis.
In net the Kings will rely on Jonathan Quick. At only 24 years of age Quick seems pretty young to carry the load he does (he played in 72 games this season), however he seems so far to be up to the task, posting 39 wins, 4 shutouts and a 2.54 goals against average this season.
Though the Kings are a young team with a bright future ahead of them I don't think they are there yet. The Canucks simply outmatch them at every position, and unless Luongo really stumbles I don't see how the Kings can possibly win this series.
PREDICTION: Canucks win the series 4-1
#4 PHOENIX COYOTES vs #5 DETROIT RED WINGS
At the beginning of the season if I had told you that the Phoenix Coyotes would have home ice advantage in a first round playoff series against the Detroit Red Wings you would have said I was nuts, and with good reason. The Coyotes franchise was in turmoil and most pundits were picking them to finish dead last in the league. The Red Wings, on the other hand, were coming off their second straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and though starting to get long in the tooth, still boasted plenty of star power. Well, Phoenix proved everyone wrong, and Detroit proved that no matter what coaches and players say about making excuses, injuries play a huge factor in a team's fate.
When you look at Phoenix's forwards you are forced to wonder how this group accomplished what it did this season. Only one player - Wojtek Wolski - eclipsed the 60 point barrier, and he earned the bulk of those as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. However, the Coyotes, led by captain Shane Doan, seemed to have every one of their forwards contributing this season, and that depth of scoring, despite the lack of a true go-to guy, helped keep Phoenix in the mix all season long.
On defense, Keith Yandle stepped up in a big way, providing a surprising amount of offense with 41 points. Ed Jovanovski had one of his best seasons in years, and Adrian Aucoin continued to show he still has plenty to offer at age 36, potting 28 points of his own from the back end.
However, aside from perhaps the coaching of surefire Jack Adams winner Dave Tippett, the main reason the Yotes finished 4th in the conference was the great play of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Though many have already handed Ryan Miller the Vezina I think Bryzgalov should get his fair share of consideration. Bryzgalov's stats were impressive in all categories with 42 wins, 8 shutouts, 2.29 GAA and a stingy .920 save percentage. If he can keep up his level of play then Phoenix might just continue their Cinderella run this season.
The vaunted Wings offense seemed like they had a cylinder misfiring for much of the season. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg both had off years statistically, and players like Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Valtteri Filppula all missed time with injuries. However, with their forward core back and healthy for the first time all season the Red Wings offensive core is once again firing on all cylinders, and Phoenix will have their hands full defending against this talented puck possession team.
On defense the Wings are led once again by man-machine Nicklas Lidstrom. Though his game has tailed off to the point where he is no longer in the conversation for the Norris Trophy, Lidstrom still remains one of the game's best defensemen and he will have a huge impact on the Red Wings Stanley Cup hopes. He is backed up admirably by Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Kronvall, and Brad Stuart and Andreas Lilja.
The biggest question mark for the Wings, as seems to be the case every year, is between the pipes. Rookie Jimmy Howard has taken over the #1 job from Chris Osgood, who had helped steer the Wings to the Stanley Cup Finals in each of the past two seasons. As good as Howard has been this season, you can bet he will have a short leash and Osgood will go in if there is any sign that Howard is cracking under the playoff pressure.
In the end I think the experience of the Red Wings will get it done. I don't think they will make it past the second round, but they still have enough leadership and skill to reach the quarterfinals. The Coyotes have proved everyone wrong just by getting here, but I think their Cinderella story is about to come to an end.
PREDICTION: Detroit wins the series 4-2