[SPORTS] NHL Western Conference Playoff Preview

#1 Vancouver Canucks v #8 Chicago Blackhawks – The team that’s favored to win The Cup against the team that DID win The Cup.  As one of my hockey mates recently put it, ‘It’s time for Vancouver to put up or shut-up.’  Vancouver hasDJ on ICE: Hockey coverage with DJ Sullivan played the underdog in years past and failed to pull the upset.  Now they’re on the other side, trying to avoid the upset.  Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best team this year.  The last two winners (San Jose, Washington) have succumbed to upsets in round one.  Only 7/24 or 29% of teams finishing the season #1 have gone on to win The Stanley Cup.  Suffice it to say, Vancouver’s work is far from complete.

The Sedin twins Henrik and Daniel combined for 198 points this season.  Teammate Ryan Kesler added a whopping 41 goals while goalies Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider maintained elite .928 and .929 SV%’s in net.  Vancouver has gotten contributions from many players but the Sedin’s and Kesler still account for most of the offense.  It’s easier said than done, but if a team wants to beat Vancouver they’ll have to shut down The Twins.  Jonathan Toews (Taves) and the Blackhawks earned the chance at the upset by finishing 8th.  They should feel loose since they already have one Cup under their belt and have beaten The Canucks in each of the last two playoffs.  With the departure of Antti Niemi, Corey Crawford seized the starting goaltender role and relegated Marty Turco to backup.  Goaltending is not a strength of this Hawk’s team but it will need to get better if the Hawks are to replicate last years’ Cup run.  The Hawks still have a formidable cache of weapons including Toews, Patricks Sharpe & Kane, Marian Hossa, as well as Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, and assist-machine Brent Seabrooke on defense.

Prediction: Canucks 4 games to 2

#2 San Jose Sharks v #7 Los Angeles Kings –  NOR CAL vs. SO CAL.  The players, most of whom are Canadian, European or from the NE USA could care less about the Northern California/SoCal rivalry.  For the fans it’s another chapter in a lifestyle rivalry symbolized by Dodgers-Giants, Angels-A’s, Chargers-Raiders, San Fran Hippies vs. Hollywood Hotties, or LA Surfers vs. NorCal Nature Buffs.

The Kings finally joined the playoff party last year after a six year absence.  Over the past few seasons King’s ownership has added Ryan Smyth, Rob Scuderi, Justin Williams, and Michael Handzus to compliment Anze Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown.  Unfortunately Kopitar will most likely miss round one with a sprained ankle and Williams is just now returning from injury.  Flashy defenseman Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson lead the team in assists and physical play.  Youngster Wayne Simmonds had another solid season with 14 goals.

Consistently ranked #1 or #2 coming into the playoffs the Sharks bear the cross of having never made it to the Stanley Cup Finals.  This year is another year where they’ll be expected to advance at least to the conference finals. (at which point they’d be underdog to Vancouver)  Veteran Patrick Marleau put together a 37 goal season while youngster Logan Couture added 32 tallies.  The Sharks have tons of talent up front including Dany Heatley, Joe’s Thornton and Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and big-bodied Ryan Clowe; who is returning from injury.  The Sharks have Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi in net.  San Jose did a decent job of keeping pucks out of their net this season but in seasons past defense has often led to their downfall.  Joe Thornton needs to rise to the occasion and lift his team if they are to reach the Finals and break the curse.  The curse will have to wait though, as San Jose is just too good for a Kings team that had a less than stellar 2nd half of the season and is without leading scorer Anze Kopitar.

Prediction: Sharks 4 games to 1

#3 Detroit Red Wings v #6 Phoenix Coyotes – An elite NHL franchise in a dying economy goes against a franchise that’s slowly dying in the desert.  Detroit pulled out a 7 game series win in last year’s round one against these same Phoenix Coyotes.  Power Forward Shane Doan captains the Coyotes against the ‘Red Army’ in this revenge matchup.  The Coyotes have no superstars but have 11 players who’ve scored at least 10 goals.  Young defenseman Keith Yandle had a boatload of assists (48) and Ilya Bryzgalov has been stellar in net.

Detroit is much the opposite of Phoenix in city and in team makeup.  Detroit has an unproven Jimmy Howard in net followed by an embarrassment of superstars.  Forty year old Nicklas Lidstrom was 2nd on the team in points on a team with forwards named Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Franzen, Holmstrom, and Bertuzzi.  Henrik Zetterberg is out for game one but that’s the only break that Phoenix gets.  The Red Wings are battle tested, have talent at both ends, and a great coach in Mike Babcock.  Oh yeah, Mike Modano is the Red Wings 3rd line center.  The Coyotes have a chance but it’s going to have to be a similar grind-it-out style series as last year.

Prediction: Detroit 4 games to 1

#4 Anaheim Ducks v #5 Nashville Predators – The NHL is probably the least excited about this series.  There’s no Ovechkin or Crosby.  No Luongo or Ryan Miller.  The only interesting storyline is Corey Perry of Anaheim who surged to capture the goal scoring title (50 goals).  Nashville traded for Carrie Underwood’s husband (Mike Fisher) but hasn’t seen much production since Mr. Underwood’s arrival.  Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are offensive weapons for Nashville on a team that values defense.  Nashville allowed the league’s 2nd fewest goals with some guy in net named Pekka Rinne.  Rinne’s stats .930 SV% and 2.12 GAA are worthy of Vezina consideration even though he won’t win because nobody knows who he is.  Sergei Kostitsyn went from the microscope of Montreal to hockey obscurity in Tennessee; but he didn’t forget to keep scoring.  He led the team in goals and points.  Maybe he’ll request the Preds trade for his brother, Andrei, since they seem to be in the business of bringing families together.

The Ducks are a mess in goal.  Starter Jonas Hiller has been injured much of 2011 and season savior, Ray Emery, is currently down with an injury.  The Ducks will turn to 13 game starter Dan Ellis for Game 1.  Beyond sniper Corey Perry the Ducks have 40 year old Teemu Selanne, Big center, Ryan Getzlaf, and young scorer, Bobby Ryan.  Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky led all NHL defenseman in points with 18 goals and 50 assists.  The ducks also have toughness on the bottom lines with Jarkko Ruutu and George Parros.

Prediction: Anaheim 4 games to 3



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