I love this matchup. The Canucks won their second straight President’s Trophy this year as being the team to earn the most points in the regular season. They are currently without Daniel Sedin (concussion), but their offense is still lethal. Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows are just a few of their top scorers who will be more than ready to take on the Kings. Possibly the most intriguing story-line heading into this series is the Canucks’ goalie situation. Roberto Luongo has been the number 1 goalie in Vancouver all year long, but has not played like the number 1 goalie that they signed to a 12-year, $64 million contract a couple of years ago. In fact, he was recently booed on the Canucks’ home ice. His replacement, Corey Schneider, has had a much better year than Luongo, with a 1.96 goals-against-average. I’ve heard rumors that the Canucks’ players have confidence in both goalies, but have a little bit more confidence in Schneider. Again, that is something I have heard through NHL analysts, and it’s just a rumor. The Kings have been tough to figure out all year long. Much like the Washington Capitals, the Kings have way more talent and skill than their record shows. When you have top forwards such as Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter, and one of the best goalies in hockey in Jonathan Quick, one would think that you should finish a bit higher in the standings than 8th. For whatever reason, however, the Kings just haven’t been able to put it all together consistently this year. I think this series is going to come down to the goaltending. Can Luongo find his game again? Can Quick continue to play at a Vezina Trophy-worthy level? We’ll just have to wait and see.
-Vancouver win series, 4-2.
I think this is going to be another great matchup. Expect to see a lot of physical play throughout the entire series, as these are two of the more physical teams in the Western Conference. The Blues fell behind the Canucks in the standings only recently, after having led the Western Conference in points for an extended period of time. The main reason why they are the number 2 seed in the West is because of their defense and goaltending. They finished the regular season number 1 in fewest goals-against per game. They have gotten spectacular play from both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott in goal all season long. Now the question is, who are they going to turn to in net to start the playoffs? If I were the one having to make this decision, I would probably go with Jaroslav Halak because of his past experience in the playoffs with the Canadiens. However, I honestly believe this one is up for grabs. Ken Hitchcock could go either way. The biggest problem that I see with the Blues is their potential lack of offense. Their highest point-getters, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, only finished the season with 54 points each. That’s rather low compared to most NHL teams. My worry is that they don’t have enough fire power on the offensive end to get the job done in the playoffs. The Sharks have been possibly the most disappointing team this season. They are easily one of the most talented teams in hockey, yet they barely made the playoffs. They finished the season 8th in the league in goals-against-average, which isn’t bad. From what I have seen of the Sharks, it almost seems that until recently, they had been coming out “flat” on a nightly basis and weren’t able to get a good team-game going. It’s almost as though they didn’t have enough motivation to go out and compete every night. It would appear, however, that they have recently found that motivation and are therefore playing much better. To be completely honest with you, the Sharks have a good chance at upsetting the Blues in this series. But, my gut says…
-St. Louis wins series, 4-3.
The Coyotes are still looking for their first playoff series victory since moving to Phoenix, believe it or not. They made an incredible run at the end of this season to capture their first ever division title, thanks to the play of Mike Smith in net. Heading into the playoffs, he has stopped 190 of his last 192 shots-against. That’s an incredible statistic. Without the play of Mike Smith for much of this season, odds are that the Coyotes are not a playoff team. Their leading scorer for the regular season was 39-year old Ray Whitney, finishing with 77 points. Arguably the best player on the Coyotes is defenseman Keith Yandle. He finished the season with 43 points, but he is also one of the best players at his position in the entire NHL. He is going to have to play up to his fullest potential this series to try and slow down the Chicago offense. Speaking of Chicago, they have been an interesting team to follow this season. Before their 9-game losing streak that started in late January, the Hawks led the NHL in points and were seemingly a top candidate to compete for the Cup. However, that losing streak dropped them in the standings, and they weren’t ever able to climb their way back up to the top. Shortly after ending their losing streak, Jonathan Toews went down with a concussion and missed the last 22 games of the season. Despite his loss, the Hawks have played very well without Toews and came close to getting both the 4th or 5th seed in the West. It is very likely that Toews will be back to start this series against Phoenix, and if that is the case, the Hawks just get that much better. The key for Chicago is going to be the play of their goalie, Corey Crawford. He has had an up and down season, to say the least, but seems to have found his game over the last month of the season.
-Chicago wins series, 4-2.
Along with the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia series in the East, this has all the makings to be possibly the best series of the first round. Both of these teams are at the top of the league when it comes to defense, both ranking in the top 10 in goals-against-average. Nashville went all-out at the trade deadline and got defenseman Hal Gill, and forwards Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn to help improve their depth on both offense and defense. Then, Alex Radulov decided to rejoin the team after leaving them following the ’07-’08 season to play in the KHL. For those who don’t know a whole about Radulov, he can be a top-notch point producer and goal scorer and has already greatly helped out Nashville’s offense. The Predators have the best single pairing of defenseman on any one team in hockey with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. They also have a top-5 goalie in Pekka Rinne back-stopping their defense. While they don’t exactly have the prolific scorers that most of the top offensive teams do, the Preds finished the season ranked 8th in goals-per-game, and 1st on the powerplay. They also finished as the 10th best team in killing off penalties. Any time you can have both of your special teams ranked in the top 10 in the NHL, you should be confident about your team moving forward. The Red Wings were one of my favorites to win the Stanley Cup when this season began, and for a good portion of the season it looked like they might very well be a leading candidate. However, over the past month or so, they have fallen into a bit of a rut. After setting the all-time NHL record for consecutive wins on home ice, one would think that they might be the President’s Trophy-winning team. That is obviously not the case. When it comes to playing on the road, the Wings are just 17-21-3. In order for them to win this series, they are going to need to play better than that on the road. Jimmy Howard, who has been injured a couple of times this year, needs to have a great series in net for Detroit. Even though the Wings finished second in the West in goals scored, they are going to really have to step it up defensively in this series. They can’t rely on scoring 3 goals per game against Pekka Rinne.
-Nashville wins series, 4-3.