Well, I got 2 of my 4 predictions right coming out of the Western Conference after the first round of play. I had both St. Louis and Nashville advancing, and they did. I was pretty surprised that neither the Blackhawks, nor the Canucks advanced, especially the Canucks. But that just goes to show you how important goaltending is come playoff time. All 4 remaining Western Conference teams got through the first round thanks to their goalies. I can’t remember a time when all 4 remaining Western Conference teams were based on defense and goaltending, rather than offense, although one could argue that the Kings are an offensive team.
So having said that, lets take a look at who I think will be moving onto the Conference Finals.
If you want a low scoring series, then this should be a good one for you to watch. The goalie matchup here is phenomenal, with Brian Elliott of the Blues going up against Jonathan Quick of the Kings (I believe Quick will be named as a Vezina Trophy finalist tomorrow, along with Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Smith). Let’s start with the Blues in this matchup.
St. Louis is coming off of a great first round victory over the San Jose Sharks that took just 5 games. In those 5 games, the Blues held the Sharks to just 8 goals. Defense was the name of the game for the Blues in that series, and it worked about as good as they could have asked. All year long, St. Louis has been a defense-first team. Some people wondered, myself included, if that style of play would be able to get the job done in the playoffs. I didn’t think it would. Much like they did all season, the Blues proved me wrong. Even though I had them advancing to the second round, I had them doing it in 7 games. I honestly believed that their style of play would come back to haunt them in a playoff series. It didn’t, however, and they rolled over the Sharks to advance to the second round for the first time in 10 years. If they are going to advance to the Western Conference Finals, they need to step it up offensively. Yes, they averaged just under 3 goals per game against the Sharks and have the second best powerplay in the playoffs so far, but Jonathan Quick is one of the toughest goalies to score on in all of hockey. The Blues are going to need their powerplay to continue producing goals. Also, they are going to need to score a handful of sloppy goals off of rebounds. Jonathan Quick stops just about every shot that he sees, which means that the Blues MUST put bodies in front of the net to screen Quick as much as possible. This will also help create rebound opportunities.
As for the Kings, they need Jonathan Quick to continue his incredible play. Not many people thought that L.A. would upset the Canucks in the first round, let alone in just 5 games. The biggest reason for that upset was the play of Jonathan Quick in net and their team defense. The Canucks were one of the best goal-scoring teams this year in the regular season, but were held to just 8 goals total in the first round. That’s really saying something about the Kings’ defense and goaltending. We’ve known all year long that the Kings have the potential to score a lot of goals with the offensive firepower that they possess. Their problem throughout most of the regular season, however, was their inability to produce goals, which didn’t seem to make sense. They ranked second to last in the NHL in goals per game this year, just ahead of the Minnesota Wild. If you look at some of the names on the Kings’ roster such as Kopitar, Richards, Brown, Stoll, Doughty, and Carter (who they acquired at the trade deadline), you would think that this team should have been one of the best at scoring goals. Well, they decided to pick up their game in the first round against Vancouver, and it paid off. If L.A. can get their top forwards to keep producing goals and points, and if their defense and goaltending plays the way it did against the Canucks, this is going to be a very tough team to knock out of the playoffs from here on out.
-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.
I was shocked that the Coyotes were able to knock out the Blackhawks in the first round. I really did not believe that their offense would be good enough to get the job done. I also underrated the skill of Mike Smith. He put on one of the best performances I have ever seen in Game 6 against the Hawks. Nashville, on the other hand, did not surprise me with the way they played against Detroit. Their defense was simply too much for Detroit’s offense to try and score on, not to mention the play of Pekka Rinne in net. That guy is a star.
So, what does Phoenix need to do to win this series? It’s actually a pretty simple concept, but not an easy one to complete against the Predators. They need to outscore Nashville. The two goalies in this series are two of the best in the game right now, and it is going to be an extremely low scoring series because of that. The Coyotes do not have a ton of offensive firepower, but they do have a group of guys who know how to score some ugly goals. In their series with Chicago, the majority of the Coyotes’ goals came on deflections, or plays that started from behind the net. They are a very good team at winning battles along the boards, especially in their offensive zone, which lead to a handful goals against the Hawks. In Game 6 specifically, they won a few board battles behind Corey Crawford, which lead to one-timer goals with the passes coming from behind the net. Another thing that Phoenix needs in this series is for Mike Smith to stay hot. He ended the first round with maybe his best performance of the season in Game 6. If he can carry that type of play over into the second round, and if the Coyotes can muster up some ugly goals, they will have a decent chance at advancing. Another thing that Phoenix has going for them is their ability to win on the road. They were 3-0 in Chicago during the first round, which is a HUGE factor in winning a playoff series.
For Nashville, they need to keep on playing the way they have played pretty much the entire season. Even though they don’t have the big scorers like Chicago, Pittsburgh, or Detroit, they still find ways to score. They ranked 8th in the NHL this season in goals per game, which surprised a lot of people. They also ranked 1st on the powerplay this year, which again had a lot of people caught off guard. Even with those impressive offensive numbers, this is still a defensive-minded team. They have the top d-pairing in the league, in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and a top 5 or 6 goalie in Pekka Rinne. They shut down opposing offenses by clogging the neutral zone and shutting down the passing lanes. If their defense ever does get beat, then Pekka Rinne has been there to bail them out all year long. Simply put, this is NOT an easy team to score on. Against Phoenix, the Predators need to be good on their faceoffs. The Coyotes beat up the Hawks pretty good in the first round at the faceoff dot, which helped them especially on the penalty-kill. With Nashville entering the playoffs as the number one powerplay team in the league, they will need to win the key draws on the powerplay. If they can outscore the Coyotes on the powerplay in this series, they should definitely win. Phoenix’s powerplay is one of the worst in the league, so by scoring powerplay goals against them, Nashville would be giving themselves that much more of an offensive advantage in the special teams department. While we’re on the topic of special teams, let me say this: The team that wins the special teams play in this series will end up winning the series. 5 on 5 scoring is not going to be easy for either team, which means that powerplay goals are going to decide the outcome of most of these games. With that said, Nashville has a major advantage over Phoenix in terms of their powerplay’s effectiveness.
-Nashville wins series, 4-2.