(YouTube video courtesy NHLVideo)
Yesterday we took a look at the NHL’s Eastern Conference matchups in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Today, it’s time for the highly competitive Western Conference to take its place in the preview spotlight before tomorrow’s opening games.
#8 Los Angeles Kings vs. #1 Vancouver Canucks
On the one hand, the Canucks are the 2012 President’s Cup winners, with the most points accumulated through the regular season. On the other hand, Vancouver is also the only playoff representative of the Northwest Division; where otherwise in the wild wild Western Conference, there’s nowhere to hide. The Canucks are once again led on-ice by the Sedin brothers, Henrik (81 points on 14 goals and 67 assists) and Daniel (67 points on 30 goals and 37 assists), and goaltender Roberto Luongo. Meanwhile the Kings fell to the eighth seed in a pitched battle with Phoenix and San Jose, where the standings – and division leader – seemingly changed on a nightly basis over the last month of the season. LA’s offensive punch can pretty much be summed up as center Anze Kopitar (76 points on 25 goals and 51 assists) and a cast of thousands. Prediction: Canucks in 4.
#7 San Jose Sharks vs. #2 St. Louis Blues
Here we have a pair of representatives from two extremely competitive divisions. The Blues managed to hold off a pair of recent Stanley Cup champions (Detroit in 2008; Chicago in 2010), as well as an up-and-coming Nashville squad, to claim the Central Division. The Blues don’t have one real standout player on offense, but seven players had at least 15 goals each this season; and in showing a strong team ethic, four players with at least 30 assists. Both goaltenders, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, had outstanding goals-against averages. The Sharks had probably hoped to avoid St. Louis in the playoffs; and after falling just short of the Stanley Cup finals the last two seasons, would like to get over that last hump. Center Joe Thornton led the Sharks in offense with 77 points (18 G/59 A, team high in assists), followed by Logan Couture, who led the team with 31 goals. Prediction: Blues in 7.
#6 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #3 Phoenix Coyotes
When the desert dust had cleared, the Coyotes found themselves atop their division (Southwest) for the first time in franchise (Winnipeg and Phoenix) history. The ‘Yotes are headed by winger Ray Whitney, who amassed 77 points on 24 goals and 53 assists; Whitney also crossed the 1000-point plateau late in the regular season, the mark of a long productive career. Goaltender Mike Smith practically stood on his head as the regular season closed out, collecting key wins in the Desert Dogs’ last five games. The Blackhawks feature three perennial greats in wings Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane, and center Patrick Sharp, all of whom tallied over 65 points each. The Blackhawks’ weakness appears to be in goal, where neither Corey Crawford nor Ray Emery are particularly strong. However, the team offense, fifth in the league in goals per game, will probably be enough to carry the day. Prediction: Blackhawks in 6.
#5 Detroit Red Wings vs. #4 Nashville Predators
Upon first blush, Nashville isn’t the first place one might think of when it comes to powerhouse hockey…but then again, neither was Tampa Bay; Raleigh, N.C.; or Anaheim, all of whom won Stanley Cups in the 2000s. The Predators are seeking to take the next step in their development, and face traditional NHL power Detroit, who may be seeing their colors fade a bit. The Preds feature eight different players with at least 40 points, led by Martin Erat’s 58 points (19 G/39 A), and by goalie Pekka Rinne, who had a stalwart 73 starts and 43 wins. The usual cast of core names heads up the Red Wings roster – Zetterberg, Franzen, Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Bertuzzi, Hudler – but one has to wonder if age is creeping up on them. If anything, the travel schedule helps Detroit a little, as there won’t be any long flights to the West Coast this round. Prediction: Predators in 7.