Vancouver Canucks versus Los Angeles Kings
The Canucks were one game away from hoisting their first Stanley Cup in franchise history last year, and probably would have won it if they weren’t stymied time and time again by the brilliant play of Tim Thomas. So it’s no surprise that they picked up right where they left off by winning their division and held off St. Louis to take the #1 seed in the Western Conference and the league.
It seems like every year the Canucks are picked to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup but for one reason or another they just can’t seem to close the deal. In the past it was they didn’t have the goaltending but that all changed when they signed Roberto Luongo a few years back…or did it? He had been snake bit in the playoffs year after year by the likes of Dustin “Duffy the Luongo Slayer” Byfuglien, and other big forwards that aggravate him near his crease like Milan Lucic and Tomas Holmstrom.
This year seems different though. The Canucks have two of the top lines in the league with the Ginger Twins, Alexandre “the finger biter” Burrows, Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Chris Higgins or Mason Raymond; depending on whom Alain Vigneault decides to play. With the right matchups, there should be no surprise if the Nucks do finally win it all after years of knocking at Lord Stanley’s door.
The Kings came into the season with extremely high expectations. They made some big off-season moves trading Wayne Simmonds and the best prospect in the league, Brayden Schenn, to Philly for the heart and soul of their club: Mike Richards. LA felt that by adding a center like Richards, and teaming him up with Anze Kopitar, that they would posses possibly the best two top line centers in the Western Conference…that isn’t far from the truth.
LA struggled to score goals for much of the first half of the year. They were dead last in goals scored until they made a coaching change, replacing Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter on December 20th. Since then, the Kings have hit their stride and have rattled off win after win only to fall in the last two games to San Jose finishing in 8th in the West.
Prior to the trade deadline, LA added yet another offensive weapon acquiring Jeff Carter from Columbus in exchange for defenseman Jack Johnson. Carter has been reunited with long-time teammate and best friend Mike Richards to add secondary scoring. Carter has been nursing a lower body injury but is projected to start the first game of playoffs on Wednesday.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The series between Vancouver and LA was tied at two games each so this should be a dandy of a first round tilt. Jonathan Quick single handedly kept LA’s Playoff hopes alive for much of the season setting an NHL best 10 shutouts. Going up against the firepower that Vancouver possesses though will be a challenge. Can the Kings keep the Gingers off the score sheet long enough and score timely goals to win a game or two in Vancouver?.
Keep your eye on a key matchup between 2nd line centers Mike Richards and Ryan Kesler. These two players are so similar that it’s almost scary. Neither player does anything flashy, they just do everything right. They work in the corners, tie their man up off the faceoff, back check their ass off; basically do everything any coach in the league begs his best players to do. Which ever teams’ 2nd line can stuff the stat sheet, that will ikely be the difference in the series.
For obvious reasons, the Nucks go as the Gingers go, but I personally think it’s deeper than that. The Sedins will always get the opponent’s top D pairing so for Vancouver to make a run, they will need the kind of stellar play they’ve come to expect from perhaps the best American born player in the game today: Ryan Kesler. Kesler had somewhat of a down year for him after 2011’s breakout season, only tallying 48 points in 76 games. Don’t get hung up on the points though. Kesler kills penalties, plays on the Power Play, and takes most key face-offs. He literally is Vigneault’s do everything player. If he can elevate his play this time of year like he did in the 2011 Playoffs, than there should be 15 other teams very worried about facing Vancouver.
For LA, Jonathan Quick needs to have the series of his life. He has elevated his play year after year and this season he’s made some folks question whether Ryan Miller will be the number 1 goalie again for USA in the Olympics. Jonathan has been by far the best American born goalie in the league this year…better than both Miller and Tim Thomas. For LA to do the unthinkable and knock out the Nucks, “Quickie” has to perform Conn Smythe worthy.
HOW I SEE THE SERIES
As much as I want to pick the Kings so I can attend round after round of Playoff hockey, I just think Vancouver is too seasoned and too deep. Daniel Sedin is set to return Wednesday which should help spark brother Henrik and get the Vancouver Power Play rolling again. Even if the Kings can somehow stay out of the box, the Gingers are too skilled at creating open ice 5 on 5. Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown will do their best offensively to keep LA in the series but I just don’t think they can score enough goals to win 4 games. Vancouver in 6.
St. Louis Blues versus San Jose Sharks
How many of you picked the Blues make the Playoffs? Of those with your arm still raised, how many of you picked them to win the Central? Now, how many of you picked them to compete until the last game of the season for the President’s Trophy? In other words, nobody saw this coming.
St. Louis started the season off a putrid 6-7 under the tutelage of Coach Davis Payne before canning him and replacing him with the firey Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock is a lock for the Jack Adams with the job he’s done in 71 games. He has a team that had no identity playing stellar defense, finishing checks and scoring key goals. This a tough team to play against no doubt. Their stars like TJ Oshie and David Backes, are taking shots from everywhere and laying out an opponent every shift. Most of all though, he as the trust and belief from his players that he’s going to put them in the best position as possible to win. That kind of confidence goes a long way in the Playoffs.
By the Sharks standards, 2012 has been a horrid year. Off-season moves found goal scorers Danny Heatley and Devin Stetoguchi trading their teal jerseys for the Minnesota Wild’s red and green ones. Their knack for scoring goals has been sorely missed and put added pressure on Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture.
Their goaltending has been anything but stellar as well. Antti Niemi will get the nod in net but only because they truthfully don’t have anyone else. On the surface, Niemi’s numbers look pretty good: 34 wins, a 2.24 GAA and .915 SV %, but it comes down to timely saves. Niemi doesn’t seem to stop a tough shot when his team needs it most and this has been an issue all season.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Look for the Blues to try and control the pace of the series by playing a lot of dump and chase. This style matches up real well against a puck possession team like the Sharks because it forces their D to turn their back to the play and skate a lot more in the defensive zone to chase after each dump in. With deep playoff runs the last few years and guys on the blue line like Dan Boyle getting up there in age, all the banging the Blues bring could be troublesome for San Jose.
The Blues are an interesting team because they really are a TEAM. They don’t have any star/marketable super stars like that of the Penguins or the Canucks but they all play Hitchcock’s system to a “T”. David Backes and TJ Oshie are probably the most skilled of the bunch though. Backes leads the team with 54 points and Oshie is right behind him with 52.
The most interesting personnel decision though might be who the coach decides to play in net. Few teams in the league, if any actually, possess the kind of 1-2 punch that the Blues can put between the pipes. Both Jaroslav Halak and Bryan Elliott have surpassed the 20 win mark this season: Halak with 25 and Elliott with 23. This won’t be an easy decision for Hitchcock but whoever he does go with, I’m sure he’ll have them on a short leash as he’s notorious for.
The Sharks will need 3rd year stand-out, Logan Couture, to help fill the void left by Heatley and Stetoguchi. Couture is a dynamic two-way player that has flourished under the guidance of Todd McLellan. In 2012, Logan was named to his second All-Star team and led the Sharks with 31 goals. His scoring touch will be counted on if the Sharks are going to eliminate the Central Division Champs.
HOW I SEE THE SERIES
It’s not a fluke that the Blues won the Central, arguably the toughest division this year in the league. This is a team that is built on tenacity and grit, and will skate teams into the ground. I really believe the David Backes is going to become a household name this post-season and help keep the Blues Cinderella season going for at least one more round. St. Louis in 6.
Phoenix Coyotes versus Chicago Blackhawks
Dave Tippet deserves a Jack Adams nomination for what he has done with the Coyotes this season. He’s taken a group of misfits and turned them into division champs, their first in franchise history. Mike Smith could easily shut the gates in net and take them to the Western Conference Finals…he’s that good.
Phoenix is led by their heavy hitting Captain Shane Doan. Doan was just suspended last month for an elbow to the face of the Stars Jamie Benn so you know he’s not going to shy away from being physical against a fast skating Chicago team. Radim Vrbata has had a career year and is as dangerous as anyone in the league with the puck on his stick. He just gets over looked in the national media because he’s playing in Phoenix…but Vrbata might actually like it that way since there is no expectations or pressure when you’re playing on ice in the desert.
Chicago has been a very streaky team this year and their goaltending has an awful lot to do with it. Corey Crawford has looked brilliant at times, like his win Saturday against the Wings, but he’s been anything but consistent. If Chicago is going to do anything this post season he’s going to need to return to the form he had last season against the Canucks in the first round.
Probably the biggest question coming into the series though is the health of the Hawks leader: Jonathan Toews. Without Toews their power play has struggled mightily. His speed through the neutral zone is key for the Hawks to enter the offensive zone and get set up… if you’ve watched any of their games since he’s been out, that has been obviously missed.
When Chicago is healthy, they have easily one of the deepest set of forwards in the league. Top two lines consisting of: Toews, Sharp, Kane, Hossa, Stalberg, and Andrew Shaw rival that of any club in the league. Combine that with two of the best D-man in Keith and Seabrook and you’ll have a perennial cup competing team year after year.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
You can bet that for the games in Phoenix, Tippet will look to matchup Shane Doan against the Toews line, provided he does clear his base line concussion testing. With that being said, Joel Quenville will have the advantage with the Hanzal line probably going against the Hossa and Kane line. Look for Hossa to exploit Phoenix’s lack of a secondary solid D unit and use his size and strength to dominate the series.
For the Coyotes to win, they need to play solid defensively like they have all year. Look for Shane Doan to hit every Hawk with the puck and bang in a few rebounds in front of the net on the Power Play. His impact in all facets of the game will be paramount to the Coyotes success in the series.
For the Hawks to thrive, they will need to get consistent play from Corey Crawford. This is a team that gets scoring from all four lines so goals won’t be an issue, keeping the puck out of their own net however, might be an issue. If Crawford can post about 3.00 GAA in the series, that should be enough for the Hawks to knock out the top team from the Pacific Division.
HOW I SEE THE SERIES
If Toews can play from the drop of the first puck in the series than I think they will be too much to handle offensively for Phoenix. If he can’t, the Coyotes can probably keep the Hawks to the outside on the power play and Mike Smith will stop every puck he sees. Despite the fact that Phoenix beat the Hawks 3 to 1 in the regular season series, I think the Hawks are ready to dial it up notch and erase last season’s memories of their early exit from the post season. Chicago in 7.
Nashville Predators versus Detroit Red Wings
Nashville has always been an intriguing team since their inception into the NHL. Barry Trotz has preached defense first and built a team that is centered around grit. This year, they have added a few key pieces on offense right before the trade deadline. Andrei Kostitsyn was rejoined with brother Sergei to provide another goal scoring option both 5 on 5 and on the Power Play. A. Kostitsyn was probably the Habs most consistent player this year before he was shipped to Nashville due to Gauthier’s fire sale in the Mecca of Hockey, Montreal.
The other key offensive weapon they added did not come without controversy, in that of Russian born Alexander Radulov. Radulov had spent the last two years playing in the KHL in Russia where he was the KHL player of the year. Nashville said they would honor the last year on his contract if he joined their team prior to playoffs and both Bettman and Daly sided with Nashville, despite numerous teams pleas to make him clear waivers before being allowed to play with the Preds.
Radulov, whom has been called the “best player not playing in the NHL”, is a big, strong Right Wing, who has a knack for scoring goals. He’ll pose an immense threat to the Wings defensively and I’m betting Babcock will ask Zetterberg to shadow him in the defensive zone.
The Red Wings season was quite the Roller Coaster ride. Setting a record by winning 23 straight games at home and then spending the second half the season extremely short-handed without Datsyuk, Franzen, Lidstrom, Erickson, Helm, Howard… the list goes on and on. It was to the point where the media actually referred to them as the Grand Rapids Griffins…and quite literally, they were.
The Wings are now healthy though which has to scare Nashville. Both Franzen and Datsyuk scored in the 82nd game against Chicago and they’ll have to keep the scoring touch going, but it won’t be easy. The Wings top offensive weapons will look to spread Nashville in the defensive zone, lull the D to sleep with pin point passes and puck possession like only Mike Babcock could diagram up. They’ll need to fire 30+ shots on goal each game since their going to be up against arguably the toughest D pairing in the league in Suter and Weber, and the always perfect Pekka Rinne in net, who led the league in wins with 43.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This series is loaded with offensive talent on both sides and both teams are armed with very sound, stay at home defenseman. Each team’s first two lines will probably carry the offense but the third and fourth lines could provide the most exciting moments in the series. Jordan Tootoo is notorious for being a very pesky player and also is the inspiration for that annoying train whistle the fans bring to the home games…makes me almost want to the watch the games on mute, well, that and Pierre McGuire but that’s another story. The battle between Tootoo and Helm, if he can play, will provide some big hits and an emotional momentum lift for each side. One big bang from either of the lines may eventually lead to a goal, could prove to be the difference in the series.
There’s no secret that this time of year, your best players need to be your best players. Which is why that for the Wings to have success, Pavel Datsyuk and his Dr. Rahmani trusted vision, needs to find holes in the Nashville D and create plays. He will draw the ire of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber and needs to somehow find a way to win that matchup. At the Joe, Babcock will probably look to double shift Datsyuk a few times and get him on the ice when both of those guys are on the bench taking a breather. Simply put, Datsyuk needs to lead the Wings in points for them to come out on top.
For Nashville, it’s even simpler. Pekka Rinne needs to continue his Vezina trophy campaign and be the best player in the series. The Preds win a ton of one goal games and it’s from timely scoring and stellar play between the pipes. Rinne has put up some ridiculous numbers this year which include 43 wins, a .923 save percentage, 2.4 GAA and 5 shutouts. He will need to continue that pace for the Preds to prove they can compete with the best in the West.
HOW I SEE THE SERIES
This will definitely be the most tightly contested series in the first round in the West. Each team possesses many highly skilled offensive players, extremely reliable defense and better than average role players. As hard as it is for me to not pick with my heart and pick the Wings, I think Pekka Rinne might be the difference maker. The Wings have always struggled in the post-season against big, quick goaltending. Just look at JS Giguere and Antti Niemi for instance. Rinne is 10 times the goalie either of those cats are, so I see the Preds squeaking by with the home-ice playing a role. Nashville in 7.