Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NHL First Round Predictions - Western Conference

Nothing fancy, just predicting the first round matchups in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here we go.

#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Chicago Blackhawks

What a treat for the President's Cup winners: you get to face the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round! Honestly, though, the Blackhawks aren't nearly the team they were last year. They needed help from the Minnesota Wild on the last day of the season to even make the playoffs at all, edging out the Dallas Stars for the 8th seed. Vancouver, meanwhile, has had the Western Conference wrapped up for weeks.

So what's going to happen? Well, I normally like to see upsets, but I don't like the Blackhawks, and Vancouver boasts last year's MVP and this year's front-runner in Henrik and Daniel Sedin, respectively. Partner that with a solid goalie in Roberto Luongo and plenty of playoff experience, and I don't see the Blackhawks finding a way to win four games.

Prediction: Canucks in 6

#2 San Jose Sharks vs. #7 Los Angeles Kings

It's worth noting that just seven points separated these two teams at the end of the year. Not exactly a huge difference for such a spread on the seedings. That should tell you how strong a lot of the Western Conference is this season.

It took a little while, but the Sharks did finally start to show some of their old swagger. They finished with seven different twenty goal scorers, and discovered that Antti Niemi is a top end goalie, overtaking Antero Nittymaki as the #1 man between the pipes. Now, no team is as talented in the back end as the Kings, with Jonathan Quick, who's maybe the best goalie in hockey, and a whole rack of special defensemen, including Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson.

But Anze Kopitar is going to miss the whole playoffs due to a broken ankle, and without him in the lineup, they haven't got the firepower to compete with San Jose. Quick can probably steal a game on his own, and the overall defense will keep them competitive, maybe even push it to the brink. But in the end, the Sharks are going to move on.

Prediction: Sharks in 7

#3 Detroit Red Wings vs. #6 Phoenix Coyotes

This is one of the toughest first round matchups to predict. It's a rematch of last year's 4/5 series which the Coyotes pushed to seven games (before getting blasted 6-1 on home ice). This year, defenseman Keith Yandle has stepped up his offense, and in fact the whole team is extremely balanced. They don't really have a superstar (Shane Doan is as close as it gets), but that means they're unpredictable on offense.

Detroit, meanwhile, will be without Henrik Zetterberg for at least Game 1, and while there's still plenty of talent on the team, if Phoenix can steal a game in Detroit while Zetterberg is out of the lineup, the series is wide open. Jimmy Howard wasn't exactly stalwart in goal for the Wings, and it wasn't but a year ago that the Coyotes' Ilya Bryzgalov was arguably the best goalie in the West. Everybody likes to make a gutsy pick, so here's mine.

Prediction: Coyotes in 7

#4 Anaheim Ducks vs. #5 Nashville Predators

Nashville is one of those teams that nobody really wants to play. It's not because you don't think you can beat them; you just know that you're going to pay the price for every inch of real estate. Shea Weber is one of the biggest sons of bitches in the league, delivering tons of hits and blocking shot after shot. The rest of his defensive linemates fall in line with the same mentality, giving up their bodies and making sure their opponents take just as much damage. That's a big reason why goalie Pekka Rinne was third in GAA this year.

The Ducks, meanwhile, are an offensive juggernaut. Corey Perry led the whole NHL with 50 goals, and the team boasts three other 70 point players (Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan). But their commitment to defense leaves a lot to be desired. Only Detroit averaged more goals allowed per game than the Ducks among playoff teams. You can attribute that to their very good goalie, Jonas Hiller, but everything gets magnified in the playoffs. I foresee more problematic mistakes for the Ducks defensively, and I think Nashville will be opportunistic.

Prediction: Nashville in 6


Coming soon: Eastern Conference predictions...

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