We are just days away from starting the Christmas of sports playoffs. There is not another sport that provides the excitement, toughness, and utter joy as the NHL plaoffs. Thankfully for the new TV deal, every game will be broadcast on the NBC family of networks. Below is my take on the Eastern conference first-round matchups.
#1 Vancouver Canucks #8 Los Angeles Kings
11-12 Record: 51-22-9 111pts 11-12 Record: 40-27-15 95pts
Season Series: Tied 2-2
Goals – Daniel Sedin – 30 Anze Kopitar – 25
Assists – Henrik Sedin – 67 Anze Kopitar – 51
Points – Henrik Sedin – 81 Anze Kopitar – 76
Goalie Comparisons (Record, SO, GAA, Save%)
Roberto Luongo (31-14-8. 5. 2.41, .919) Jonathan Quick (35-21-13, 10, 1.95, .929)
The Canucks, coming off a loss in the Stanley Cup finals last year managed to put together a huge run at the end of the year and win the President’s Cup Trophy with the league’s best record. They are going to be facing a team that I, personally, picked to have a great regular season, but only managed to snag the last playoff spot in the West.
You can’t talk about the Canucks without first mentioning the Sedin twins. Once again, the Canucks had a strong regular season led by 09-10 Hart Trophy winner (MVP) Henrik Sedin. The biggest question mark heading into the series is the health of Daniel Sedin who missed a good chunk of the end of the season with a concussion. As of this morning, it was still up in the air what his status would be. Henrik says he’s ready to go, but head coach Alain Vigneault was as noncommittal as could be. The Canucks at full strength and on the power play are a completely different animal with both twins in the lineup. That allows them to drop a talented forward down to the second line which makes them that much more difficult to contain. Vancouver has some big, nasty forwards who compliment the Sedins well. Ryan Kesler is one of the leagues best two-way forwards, Alex Burrows will cheap shot you, then score on his next shift. One guy to keep an eye on will be David Booth, acquired from Florida earlier this year. Big, talented, and playing extremely well, he’ll be looking forward to his first taste of the playoffs The Canucks depend on puck possession and an intense forecheck to wear down the opposition with constant pressure. Something they will need facing the league’s 2nd stingiest defense. The Kings have struggled to score goals all year, which was the one thing that kept them from winning the Pacific division. They are led by all-star Anze Kopitar and new acquisition Mike Richards. The former Flyers captain was huge in the Flyers run to the cup finals on 09-10 and happens to be the league’s biggest threat in shorthanded situations. They have some secondary talent in Dustin Brown, Justin Williams that can score goals. They were the only other guys on the team other than Kopitar who netted 20 goals for the Los Angeles this year. The Kings have been trying for a couple years now to acquire an upper echelon goal scorer, and were finally able to pull off a trade with Columbus to bring in Jeff Carter. Carter who had scored 46, 33, and 36 goals the 3 years before this one is heading into the playoffs having missed the last two weeks with an ankle injury. And of course as I write this, the Kings have just lost Brad Richardson who had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. The Kings, who finished 29th in the league in goals scored, are going to need their top 6 forwards to score, that’s all there is to it because they will not see a lot of productivity from their other lines.
Oh, and Dustin Penner plays for the Kings.. He hurt his back eating pancakes this year.
The Kings bring forth a group of defensemen who are tough to play against in their own zone and can contribute on the offensive zone. They have a good mix of experienced guys in Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell, and Rob Scuderi, to go with talented two-way guys in Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov. The Kings allowed only 179 goals against this year and they will have quite the test in the Canucks offense. Vancouver on the other hand, brings an experienced and talented back end that is extremely tough to play against. They allowed the 4th fewest amount of goals (198) and can be a pain to play against in a series such as this. They have guys that contribute at both ends like Alex Edler and Sami Salo, and stalwarts in their own end in Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis (who led the team with a +29 rating)
The goalie situation continues to be a precarious situation. Roberto Luongo is an elite goalie but seems to constantly battle his own demons and the expectations thrust upon him by a rabid fan base. Longo enjoyed a more than solid year and the Canucks were able to limit the wear on him by only playing him in 55 games thanks to the ability of backup goalie Cory Schneider. The fact that Schneider proved to be a capable backup goalie the last two years proves that the Canucks won’t be hesitant to make a change if they see the series start slipping away. The Kings are backstopped by Vezina candidate Jonathan Quick who led the NHL this year with 10 shutouts. He was able to keep the team afloat through their darkest scoring struggles and heads into the playoffs playing great hockey. In a time of year where scoring goals only gets tougher, it’s hard to think of a better goalie than Quick to try and steal a win or two and possibly a series.
The Canucks are one of only a few teams that boast top ten units in both the power play and penalty kill. They ranked 6th in both (19.6%PP), (85.95PK). The Kings futility to score shined through on their PP unit, ranking only 20th in the league at 16.3% despite getting the 6th most opportunities with the man advantage. In a series where goals may be hard to come by, this could very well be the defining factor as to who moves on.
Edge: Canucks (slight)
This is bound to be one of the most tightly fought series of the first round. The Kings will be able to keep the games close, but they are going to have to count on goals from some unsung players if they want to move on. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 2 or 3 overtime games in this series.
Prediction: Canucks in 7
#2 St. Louis Blues #7 San Jose Sharks
11-12 Record: 49-22-11 109pts 11-12 Record: 43-24-10 96pts
Season Series: Blues 4-0
Goals – David Backes – 24 Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski – 31
Assists – Alex Pietrangelo – 39 Joe Thornton – 59
Points – David Backes/TJ Oshie – 54 Joe Thornton – 77
Goalie Comparisons (Record, SO, GAA, Save%)
Brian Elliott (23-10-4, 9, 1.56, .940) Anitt Niemi (34-22-9, 6, 2.42, .915)
Ever since the Blues made a switch behind the bench bringing in Ken Hitchcock, they have been among the elite teams of the NHL. They have been able to play to their strengths and win games by not allowing the other team to score, leading the league with only 165 goals against, and having everyone play into that type of philosophy. The Sharks have been a bit of a disappointment. They have upper end talent, but have seriously lacked consistency which led to them battling until the final week of the season for a playoff spot. This is a matchup that in the regular season didn’t go well for the Sharks as they were outscored 11-3.
The Blues come at you with a big, strong set of forwards. They were only 21st in the league in scoring but they always managed to score when they needed to. The Blues only had two 20 goal scorers in Backes and David Perron (21) but thanks to such strong goaltending they didn’t need much more. They have the talented up front with Chris Stewart who has scored 30+ goals in a year, but has been a disappointment for the Blues faithful all year, Patrick Berglund, who is a large man and a deft sniper, and TJ Oshie, who can be an absolute wizard with the puck, but they play a system that doesn’t push the play offensively. Luckily they get a lot of help from the back end to help generate offense when they need it. All that being said, it doesn’t take a whole lot to be successful when you’re not even giving up 2 goals against per game. On paper, the Sharks have one of the best forward lineups in the league. They re led by perennial all-star Joe Thornton, who continues to be one of the best set-up men in the league year in and year out. Veteran Patrick Marleau is once again going to bear the pressure of a fan base and media if he’s unable to produce early in the series. The two guys to look for on this Sharks roster are emerging stars Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. They tied for the team lead in goals this year, they both can score in so many ways and aren’t afraid to go to the net. They also come at you with grinding forward Ryan Clowe. Pretty much in the mold of a young Todd Bertuzzi without the distinction of having tried killing a guy on the ice. They have as potent a top 6 as there is in the league, but struggled to find offense beyond that. In my mind, the key to the Sharks advancing will be the contributions of Marleau. Goals will be at a premium in this series, and it’s going to come down to who wants to be a hero. An interesting note in the teams 4 meetings in the regular season, Pavelski, Couture, Thornton, Marleau, and Boyle combined for 0 points.
Edge: Sharks (on paper)
Both teams possess a couple defensemen who re able to make a difference at both ends of the ice. The emergence of Alex Pietrangelo has been huge for the Blues, and Kevin Shattenkirk has shown why he was a high 1st round draft pick by the Avs only a few years ago. Pietrangelo is big and mobile, while Shattenkirk is smaller in stature but both have the ability to change to landscape of a game quickly. For the Sharks, they have Dan Boyle who has been a preeminent offensive defenseman for years and Brent Burns who is as creative with the puck as it comes as a defenseman. Outside of that, the Blues have more of a defensive minded group in Barrett Jackman and Roman Polack while the Sharks keep coming with two-way defensemen in Marc-Edouard Vlasic (19goals) and Jason Demers. Both groups are going to be tested in their own end. The size and strength of the Blues forwards vs the nimble Sharks group, and the Blues stay at home group vs the talent of the Sharks forwards.
The Sharks have what most teams in the playoffs don’t have and that is a goalie who has won a Stanley Cup in Antti Miemi in 09-10 with the Blackhawks. Niemi has seen his fair share of struggles since then, but he knows what it takes to win a cup, and had a very solid this year with the Sharks. The Blues are living on the emergence of Brian Eliott who showed flashes of brilliance his first year in the league with the Senators, but up until this year had been awful and on the verge of not being able to get a job in the NHL. Elliott led the NH in GAA and save percentage and combined with backup Jaroslav Halak for a league high 15 shutouts. This may be important, because it emerged on Tuesday that Elliott is battling what is deemed as a minor leg injury. Something to keep an eye on. Even though Niemi may have more experience, its hard to bet against the guys who played better throughout the year.
This series matches weakness vs weakness and strength vs strength in terms of special teams units. The Sharks had the #2 PP unit clicking at 21.1% vs the Blues 2nd ranked PK unit (85.6%). Then you have the Blues 21st ranked PP squad vs a sharks team who struggled a man down at 77.6% which was good enough for 28th in the league. The Blues did take almost one more penalty a game more than the Sharks and that could be the difference in this series.
The Blues are by far the surprise of the league not only in the way they played this year, but in the way they were able to sustain the level of play throughout the year. The Sharks by far were a disappointment, but they have guys who have been here before and have seen success. Even though the Blues dominated in the season series, the Sharks are playing well and I see them continuing through this series.
Prediction: Sharks in 6 (Upset Special)