Let the Real Season Begin - NHL Western Conference Playoff Preview
#3 Phoenix Coyotes #6 Chicago Blackhawks
11-12 Record: 42-27-13 97pts 11-12 Record: 45-26-11 101pts
Season Series: Coyotes 3-1
Goals – Radim Vrbata – 35 Patrick Sharp – 33
Assists – Ray Whitney – 53 Marian Hossa – 48
Points – Ray Whitney – 77 Marian Hossa – 77
Goalie Comparisons (Record, SO, GAA, Save%)
Mike Smith (38-18-10, 8, 2.21, .930) Corey Crawford (30-17-7, 0, 2.72, .903)
This is poised to be one of the best series of the first round as both teams are playing well headed into the playoffs. The Coyotes have won 7 of their last ten on their way to winning the Pacific division, and the Hawks have won 6 of their last ten. On paper, the Blckhawks appear to be a better team, but inconsistencies, and the fact the Coyotes are a solid team seem to point a different direction.
If you look at the Phoeniz lineup, it’s easy to see that they are extremely top heavy when it comes to production. 101 of their 216 goals came from their Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan, their only 20+ goal scorers. The Coyotes ranked 18th in the league in goals scored, but like other playoff teams relied on their ability to keep pucks out of their net to win games. Vrbata has the uncanny knack to score big goals whenever his team needs it, and Ray Whitney keeps producing game in and game out despite the fact he’s getting up there in age. Doan has been the face of this franchise since they were in Winnipeg, and you won’t find a guy more willing to lay everything on the line every shift. He’s the type of guy you don’t want to see as a defenseman over the course of a long season. The Blackhawks on the other hand are purely offensively oriented with their 6th ranked offense. Their biggest threats are Marion Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews who though haven’t having played since February 19th appears ready to return for the start of this series. Toews had 29 goals and 57 points in only 59 games this year, but has the ability to take over a series as he’s shown in the past. There aren’t many guys in the league who are as competitive as this guy who is well on his way to taking over the nickname of captain Canada from Ryan Smyth. When it comes to shutting down the Yotes, look for Dave Bolland to get a lot of ice time. A solid two-way guy who managed to pop in 19 goals this year, he should get the honor of facing the Coyotes top line. With the status of Toews up in the air, look for Marian Hossa to step up. All this guy does is produce in the playoffs having scored 97 points in 127 career playoff games. The Blackhawks have the firepower to win the series, but the Coyotes do a great job of hanging around and making key plays and scoring big goals seemingly whenever they need them.
This is where the teams are very similar despite being very different. The Hawks have one of the elite shutdown D pairings in the league with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. They are going to be key in this series especially with the lack of secondary production the Coyotes have. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these guys playing between 27-20 minutes a night. One of my favorite up and comers in the league is Nick Leddy who had 34 assists this year, but can be inconsistent in his own end. The Coyotes play it more of a conventional style, trying to keep their two way guys Keith Yandle (43 pts) and Oiver Ekmar-Larsson paired with more stay at home type guys in Derek Morris and Michal Rozsival. Ok, Rozsival not so much. The Yotes get more offensive production out of their blue line, but lack the shut down capabilities of the Blackhawks.
There may not be a hotter goaltender in the NHL right now than Mike Smith. Having the dubious task of taking the reigns from Ilya Bryzgalov, Smith has had a Vezina caliber campaign, being amongst the league leaders in shutouts, goals against and save percentage. There have been plenty of games he has stolen for his team, and given the fact he faces a ton of shots every night, it’s not always easy. The situation for the Hawks hasn’t been as steadfast. Corey Crawford leads the way for the Hawks, but he only has one playoff series of experience, albeit an impressive one. The Hawks were only 22nd in the league in goals allowed this year, and while some of it can be placed on the complacency of the guys in front of them, Chicago’s goalies have had their fair share of the blame. If Chicago struggles to beat Mike Smith, this series can get real interesting if it comes own to the weight of the world being on Corey Crawford’s shoulders.
Not a whole lot can be said in this category beside yuck and meh. The Hawks finished the regular season with the 24th ranked PP unit and were awful with the 27th ranked PP squad. Hard to believe when you look at the talent they throw out there for these situations. The Coyotes are even worse on the PP with the 2nd to last ranked PP unit scoring only 13.8% of the time on the man advantage, but behind Mike Smith had the 8th best PK unit. Neither team gave up an excessive amount of PP chances, but if it comes down to it, you have to wonder what the Hawks and all their skill can muster against a tough Coyotes kill.
This may be the hardest series of them all to judge. Phoenix has flown under the radar all year, but they are just a solid team and so tough to play against. If Jonathan Toews can come back without the rust and be dynamic, you have to think he could be the main difference maker in a series like this.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 7
#4 Nashville Predators #5 Detroit Red Wings
11-12 Record: 48-26-8 104 Pts 11-12 Record: 48-28-6 102pts
Season Series: Tied 3-3
Goals – Patrick Hornqvist – 27 Johan Franzen – 29
Assists – Ryan Suter/Martin Erat – 39 Pavel Datsyuk – 48
Points – Martin Erat – 58 Henrik Zetterberg – 69
Goalie Comparisons (Record, SO, GAA, Save%)
Pekka Rinne (43-18-8, 5, 2.39, .923) Jimmy Howard (35-17-4, 6, 2.13, .920)
Just like the 4-5 matchup in the East, we have a matchup of division rivals squaring off in the first round of the playoffs here. The Red Wings, even though they managed 102 points don’t seem to have the same sheen on them this year. The Wings reeled off a 21 game home winning streak at one point during the year, but they were only 17-21-3 on the road. If ever there was a time for the Preds to step up and make a franchise defining statement, this has to be the year.
Despite having the 8th ranked offense in the league, the Preds only had 2 20+ goal scorers (Hornqvist-27, and Fisher-24). They, possibly more than any other playoff team really rely on scoring up and down their entire lineup. Other than the guys mentioned above, the Predators had 7 guys who netted 15 or more goals this year. They are an unbelievably tough forechecking team, and it is that depth that they will again rely upon as the playoffs start. One guy to keep an eye on in this series will be David Legwand who had 19 goals this year, but is the kind of guy who can shine against the Wings (he did have 5 points in the season series to lead the Predators). The other guy who a lot of people don’t know about is Alex Radulov who left the Preds 3 years ago to play in Russia, but came back for the final 9 games of the season and had 7 points. He has superstar skills and brings an element none of the other Nashville forwards can. The Wings are a lot like the Predators. They did not have a 30 goal scorer but were 7th in the league in scoring this year. They are led by Pavel Datsyuk who is an absolute magician with the puck, and Johan Franzen who seems to always step up with big goals at big times. Henrik Zetterberg had a bit of a down year by his standards but still led the team in points and has 99 points in 104 career playoff games. They have the advantage when it comes to their top 6 compared to the Preds, and all of their forwards do a great job of helping out in the defensive zone, and the fact they have been in this position before.. One sleeper on the Wings side will be Valteri Filppula.
Advantage: Red Wings
It seems as though Nicklas Lidstrom just doesn’t age like normal humans. The 41 year old heads up the crop of D of the Wings that have the ability to shut down opponents and chip in with offense with regularity. Lidstrom managed 11 goals and 34 points in 70 games, but wasn’t the leading scoring defensive Swede for the Wings. That distinction belongs to Niklas Kronwall who had 15 goals and 36 points. Joining them are talented guys such as Brad Stuart, Ian White and Jonathan Ericsson who helped the Red Wings to the 7th ranked defensive team in the league. The Predators have probably the toughest set of d-men in the league in Norris Trophy candidate Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber is a bear to play against, has a hell of a shot and is probably the best all-around defenseman in the league. And Suter is no slouch himself as he had 46 points on the year. They will see a lot of ice time in this series, but they also have help in Kevin Klein and Roman Josi, and offensive minded Ryan Ellis. They have a huge advantage other teams don’t in that they aren’t intimidated by the Wings.
This series will showcase a pair of extremely talented goalies. Pekka Rinne of the Predators has established himself among the league’s elite as shown by his stats and his ability to take over a game and unbelievable agility by such a big man. The one question mark I have is what will he have left in the tank as he appeared in 73 games (tied for the league lead with Jonas Hiller), 72 of which he started. At the other end we have Jimmy Howard who in his 3 years as the Wings starting goalie has racked up 37, 37, and 35 wins. Howard was in the top 10 in the league in GAA and save % this year and has made a name for being one of the top goalies in the league.
Edge: Predators (barely)
If the Red Wings have had an Achilles heel this year it has been with their special teams groups. Normally one of the top PP teams in the league, the Wings finished the regular season as the 22nd best unit scoring at 16.2% despite getting the 4th most chances. On the flip side, they were only the 21st best team when shorthanded. This could turn out to be huge considering the Preds had the league’s best power play, clicking at 21.7%. They were one of only 3 playoff teams to have top 10 ranked power plays and penalty kills.
This could be the best all-around team the Predators have ever fielded and they feel it is their best chance to make a deep playoff run. They’ve only won one playoff series in franchise history and face one of the most storied franchises in the league’s history. However, if there was ever a year the Wings could be poised to lose in the first round this is it. They may have rattled off 21 straight home wins at one point, but they have struggled mightily on the road. Rinne or Howard is going to have to steal a win on the rod, and the first one to do so will clearly put their team in the drivers seat.
Prediction: Predators in 6
Keep an eye out for my Western Conference preview on Tuesday night, and don't be afraid to watch as I will be doing everything I can to tweet during all the games. How do you find me? @StoneyinCO