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)
#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