Thursday, April 14, 2011

NHL Playoffs Preview: Western Conference

With the NHL Playoffs right around the corner, and this being a sports blog slanted towards the NHL due to their allowing us into various events, I thought it would be nice to preview the NHL Playoffs.  I also decided that I alone could not do this justice and enlisted the help of some friends from various blogs to help me out.  Yesterday we did the East.  Here is your Western Conference NHL Playoffs Preview:

As per tradition, eight teams from the Wast have made the annual NHL survival tournament.  I've asked bloggers from prominent sites for each team to be so kind as to let us know the strengths, weaknesses, and exactly why their team should win the Cup.  I encourage you all to visit each and every one of them since they were fantastic enough to help.  From first to eighth, away we go!

 1. Vancouver Canucks (54-19-9, 117pts)
Preview from: Dani at Benched Whale

Every Canuck fan will tell you that this year just FEELS different. Of
course with having so many let downs in the past, fans are still
approaching the playoffs with cautious optimism about the team.
But if you were to look at this team this year, this may be one of the
most complete teams that Vancouver has ever iced. Starting from the
back-end, with the emergence of Schneider, Luongo has played less
games this season, and ended up looking more solid in net because of
it than in years past.
One of the biggest strengths that the Canucks have is their defence.
This years defence hasn't played together much as a complete unit
since one or another has been out at any given time with an injury,
but even so, they didn't miss a beat all season. With Bieksa, Hamhuis,
Ehrhoff, Edler, Ballard and Salo on the blue line, the D is scary
The team also had a great leadership group that has acquired a greater
sense of maturity from their failures in the past. The Sedins are
great leaders, and Kesler and Burrows has grown up from their previous
roles of being agitators to being scorers.
Now as for the weakness? What weakness? Ok, ok, I kid. The Canucks
took a huge loss in Malhotra's injury to their bottom six forwards and
it remains to be seen if the bottom six can be productive enough
against other teams.
Why they could win the Cup?
If the Canucks can get past the mental hurdle of playing the
Blackhawks in the first round, I don't think there is a team out there
that the Canucks couldn't beat in a seven game series.

2. San Jose Sharks (48-25-9, 105pts)
Preview from: Jon at Sharkspage

This is the seventh straight Stanley Cup Playoff appearance for San Jose. In 5 of the previous 6 opening playoff rounds, the Sharks have advanced. A west coast team that often plays under the radar, San Jose was an insider pick by many MSM journalists to go deep in playoffs past. A failure to make a Conference Final or Stanley Cup Final appearance in 4 straight seasons resulted in many shying away from Shark prediction for the last 2 years. This is a much different San Jose team dealing with many of the same issues and questions externally if not internally.
The bulk of the playoff criticism fell on two players, former captain Patrick Marleau and current captain Joe Thornton. “Your best players need to be your best players” may be the most used hockey cliche of all time, but for San Jose in the playoffs the best players were good enough but not quite. Patrick Marleau, tied with Detroit’s Johan Franzen for the most playoff game winning goals over the last 10 years, could be brilliant in flashes but invisible in others. For the Stanley Cup Playoffs, more goals are scored and games are won with hard work in the dirty areas in front of the net and in the corners. Both Marleau and Thornton returned from playoff exits and played a nasty, mean style of defensive two-way hockey to start subsequent seasons. Maintaining that intensity over an 82-game regular season and into the playoffs was difficult. This season, Marleau and Thornton have re-established themselves as strong defensive players, and both have improved on that gritty style of play as the season progressed.
While the bulk of past criticism may focus on Marleau and Thornton, left unmentioned are injuries and playoff dry spells suffered by a number of quality, veteran players. In a 5-year stretch of playoff appearances from 1998-2002, secondary support players like Viktor Kozlov, Tony Granato, Joe Murphy, Teemu Selanne and Adam Graves could not contribute enough to get the Sharks over the top. In the current stretch of 7 straight postseason appearances, secondary offensive players like Alyn McCauley, Milan Michalek, Ville Nieminen, Bill Guerin, Mike Grier and Travis Moen failed to help Marleau and Thornton put their teams over the top. Injuries crept up in 2009 and 2010, with Marleau suffering the first knee injury of his career, and right wings Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi trying to produce while hobbled in 2010. Playoff losses in San Jose have been a team effort, but the direction EVP/GM Doug Wilson took this season is a window into the possible solution.
Struggling with an average record and unpredictable play after a post-Christmas flop, a 6-game losing streak in January signaled a need for changes to be made. Rugged forward Ryane Clowe called out his team for wanting to score instead of getting their nose dirty and using hard work to win close games. Hints of a turnaround were evident before the Sharks first subsequent win, but bad luck and bad bounces did not erase a more defensively responsible play on the ice. San Jose GM Doug Wilson brought in Ben Eager from Atlanta, and picked up Kyle Wellwood on waivers January 18th. Sidestepping a trade deadline shopping spree for offensive defenseman, Wilson also brought in puck moving right shooting defenseman Ian White February 18th.
The results speak for themselves. Adding three veterans to an already deep lineup, the Sharks went on a 26-4-4 run after the end of the 6-game losing streak. Excessive line juggling eventually settled down into three solid scoring lines, and a veteran fourth line that can put its stamp on a playoff series if it stays out of the box and remains in the opponents face. The Sharks defense has changed from years past. It is different from the hard edged, withering net front defensive style employed by former head coach Darryl Sutter. Two of the record point setting four horseman (Boyle, Blake, Ehrhoff, Vlasic) utilized by former coach Ron Wilson are gone. At Todd McLellan’s disposal health permitting are 3 sets of right-left shots with a puck moving and defensive element on each pair. Offensive dman of the future, Justin Braun, and a veteran dman with PK experience, Kent Huskins, could be available as reserves (Huskins missed the last 22 games of the season with an undisclosed injury).
The parity on the ice between the 1 through 8 seeds in the Western Conference is extraordinarily close, with any team having the ability to knock off another on any night. Given that parity from the Western Conference and the Pacific Division in particular, the difference may come down to depth, compete level, and discipline. San Jose has three line scoring depth, a 2-way capable defense, and veteran forwards that have experience being used in different situations on the fly. Without second leading scorer Anze Kopitar and with the possible return of second leading scorer Justin Williams, the Kings will lean heavily on goaltender Jonathan Quick, a strong defense and the second best PK in the NHL. The margin for error for Los Angeles is slim, and there is no room for the attrition that may follow a grueling 7-game series.
The Kings ability to dictate play and force the Sharks to certain areas of the ice made them one of the most dangerous opponents to face in the postseason. That changed dramatically from a 4-3 shootout loss in Los Angeles on March 24th to a 6-1 blowout win in San Jose on Monday, April 4th. The absence of Anze Kopitar’s 24:04 of ice time for the season finale between SJ and LA completely erased the Kings momentum. Whether a Dustin Brown or Dustin Penner can carry a similar load remains to be seen. Based on the latest NHL odds and MSM predictions, that is not the prevailing opinion. The Sharks vs Kings WCQF series will also provide one of the best goaltending matchups in the first round. A thorough look at each starting goaltender in the series will be posted tomorrow.
Bottom line: Even with depth and injury advantages, too close to call.
Hopefully the Sharks and the Kings can build on the respect the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers showed earlier this week. After 42-year old paramedic Bryan Stow was beaten severely following a game in Los Angeles, the Giants and Dodgers came together Monday before the SF home opener in order to ask fans to keep the rivalry on the field and not in the stands. A Santa Cruz native, Stow worked games at HP Pavilion as part of the EMT staff. “Our organization and our players were trying to support Brian and his family through this tough time,” Sharks EVP/GM Doug Wilson told NHL radio after visiting with the family in southern California.
3. Detroit Red Wings (47-25-10, 104pts)
Preview from: The good folks at The Production Line

The Red Wings may not be going into the playoffs on the hottest of streaks, but they're still not a team that any Western Conference foe would like to face. I think the biggest strength they have is post-season experience, and knowing what it takes to go deep and even complete the goal. A handful of guys have four rings, and even the "new, young" core of superstars, like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, have been to the Finals two and three times. The Wings will go as far as Jimmy Howard will carry them -- he may not be a Vezina candidate, but he's no slouch in net and, even though he didn't deliver numbers as impressive as his rookie season, he's a heck of a goaltender and he's more than capable of winning games. At the same time, the biggest weakness heading into the post-season is team defense. The Winged Wheelers have been giving up more goals -- and plenty more shots -- than they have in years past, and that's troubling because everyone knows things tighten up a bit in the playoffs. There won't be as big a margin of error in the coming weeks, and they'll need to put the defensive struggles behind them and start on time (another thing the Wings have been having trouble with this season). 
4. Anaheim Ducks (47-30-5, 99pts)
Preview from: Adam at Ducks Blog

Why the Ducks can win the Cup
The Ducks have what is arguably the best top line in hockey, with Hart Trophy candidate Corey Perry (league-leading 50 goals), Ryan Getzlaf (fourth in the NHL with 57 assists) and Bobby Ryan (eighth in the league with 34 goals). On the nights when that tandem is neutralized, the Ducks have often been able to rely on a veteran second unit of Saku Koivu, Jason Blake and the ageless 40-year-old Teemu Selanne, who 80 points this season despite missing eight games.

Defense was a question mark going into this season with the retirement of Scott Niedermayer and the acquisition of some new faces on the blue line, but the Ducks have been solid in the back end. Lubomir Visnovsky led all NHL defensemen with 68 points, while partner Toni Lydman was second in the league with a gaudy +32 rating. Meanwhile, youngsters like 21-year-old Luca Sbisa and 19-year-old rookie standout Cam Fowler had performed admirably.

The Ducks have had some uncertainty in goal for the first time in years after Jonas Hiller went down with symptoms related to vertigo. But February acquisitions Dan Ellis and Ray Emery have been reliable in net, with Ellis winning the final two regular season games for the Ducks to vault them into the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Ellis looks to be the starter going into the postseason with Emery recovering from a lower body injury, and if either goalie gives the Ducks a chance to win every night, Anaheim has to be considered one of the favorites to come out of the West.

5. Nashville Predators (44-27-11, 99pts)
Preview from: Buddy at Preds On The Glass

The Nashville Predators (44-30-5) head to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven NHL seasons and face the Anaheim Ducks (47-30-5) for the first time in the post season. Both teams finished with 99 points with the Ducks taking fourth with the tiebreaker.
The primary story line of the series will be the match-up between the Ducks top line of Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, and Ryan Getzlaf against the Predators top defense pairing of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
Vezina contender, Pekka Rinne (33-22-9, 2.12, .930) will be in net for the Predators while the Duck situation in goal is unsettled at best. Ex-Pred Dan Ellis (21-10-7, 2.77, .898) appears to be the starter by default due to injuries to Jonas Hiller and Ray Emery.
The Predators will try to play a tight defensive game and limit Anaheim’s scoring chances as much as possible. The Ducks rely heavily on their top two scoring lines for offense while the Preds have more balance with scoring across all four lines.
One of the keys for the Predators will be to play with discipline and keep the Ducks off the power play. The Predators also need to avoid being drawn into fighting majors, which is one of the Ducks traits when they fall behind.
On special teams, the Ducks are ranked third (23.5%) in the league on the man advantage while the Predators are fifth (84.9%) on the penalty kill. On the flip side, Anaheim’s 19th place ranking (81.3%) on the kill should give the Preds meager 26th ranked (15.2%) power play an opportunity to score.
The series promises to be interesting involving two teams with different styles but the Predators should have the edge as defense and goaltending are generally keys to playoff success. The Predators have not previously won an playoff round but should win a tough series in six games

6. Phoenix Coyotes (43-26-13, 99pts)
Preview from: Jenna at Hip Checks

Going into the playoffs, the Coyotes biggest strength lies in their goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov. If Bryz is on (which he is more often than not), he will be tough to beat. Another strength is our scoring by committee. Every player is expected to contribute. If they don't their ice time gets cut. If they start contributing, Tippett will give them more ice time. Our tenacity may just rival Bryz for the biggest strength. The Coyotes are not the team that will lay down and let the Wings win. Remember last year? No one thought the Coyotes would win a single game and we forced seven. Expect similar results this year. We like people to think we are the underdog... it's that much sweeter when we prove them wrong.
As far as weaknesses, they have been constant all season. We cannot put together a full 60 minutes. There is always one period (lately first) where we play like crap. Then we get behind and we have to crawl up from a deficit in order to win. If they could consistently play a full 60 minutes, they'd be scary. We struggle with the power play. I don't know why they can't take advantage of having the extra attacker. Some games we can get a nice set up going with nice crisp passes, other games we can't keep it in the zone. 

Why could the Coyotes win the cup? Because they will not give up. They are ready for the fight. They have the will, the drive and the want. They have a good mix of veterans, youth and toughness. They have one of the best goalies in the league. Everyone contributes. The Coyotes are not a team who depend on one or two superstars. To be cheesy, there is no I in team. Everyone produces, everyone defends. It truly is a pack mentality instilled by the coaching staff.

7. Los Angeles Kings (46-30-6, 98pts)
Preview from: k.m. stiles at Purple Crushed Velvet

The LA Kings are in the playoffs for the second consecutive year and will have an even more difficult time beating the San Jose Sharks and advancing to the second round than they did last year against the Vancouver Canucks.  It's quite unfortunate because the Kings' chances of making it deep in the playoffs looked promising through most of the season. They have some great strengths, but the weaknesses are just too glaring.  

  • Goaltending: I think the LA Kings have the best goaltending tandem in the league.  Jonathan Quick has been very solid this year and in the off chance he turns into Dan Cloutier in the first couple games, Jonathan Bernier is an exceptional backup who will be right there to pick up the slack.
  • Penalty Kill: Kings fans can only pray that the success the team has had on the penalty kill will carry over into the post season. Michal Handzus and Jarret Stoll are the usual key players to watch on the PK.  
  • Defense: This year's defensive corps has the been the best Kings defense in a long time.  Matt Greene has improved a lot over the past couple years to where now he rarely makes a boneheaded play.  The off-season acquisition of Willie Mitchell and the call up of Alec Martinez have ensured the Kings don't have to use so-so defensemen Davis Drewiske and Peter Harrold.  Rob Scuderi is still 'The Piece' and although Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson need to tighten up their game, overall they're a huge asset for the team.  Thank goodness the Kings no longer have Randy Jones on the blue line; he was absolutely terrible in the playoffs last year.

  • Scoring: Anze Kopitar, who led the team in scoring, is out.  Justin Williams is the next leading scorer and even those his return in the playoffs is hopeful, it's uncertain how effective he'll be early in the series.  The Kings already had a difficult enough time scoring goals with those two in the lineup, so goals became even more scarce without them.  You never know who is going to show up to take over the game and be the one who produces the most offense.  Most of the time Dustin Brown has taken the responsibility, but it needs to come from more people, especially Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll, and Dustin Penner, who only has two goals since coming over to the Kings. 
  • Power Play: The Kings better have worked on the power play during this short break.  With 4th place in the West up for grabs in the last game of the season against their bitter rivals, the Kings didn't score a power play goal in that game until their 7th man advantage.  Unacceptable. Inconsistent is too nice of a word to describe the Kings power play.  I like to describe it as absolutely embarrassing.  The Kings are too static and predictable.  I'm actually surprised there were other teams with worse power play percentages, because I can't imagine it being any worse.
  • Depth: If Justin Williams isn't able to play, then the Kings will be stuck suiting up Kevin Westgarth, the enforcer most famous for turning a hockey fight into a boxing match by trying to wear down an opponent with body shots. It won't be surprising if Westgarth does play a game or two early in the series against the Sharks, just to have some size in the lineup, but his hockey skills are so sub-par that it doesn't make any sense dressing him if he's only going to play a couple minutes a game.  All season long the fourth line has consisted of a mix of players that usually don't have much chemistry because the line is always changing from game to game.  When Kopitar and Williams were healthy and Penner came over in the trade, there was some hope the Kings could roll out four complete lines, but that vision got killed pretty quickly.
  • Shootout:  The Kings were 10-2 in the shootout this year.  If it weren't for Jarret Stoll being Mr. Automatic with his sniper shot and Quick going undefeated in the shootout, then the Kings wouldn't be in the playoffs.  The Kings will be screwed if any of the games go to overtime because they won't have the shootout to fall back on to guarantee a win.

Why the Kings Will Win the Cup:
Just kidding.  The Kings won't win the Cup this year.  But be prepared for 2011-2012, the year of Brayden Schenn.
8. Chicago Blackhawks (44-29-9, 97pts)
Preview from: Andrew at Blackhawks Down Low

The Blackhawks have the top end superstars that you need to win in the NHL these days.  The top 6 forwards and top 4 defensemen can match up against any other team in the league.  These guys have done this before with a modicum of success.

You may have heard a little bit about some players having to leave Chicago last year.  As much as we have downplayed it here, it has really affected the Hawks this season.  The top guys are playing tougher minutes, and the role players have not contributed at the same pace as Versteeg, Ladd, Byfuglien, et al.  The Hawks will have a tough road since they are only the 8th seed.  There’s no way they can rely on just the top guys to carry the load through the entire playoffs.

Why They Can Win The Cup:
The Hawks have had a great goal differential all season.  Based on the standings, that suggests that they’ve had a pretty unlucky season, especially in one goal games.  We’ve seen them show flashes of greatness at times.  If Troy Brouwer and Dave Bolland can get healthy enough to play (because nobody is 100% at this time of the year), they might get that depth that they’ve been missing this year.  Plus, if there’s one guy who can carry an entire team through a series, its Jonathan Toews.
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