The Playoffs are here and being a part of a team looking in from the outside the best I can do is put my two cents in about who I think will win theses first round match-ups. It should be hard fought battles all around and some great hockey as well. So lets fire it up and take a look at the first round match-ups.
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs #8 Chicago Blackhawks
This match-up is the third straight season these two have met in the playoffs. Chicago has been the victor the previous two years but this season looks like it may change. The Canucks are coming off of winning the Presidents Trophy and boast leading point man Daniel Sedin as well as all world player Ryan Kesler.
The Hawks backed into the playoffs thanks to the Dallas Stars losing on the final day to secure Chicago’s spot. Chicago, the defending champs, are thankful to just be in and even as the #8 seed are a scary team to face.
Vancouver is 7-3-0 over their final ten games but have to contend with the Presidents Trophy ‘curse”. Only 7 of the 25 winners have won the Stanley Cup since the Trophy started being awarded and only 9 of those 25 reached the Finals.
The Canucks defensive corps has suffered multiple injuries but seem to finally getting healthy at the right time. Kevin Alberts won’t start the playoffs but should be returning shortly but Manny Malhotra will miss the remainder of the season and possibly his career.
Chicago has been up and down over the last ten games, going 5-4-1 in that span, with only a win versus Detroit on Friday night being a complete game.
The Hawks will be relying on yet another unproven goalie in net as rookie Corey Crawford will start his 30th straight game on Wednesday night. Crawford has been as surprising, if not more so than Antti Niemi was last year, posting a 17-8-4 record in those 29 straight starts.
Chicago has been dealing with their own injury problems as most teams have, but hope to have Dave Bolland and Troy Brouwer back by Wednesday night.
This series should be one of the best as Chicago has had Roberto Luongo and the Canucks number the past two years but with a healthy defense and strong offensive play from top to bottom Vancouver will put up one hell of a fight.
Prediction: Vancouver in 6, all because of home ice advantage.
# San Jose Sharks vs #7 Los Angeles Kings
This series will pit two of the four California teams in this years playoffs. This is the first time that all four teams have made the playoffs and unfortunately at least one will be leaving after the first round.
San Jose will be coming into this series under the radar for the first time in many seasons. Most people still believe that this is the team that will win it all this year but the expectations are not as high league wide which could play in to the Sharks hands.
The Sharks finished the season with 105 points and squeaked by Detroit for the second seed and what seems to be a more favorable match-up. The Sharks were 7-2-1 in their final ten games and played well against LA all year, winning the season series 3-2-1.
The Sharks boast 7 20+ goal scorers but they have a severe drop off after that as no other player on the team has more than 9 goals. Patrick Marleau leads the team with 37 goals and Rookie of the Year Candidate Logan Couture finished with 32 goals.
Antti Niemi, Stanley Cup winner with Chicago last year, will start in net for the Sharks and it seems like his season last year was no fluke. Niemi went 35-18-6 with a sparkling 2.38 goals against average.
Los Angeles was sitting pretty in the four spot coming into a weekend home and home series with Anaheim but lost both games and barely made the playoffs with their 98 points. The Kings finished the season 6-4-0 in their last ten games but got a very unfavorable draw going up against the Sharks.
The Kings lost leading point producer Anze Kopitar to a broken ankle late in the season and he will miss this series which will put a serious damper on the Kings scoring. While Jonathon Quick is a phenomenal goalie, the Kings will have to rely on him to shut the Sharks down to 1 to 2 goals a game in order for LA to win the series.
Quick surely has the potential to do that in a few games, as he only allowed 2.24 goals against a game, but it will not be enough in a seven game series. The Kings will need Justin Williams back healthy and a lot to break their way for them to beat the high powered Sharks.
Prediction: Sharks in 5 games, to much offense.
#3 Detroit Red Wings vs #6 Phoenix Coyotes
Of all the series this year, this one has the potential for a huge upset. This will be the second straight season the Wings and Coyotes will meet in the first round and the Coyotes will be looking for revenge.
Detroit struggled down the stretch, going 4-4-2 in their final ten games including a 10-3 blowout loss to the St. Louis Blues, the low-light of those ten games. Detroit still won the Central Division and just missed out on the number two seed but will still have home ice advantage.
Jimmy Howard has solidified himself as the number one goalie but is still recovering from a shoulder strain and hasn’t looked as sharp since his return. That being said, his 37 wins are a clear indication that he knows how to win and will show up once this series begins.
Henrik Zetterberg will likely miss the first few games of the series as he is dealing with a meniscus injury but with 12 other 10+ goal scorers he won’t be as missed as some stars on other teams.
On the other side of the rink, the Coyotes will be the healthiest team to start the playoffs as they will have the entire regular lineup starting. Phoenix went a respectable 5-3-2 in their final ten games but only had one win in their last four, so they will be one of the coldest teams entering the playoffs as well.
Illya Bryzgalov had yet another standout year posting 7 more shutouts and 36 wins. If any goalie could win a series it would be Bryzgalov, as he holds three career playoff shutouts and almost won the series against Detroit last season.
Phoenix is a very young team and doesn’t have stars like most of the other teams. Shane Doan is not a household name but is one of the most consistent players in the playoffs and a perfect leader for this team. While he leads the team with only 60 points, the Coyotes do have 11 players with ten goals or more this year.
This is a sexy pick for an upset but, even though Detroit has struggled, it just seems like the West’s top teams will be in form when the playoffs start.
Prediction: Detroit in 7 games, could go either way though.
#4 Anaheim Ducks vs #5 Nashville Predators
This series could be the most exciting of them all and I can guarantee that it will be a highly under-watched series. Nashville has quietly made the playoffs in 6 of the last 7 years but has yet to win a playoff series. Anaheim came on strong to finish the season but are dealing with goalie issues which could hamper their run.
Anaheim finished the seasons by winning their last three games, including that sweep of LA, and were 7-3- in their last ten. Dan Ellis has been in net for the last three wins but Jonas Hiller had been the starter all season until his bout with vertigo. Ray Emery was also brought in to solidify the net but he has been battling injuries too.
The biggest question for the Ducks will be, do they start Hiller who had a spectacular season until the vertigo issue, Ellis who has come in and gone 8-3 to help lead the Ducks to the playoffs, or Emery who has posted a 2.23 GAA in his starts.
The one constant is Corey Perry and he will just keep right on scoring no matter who is in net. Perry finished the season with 50 goals and 19 in his last 16 games to really push the Ducks to where they are at. Rookie defensemen Cam Fowler also had a hand to play in the teams run as he finished with 10 goals and 30 assists for 19 year old.
Nashville won the season series versus Anaheim this year pretty handily, going 3-1-0 and outscoring the Ducks 17 to 11 and keeping Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf in check. It also helped that they had Vezina Candidate Pekka Rinne in net too.
Rinne finished the season with a 33-22-9 record but it was his 2.12 GAA that really made people stop and look. Any other season and that would be the Vezina right there, but Tim Thomas had almost as good a season as Rinne and, even though Thomas played in less games, he will probably earn the Vezina.
Nashville will be without forwards Dean Lombardi and Marcel Goc and may also have to play the first few games without Martin Erat and Steve Sullivan. Sergre Kostitsyn will try and pick up the pace while they are out though, as he led the team with 23 goals.
The Predators have been playing the best hockey of all the teams in the playoffs, wrapping up the final 12 games with a 9-2-1 record and could be a potentially dangerous team as the playoffs move forward.
Prediction: Nashville in 6, first playoff series win in team history.
Well those are my first round predictions for the Western Conference. Stay tuned for the Eastern Conference Predictions.