Monday, April 11, 2011

The Western Conference Match-Ups

It's the match-up that has some sort of destiny written all over it, as the Canucks and Blackhawks will face each other for the third playoff year in a row, but it will be the first time they go head to head in the first round of the playoffs.  The teams are different, the situation is a little bit different, but the distaste and uncertainty remains the same.  All of the ingredients of another classic playoff series are here... but the series isn't played out on paper.

The Canucks have had the best regular season in their franchise history, finishing on top of the NHL standings as the President's Trophy winner and they have done so with plenty of challenges and hurdles along the way.  Roberto Luongo has had an excellent regular season and will lead the team from the crease outwards and he will likely be a favourite for those joining the pool this year.  With the top six defensemen healthy and only a few changes to the forward lines going in, the Canucks will be a tough team to beat, as the statistical favourite going in.

Pool Injuries  Only one key injury of note on the selection sheet, as the Box 7 X-factor player for the Canucks, Manny Malhotra, suffered a season-ending eye injury not too long after the selection sheet was released publicly, thus eliminating his usefulness in the pool this year.  For the Canucks, it was a big loss to their line-up, as Malhotra was a key component to the success of the team in 2011.

The Blackhawks were on the verge of not making the playoffs this season, despite being the defending champions from 2010.  With a loss on Sunday to the Red Wings, they could have been eliminated by the Dallas Stars, but the hockey gods wanted this series to happen and now they have an opportunity to disappoint the Canucks yet again.  In net for the Hawks will likely be Corey Crawford, who has taken the reins and done some amazing things with Chicago this season, thus giving a lot of hope to Blackhawks fans out there, that this season is far from lost.

Pool Injuries  The Blackhawks have had some injury concerns of their own, both pool notable and non-pool notable.  For the pool, Troy Brouwer finished the year on the shelf with a shoulder injury, but he continues to be listed as out day-to-day, with some likelihood that he'll be ready to go for opening night.  Non-pool related, Dave Bolland, who was going to be in Brouwer's spot, is still out with a concussion, but there is some hope that he'll be ready to go at some point during the first round.

Is an upset possible?  The numbers say unlikely, but the numbers don't tell the whole story.  As much as the Blackhawks had to downgrade their team, thanks to salary cap constrictions, the team is still a very gritty bunch that has scoring punch and a good set of defensemen.  It will definitely be a challenge for the Canucks, one they cannot take too lightly and likely won't.  I'm sure there will be a number of people who think the Blackhawks still have the Canucks' number, so you won't be alone if you decide to go that way.

A solid California battle between the San Jose Sharks, the number two seed in the West, and the Los Angeles Kings, the number seven seed, will definitely be a highlight series with some great rivalry undertones associated to it.  The Sharks being a contender on paper for so long now and the up-and-coming Kings, who have done some growing and overcoming, should make for an entertaining series.

If there is one thing to say about the Sharks, they have found several ways to win games in 2011 and I would say it is more about scoring than it is about anything else.  Between the top line of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau or any of the other lines that include Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski or Logan Couture, the Sharks have a lot of firepower at their disposal, it just comes down to who shows up on any given night.  Antti Niemi, the reigning Cup champion goalie, will now backstop the Sharks in 2011, possibly giving them a bit better pedigree in the net.

Pool Injuries  A lower-body injury has hampered Clowe of late, keeping him out of the last few regular season games for the Sharks, but it does sound positive that he will be ready for Game One of the playoffs, which will go on Thursday.  Otherwise, the Sharks are looking rather healthy and rather scary.

The Kings have been somewhat underwhelming in the 2011 season, with some certain slumps and some key injuries, but the team has grown in leaps and bounds, making up for some of those shortcomings and posting some convincing wins and earning themselves a playoff spot in the tightly contested Western Conference.  One of their biggest strengths is in goal and Jonathan Quick has been the guy again this year, to which he'll have to be amazing once again to beat this tough Sharks side.

Pool Injuries  This is where it gets kind of ugly for the Kings, as they will definitely be going into the playoffs without their Box 1 player, Anze Kopitar, who suffered a broken ankle with all the major fixings needed.  Consider Kopitar to be out and be a massive loss to the Kings.  Things are still very up in the air for their Box 2 representative, Justin Williams, who is dealing with a shoulder injury.  His timeline has him about a week away and he does have a doctor's appointment scheduled for the weekend, but losing out on a couple early games could be devastating for the Kings going forward.  These two are major concerns.

Is an upset possible?  Highly unlikely.  As well as Quick has been playing, plus the back-up of Jonathan Bernier, just in case, the Kings are without two key offensive players that will be hard to make up for in their depth.  I have the feeling that if anyone is going to run (or swim) with the Sharks this Spring, they will need to be able to go goal for goal down the stretch.  This doesn't look like something the Kings can do, in my opinion.

It's a repeat first round match-up for the Detroit Red Wings and the Phoenix Coyotes in 2011, as they went the distance in 2010, a 7-game series, which unfortunately finished with a 6-1 blowout by the Red Wings, something that the Coyotes would like to correct in 2011.  As the three/six match-up, it might be a little bit closer than it was last year, possibly with a different result.

The Red Wings are making their 20th consecutive appearance in the playoffs this season and there are plenty of new wrinkles in the story.  Age and durability are always the first things mentioned when talking about Detroit, but who they need as their best player is one of their younger players in Jimmy Howard.  Without a doubt, Howard goes into the playoffs as their number one guy again and he had a very good regular season, but he may need an excellent first round of the playoffs to get past the Coyotes this time around.

Pool Injuries  At the end of the year, both Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall were on the shelf, missing out on the last couple of games.  Zetterberg, the Box 1 player for the Red Wings, has already been ruled out of Game One with a lower-body injury, while Kronwall's lower-body injury will have sufficiently healed up for an appearance.  The remainder of the sheet players are good to go, but some may not be operating at 100%, but at this time of year, you'll never have 100% of your players playing at 100%.

This could be the last stand for the Coyotes in Phoenix, as they enter the playoffs as a possible team on the move after the Spring Dance.  The Coyotes are a year wiser and they have a couple more playoff-tested veterans on their side, so there is probably a slightly different mind set in their room going into this year than last.  With Ilya Bryzgalov still tending to the net for the Coyotes, their chances are very good against a high-powered Detroit team, but he'll have to be at his best if they are going to make it past.

Pool Injuries  The Coyotes are a healthy team going into this playoff run and they have been a fairly healthy team for the better part of the year, so I would imagine that they are going to be better prepared to make a really good run at the Red Wings.

Is an upset possible?  The odds are better this year than they were last year.  A healthy Phoenix team against an ailing Red Wings team has got to be considered as a reasonable chance for an upset, but the Coyotes will have to take to the leadership of Ray Whitney and Eric Belanger, both of whom are on the selection sheet.

In the final match-up on the Western Conference side sees the surging Anaheim Ducks, with home-ice advantage, taking on the Nashville Predators, a team that was worked exceptionally hard and kept pace with some of the conference's best teams.  This will be a good clash of some exceptional offense and stingy defense, making this into an epic battle of coaching and player styles.

With the NHL's top goal scorer in tow, the Ducks will have all of their big guns pointed at the Nashville net and it will be interesting to see how they move forward offensively.  Defensively, the Ducks did bulk up their forces on the blueline, which will definitely be a huge boost, as there are some significant questions in net for Anaheim.  Jonas Hiller is the goaltender of record, but his health is the biggest question mark, not to mention Ray Emery's hip problems, which may leave Dan Ellis as their starter in Game One, but we'll have to wait and see.

Pool Injuries  Now, Jonas Hiller was dressed as Dan Ellis' back-up in the last couple games of the season for Anaheim, which suggests that if Ellis did get hurt, Hiller would be good enough to play at the very least.  Now, whether or not he starts in Game One, will be another matter that will be addressed before too long.  The series starts on Wednesday, so we'll find out more soon.

I don't think there is any doubt that the Predators are now known for their keen defensive structure, good goaltending and sufficient scoring, they have been making it into the playoffs on a regular basis on these standards.  This makes Nashville into a reasonable candidate for playoff success in 2011, despite some very tough opponents in the first round.  With Pekka Rinne in net, the Predators will have a great foundation to build upon, trying to shut down a very good offense.  If Rinne and the Nashville defense is working like a well-oiled machine, I would expect a couple shutouts to help move things along.

Pool Injuries  The Preds are in very good shape going into these playoffs, with no one that is listed on the sheet on the news and injury page going into Game One.  This is very good news for Nashville, because it will be all hands on deck, when the puck drops in Anaheim.

Is an upset possible?  I think so.  The Predators are a sound defensive team, that does a really good job keeping the puck out of their net.  If the Ducks are going to be starting this playoff series without Hiller, I would have to think that it is a big detriment to their chances of winning four games in a 7-game series.  Of course, if the Ducks are prepared properly, their offense should be more than enough to outscore the Predators.

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