The top end match-up in the Western Conference will see the President's Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks playing host to the Los Angeles Kings to open their Western Conference Quarter-Finals series, which starts on Wednesday night. These two teams played each other in the opening round of the playoffs a couple of years ago and it was a very tight series then. These two teams match up well in a number of positions, which should make this into an interesting series.
The Canucks go into this series with the best record in the NHL, but it can be said, they were not playing with the best effort in the league down the stretch. Even without the best effort, they have been able to put some wins together and make a push for 1st place in the West, which may say more about their natural talent than anything else. The question going into the opening round will be whether or not they will be able to turn up the intensity when they need it. In net, the Canucks are expected to go with Roberto Luongo in Game One, but I think everyone is in agreement, that Cory Schneider may not be too far behind, if there is much for faltering in the playoffs.
Pool injuries: The only player of note that is on the injured list and on the playoff pool sheet is Daniel Sedin, who missed the last few weeks with a concussion. The team has indicated that he has been skating by himself over the last week or so and they have faith that he will be ready to go for Game One.
The Kings come into the playoffs having lost a key game to the San Jose Sharks, which would have given them a date with the St. Louis Blues instead, but they draw the Canucks, who have been difficult on them all year long. The Kings were able to re-tool a lot for the 2012 season, both in the off-season and during the year, which should help their offense out, something that their number one goalie, Jonathan Quick, would greatly appreciate. Quick and the Kings played in a lot of 1-goal games, which has been hard on the team, but makes for good playoff preparation.
Pool injuries: The Kings also have a key player on the shelf going into the playoffs, as Jeff Carter has been out with an ankle injury in the last week. There hasn't been much for good news regarding his injury, as he wasn't skating in mid-week, but a lot can happen in a week with this injury. I would say he should be considered questionable, at best.
Is an upset possible? The Kings success will hinge directly on Quick and the defense in front of him. The Canucks will come with a lot of firepower and a lot of depth and even with semi-mediocre goaltending, they should be okay. If Quick is 'lights out' early and often, the Kings can make this close, but it doesn't seem terribly likely that they can escape the first round.
The two-seven match-up in the Western Conference sees some new faces to the playoff party versus some of the West's old hats at this game, but they are not seeded in the way that you may have assumed. The St. Louis Blues were among the NHL leaders for the majority of the season, dropping a few decisions late to lose out on top spot in the West, while the San Jose Sharks were in trouble for the last month of the season, on the verge of even missing the playoffs, if it wasn't for a good push late. This series has some real potential to it, as the young legs will give the veterans a good run-around in this series.
The Blues are a team that prides themselves on their speed, physical play and they boast the top goaltending tandem in the league, something the NHL hasn't seen ever. This is a strong combination of talents, which will provide anyone who matches up against them some real trouble. The Blues will roll four lines on the Sharks in this opening series, each of them providing their own flavour of trouble and in behind those lines, the Blues will likely go with Jaroslav Halak to start the playoffs, but much like the Canucks, they have a capable goaltender to help out in Brian Elliott, who had 9 shutouts of his own this year.
Pool injuries: The only player on the pool sheet that finished the season on the injury/news page was Jason Arnott, who was a healthy scratch on Saturday night, preserving his legs for Game One and likely preventing any possible injury. Giving him the night off was likely a good move.
It really looked like the San Jose Sharks were not terribly fussed with where they finished up in the Western Conference playoff picture, as long as they finished up in the picture, period. When the Sharks fell out of the playoff picture, they were able to turn up the intensity and they were able to finish off the season with some key wins and they managed to get themselves into the seven hole and they were given the Blues as their opening round opponent. The Sharks will be backstopped by Antti Niemi, who won the Cup with the Blackhawks a couple of years ago, but has been shaky in the last few weeks of play, which makes for more questions than answers.
Pool injuries: The Sharks appear to be healthy, among all of their selection sheet players, so they will be a strong class to contend with in the opening round.
Is an upset possible? Considering who the Sharks are and how much talent they have on their side, it's hard to really consider this match-up very lopsided to think in terms of upsets, but since the Blues were far more consistent in the regular season, they are significant favourites. Nevertheless, the youth of the Blues will be tested in the system that Ken Hitchcock has provided them, but the Sharks are skilled and wily, which should make for an interesting series. I would say an upset is definitely possible and may polarize some entries in the playoff pool this year.
A new playoff match-up highlights the three-six series, as the Phoenix Coyotes, the Pacific Division winner, will get the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round and these two teams haven't seen each other in playoff action before, which gives it a new car smell, when you look at how these two teams may match-up. The Coyotes are a hard working bunch with great goaltending, while the Blackhawks are a talented bunch with some goaltending questions going into the playoffs.
The Coyotes as a team play a very sound game in all three zones, but in order to do so, they have to use th systems that are in place to maximize what talent that they have in the line-up. In order to play a sound game in all three zones, there has to be a lot of trust in the defense that they play and there looks to be quite a bit of that, especially in net. Mike Smith has been an absolute rock in the line-up for the Coyotes and he has given the team some real legs to run on. Smith with get some Vezina consideration and rightfully so and he will need to carry the Coyotes, if they move further into the playoffs.
Pool injuries: Box 10 defenseman Adrian Aucoin was dealing with a lower-body injury at the end of March, early part of April and he was held out of the Coyotes line-up in the last week of action. It looks like Aucoin could have been held out to preserve his veteran legs for the playoffs and given their opening round opponents, he really could have used the rest and recovery.
Chicago has seen some real ups and downs in their 2012 regular season campaign, some real good stretches met with some mediocre to bad stretches, which really makes you question what kind of resolve that the team has. The Blackhawks will be going into the playoffs with Corey Crawford as their number one goalie, but Ray Emery has seen regular time, except for down the stretch, but I don't think the team will wait too long to try and get a spark from their club by changing goalies. There are plenty of question marks there and then some in their regular line-up, which make them into a bit of wild card.
Pool injuries: It doesn't sound like the concussion to Jonathan Toews is getting much better, as he still hasn't been skating much and his symptoms continue to linger. His status for Game One is doubtful, which hangs like a dark cloud over this series for the Blackhawks. The Hawks are also waiting for good news for Box 7 forward Dave Bolland, who is dealing with an upper-body injury of his own and his status for Game One is questionable, but I would assume that he is ready to go, as he is that kind of playoff competitor.
Is an upset possible? Again, this is a series where you cannot really call the six team beating the three team much of an upset, since the Blackhawks did finish with more points than the Coyotes, but for the sake of the seeding, you can. The injury problems and goaltending questions make the Blackhawks into a longer shot, but you cannot discount Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, not to mention Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. A Blackhawks series win is certainly likely, but those Coyotes won't go away quietly, if they do at all.
The four-five series between the Predators and Red Wings feature two teams that are no strangers to one another, being division rivals and all. The Predators have taken another step up on the Red Wings, taking home-ice advantage from them to open up this Western Conference Quarter-Finals series and that could make life very difficult for the Red Wings.
The Predators were one of the busier teams at the trade deadline (and post-deadline), adding pieces for their playoff push this year, including Paul Gaustad, Andrei Kostitsyn and of course, Alexander Radulov. Sure, only one of those players feature on the playoff pool sheet, the Predators do have some depth on their side and they are expected to play hard and well this year. The Predators will boast the best fantasy goaltender in the league this year in Pekka Rinne and he will make life for the Red Wings very difficult as well. Last year, the Predators were dispatched by the Canucks in the second round and you can bet that they are trying to move a little further than that this year.
Pool injuries: Doesn't look like there is much for injuries on the Predators size, but Box 5 forward Colin Wilson was a regular healthy scratch for the team in the last couple of weeks. I don't know how he figures into the team's plans going forward, but since he has been a scratch, he may be held out of the opening night line-up, which may mean he'll only figure into the line-up when injuries occur. You may want to avoid Wilson.
The Red Wing just don't miss the playoffs. If there was one thing they don't do, it's miss the playoffs. Even with injuries to Jimmy Howard, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom through the year, the rest of the team has been able to step up and keep getting results. Now, some of those results may not have been what the team has wanted, but they have made it to the playoffs, where they are their most dangerous. Howard will man the nets for the Red Wings and he has struggled a little since his injury, but I would think that himself and the rest of the team will ramp up their effort to start this series and make the Predators really work for their results.
Pool injuries: The X-factor for the Red Wings is Dan Cleary, so he is the guy in Box 7 on the selection sheet. He had missed the last week or so with a sore knee, which shouldn't keep him out of the opening game of this series. I would say that he is good to go, if you were looking at his playoff pedigree on your pool team.
Is an upset possible? The playoff experience that the Red Wings have is hard to bet against, no matter how bad their regular season may have been. I like where the Wings are in their game, despite possibly being in the twilight of their collective hockey careers. I think an upset is possible, but this series should go long and tough. I can't count the Red Wings out, can you?