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First Round Keys: Western Conference

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If fan whipping boy Roberto Luongo plays poorly against the offensively-challenged Kings, calls for backup netminder Cory Schneider will ring from the rafters in Vancouver. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

If you’re looking for Stanley Cup predictions, you’ve come to the wrong place. As we’ve previously written, predictions are a waste of time. However, we’re willing to take some stabs at what is each playoff team about. What do they have to do to win? What must they avoid to prevent things from going south?

So here are the keys to the first round match-ups in the Western Conference.  You can find the Eastern Conference here.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS (1) vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS (8)

Canucks – Who they are and how they win: They shook off a late season malaise to finish 8-1-1 in their last 10 — much of the time without Daniel Sedin – while playing dominant hockey down the stretch and capturing the Presidents’ Trophy. A superskilled team with a some bite, Vancouver has the best offense in the conference and, potentially, a strong power play. The Canucks have  refined their roster this season a bit, adding depth with a solid offensive performer in David Booth, a proven shutdown center in Sami Pahlsson, and some menace in Zack Kassian. The defense corps excels at moving the puck forward, and the only question in goal is which guy, Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider, will finish the series.

What could go wrong: If Luongo plays poorly, Schneider remains an unknown when it comes to carrying a team in the playoffs. The power play struggled in the second half and if Daniel Sedin’s concussion symptoms keep him sidelined for an extended period (he was ruled out for Game 1), that probably won’t help its improvement.  Even if Sedin returns, the Canucks, who haven’t always gotten secondary scoring,  will need it if the defensively proficient Kings can shut down their top line. And superior physicality could allow the Kings to win more battles along the boards, in the corners and in the slot. L.A.’s stiffling defense has the potential to frustrate the Canucks into taking penalties. If things go wrong and the Vancouver fan base turns on the team, that could be a significant negative. And Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick is good enough to steal this series.

Kings – Who they are and how they win:  They’re the epitome of Sutter-style meat-and-potatoes hockey. The Kings get it out, get it in, get to the front of the net, and smash the opposition, which is the way coach Darryl Sutter likes it. They don’t score much — the fewest goals in the league this season — but L.A. also doesn’t allow many. Only the Blues surrendered fewer goals and, led by the shutdown duo of Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell, the Kings don’t allow many shots, either. They have the ability to get a goal or two and let Quick do the rest. They have, though, added some guys who have had some playoff success, most notably Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, to augment their few reliable scorers.

What could go wrong: Very simply, if they don’t get enough scoring, the Kings won’t win, and Carter may not be 100 percent as he contends with an ankle injury. They are already without Simon Gagne, who is gone for the season with a concussion. Quick cannot be anything less than at his best. Should Vancouver’s power play revive and the Kings run into penalty trouble with their physical play, even L.A.’s penalty kill — which is quite good — might not be able to contain all of the Canucks’ offensive threats.

ST. LOUIS BLUES (2) vs. SAN JOSE SHARKS (7)

Blues — Who they are and how they win: They took a leap in the West by playing coach Ken Hitchcock’s 200-foot game, pressuring the puck all over the ice. They block a lot of shots and don’t allow the opposition many chances to score, giving up the fewest goals in the league. They’re adept at keeping the puck in the other team’s end and wearing them down. St. Louis has very good depth on its big, mobile defense, led by a pair of young puckcarriers, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. The blueline corps will lean on opposing forwards and make life difficult for them. There’s also size at the forward positions – where captain David Backes is emerging as a star performer with David Perron not far behind him – and Cup experience in Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. The Blues play a rugged, tight checking playoff-style game all season, so they won’t have to change the basics of their game plan.

What could go wrong: They didn’t finish particularly strong, so could their physical style have worn them down? While the coach and some vets have been through the playoff wars, the young core of the club is not very experienced in the postseason, and its’ regular season results carry expectations it may not be able to carry. The Sharks’ greater experience could be a factor, especially if they can break down Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk with physical pounding. If the Blues get into penalty trouble, their good PK could face a big challenge from an excellent Sharks power play. While goalie Jaroslav Halak, who faltered in the late going, has been a playoff hero, he doesn’t do well playing long stretches of games. Brian Elliott, who is not 100 percent physically, has little NHL playoff experience.

Sharks — Who they are and how they win: An experienced postseason club, San Jose turned it up in the late going with a strong finish to grab a playoff spot and could be peaking at the right time. The Sharks are led by three terrific playmakers, the two Joes — Thornton and Pavelski – and Logan Couture. Most years, Patrick Marleau has been a consistent playoff goal scorer. Like the Blues, the Sharks  have good puckmovers on the back end and try to exit their own zone quickly to grind it out in the opposition’s end, although they had less success at that for large stretches this season. Unlike the Blues, they have a very good power play (ranked second in the NHL as opposed to St. Louis at 19) and a Cup-winner in goal in Antti Niemi, who has been known to elevate his game at the right time.

What could go wrong? If the Blues can shut down Thornton and Pavelski, it will take a big part of the Sharks’ offense away. Marleau could have one of his occasional postseason off-years. Should St. Louis be able to dictate the play, come with their hard forecheck, and keep the Sharks stuck in their own zone too much, that could cascade into problems, slowing their defense corps (if not crippling it) and increasing the pressure on Niemi, who can be inconsistent regardless of his Cup experience. Should the Blues penalty kill stifle San Jose’s power play, that could sink the Sharks, too. They have historically underachieved in the playoffs and while this year’s below par regular season may take the pressure off them, they might also just not have playoff success in their DNA.

PHOENIX COYOTES (3) vs. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (6).

Coyotes – Who they are and how they win: A well-coached team by Dave Tippett, the Coyotes don’t beat themselves. They play with structure and discipline, keeping opponents frustrated and the shooting lanes clear for MVP goalie Mike Smith to get good looks at most of the things coming his way. Typically under-the-radar, the Coyotes may have the best defenseman in the NHL no one knows about in Oliver Ekman-Larsson– a strong skater and puck-mover who consistently makes good decisions in all situations and is excellent positionally. He can be a difference-maker. And in Radim Vrbata, they have their first 35-goal scorer since Keith Tkachuk notched 36 in 1998-99. But they win through team defense and their 194 goals-against was fifth best in the league. There’s also excellent leadership with veterans Ray Whitney and captain Shane Doan keeping everyone focused through the franchise’s interminable off-ice woes.

What could go wrong: Playoff success has eluded this franchise forever and the Coyotes will be going into a raucous building in Chicago, a theater that might prove too big for them. Their reliable offense remains limited to a few players, so if Chicago can shut them down, that could doom the desert dogs.

Blackhawks — Who they are and how they win: When healthy, this is a rock solid lineup, four lines deep up front and strong on the blueline, especially at the top end. It’s a team with big bodies and the ability to dictate the run of play with its puck possession game. Well-coached by Joel Quenneville, they are only two years removed from winning it all and know what it takes. Chicago is also quite good down the middle, led by one of the game’s great young players and leaders in Jonathan Toews. Dave Bolland is one of the top shutdown centers in the game.

What could go wrong: If  Toews or Bolland or both aren’t 100 percent or miss games due to injury, that will cripple the Hawks’ chances. While their goaltenders, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, have struggled at times, both have raised their games in the postseason before and they’ll have to do it here against a very opportunistic team that likely won’t give up many goals.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS (4) vs. DETROIT RED WINGS (5)

Predators – Who they are and how they win: Like the Blues and Bruins, the Preds play a strong game all over the ice. They’ve got an all-world puckstopper in goal with Pekka Rinne. Their defense corps, led by the league’s top tandem of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, got stronger at the deadline with the acquisition of Cup champion Hal Gill. Other in-season additions bolstered Nashville. Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn give them an added offensive dimension, and Paul Gaustad supplies aggression and the ability to win face-offs. A pair of unheralded youngsters, rookie Craig Smith and Matt Halischuk, have given them some good scoring depth. This is a very good team, under the radar.

Where it could go wrong: The Preds have never beaten Detroit in a postseason series or won a playoff game in Detroit. That’s some heavy baggage to shed, and if the Wings are in their heads, it may adversely effect Nashville. If the Preds don’t win both of the first two games at home, it will give the Red Wings confidence knowing that they can keep the voodoo going. Also, should the Preds top ranked power play not kick into gear, that will take a big part of their offense out of the equation. And finally, after their top pair on defense, the Preds could be vulnerable, especially if Gill is not 100 percent. That could be the opening Detroit needs to get to Rinne.

Red Wings – Who they are and how they win: For the first time in ages, they’re an underdog heading into a series. Detroit still combines high-end skill, speed, puck possession and a good amount of grit with a commitment to team defense, solid goaltending and excellent coaching. Injuries derailed the Wings in the second half and still pose questions. Jimmy Howard, through his own bouts with injury, has been very good in goal for most of the season. Both Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are world-class two-way forwards who can shut down any opposing center. And, of course, the Wings have been very tough to beat at Joe Louis Arena this season.

What could go wrong: Lingering injuries to Darren Helm and Dan Cleary plus the loss of Patrick Eaves for the season due to concussion could hurt Detroit’s team speed and special teams play. In fact, special teams have been a Wings’ weakness this season and should that continue, it could prove fatal. The Preds’ big forwards could dominate Detroit’s smaller group and if Nashville’s size and determined play translate into a high number of shots and scoring chances, Howard, even at his best, may not be enough to stop them.

Those are the keys in the West. The keys in the East are here.

That’s a very well-known version. It’s been recorded and performed countless times by everyone from Little Walter, B.B. King, and Big Bill Broonzy to the Steve Miller Band and the Derek Trucks Band. But here’s the original:

What’s next for the season’s also-rans

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Both the Stars and Flames are in for some serious evaluation — in Dallas, it starts in the front office; in Calgary with a veteran roster that may require turning iconic captain Jarome Iginla into trade bait. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

While everyone is talking playoff matchups and predicting the number of stitches that doctors will need to close the combined wounds of the Penguins and Flyers, there are 14 other clubs who are packing up for the summer and planning for next season. Here’s a roundup of the NHL’s also-rans and what might be in store for them during the offseason. We’ll start at the bottom of the league and work our way up.

Columbus – Yes, the Blue Jackets won seven of their last 11 games and ownership continues to back the hockey department, but the team’s dreadful start when so much was expected, its last place finish, the coaching change, the fan protest, and the Rick Nash mess all made for a dreadful season. The future of interim coach Todd Richards is uncertain, but the huge question mark is Nash’s fate. If he is traded — which is widely expected — what will embattled GM Scott Howson get in return? Will it be enough to reverse this club’s direction and win back the many discontented fans? Michael Arace of The Columbus Dispatch summed it all up over the weekend.

Edmonton — This was the sixth straight non-playoff season for the Oilers – ever year since their 2006 run to the Stanley Cup Final — and one in which they fell short in some observers’ expectations. Their 12-point improvement over last year (and the year before) disappointed those who had hoped this young club would at least make a run at the playoffs. That never happened. Whether GM Steve Tambellini and/or coach Tom Renney could take the fall for that is an open question, but there is a crying need — as there was a year ago — for the Oilers to strengthen the defensive side of their game. Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal has more here.

Montreal – The Canadiens’ misery has been well-chronicled. Their last place finish and bizarre off-ice moves were an embarrassment to this legendary franchise. A new GM is the first order of business and he’ll most likely hire a new coach. Serge Savard is rumored to be in line for a senior VP position (he’s denied it). Injuries, especially to Andrei Markov, played a role, but the Habs had only one productive line and they badly need to build offensive depth. CTV’s Brian Wilde discusses the Habs’ plight with La Presse’s Francois Gagnon and TSN’s John Lu in a video seen here.

New York Islanders – It’s been five years now since the Isles last appeared in the postseason and, like the Oilers, they’ve been collecting young talent up front but have shown weaknesses on the back end. This team’s defense corps is not particularly speedy in an increasingly fast NHL, nor is it effectively physical. While GM Garth Snow said he’s not expecting any big changes to the roster during the offseason (meaning, don’t expect a big free agent signing, as this team likes to keep its budget low), he does have to try to hold on to one of his own important pending free agents: P.A. Parenteau, who a number of other teams hope remains unsigned by July 1. Arthur Staple of Newsday poses more questions facing the Islanders here.

Toronto – There’s enough blame to go around for their’ 8-18-4 collapse during the final two months and even Maple Leafs fans are getting a share. They’re calling for GM Brian Burke’s head, so this could be an unstable situation with new ownership coming in shortly and probably not willing to put up with continuing the team’s 45 years of futility. It seems that no part of the roster or hockey department functioned as hoped, but Burke needs to address at least two glaring problems he thought he’d solved a year ago: the need for an NHL-proven goaltender and a true Number One center to play with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.  More on possible roster moves here from Terry Koshan of The Toronto Sun.

Anaheim – A poor start, a coaching change, and a strong second half, but a slip in March took the Ducks on a rollercoaster ride in which some of their top players were thought to be on the way out of town. GM Bob Murray didn’t pull the trigger on any big moves and now faces an offseason in which he has to take a hard look at his club, an also-ran in two of the last three seasons. If 41-year-old Teemu Selanne – its top scorer — retires, Murray will have a big hole to fill. But he’s also got to gauge whether some other big names have the offensive consistency to make the Ducks a force in the West again. Their defense corps needs an upgrade as well, which may or may not come from signing collegiate star Justin Schultz, who could opt for free agency. These topics and more are covered in a video discussion between Tanya Lyon, Eric Stephens and Jeff Miller of The Orange County Register.

Minnesota — The Wild’s collapse started earlier than Toronto’s. This was the NHL’s surprise team for the first 30 games, then it plummeted as injuries dragged it down and the organization’s depth was tested and didn’t really pass. That was the result of poor personnel moves prior to and since Chuck Fletcher became GM. Fletcher has tried to make up for some of what he inherited, but the Wild still lack enough top-end talent, especially on offense. They were the league’s lowest scoring team this season, with only 166 goals, or 2.02 per game. This won’t be a stellar summer for free agency, but you can expect Fletcher to take a run at what is available, especially local product Zach Parise if the Devils can’t keep him from hitting the open market. Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune examines the Wild’s trading and drafting and Fletcher’s performance here.

Carolina – The late November coaching change from Paul Maurice to Kirk Muller helped turn their season around (they went 20-12-10 in the new year) and has them believing they aren’t too far away from returning to the postseason. They have some very good high-end youngsters in popular Jeff Skinner (whose season was interrupted by a concussion) and young d-man Justin Falk. Still, they need a goal-scoring winger to play with Eric Staal, having let Erik Cole walk away in free agency last summer, and could use some depth on defense. GM Jim Rutherford says he’ll take a run at a big free agent. More on the ‘Canes season from Chip Alexander of The Raleigh News-Observer here.

Winnipeg – The honeymoon with the fans was great, but it probably won’t linger deep into next season if the club falters again. The Jets are set in goal with Ondrej Pavelec, but their team defensive play badly needs work. In his postmortem with the media, coach Claude Noel talked about the players’ collective mindset needing improvement, which is hard to comprehend considering the fan support they receive. So GM Kevin Cheveldayoff may be in the hunt for some character guys during the offseason. He  has a number of UFAs and RFAs to contend with, and there is a need for this club to be more physical, especially up front. Kirk Penton of The Winnipeg Sun lists the areas he thinks need improvement.

Tampa Bay – Every season, it seems, one team makes a surprise leap forward only to fall back the following year. That was the Lightning’s story, stumbling after last year being one game away from the Cup Final — and in both seasons it had something to do with the play of 42-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson. He and Mathieu Garon were less than advertised this season (after the team let Mike Smith walk away in free agency), but a top netminder is only one area in which GM Steve Yzerman must improve his team. Victor Hedman is still developing, but the Lightning have never really replaced Dan Boyle as a true Number One defenseman. If one becomes available in free agency — like, say, Nashville’s Ryan Suter — expect Yzerman to be in the long line to sign him. Led by Steven Stamkos, this club has no problems scoring, but its once-formidable special teams play, like the season as a whole, went slip sliding away. The Tampa Bay Times’ Damian Cristodero breaks down the Lightning’s performance here.

Colorado – A team that touted itself as much improved when the season started didn’t play that way until the second half, and that was only after GM Greg Sherman tinkered with his roster. Still, the end result was positive — a shot at the postseason and a 20-point improvement. By season’s end, the Avs had the NHL’s youngest roster. The offseason will reveal whether captain Milan Hedjuk, the link to the Avs’ glorious past, returns and whether Sherman decides to keep Paul Stastny, who some believe underperforms. But their biggest need is a top defenseman, especially on the power play. Once upon a time, they had Kevin Shattenkirk. More thoughts on the Avs from Adrian Dater in his full-time gig for The Denver Post.

Buffalo – After all their offseason moves and heightened expectations, the only way to classify this season is as a disappointment. Even the late run at a playoff spot, and the injury bug excuse, haven’t provided much solace because a large number of Sabres players had down seasons. Just where that leaves this organization is anyone’s guess. One team executive said during the season that the club was considering breaking up its core. Even Ryan Miller was thought to be available. Management will have a tough debriefing job assessing whose shortcomings deserve a second chance and whose merit being shipped elsewhere for fresh faces. John Vogl of The Buffalo News reflects on a lost season.

Dallas – A team in transition, from behind the bench to the ownership suite to the ice, the Stars missed the postseason for the fourth straight year. Some people are beginning to question GM Joe Nieuwendyk’s performance. He has, however, been hamstrung by the drawn-out ownership mess that tarnished the franchise and cut the team’s budget, allowing Brad Richards to walk away last summer in free agency. With the team’s finances no longer a problem, the Stars will look to add depth to all areas of their game during the offseason, with the exception of goaltender, where they look strong, led by Kari Lehtonen. Owner Tom Gaglardi shared his thoughts on the club with ESPN Dallas’ Mark Stepneski here.

Calgary – Like the Oilers, the Flames have not won a playoff series since their last trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but unlike their Albertan rival, they don’t have a roster filled with promising young talent, although there are some promising youngsters on the way. But until the cavalry arrives, the Flames need to get better for next season, and that could mean decision time on some of their veterans, most notably Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, whose trades could bring a lot in return. It would be emotionally painful to part with those two cornerstones, but the need to create cap space and bring in new bodies could leave GM Jay Feaster with little alternative. In The Calgary Sun, Steve MacFarlane makes the case for a Flames rebuild.

It’s a tough time to be a fan if your team is done for the year, and if you need more to cheer you up, you might want to read this Ryan Kennedy piece for The Hockey News website. Like your team, you’ve got to look ahead and not let it get you down.

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  • Published On Apr 11, 2012
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