NHL Playoffs Western Conference Predictions: First Round

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(1)Vancouver Canucks vs. (8)Los Angeles Kings. Vancouver Canucks win in six games.

The LA Kings’ unique forward mix of cerebral two-way stalwarts, physical power-forwards, and skilled playmakers will cause the Canucks some problems on the forecheck, possibly out-possessing the Canucks for stretches over the series, but in the end, the Canucks superior ability to turn their possession into actual goals will win out.

Even if the Los Angeles Kings outplay the Kings for a couple of games, which is a difficult feat in itself, I expect the Canucks to outscore them based on their far superior quick-strike ability if by no other means. The Canucks are the faster and more dynamic offensive team, and while that may not always show in the possession numbers if the Kings get their forecheck going, I expect it to show in goal totals.

The Canucks are also the more experienced and consistent team, with, I believe, the better goaltending. You don’t see them blowing leads and melting down, where the Kings have made a habit of doing just that in big games, most exemplified by their blown 4-0 lead against the Sharks last postseason with Jonathan Quick allegedly between the pipes.

This puts the Kings in a really bad position. Even if they manage to not just outplay the Canucks, but out-score them through the first 40 minutes of a game, I no longer have any confidence that they can hold a lead against a good team. For a team that relies on its defense to win and struggles so much to come back against teams, not being able to hold leads is a fatal flaw. How can you pick a team to win when they can’t come back, but also can’t hold a lead?

So any way you slice it, any way the games go, the Kings are in trouble if they don’t fix that. And you know what, because they usually are such a good defensive team, maybe they will learn how to hold a lead. But I’m still picking the Canucks’ talent to win out. Los Angeles is exactly the type of team to finally learn how to hold a third-period lead just in time to start falling behind teams after two periods.

(2)St Louis Blues vs. (7)San Jose Sharks. (Prediction not available because I am too emotionally involved with the Sharks to make an objective prediction).

I expect this series to be the battle of the forechecks. Special teams and goaltending will also play huge roles. Which team take the stupid penalties? Can the Blues’ struggling power-play get a jump-start facing the Sharks porous penalty kill? Can the Sharks continue their power-play dominance against the NHL’s best penalty kill the last two months of the season? Will Andy McDonald and David Perron lead their offense to new heights, surpassing even their team’s regular season scoring peak and leading them to a series victory, or will the Blues, like the Penguins, fall too in love with their new-found depth and skill and get away from the smart, structured game that brought them so much success? Can Martin Havlat recapture the magic of his 2009 run with the Blackhawks? I’m too emotionally engaged in this series to give an objective analysis at the moment, at least without watching game one and getting something tangible to work off of.

All I can say is the Blues are a very good team, even better than people realize offensively now that they are healthy, and as long as they play their game with confidence, and don’t let the inexperience talk fluster them, I think they will be a very hard team for the Sharks to handle.

My belief is that the Sharks will have to steal some games in that scenario if they want to advance. And by steal, I don’t necessarily mean the Sharks goaltender, Antti Niemi, has to steal a game himself. What I mean by steal is that the Sharks may need to win some games in which they are not the best team, similar to what they did in their regular season finale against the Los Angeles Kings, where the Kings outplayed them for two of three periods, but the Sharks found a way to have more goals than the Kings at the end of 63 minutes despite this.

However, the Kings seem to make stealing games against them easy. They’ve become the master of the meltdown, at least when it comes to facing the Sharks. It won’t be so easy against an even better defensive team in the Blues, and perhaps more importantly, a much more consistent defensive team, and better coached.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

(3)Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6)Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago Blackhawks win in six games.

Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltender Corey Crawford may be the worst starting goaltender in the NHL right now, and Mike Smith of the Coyotes could very well be the best. The Coyotes also seem to be the harder working and more committed club, at least in the regular season. I’ll even go a step further: the Coyotes might have the best forward in the series, too, in Ray Whitney. Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane are bigger names for sure, but Whitney has probably been better than anyone on their team this season. Whitney has been better than anyone on most teams.

However, if the Blackhawks can bridge the gap in work ethic, commitment, defensive structure, shot blocking, and all the other “details” of the game, it is their depth of talent that Phoenix cannot complete with, and it should shine through in the end. I do believe the Blackhawks are one of those teams that does consciously turn it on and work harder in the postseason, similar to the Detroit Red Wings the last couple years. This strategy has not yielded very good results for the Red Wings, but they’ve had other problems with their lineup, too.

Overall, the Blackhawks are the faster and far more dynamic offensive team than their counterpart in this series. They may have trouble finding room on the ice to exhibit their skill against a better coached opponent, however. Still, I have to go with the talent in this one that’s combined with just enough of the other important ingredients needed to win, at least in this series.

Sure, Corey Crawford definitely scares me in-goal, but Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Johnny Oduya are such a dynamic top-three on defense, if Keith just plays within himself, they may be able to protect Crawford in this series, given their opponent lacks the depth of scoring firepower necessary to really exploit the Blackhawks’ weakness in-goal.

Likewise, the Blackhawks’ many other deficiencies, like lack of size and grit, would also scare me more against a bigger and better opponent, but I think they will survive their deficiencies against the Coyotes. The Coyotes definitely hold advantages over the Blackhawks: Mike Smith in-goal, their collective structure and attention to detail, and the Ray Whitney/Radim Vrbata connection. I just don’t think they are enough to overcome the Blackhawks sizable advantage in raw physical talent at both the forward and defense positions.

(4)Nashville Predators vs. (5)Detroit Red Wings. Detroit Red Wings win in six games.

I have not been a fan of the Detroit Red Wings direction the last few years. They seemed to be getting older, softer, shallower, and less talented every season. And their goaltender, Jimmy Howard, somehow managed to keep performing worse than the likes of Chris Osgood despite Howard having an edge in talent.

Jimmy Howard has really stepped up his game this season, but I still don’t trust him at all. He’s the type of goaltender who can have great numbers, but still lets in soft goals at the worst times in big games that cost his team dearly. He’s been awful the last two playoff series against the Sharks.

Given how great Pekka Rinne has played for the Nashville Predators, the goaltending disparity could nearly be seen as enough by itself to predict a series win for the Predators. However, newly-acquired Alexander Radulov potentially side, the Predators still seem to lack that top-end skill up front. I’m a fan of Martin Erat, Mike Fisher, and really the entire cast the Predators have put together in their top-nine forward group, however when I watch them side-by-side with true elite forwards like Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, I feel there’s something missing.

But maybe there’s a problem here when it comes to me predicting this series, that being that I haven’t watched either of these teams play recently, which puts me in an extra-difficult position trying to predict this series.

Overall, I feel the defenses actually match up pretty evenly, contrary to some people’s opinions who believe the Predators have a big advantage. I believe the Predators have the harder, more canadian-style defense that holds up to punishment and physical play better, but that Detroit has its own advantages on the back-end, too, starting with Niklas Kronwall’s dynamism on the second-pairing.

Even Nicklas Lidstrom, despite being compared against the Shea Weber and Ryan Suter pairing as a twosome with Ian White, still comes with his own advantages just by virtue of being Nicklas Lidstrom.

I also like Kyle Quincey on the third-pairing. He’s played pretty poorly since joining Detroit, which is a definite concern, but in the end he’s just too talented, especially for the third-pairing, to not be a big advantage in that role. He’s already excelled in more difficult roles for the Colorado Avalanche, so whatever is causing him to struggle right now, I expect him to get over it.

In total, I think the Red Wings’ have the more offensively talented group of defenseman, while the Predators group is more physical and better defensively. If you were to call that a wash, that would leave the series to be determined by whoever has the best forwards and goaltending. I think there’s no question the Red Wings have the better top-end forwards offensively. Nashville might have the better depth up front, or at least the more physical, detail-oriented group of forwards. Nashville also has the better goaltender by a landslide. Detroit’s penalty kill has also been poor the last few seasons, and Nashville’s top-ranked power-play this season could be what wins them the series.

It could go either way in the end. I haven’t been impressed with Detroit the past two years, and my head is telling me to go with Nashville. My gut says Detroit, though, based on the five minutes of Predators/Red Wings game footage I had time to watch before writing this blog, so that’s what I’m going to go with. Detroit in 6 games, potentially 7.

Written by Shark Circle