Season Series: Sharks 2-1-1
The San Jose Sharks have the 2nd best record in the Western Conference (Chicago has the most wins) and come from the Pacific Division which is packed with great teams such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Dallas. A few years ago it was the Ducks and Stars that were a lock to make it… now the Coyotes and Kings join San Jose. The Sharks have played great hockey over the entire season and through-out 2009-10 have put together numourous winning steaks of at leave five games. They did have one losing streak of five straight during the season but three were lost after regulation and after they ripped off eight straight wins. They finished the season with a record of 50-21-11 and were neck-and-neck for the last two weeks with the Blackhawks for 1st place. The offence lead by Thornton, Marleau and Heatley combined for 254 points and they’re defence is lead by Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and veteran leader Rob Blake. Evgeni Nabokov is the Sharks goalie and while having his worst year statistically for goal against average, he has faced the most shots ever in his career and put up his best career save percentage. The Sharks are clearly one of the teams to beat in the West with offensive fire-power, great defence but what is most important (and questionable) will be the play of Nobokov. The Western Conference is one by far more competitive with 95+ points being the amount you need to make the playoffs (the East magic number was just under 90 points) and it’s possible for any team to knock off their opponent in the West because of that. An eight could beat a one, but my gut feelings tells me San Jose won’t be overly tested until they face the likes of Chicago, Vancouver or Phoenix. With that being said, since the NHL lock-out the Sharks have failed to make it passed the 2nd round with 3 straight losses to Oilers, Red Wings and Stars in the 2nd round before last year ducking out early to the #8 Ducks in shocking fashion… won’t happen with the Avalanche.
The Colorado Avalanche have a young and talented team but the problem lies with their inconsistency every time they step on the ice. The Avalanche are a team who can beat you 4-1, but at the same time lose 3-0 to the very same team the very next night but this inconsistency will only last for a couple years until Colorado gets some experience under their belt. After all, look at the teams leaders for points (with their age in brackets), Paul Stastny (24), Chris Stewart (22), Matt Duchene (19), Wojtek Wolski (24), Milan Hejduk (the exception at 34), and T.J Galiardi (21). Tons of young talent leads this team offensively but through-out the season they have shown they can’t be the best team in the West like teams such as San Jose and Chicago. Matt Duchene suffered a torso injury in the 2nd last game of the season and even if he is 100% physically, he won’t be there 100% mentally and personally I don’ t think he will be playing at full strength. The entire team is quite young, even the starting defensemen Kyle Quincey and Kyle Cuminsky are twenty-four and twenty-three respectively, and Ryan Wilson who plays on the 2nd line is even younger than all of them (he just turned 23 in February). To put things in perspective, Ruslan Salei is on the second line and veterans Adam Foote and John-Michael Liles have put pushed all the way back to the third line. Don’t get me wrong, the Avalanche are so skilled it’s not even funny but they are way to young and inexperience to put up a fight against the San Jose Sharks. Sometime around early June 2014, I hoped you’ve marked on your calendar that the Colorado Avalanche will be playing the Stanley Cup because if the Avalanche had a goalie with the skills and credentials of Roberto Luongo or Martin Brodeur, they’d be a contender much earlier if Craig Anderson could be put in the same sentence (he never will).
TheCoach’s Pick: SHARKS in FIVE
Season Series: Blackhawks 4-2-0
Back when Jeremy Roenick and Eddy Belfour were young and on the Chicago BlackHawks, I really enjoyed watching them play but in the 2000′s they had hit a stand still and were completely horrible. What they were doing was exactly what they needed to do to put themselves in the position they are today. All those years that you wished you weren’t a Blackhawk fan are long gone as young phenoms Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien have taken over and turned Chicago back into the fun and flashy team they were in the early 90′s. Also note, Marian Hossa suffered some bumps and bruises to finish the season and won’t be 100%. The Blackhawks opened up the season with three straight losses, but never surrendered three straight again until they did twice to end off the month of March losing 7-of-10. They got back to their winning ways to finish of the season in April and locked up the 2nd seed in the Western conference which puts them against Nashville Predators. The Blackhawks are a young and quick team but they are looking for a franchise goalie they could stick with for years. When they picked up Cristobal Huet they were hoping they had found the gem they were looking for but its been Antti Niemi who had had much better stats. Huet has playedmore games but once they started playing Niemi, he has put up a better save percentage by approximately 0.3 points and his goals against is just under a half goal per game better. If Niemi can handle the pressure in the playoffs as well all the other young players building on the experience of getting to the Conference Final last year, Chicago may just be in the Stanley Cup Final. But much like San Jose, question marks will remain around goaltending until at least a series into the playoffs but I don’t expect the Predators to give Chicago much of a battle.
If you take the year of the lockout out of the picture, the Nashville Predators have clinched a playoff berth in 4 of the last 5 years (last season they didn’t) but unfortunately for the team, the organization and their fans, every time they get to the playoffs they make an early exit in the first round, twice to the Red Wings, and twice to the Sharks. If you live on the east-coast (like us at LDU), you don’t generally see teams like Nashville, Columbus, Anaheim or Phoenix play and due to it, I will admit, I don’t know the Nashville Predators as well as I should but if history tells us anything, they will probably bow out of the playoffs early right? Don’t be so sure… the Predators are filled with with a roster of players who get the job done night-in-night-out. Unfortunately Patrik Hornqvist, their leading scorer was banged up in the last couple games in the season and it’s unsure how much it will effect him (don’t expect much out of Nashville’s camp either on his status). Other than Hornqvist, you have Steve Sullivan, Martin Erat, Jason Arnott, J.P Dumont and Marcel Goc, who are all exactly what I said, middle-on-the-road players who gel extremely well together and win games. The Preds have a solid defence lead by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter with Dan Hamhuis and Francois Boullion as the 2nd line. The biggest surprise for Nashville this year has been the play of their keeper Pekka Rinne who split time early with Dan Ellis but once the Predators front office realized it was Rinne who was winning them games, they’ve stuck with him as much as they can ever since. Even if the Predators are better than years past, I do not have enough confidence in them to take them over the young dynamic Chicago Blackhawks.
TheCoach’s Pick: BLACKHAWKS in FIVE
Los Angeles Kings
Season Series: 3-1-0
The Vancouver Canucks will go into the playoffs facing off against the Los Angeles Kings. Last year, they made the abysmal attempt to advance their chances by picking up Mats Sundin late in the season. It failed and this year, they did things the right way with getting back to what Canuck fans know best; stellar play from the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows. And even though everyone expected them to win the weak Northwest divison (Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota and Colorado), they have in most way exceeded the expectation of many (prime example is Henrik Sedin at the top of the league in points). The other thing that could will a HUGE factor in this years playoffs is that Roberto Luongo can now play with major confidence knowing he has won the big one with Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. The Canucks have a fairly strong defence in front of Luongo with Edler and Ehrhoff as the 1st pairing with a solid 2nd pairing of Bieksa and Salo. Vancouver will be looking to win their 3rd franchise conference championship with previous titles in 1981-82′ and 1993-94′ but unfortunately neither time they were able to capture Lord Stanley and it has haunted fans for what seems like an eternity. When Vancouver joined the league in 1970, nobody thought that 40 years later, Western-Canadian hockey buffs would be still sitting and waiting for the Stanley Cup to be won be their beloved Canucks. It may not only be British Columbia cheering on the Canucks, as they are the highest Canadian team by points and seed (Ottawa – 94 Pts, Montreal – 88 Pts) and if the Sens and Habs get knocked out early, the entire nation will be backing Vancouver in hopes they can bring the cup to Canada (where it belongs) for the first time since Montreal did it back in 1992-93. Roberto Luongo has won at the highest level, Henrik Sedin has proved he is one of the best players in the NHL and Vancouver needs to now prove they are capable of bringing home the most coveted trophy in all of sport; oh’ Lord Stanley.
The Los Angeles Kings have talent and that is something that can’ t be denied. When you hear the following names; Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson Jarret Stoll and Michael Handzus… you think talent. And when you wear the name Ryan Smyth involved in all of it, you know he was brought their to bring this young talented team together and win a Stanley Cup. Offensively, the Kings could actually do it, defensively, the Kings could have a chance but if you have seem any theme here in my previews, you aren’t alone. Goaltending is the absolute biggest advantage (or disadvantage) a team can have in post-season hockey. Jonathan Quick is good, and he has played the majority the Kings games, but by no means can he be considered a great goalie. He can be put in the same category as Jimmy Howard in Detroit or Craig Anderson in Colorado. Coming from a strong Pacific Division has helped the Kings prepare against some of the best teams in the Western Conference with divisional rivals Phoenix and San Jose and the first-line defensive pairing of Doughty and Johnson is so young that for years to come, the Kings could have the best blue-line in the game. If they hang onto stars like Kopitar and Frolov, you may actually see the Kings not only back in the playoffs but contending for the cup in years to come. The 2009-10 season may be a little early though, and going up against Vancouver Canucks and Roberto Luongo will just show how inexperienced Los Angeles truly is. By no means am I writing off the Kings because when I started the write-up, it began with how talented they are. At they same time, they don’t have an experienced team and most importantly they have a goalie which could ultimately lead to their downfall.
TheCoach’s Pick: CANUCKS in SIX
Detroit Red Wings
Season Series: Phoenix 2-0-2
The Phoenix Coyotes! Wow, did anyone before the season started expect the Coyotes to be in the playoffs, let along have home-ice advantage in the first round or 107 points to finish the season? Truly unbelievable. Before this year got under way, all the talk was about Jim Balsillie trying to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. Half-way through the season, all the talk turned to ‘Are the Coyotes for real or will they collapse as the season continues’… and now, the talk has turned to ‘Who the heck are the Phoenix Suns? Go Yotes Go!’ The Coyotes are in the playoffs for a couple of reasons but the obvious reason has been due to the stellar play of their netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, who without a doubt, is one of the better goalies in the league. I mentioned in my Eastern Conference write-up’s that the Buffalo Sabres aren’t a team with high-profile or high-priced players. Well, the Coyotes are an even lower profile team with a mass group of players who all produce mediocre stats but together have learned a way to out-play and out-smart their opponents. Twelve Coyotes have over 20 points on the season but none of them have over 60 and listed on NHL.com are the top 30 players by points (list shows top 30) and you got to dig to page two to find their leader in points (Shane Doan) who is around 70th in the NHL. None of that will matter though, because Doan along with Matthew Lombardi, Radim Vrbata, Scottie Upshall, paired up with defensemen such as Adrian Aucoin, Ed Jovanovski and Zbynek Michalek, along with Ilya Bryzgalov playing well between the pipes… the Hamilton Phoenix Coyotes are for real. When people said they needed to move and had no fan base, they’ve found a way to make that grow this year. When everyone doubted them and said they’d fail, they played even harder and won more games. And when the playoffs get under way and they skate onto the ice in Jobing.com Arena (stupid name), don’t expect it to look like this team was not fighting to stay in Glendale just a mere eight months ago.
At one point this season, the Detroit Red Wings could be consider the Detroit Dead Wings. A team known for making the playoffs was at one point (pre-Olympic break) looking like they were all but done. A team who last time they didn’t make the playoffs, was the 1989-90 season and if you are a Detroit fan, every year they give you something to cheer about. Those we’re the years of Steve Yzerman, Sergei Federov, Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov… among many other greats. Now the team is lead by co-superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and don’t think I am saying that those two superstars aren’t great because they are two of the best in the league but they also have the best defensemen to quite possible ever play the game, Niklas Lindstrom. But the Red Wings don’t look like the Detroit teams of the past where even though they had big names, their experience was the key to their greatness. Picking up the likes of Todd Bertuzzi and Patrick Eaves isn’t going to win you the Stanley Cup… after all, it barely got them into the playoffs folks. If it weren’t for the month of March when the Red Wings went 12-3, their 20-year consecutive playoff appearance streak would have come to an end. One thing to take into consideration though, is that as the Red Wings have become healthier (they at one point had 10 starting players injured), they’ve become better (hence their 12-3 record in March). These aren’t the Red Wings of old, they are younger and have more energy but unfortunately havn’t found their way yet against a tough Western Conference who has caught up to the Red Wings who have appeared in the Stanley Cup the last two years. Getting there three years in a row is next to impossible. The main problem for Detroit comes in their net with starter Jimmy Howard (who? yeah, exactly) between the pipes and his back-up Chris Osgood was nicknamed “Osgreat” a few years ago, but now has completely fallen off the map. The Red Wings can put up a fight with any team in the league, but 2010 is not their year in my eyes, will they get passed the inexperience of the Coyotes, yes but not the second round. The Western Conference is packed with seven teams who each have 100+ points and even if they make it to the Western Conference Final, getting to the Stanley Cup three years in a row in modern-day hockey is almost unheard of.
** Previous pick was Red Wings in Seven **
TheCoach’s Pick (updated): RED WINGS in SIX
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About the Author: TheCoach knows his stuff. Now you can either utilize the knowledge, or regret that you didn't.