With the march toward Lord Stanley's cup beginning tonight, it's time to put down on record our choices for the 1st round of the playoffs. It's funny to note how over the last several weeks, commentators boasted how wide-open these races were, but now that the matchups are set, it looks like few experts are calling for outright upsets to occur.
Remember, head on over and fill out your complete bracket as well, for bragging rights here on the site!
Follow after the jump for both Chris' and my takes on the Western Conference...
#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Colorado Avalanche
Chris: On paper, this should be the most lopsided matchup in the West. San Jose has the best combined special teams in the conference, and the Avalanche don't ice a true shut down line to contain the 'HTML' unit of Heatley, Thornton, and Marleau. The Avs do have a few things in their favor, however. The speed of their younger forwards (notably Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny) could give the aging San Jose blue liners fits. Rob Blake, Dan Boyle, and Niclas Wallin are all on the wrong side of thirty and not showing any signs of speeding up. Craig Anderson is another strong asset, but in the end, San Jose has too much. Sharks in six.
Dirk: I'm sorry, I've said all year that the Avalanche are a smoke & mirrors team, and I'm amazed that they held on just enough to make the playoffs. Craig Anderson was a fantastic pickup for the Avalanche, but he needs a deeper supporting cast before they pull off an upset like this. I just see guys like Heatley, Marleau, Setoguchi and Pavelski firing away constantly, more than can be expected of any goalie to hold back. Sharks in five.
#2 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #7 Nashville Predators
Chris: At first glance, it is a mismatch. Chicago has the stars with Keith, Kane, Toews, and Hossa. And while its certainly true that the Blackhawks' offense is incredibly potent, you never hear that offense wins championships, do you? Nashville has a puncher's chance in this series for two reasons. One, the defensive corps that Nashville will ice in Game One (Grebeshkov or no Grebeshkov) looks to be more effective and offensively dangerous than Chicago's. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter bring the offense and rock solid defense from the back, and Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Klein are adept at moving the puck. While Duncan Keith should win the Norris Trophy, he'll be without power play specialists and the Hawks' top puck movers Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson for probably the duration of the first round. If the Predators can establish a good forecheck (I'm looking at you, Legwand, Smithson, Ward, and Boyd), and force guys like Seabrook and Sopel to cough up the puck, the Preds will be able to generate prime scoring chances in front of Antti Niemi.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, will be the play of the Big Finn, Pekka Rinne. If 'Peks' can get anywhere close to the level of play he put forth in March, then Chicago can get all the pucks on net they want. They just won't go in. Rinne was so good in March that you began to wonder if he would ever give up another bad goal. A 1.89 GAA and .934 save percentage is the stuff of the gods. While not sustainable over a season, its certainly maintainable over seven games.
In the end, though, I expect Chicago's special teams and the ability to keep shots from getting on net (they lead the league in shots allowed) to prevail. The Predators' lack of even remotely decent special teams will probably be their downfall, and all Antti Niemi has to do in this series is 'not lose'. I'll offer up a contingent prediction: Hawks in 7, but if Nashville were to somehow win Game 1, Predators in 7.
Dirk: You'll have to wait for my series preview tomorrow... :)
#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 Los Angeles Kings
Chris: The Kings had a surprising regular season, and have some promising young players, but nobody in the same stratosphere as the Canucks' top line or Roberto Luongo. The only advantage I see for LA is on the back end with Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson leading the way, but they can't play the whole game. Vancouver, though, scores with three lines and Henrik Sedin beat out the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby for the Art Ross Trophy. Vancouver in five.
Dirk: This one could be a real slug fest, because Vancouver is somewhat limited on defense, especially due to the absence of Willie Mitchell. Industrious Kings forwards like Dustin Brown and Ryan Smyth will make Robert Luongo's job difficult, but I still give him a big edge over the L.A. goaltenders. Vancouver in seven.
#4 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings
Chris: Lets face it. Phoenix is a phenomenal story, and there's no doubt Dave Tippett should win the Jack Adams award. Considering the team they drew, though, it appears to be the end of the road. The Coyotes don't score a whole lot and have a pop gun power play, while Detroit will beat you any way they want. Kill their power play? No problem, even strength goal coming right up. Find a way past Nick Lidstrom? Jimmy Howard stones you. The Wings are the defending Conference champs and brimming with confidence. Ilya Bryzgalov and Phoenix's team-first defense will make it much more interesting than Mike Babcock would prefer. Wings in seven.
Dirk: This seems, to me, the worst possible matchup out of the top four teams for the Detroit Red Wings. San Jose, Vancouver, and Chicago would all skate up and down the rink with Detroit, whereas the Coyotes are built more for grinding out close, low-scoring contests. Phoenix's propensity to pack the middle of the defensive zone, and the outstanding goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov (who should be a finalist for the Vezina) are the perfect counterpoint to Detroit's puck-possession style. Simply put, the Red Wings may be able to move the puck around, but the Coyotes won't let them get it into the dangerous scoring areas easily at all. Detroit's PK hasn't been particularly impressive this year, while Phoenix may have found life on the PP thanks to their Trade Deadline pickups. Coyotes in six.