April 12, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup Previews: Western Conference

Here is my Western Conference Stanley Cup playoffs preview. As I always say, I don't make predictions. As the Hockey History Blogger I deal with the past, not the future!

#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Chicago Blackhawks

The Canucks and Hawks face off in the most anticipated playoff matchup, thanks to recent history. This time around the pressure is not on the defending Stanley Cup champions, but all on the Canucks, clearly the best team of the 2010-11 regular season

The Canucks have a few key personnel who need to overcome bad playoff history, most notably Roberto Luongo, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, and, most importantly in my mind, head coach Alain Vigneault. AV has been clearly outcoached by Joel Quenneville in the last two playoffs.

Chicago does not have the depth to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but they certainly have the star power to win a series or two. Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are proven entities in the playoffs. The Sedins and Kesler need to match.

Players To Watch

Vancouver - The depth forwards - Chicago won the Stanley Cup last year largely because they were so deep in every category. That is the Canucks this year, though the 3rd and 4th line are question marks right now due to Manny Malhotra's eye injury and Raffi Torres 2 playoff game suspension. The Canucks would sure like one or two of Chris Higgins, Mason Raymond, Jeff Tambellini, or Mikael Samuelsson to break out from offensive slumps.

Chicago - Duncan Keith - If he's given the green light to jump into the offense, Keith (and Brian Campbell) could expose a depleted and jumbled 3rd and 4th line

The Season Breakdown (click to enlarge):

#2 San Jose Sharks vs. #7 Los Angeles Kings

Not many are giving the Kings much of a chance against the Sharks. After all leading scorer Anze Kopitar is out with a broken ankle. Mind you, the Kings did win 3 of 6 regular season games against the Sharks, albeit 2 of the wins came in the shootout. 

I really like the Sharks depth up front. Antti Niemi was strong down the stretch, 25-4-4 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. The only weakness is their blue line, which features solid rearguards but not much mobility or offense beyond Dan Boyle.

Players To Watch:

San Jose - Big Joe Thornton continues to be labelled as a poor playoff player, although he made some strides last year. 

Los Angeles Kings - Drew Doughty has had a bit of a letdown year this year. He can make everyone forget that if he can raise his game.

The Season Breakdown (click to enlarge):

#3 Detroit Red Wings vs #6 Phoenix Coyotes

A lot of people are predicting Detroit has started to decline a bit, a dangerous limb to go out on. Phoenix actually faired quite well against Detroit, going 2-0-2 in the regular season. 

Detroit has some goaltending question marks. Can Jimmy Howard do something Chris Osgood has seemingly never been able to do, and that is earn everyone's respect in the playoffs? Meanwhile Phoenix's best player is undoubtedly Ilya Bryzgalov.

Players To Watch

Detroit - Perhaps more so than in previous years, Detroit seems destined to go as far Nicklas Lidstrom will carry them. 

Phoenix - The Coyotes' roster is, by design, made up of seemingly average players, none of which really standout. That being said, what I've seen of Lauri Korpikoski has impressed me. Could his speed and hands emerge as a unlikely hero?

The Season Breakdown (click to enlarge):

#4 Anaheim Ducks vs. #5 Nashville Predators

Outside of Vancouver vs. Chicago, I really believe this Anaheim-Nashville may be the most entertaining series.

The Ducks have arguably the best line in the league with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. Add Teemu Selanne and Lubomir Visnosvksy and the Ducks are dangerous. But goaltending is a huge question mark. Will Jonas Hiller recover from his bout with vertigo? If not, can Dan Ellis or comeback player of the year Ray Emery get the job done?

Backed by great team defense and arguably the best goalie in the league in Pekka Rinne, I really thought Nashville would surprise someone in the first round. Actually, I thought the same thing about Anaheim's chances of getting to the second round. At that time I was not anticipating an Anaheim/Nashville showdown. But the good news is I will be proven right about one of these two teams.

Players To Watch

Anaheim - Corey Perry enters the playoffs as the league's hottest scorer. That being said, he was only 2-2-4 and a minus-4 in 4 games against Nashville this season.

Nashville - The Predators need someone to score some goals. Patric Hornqvist may be their go-to guy against Anaheim. He had 3 goals and 7 points in 4 regular season games against the Ducks.

The Season Breakdown (click to enlarge):

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