April 7, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zeterberg (40) and Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp (10) battle for the puck in front of goalie Corey Crawford (50) during overtime at Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Western Conference

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As we take a look at the Western Conference, you should know that this is my personal favourite connference between the two.  In my opinion the games are more physical, more intense, and I prefer the style of play.  I think you see less trapping, and more of a north-south game.  If you’re a Panther fan you’ll notice that many of the newer players that Dale Tallon acquired last played in the Western Conference.  That said, let’s take a brief look at the four matchups:

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings:

The Canucks as you know were the President’s Trophy winner as the team with the most points during the regular season.  Does that mean anything?  Probably not, as about all that does is ensure you have home ice advantage throughout the post season.  Vancouver will be making an attempt to finally win the Stanley Cup, which would be the first in franchise history.  Offensively this team features the Sedin’s, Ryan Kessler and Alexandre Burrows as it’s major weapons.  Built for regular season success, their limitations can be exposed when the going gets rough.  The Sedin’s have been known to be invisible at times, and we all know about the antics of Burrows, and even Kessler.  Goaltending for this team will contain more drama than an episode of Mad Men.  Roberto Luongo looks to be the starter, however will have a very short leash with Cory Schneider waiting in the wings.  Alain Vigneault will be busy chewing his gum trying to figure out how to get pucks past Jonathan Quick of the Kings.  Both special teams of the Canucks are ranked in the top six of the NHL.  So they do have that going for them.

When you look at the Los Angeles Kings, you wonder how they can be ranked at nearly the bottom (29th) of the league in scoring.  When Darryl Sutter is your coach, you know that there is more emphasis on defence, however it seems as though this team protects the lead for a full 60 minutes, even when they don’t have one.  Waiting for you to make a mistake and then pouncing on it, and at the same time putting a stranglehold on you is their method.  With Jonathan Quick in net, that’s a pretty solid strategy, but it’s also a lot of pressure to put on your goaltender.  Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams are the offensive leaders, and the addition of Jeff Carter after his brief stop in Columbus has helped, but Mike Richards who came overfrom the Flyers long before Carter did, was expected to score , ended the season with only 18 goals.  Dustin Penner who was likely counted on for 25 goals or more scored a whopping seven, and has been relegated to the third line.  Keep your eyes on the Kings bench.  Why?  You’ll be asking yourself where Darryl Sutter shops for suits and ties, and his facial expressions will make you long for the constipated look of Jacques Martin.  Prediction:  Canucks in 7…..but barely.

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks:

Anytime you’re team is coached by Ken Hitchcock, you can expect that team to play hard, be disciplined, and be phsycial.  The Blues are exactly that, and have a tag team goaltending pair that’s been the best in the NHL this season.  Hitch replaced Davis Payne very early in the season, and the Blues haven’t looked back since.  Brian Elliott had a career year that included nine shutouts and a 1.56 goals against average.  Jaroslav Halak came out of an early season funk to record six shutouts of his own, winning 26 games. The Blues (ranked 13th in the league),  spread the scoring around as they have nine players in double digits, with David Backes their leader as well as  team captain.  It’s a good mix of young players and veterans like Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott who have been down this road before.  The Blues play in possibly the best if not most competitive division in the NHL.  That can be a plus for them.

San Jose is the perrenial disappointment and you wonder how that consistently happens.  Problem now is that they’re getting older and their time may have passed them by.  Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and former Panther Dan Boyle are the seasoned veterans, who have yet to raise the cup in San Jose after being a favourite many times.  My opinion is that coach Todd McLellan is on the hot seat here, and the Sharks performance could determine his fate.  The Sharks may have to rely on former Blackhawk goaltender Antti Niemi to steal a game or two.  Prediction:  Blues in 6.

(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks:

Phoenix and head coach Dave Tippett once again showed the hockey world what hard work, and dedication can do.  Balanced scoring and solid defence and goaltender Mike Smith made Phoenix into the contender that they became.  Led by former Panther Ray Whitney in scoring, the Coyotes spread the offence around with players like Shane Doan and Radim Vrbata.  Vrbata who once played for the Hawks had 12 game winning goals for the Coyotes.  On defense Keith Yandle is the main guy and is dangerous offensively as well.  The big question here though is Mike Smith.  Did he play over his head this season, or is he really this good?  Playoff pressure could reveal his true colors.

Chicago has certainly gone through some adversity this season.  However even without Jonathan Toews who has missed the final 22 games, Chicago found a way to remain in the hunt, and almost finished with the fourth seed.  Not hard to believe, as the offence is pretty potent with Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.  Even Viktor Stalberg has become a threat scoring 22 times.  The Hawks when they are on they’re game, are very difficult to beat, and in a seven game series with or without Toews cannot be ignored.  While the team is not quite as good as the team that won the Cup, they are a contender.  The big question mark is in goal and Corey Crawford will be counted on to be spectacular.  If not Ray Emery is in the wings.  Prediction:  Hawks in 6. The Coach Q scowl counts for something!

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings:

For a change Nashville is actually considered a serious Cup contender with the possibility of winning it all. It would be a first for the franchise to make it to the Stanley Cup Final, but they’ll have their work cut out for them.  Defensively this team knows how to shut things down.  With one of the best defensive units in the game led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter this team is tough to play against, and I’m not only talking physically.  Every goal is earned, and if you have a chance to take a shot, you better, since Pekka Rinne doesn’t let too man in.  The scoring is spread out and fiesty Martin Erat leads the team in scoring.  The Predators rank 8th in that department this season, and that confidence combined with their defensive play makes them a dangerous team.  If you’re afraid of a team or two in this conference, this is one of them.

The Red Wings never cease to amaze.  Always comptetive and always able to get the job done, the Wings know playoff hockey.  The team is also very well coached.   Mike Babcock gets the very best out of his players and for all the angst I have about this team, I respect the organization for what they consistently do.  Win.  I may not like it, but they keep doing it, even the older that they get.  Which makes me think that time could be running out for some of them.  Some very skilled forwards led by Pavel Datysuk and Henrik Zetterberg are dangerous.  Niklas Lidstrom on defence never seems to age either.  Just not sure how they continue to win with Jimmy Howard in goal….but they do.  Prediction:  Nashville in 7.

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

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Tags: Chicagoblackhawks Estern Conference Playoffs Ken Hitchcock Stanley Cup Vancouver Canucks

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