“Hey Doc! I Think My Spleen Is At Center Ice. Is That A Middle-Body Injury?” A Western Conference Preview.

Having already made history before the drop of the puck, the National Hockey League’s Western Conference limps into the playoffs beaten, bloody and already bruised. A relentless do-or-die atmosphere, from the first drop of the puck through the last day of the season, has left the first-round match-ups kicking-off with not a bang, but a whimper.

Here Is What We Know:

1) History will be made? No, it already has. When the final seconds ticked of the Anaheim Ducks 81st game, they became the last California team to cross the playoff threshold; thus creating NHL history. Never before have all three California teams made the playoffs during the same season.

2) Injuries (both the yet to be and currently maimed)– Get ready for the absurd, new medical language, and break out the decoder rings. Broken foot= upper body injury. Puck in the orbital bone=lower body injury. Loss of teeth=elective plastic surgery. Contusions= beautiful, multi-colored tattoo to show a commitment to the team

3) It is unpredictable and wide-open but it is also the Western Conference. Less would be a disappointment. Teams that claw their way to the second round will largely depend on intangibles: more injuries, suspensions, conspiracies (you know it is coming), unknown story lines, the sixth-man in the stands (hello Phoenix Coyotes), Cinderella stories, hot goaltenders, heroes, and who drops of sheer exhaustion.

Now; the down and dirty series by series (each series schedule is hyper-linked for your convenience)

1) Vancouver Canucks Vs. 8 ) Chicago Blackhawks

There was a time that the Canucks could boast not being inflicted by injuries. However, that quickly changed at the beginning of th month. And while much of the core has returned, life without Manny Malhotra is going to be ugly for the the Canucks. On March 16th a puck hit him in the eye. At the time, Malhotra had 30 points in 72 games and was second in the NHL in faceoffs. Malhotra was essential in moving their penalty kill from middle of the pack to leading the NHL.

Chicago has been battling the injury bug all year. Time was missed by Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. Dave Bolland is still questionable wit round one. Sharp just returned to the line-up, some saying too soon, from a knee-injury.

Mentally, both teams are bringing a mixed emotional bag. Difference? Chicago’s is about a nation lighter. The Hawks have motivation to defend the cup, prove everyone wrong and have already beaten the Canucks.

On the other hand, don’t be surprised to watch the Canucks score-board watching the Montreal Canadians vs. Boston Bruins series. Should the Canadians be ousted in the first round, the eyes of an entire nation will fall to the Canucks. Put that on top of a forty year drought, the Presidents Trophy (often seen as the great Stanley Cup curse) and already being beaten by the Blackhawks last year. Someone call a psychologist.

Offensively, Vancouver will be led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin. This will be the Blackhawks main focus. This creates room for other players such Ryan Kesler and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. A large part of this is going to come straight down to puck possession. If the Hawks can dominate the pace, style and time in the offensive zone, it bodes well for them. The Sedins, for all their offensive prowess, don’t often like playing two-way. Forcing them to do so is a key for the Blackshawks success, defensively.  Creating and sustaining this uncomfortable atmosphere will also take pressure off Chicago’s offense. Without the services of clutch goal scorers like Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, it is best they avoid the situation all together.

Vancouver’s defense, largely upgraded from last season must focus on Hossa, Sharp, Kane and  Toews. To stop the Blackhawks, you have to stop them. Specialty teams will be essential for  Vancouver who have an elite power play. By doing all the little things right like cycling and digging out the corners, the Canucks can make Chicago scramble and out worked. Over the course of a game and then a series,  it will force them to take penalties to keep up.  Then Vancouver’s power play pounces.

Goaltending is not a question with the Canucks, it is just a pressure cooker for Roberto Luongo. Should it be with the Blackhawks? In thirty-three games Corey Crawford has earned a .917 save percentage and a 2.30 goals against average and due credit for the teams playoff berth. Any coming success will be largely riding on Crawford’s performance.

Blackhawks in 7

2) San Jose Sharks Vs. 7) Los Angeles Kings

Consider this a really short preview to my extended www.rinkroyalty.com series preview, later today.

Face it, Los Angeles. The Sharks are bigger, stronger and faster. They have more depth on offense and are more sound defensively. However, I’m going to argue the following: the Kings have the better goalie. Take it to the Tank. Jonathan Quick is going to outplay Antti Niemi every stop of the way.

In sixty-one games Quick (who Terry Murray has already stated is starting every game this series) has a save percentage of .918 and and goals against of 2.24. In sixty games Niemi has a save percentage of .920 and a goals against of 2.38. What I see there is the usual lack of respect for Jonathan Quick. He’s also done that with a much lesser defense in front of him.

Then there are those all important specialty teams. Well here is a surprise stat for everyone to let marinate. The special teams units are direct mirrors of each other. The Kings power play is ranked twenty-first in the league at an anemic 16.1%, while the Sharks penalty kill is ranked twenty-fourth at 80%. On the other side, the Kings penalty kill is ranked exactly where the Sharks power play is: fourth. Things that make you go hmmmm…

The Sharks have an interesting offensive predicament and blessing. They have four solid lines to roll out. From Joe Thornton and Dan Heatley up top to Joe Pavelski on the third line and the likes of Ben Eager on the fourth line, you can’t let up against the Sharks at any point of the game. However, those top two scorers? Thornton and Heatley? This is the first season they have not reached the eighty point plateau.

Offensively the Kings have been struggling all season with a power play that is just straight-out broken. It is as predictable as watching paint dry. Then they lost Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Luckily for the Kings, it seems that Williams will definitely be back in the first round, if not the first game. The other surprise possibility is Scott Parse. Recently practicing with the team, it remains to be seen if he could make a go of it after what was considered, season-ending hip surgery. That could be a well-needed psychological and offensive boost.

So I’ve given the Kings every possibility I could think of. Sure, I still think the Sharks choke again this year. However, without a Cinderella story, I just don’t think it will be against the Kings.

Sharks in 6.

3) Detroit Red Wings Vs. 6) Phoenix Coyotes

*ding ding ding* Let round two of #ThrowTheSnake begin. The emotions are going to be running high as Phoenix fears its final shot at a playoff stance and looks for revenge on a series they felt was theirs to win until Shane Doan was lost with a shoulder injury and the Red Wings ran off.

Injuries are a factor for the Red Wings: Henrik Zetterburg, Mike Modano and Nikolas Kronwall (game time decision).

Then again, are injuries ever a factor for the Red Wings? One player goes down and they have five waiting in the wings to take their place and babies being born in Sweden that will be ready to go in 18 years. It is the best run organization in sports and making a professional sports leading twentieth consecutive post-season appearance.

Making up the offensive depth includes superstars like Pavel Datsyuk, house hold names like Tomas Holstrom and hall of famers like Nik Lidstrom contributing from defense. Then you have above average on the Red Wings but super stars on any other team like Danny Cleary and Johan Franzen. Then there is the fourth line that includes Drew Miller, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. Again, a fourth line, online on the Red Wings. The Coyotes defense is going to have plenty to pick from as far as pairings go but without the benefit of home ice advantage to start the chess match.

The Wings defense is not littered with the names everyone used to know but make no mistake. It is still  led by Lidstrom and you don’t doubt Lidstrom. Niklas Kronwall turned a corner this year and Brad Stuart has continues to bring his consistent A-game. The Coyotes offense is balanced and solid, but nothing that this defense can’t hold down.

Jimmy Howard has been holding down the fort in net for the Red Wings and unless you have been hiding under a rock this isn’t a surprise. After sixty-three games Howard is third among NHL goalies in wins (37) has a .908 save percentage and 2.79 goals against average.

As for the Coyotes, they have one injury but it hits at their strength: defense. Veteran Derek Morris, and leader of an underrated Coyotes defense, is out for game one. A definite replacement has yet to be announced.

Possible Norris Trophy candidate Keith Yandle will have to pick it up for Morris. Underrated by most, he finished third among NHL defensemen at 59 points. Adrian Aucoin, has been a key in the Coyotes defense . The added dimension of the Coyotes defense that shouldn’t be missed? It is both solid in shutting teams down and activating the puck up ice.

Question then becomes, who are the Coyotes forwards. I like to see the Coyotes like the Sharks, just not as highly skilled. They have four solid running lines. You can’t back down against them, at any one point in the game or against any one line. You have to stay strong and on your game each and every shift. The team might not have one or two super stars or a lot of contribution from the defense (outside of Yandle) but it has a consistent, balanced attack. Only Doan had twenty goals this season (and that led the club). However the three forwards behind him (Lee StempniakLauri Korpikoski and Radim Vrbata) had nineteen goals a piece.

In net is the obvious: Ilya Bryzgalov. After 68 games Bryzgalov had 36 wins, a .921 save percentage and 2.48 goals against.

Putting together a balanced offense, the defensive core and Bryzgalov’s numbers gives you one term to describe the Coyotes: Steady as she goes. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Red Wings, it just isn’t enough. For most teams, it never seems to be.

Red Wings in 7 (Wash. Rinse. Repeat)

4) Nashville Predators Vs. 5) Anaheim Ducks

The Anaheim Ducks offense has been underrated all season and their defense has progressed much nicer then expected. A severe stumble out of the gate and injuries along the way didn’t help matters. However, to their credit the Ducks responded in a big way. Landing twenty-two points in the month of March, the Ducks fought their way back, not just into the playoffs, not just to home ice advantage, but history. All this, without the services of Jonas Hiller, who is suffering from “vertigo”.  Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators defense and goaltending has been underrated all season, which sets-up a first round scenario that is going to prove quite the battle of will.

Expect Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to see most of the time versus the first line when they can get the right match-ups. However, not having home ice advantage will stunt this slightly. So whether Jonathan Blum and Kevin Klein or Shane O’Brien and Cody Franson get time against the Ducks top unit remains to be seen.

The Ducks offense is led by Hart Trophy favorite Corey Perry and first-line mates Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf. That doesn’t even begin to take into account hall of famer Teemu Selanne. The Nashville Predators, like the Phoenix Coyotes offered a more balanced approach with no one line providing the bulk of the offense.  However, with a defense as stacked as the Predators, they could easily wear out and shut down a surface offense even as good as the Ducks.

Where the Ducks can counter this is on special teams. Their power-play is tied for second in the league at twenty-four percent. Nashville sits fifth in the league on the penalty kill. While this doesn’t read like a huge gap, it could be a deal breaker in tight games. Should the Ducks get under the Predator’s skin (and you know how good the likes of Perry, Getzlaf and then followed with a dose of Brookbank, are at that) and cause enough penalties, it could be where the Ducks get the clutch goals they need.

The Predators do have their best defenseman in net, of course. Pekka Rinne. In 64 games Rinne has 33 wins, .930 save percentage and 2.12 goals against average. Dan Ellis problems? Throw his combined Tampa Bay Lightning and Ducks stats out the window. Since joining the Ducks, Ellis has played better then expected. Ray Emery could be seen in net, should things become shaky early, but don’t expect it.

Two emotional factors to contend with: The Ducks don’t want to be left behind as the other battle of California leaves one team moving into the second round (Los Angeles or San Jose), while the Predators have yet to win a playoff series in their history. Honestly? I wasn’t aware of this.

Predators win their first playoff series in franchise history, in six games.

Topics: Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, NHL, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, Western Conference

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