Well folks, the NHL postseason is finally here: sixteen teams looking for sixteen wins and an opportunity to sip out of Lord Stanley’s famed mug.
The first round of the playoffs begins on Wednesday night and features some burning rivalries, new and old, and some others that are slowing inching toward “rivalry” status. Whatever the case, it won’t be long now until we see the captain of one of the sixteen remaining teams lifting the Stanley Cup proudly over his head…but who will it be?
Here’s a look, through my eyes, at the Western Conference pairings!
Vancouver (54-19-9) vs. Chicago (44-29-9)
This is one of those “new” rivalries I mentioned above – the Hawks have bounced the Canucks from the playoffs in each of the last two years, both times in game six of the second round. There was certainly no shortage of drama when the two clubs met last year, but there are obviously some key pieces missing this time around. For one, there will be no Dustin Byfuglien making life miserable for Roberto Luongo at the top of the Vancouver crease. A lot is riding on this series for the Canucks, who despite a ton of injuries during the season managed to capture their first Presidents’ Trophy. For them to be successful, the Sedin twins have to have room to skate and Luongo has to be at the top of his game. The Hawks are a dynamic team that, despite backing into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, will pose a tough challenge for anyone left. If Vancouver loses to Chicago again this year, even I’ll feel a little bit bad for Canucks fans.
San Jose (48-25-9) vs. Los Angeles (46-30-6)
The “Battle of California” provides us with another interesting rivalry in this opening round of the 2011 playoffs – a Sharks team still looking to shed the tag of second season nobodies against a Kings team rocked by two key injuries in the final month of the season. Not having Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams in the lineup removes 47 goals and 130 points from the team’s offence, so it’ll really be up to guys like Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth and Jarret Stoll to step it up in the absence of those two. Am I forgetting someone? I suppose it would be a great time for Dustin Penner to make his mark on this LA side – perhaps he could play a Byfuglien type role for the Kings. On the other side of things, the Sharks had another great regular season, but unless it translates into some postseason success, it doesn’t mean a whole lot! It’ll be up to the likes of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to lead this club, but they’ve got a solid group of younger players (Devin Setoguchi, Logan Couture) who will be leaned on to provide that extra bit of grit and offence. Can Antti Niemi prove that last year was no fluke?
Detroit (47-25-10) vs. Phoenix (43-26-13)
The Detroit Red Wings have a tough test ahead of them with the Phoenix Coyotes providing the opposition right out of the gate in the 3-vs-6 pairing. I think the Wings are in a bit of trouble – they’ll likely be starting the playoffs without their leading scorer in Henrik Zetterberg, they haven’t been getting great goaltending as of late and, worst of all, the Coyotes are a hell of a team. With Shane Doan leading the way up front and Keith Yandle providing a lot of offence from the blue line, Phoenix can be a real handful. Their biggest weapon though stands between the pipes – Ilya Bryzgalov is a guy who is more than capable of stealing a series for his side. Depth and experience will be important for the Wings, who will also likely need Jimmy Howard to stand on his head. Will the Coyotes be able to perform in front of a full building though when the series shifts back to Glendale? It might be a bit odd for them, no?
Anaheim (47-30-5) vs. Nashville (44-27-11)
Both the Anaheim Ducks and the Nashville Predators play a very gritty, hard nosed brand of hockey, which should make this a very interesting series to watch once it gets going. On one hand, you’ve got 50-goal scorer Corey Perry and guys like Teemu Selanne (31 goals, 80 points), Ryan Getzlaf (76 points in 67 games) and Bobby Ryan (34 goals, 71 points). On the other hand, you’ve got a Preds team that gave up 41 fewer goals during the regular season than Anaheim and scored 20 fewer goals. Nothing outlines that fact better than this stat: Nashville’s leading scorer has as many total points as Corey Perry has goals! Goaltending will be huge in this series, but it’ll be especially interesting to see who the Ducks go with – they’ve got Dan Ellis, Ray Emery and Jonas Hiller, who is apparently still battling through vertigo issues. I expect the Ducks to rally around their experience as a dangerous playoff team and grind out a win over a pretty defensive Nashville club.
Check back later today for my look at the Eastern Conference!