Western Conference Playoff Preview

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    Western Conference:

    San Jose Sharks (1) vs Anaheim Ducks (8)
    Preseason odds: Sharks 10/1 Ducks 12/1
    Last 10: Sharks 5-4-1, Ducks 7-2-1
    Season Series: Sharks win 4-2-0

    Overview:

    Perennial cup hopefuls San Jose enter the playoffs with their franchise first Presidents trophy. Anaheim, cup winners just two seasons ago, were talking in terms of team gutting prior to a 7-2-1 record in the last three weeks of the season.

    Pacific Division rivals, the Ducks could be looking to pull a real shock in their rebuilding swansong.

    San Jose Sharks

    That the Sharks enter each season as a cup favourite and perform well in the 82 is unquestionable. Their propensity to baulk come playoff time is becoming a league joke. With last season’s second round exit fresh in the memory, GM Doug Wilson decided it was time to retool, bringing in a new defensive core of Blake, Lukowich and Boyle (over 2,000 games and 3 cup rings) to complement the rising star Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Adding rookie coach and cup winning assistant Todd Mclellan to the fold after experienced hand Ron Wilson’s dismissal looked a potential pitfall, but inheriting two excellent scoring lines has helped ease the transition.

    Indeed perhaps unsung, Ryan Clowe’s return from long term injury last season has helped galvanise the Sharks second line, making it one of the most feared second strings in the league. Combined with the ascension of Devin Setoguchi, much in the mould Jonathon Cheechoo enjoyed alongside elite playmaker Joe Thornton, and its little wonder the Sharks have been outright unbeatable at times this year.

    With mechanically consistent, 41 game winner Evgeni Nabokov once more in net the Sharks have a top to toe quality unparalleled in either conference. By all accounts the only team that can beat the San Jose Sharks, is the San Jose Sharks

    Anaheim Ducks

    With the Ducks facing the aftermath of disastrous cap mismanagement at a time of economic decline and a roster full of summer free agency entrants, many were talking about the Ducks as a side on the brink of being blown up in post season clearouts.

    With spiritual starter JS Giguere struggling to recapture his form after the early season passing of his father and the team’s ruinous propensity to take stupid penalties with a weak PK, little seemed to suggest the Ducks were going to make the cut in a Western Conference dogfight.

    However with the young top line of Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan firing on cue the Ducks managed to haul themselves above the likes of Edmonton and Minnesota to make a fourth consecutive berth.

    Still the Ducks are a shadow of the team that lifted the cup in 2007. One scoring line and shaky defensive depth leaves a team with too much grit and too little talent.

    While Hiller has outperformed Giguere all year, expect Anaheim to opt for experience.

    Prediction:

    The Ducks are a one dimensional pastiche of Randy Carlye’s 06’-07’ side. Close down the top line and there is only an aging Teemu Selanne left to hurt you. The Sharks simply have to carry in their regular season form and, unlike past years, there is more than a smattering of experienced veterans in the lineup to steady the ship. San Jose in five.

    Detroit Red Wings (2) vs Columbus Blue Jackets (7)

    Preseason Odds: Red Wings 5/1 Blue Jackets 75/1

    Last 10: Red Wings: 3-6-1 Blue Jackets: 3-3-4

    Season Series: Detroit Win 3-2-1

    Overview:

    Hungry belated first timers make the cut as preseason outsiders while divisional rivals and defending Stanley Cup champions entered as consistent favourites. Both teams go in on mediocre form but history has shown first year cup runners to be a dangerous breed, furthermore history has shown Detroit’s ability to tank come playoff time.

    Detroit Red Wing

    There are few teams in North American pro sports as consistent as the Red Wings and despite so-so early season form the Red Wings have pulled of a difficult, yet successful, post championship campaign.

    Desire could be the deciding factor in how Detroit tackles the postseason. Since 91’-92’ and foregoing the short 94’-95’ season, Detroit have never failed to enter the playoffs with fewer than 90 points and have never been lower than second in the Central Division. Despite almost twenty years of being an elite side, the Red Wings have only once lifted the cup in back-to-back years in ‘97 and ’98.

    Winning ugly, the Red Wings of 2009 have struggled to find the finesse transitional game that swept them comfortably to Stanley Cup glory last year. While Datsyuk has once again been magnificent, Zetterberg has fallen below the point-a-game mark for the first time since lockout. Regardless, Detroit outscored Boston, the leagues second most potent offence, by 19 goals a testimony to the changing game and the use of a third scoring line over a checking unit.

    The depth goals have proved necessary as well, where Detroit conceded the fewest goals in 2007-’08 with a mere 179, their total ballooned to 240 this campaign. Partly due to uncharacteristic lapses in defensive concentration, partly due to a 25th overall penalty kill but mostly because Chris Osgood enters the playoffs with an awful .887 save percentage.

    Rarely counted on to win games, few teams can lift a cup with a net minder bleeding soft goals, with Ty Conklin enjoying only 6 minutes of playoff experience, the Red Wings are going to have to be stronger at the blueline and on the PK to defend their title.

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    What do you do when one of your youngsters in the form of Derick Brassard ends a run at the Calder trophy with a season ending injury? Heck if you’re the Blue Jackets you call upon an even more spectacular rookie.

    Lifting the Blue Jackets from the Back of Beyond, Steve Mason has been simply awesome in net for a young team stifled in recent years by Pascal Leclaire’s slow development. With Leclaire shunted to Ottawa, the Blue Jackets are exercising their confidence in Mason and the demons of a team who so desperately needed a playoff series.

    Now making the big show for the first time it will be interesting to see how shadowed star Rick Nash takes to the spotlight in a cast of quietly stockpiled characters.

    Indeed stealthy raids at free agency brought the Jackets cup winning defenseman Mike Commodore and setup man Krstian Huselius while trades for RJ Umberger, Raffi Torres and Fedor Tyutin provided solid support. With a crop of young skaters coming to the fore in Voracek, Brassard and Filatov the Blue Jackets have assembled a neat cast of playoff worthy players in a shut down breakaway system akin to Lemaire’s Minnesota.

    While questions remain about the bluelines mobility and a lack of playoff experience, particularly in team keys Mason and Nash, the Blue Jackets are one of the finest all around units in the postseason and know how to play to their strengths.

    Prediction:

    The romantics have this as the upset of the tournament already. With Detroit struggling to shut down teams, Columbus’ application of a check heavy system could be pivotal on the Wings chincy European offense. However the Jackets could be cut apart if the Wings get their puck moving game going. Mason will have to be awesome to pull a surprise as the Jackets don’t score much and the Wings do. Detroit in seven.

    Vancouver Canucks (3) vs St. Louis Blues (6)

    Preseason Odds: Canucks 30/1 Blues 60/1

    Last 10: Canucks 6-3-1 Blues 8-1-1

    Season Series: Tied 2-2

    Overview:

    Cast your mind back two months, the Canucks were in free fall amidst the wild west dogfight and the Blues, wracked by long term injuries, were dead last. Fantastic consistency by both since sees one of the unlikeliest match ups of the first round with underdog machinations abound.

    Vancouver Canucks:

    Who would have thought grinder Alex Burrows would provide the symbiotic Sedin’s line with its best chemistry since Anson Carter? For that matter who thought Kyle Wellwood would still be in the league?

    Rollercoaster would be a good term for the Canucks season, great start, awful middle, great end. Where many teams are streaky, the 08-09 Canucks have gone in vast troughs and peaks. This can largely be attributed to the mid season injury that kept Roberto Luongo out of the lineup for around twenty games in which several backups couldn’t manage .500. Since his return the Canucks have looked unbeatable slipping past the Calgary Flames to steal the Northwest at the last.

    With the money rolling introduction of Mats Sundin and training day bust ups, the Canucks have had the full package with regards to drama. Throw in the great play of Ryan Kesler, finally making the Canucks a two line offence and the defensive output of Bieksa and Edler and they have all the hallmarks of a team sniffing surprise success.

    However not one single Canuck owns a cup ring and Luongo has a mere two series to his career. Adjusting to life after 82 could prove the Hollywood Canucks real downfall.

    St. Louis Blues

    Foregoing season ending injuries to defensive starlet Erik Johnson and shut down veteran Eric Brewer, nothing on paper should make the Blues a playoff team.

    An anorexic blueline is accompanied by an offence with almost zero experience and a career backup in Chris Mason who seems to have been reborn in Manny Legace’s departure.

    While there is a neat display of things to come in David Perron and TJ Oshie and the surprising rise of Brad Boyes, there is no one defining factor in the roster that makes the Blues a winning team.

    No, spirit has been the driving force behind the Blues and their pressing forecheck, that and the stellar Adams candidate coaching of Andy Murray and it will be spirit and Murray that gets the Blues through.

    Prediction:

    The Blues have no right being where they are yet in dull expectations they have flourished, now facing up to the playoff stretch can they continue their end of season form? As tantalizing a prospect as it may be, the Blues will struggle to permeate a Canucks side who, were it not for Luongo’s layoff, would have been in Red Wings country. Vancouver in five.

    Chicago Blackhawks (4) vs Calgary Flames (5)

    Preseason Odds: Blackhawks 40/1 Flames 30/1

    Last 10: Blackhawks 7-2-1 Flames 4-6-0

    Season Series: Blackhawks win 4-0

    Overview:

    The Hawks become the hottest ticket in town after reaching the 100+ point milestone for the first time since 1993. Stifled only by a strong central division, the Hawks faceoff against a slumping Calgary swept in the regular season.

    Chicago Blackhawks

    One defenseman over the age of 25 and only two players in the top six forwards over 26 makes Chicago the babies of the playoffs.

    With last year proving a dress rehearsal, the combination of Toews and Sharp and the immergence of Dave Bolland alongside Havlat and Ladd has come to fruition at just the right time as the defensive corps of Keith, Campbell and Seabrook turn heads with their puck distribution.

    With an often times spectacular top unit of youngsters aided by an equally youthful depth line including Calder candidate Kris Versteeg and Calder holder Patrick Kane, Chicago have been blessed with the kind of team Pittsburgh took all the way to the finals last year.

    While youth and exuberance may prove desirable on the ice, having an old head like Nikolai Khabibulin in net posting a .919 save percentage to go with his Stanley Cup ring certainly helps nix overall experience concerns but one is left wondering how the mix and match line combinations will fair in the cauldron of the cup. ‘08-’09 could prove the young teams test run.

    Calgary Flames

    Much like the fifth seeded Flyers in the East, the Flames have proved an enigma. Big and burly defensively the Flames have been prone to lapses throughout the team and have bled goals, at times, profusely. With Iginla being humbled to second on team goals to soon-to-be UFA Mike Cammalleri, other franchise faces such as Dion Phaneuf have endured season long struggles with a plus/minus of -11.

    Meanwhile, Kiprusoff has blown hot and cold and let up some horrible goals and questions persist about Olli Jokinen’s application in his playoff debut.

    Conversely Robyn Regehr has been garnering himself a league wide reputation for being an elite shut down guy and Jamie Lundmark has immerged as a fantastic offensive talent.

    If ever there was a fine indication of Calgary’s swings-and-roundabouts season it’s there fourth best penalty kill but league leading conceder of shorthanded tallies. Basically the Flames chances depend on which frame of mind they show up to the rink with.

    Prediction:

    The Blackhawks have monstered Calgary all year. While there may be some early playoff jitters from the kids a fit Khabibulin is a fair match to Kiprusoff in top form. With Chicago entering as the fourth most potent offence and Calgary the only playoff team averaging above 2.99 GA/G, the onus could fall on the Flames number 1. Chicago in five.