Monday, April 11, 2011

John's Playoff Picks - Western Conference

(Continuing from yesterday...switching the order up a bit)
It's the time we've all been looking forward to...The Stanley Cup Playoffs. After 82 games, the pretenders have been weeded out and its down to sixteen. Here are my first round predictions. I promise not be a pansy and choose all favorites - because we all know an upset is looming large. I'll try to avoid the wimpy "push" when I don't know. I'll give it a shot.
We all got our little "theories" about the playoffs. I know I got mine and I am sure you'll be sick of them by the end of this. Here is my little template for this picks article, in order of importance (to me):

Goaltending: (Which starter is better, duh)
Scoring: (Pretty all encompassing. Does team have top-end scoring? Scoring Depth? It can come from forwards or defense...basically, who can light it up better?)
Defense: (not team defense or any of that crap...who has a better top 4 or overall D corps)
Intangibles: (Which team has better coaching? Does team have clutch players that seem to come up big? Does the coach or team have the moxy for the big moments? That kind of overrated (see SJ v DET, 2010), but sometimes valuable thing that makes all the difference)

I feel I am qualified (not really) to talk about this because...I picked last year's Super Bowl matchup after the NFL regular season. This means I was either lucky (probable) or I am actually good at this picking winning teams thing (unlikely). If I keep this up, maybe I can replace Maggie the Monkey?
Ok, enough of these monkeyshines...(rimshot)

No. 4 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 5 Nashville Predators
Irony here is that I feel this may be one of the best series, yet it will not get one game nationally televised. Two teams that have been under the radar all season now get to duke it out. Sometimes 4 v 5 seed matchups are  what I'd call "unfortunate" because whoever loses you could probably plug into a few other series and they would win. But that is the breaks here in the Western Conference, where no softies seem to exist. This matchup excites me because its the top line in the league right now (Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan) against probably the best D pair in the game (Suter, Weber). What a key matchup!

Goaltending: Have to hand this to Nashville. I would reconsider with a healthy Jonas Hiller, because he is a playoff beast. But Pekka Rinne is the best goalie that no one knows about and he had the year of experience last season in the pressure cooker of the playoffs. He'll be ready to shine.
Scoring: Ducks. The aforementioned unit of Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan has been unstoppable lately and bring tons of grit, size, and of course, hands. They could be overwhelming for anyone. Oh yeah, that Selanne guy has the spark back at 40. Very dangerous group of forwards.
Defense: Nashville has a very strong group of defenseman and seem to be one of those franchises that pulls them out of thin air. Its no magic, just great scouting, drafting, and development
Intangibles: Logic would dictate the Ducks because of the number of key players left from the cup run a few years back and because of the fact that the Predators have yet to win a series. But you know what, sometimes that is such a big motivator, it can balance the scales. I am going with that and giving Nashville a narrow edge.

PREDICTION: Predators in 6.  It finally happens...the Predators bring a series victory back to Nashville. People tend to forget this team nearly took Chicago out last season. It was a young team that made mistakes...and will learn from it. History in all sports is rife of "losing before you win" stories. I got a feeling about this team, even beyond this series. Every year a lot of us have a bandwagon team aside from the Pens - mine is the Preds this year (and no, this has nothing to do with the fact that I live 2 hrs away and they are growing on me). In this series, I am taking the "defense wins out" approach in the key matchup. Weber and Suter have the moxy, size, and skill to play with and minimalize the Ducks big line. Ducks just lack the depth and goaltending to beat this team.

No. 3 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 6 Phoenix Coyotes
Last season, these two had a very tight 7-game thriller of a series. Detroit, the proven playoff warriors, were tested against the up-and-coming Coyotes that seemed to have an edge to them given their situation. It would have been the franchises biggest victory in the playoffs, but they came up a game short. A lot of pundits are foreseeing an encore series that will match last year. But I believe, much like movies, the sequel is usually never as good.

Goaltending: Phoenix by a hair. Ilya Bryzgalov is a solid goaltender, but so is Jimmy Howard. Both can be had. Very close matchup.
Scoring: The Wings have a great set of elite forwards in Datsyuk and Zetterberg (although there is some question about his availability) and a versatile set of forwards that do not overwhelm but are solid. Phoenix's forwards can be described in much the same way, but lack the top end talent. Thus, give the edge to Detroit.
Defense: Wings again. As usual, Nick Lidstrom remains a game changer on the blueline. Don't forget about Keith Yandle for Phoenix, but Detroit is better overall and on the top pair.
Intangibles: Last year, it seemed like Detroit may have overlooked this team. Also, there was just "something" about Phoenix that seemed to spark them. They do have a great leader in Shane Doan, but he is past his prime. Detroit has so many guys that can step up.

PREDICTION: Wings in 5. Zetterberg's injury and the fact that Howard is fully capable of crapping the bed, complacency, and the wear-and-tear of accumulated hockey over a 3-4 year period are potential pitfalls, but I see Detroit overcoming these and winning a few tight games and taking the Coyotes will to win away (as will the half Wings-fan full arena in Glendale).

No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Kings
Interesting battle of No Cal v So Cal and two division rivals. The west is just so tight that its hard to pick nearly every series. Sometimes I feel the Sharks are destined to shed the "good, but not tough enough to win the cup" label, sometimes I can visualize Thornton dogging shifts in an elimination game with the team getting pounded. The Kings, on the other hand, were a popular dark-horse cup pick all season long because they are a solid all around team that can beat anyone. 

Goaltending: I'll acknowledge that Quick is a solid goaltender, but can be streaky at times. Antti Niemi held the Stanley Cup over his head less than a year ago. Gotta go with the Sharks here.
Scoring: I think this edge goes to San Jose going away with all the injuries LA has had. Even if LA were healthy, its tough to beat the depth the Sharks have, especially since they have let young forwards like Logan Couture develop this season. They have great top line guys (when they buy-in) and great depth.
Defense: Dan Boyle is household name and really good defenseman, but he seems to be either having an off year or is losing that half step of speed that has made him great. Beyond that, the Sharks have some solid, yet unspectacular guys like Murray, Vlasic, and Wallin. I think the best defenseman in this series is Drew Doughty (especially if he can correct the lack of growth or step back he took this year). Jack Johnson isn't so bad either. Slight edge to LA here.
Intangibles: Normally, the media and talking heads are quick to point out the Sharks lack the guts to win it all and always hand the intangibles over to the other team. Both teams have good role players and the Kings have really good leaders in Brown and Ryan Smyth (although way past his prime). I don't know if many agree with this, but I always felt San Jose's biggest playoff issues were poor goaltending and role players that were either insufficient or too young to make a big difference. This time around, I feel they have corrected both of these issues

PREDICTION: Sharks in 4. Every first round usually has a sweep somewhere. This one just seems to jump out to me. LA's injury woes and current state are worrisome. They seem to be regressing some into the playoffs; injuries are no excuse and do nothing for you in the playoffs. San Jose has a strong team and just have more high-end talent all over the rink. They win this going away and will make noise again this year.

No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 5 Chicago Blackhawks
Another "Deja Vu" series here. People are tending to believe that either (1) Vancouver will find a way to choke/Hawks are cup champs no matter the seed, or (2) Vancouver is clearly better this year and will exorcize the demons the Hawks have presented them by steamrolling the complacent and less talented Hawks team.

Goaltending: Canucks going away. Hard to believe a rookie that has looked pedestrian all season will top Luongo, but crazier things sure have happened. Luongo has his moments in the playoffs. But I feel that his backup coming on so strong is enough to push him a bit (although he is no real threat to his job at this point). Lets put it this way, its better than having Dany Sabourin behind him.
Scoring:Both of these teams are stacked with top-end scoring threats. Hawks guys got it done last year in the playoffs while the Canucks stars were brilliant this regular season (again). I am giving the edge slightly to Vancouver here because the Hawks top 6 has been relied on so much and has played so many minutes.
Defense: A lot of people want to talk up the Canucks defense, and rightfully so, as they've been good. However, they are not as good as Chicago, particularly their dominant top 4. Edge to Chicago, although both teams sport good blueline corps. 
Intangibles: Its easy to say Chicago here because of the recent success. I will give them the slight edge because of great winners like Toews and Keith. But I sincerely believe the Canucks are going to come carrying a big stick (kinda like that old lumberjack logo) ready to beat a limping Hawks team. They will want this bad and this is a close matchup.

PREDICTION: Canucks in 7. Honestly, nothing in this series would surprise me. While I think the Hawks are too proud to go out with a fight, I believe the combination of Vancouver's desire to finally get "over the hump" will motivate (kinda like Sharks last year) and I just saw an exhausted Hawks team out there lately. You would hate to say "they remind me of last year's Pens", but they do...Last two years: Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals, with the Olympics tossed in there for the top end guys. That is a LOT of hockey and it will catch anyone. I think the champs put up a good fight and maybe Reggie Dunlop "mind-fuck" them for a few games, but they will prevail because Chicago will simply lose steam and do not have last year's team.

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