A Closer Look at the Wild West

It seems that all anybody in the hockey world wants to talk about is how superior and crazy the NHL’s western conference is, even with only three games to go for most teams.  But not many writers have broken down what to expect come a week from now, when each conference will start its playoff with four matchups.  Instead of hailing the western conference race, or trying to predict a winner of a playoff that will take almost two months to decide, I’d like to give my take on what to expect and what’s important over the next 6 days and into the first round of the western playoffs.

Let’s acknowledge a few things.  First, the Vancouver Canucks are good.  Very good.  They have a complete team that largely has been playing together for some time.  They are creative and gritty offensively, but also have many two-way forwards to take the burden off of their impressive but now thin stable of defensemen.  They even have a seemingly capable backup goaltender, just in case the contractually-anointed King Luongo is less than stable in net.  But with faceoff and defensive specialist Manny Malhotra out and the aforementioned thinning blueliners, along with their lack of pedigree, it would be ignorant to consider Vancouver anything more than a slight favorite in the west.  Besides their two conference championships in 1981 and 1994 that were followed with Stanley Cup Finals losses to the Islanders and Rangers, the Vancouver Canucks have surprisingly never even made the conference finals.  That may not be as shocking to you as it was to me when I really looked at it, because it seems like Vancouver has been relevant in an on-and-off fashion since the Pavel Bure era.  But alas, for all of its talent and passion on the ice, the Canucks have not progressed to the conference finals since that magical spring of 1994.

With the top seed having no playoff mental edge yet, the door would have to be considered open for the next two teams, San Jose and Detroit.  It remains to be seen which team will grab the 2 seed this week, and it may come down to the weekend.  San Jose plays a home-and-home with Phoenix, while the Wings do the same with Chicago.  But regardless of who grabs the 2 seed (and I would lean toward San Jose doing so), the bottom line is each of the top 3 seeds in the west look very good at this point.  Detroit did well to win two games over the weekend to hopefully banish thoughts of the 10-3 beating suffered at the hands of the St. Louis Blues last week.  With Vancouver, San Jose, and Detroit grabbing their respective divisions, it means they will face the 6 through 8 seeds in the first round.  Are they all going to get through easily?  Probably not, but from the perspective of everyone who could finish 6th through 8th, you would rather let somebody else try to do the dirty work.

So what does this mean for all of the other western teams from fourth to eighth?  It means you really, really want that fourth spot.  And if you can’t get fourth, by all means, get fifth.  The only team that I think can make the playoffs but not get fourth or fifth is Dallas, who can win out to sit at 97 points.  Fourth and fifth right now are Phoenix and LA at 96 points.  With the advent of the three point game, I would say it’s impossible that Dallas gets as high as fifth.  But the team right ahead of Dallas is Chicago, who sits only four points behind Phoenix and LA with a game in hand.  This effectively puts them one win back.  While I don’t think that Chicago will get the 4 or 5 because I don’t think they’ll sweep Detroit, I do think it is possible for them or any team ahead of them to avoid playing one of the big three in the opening round.

When looking at the potential first round matchups, I think there are always a few things to look at.  First, how are the teams’ road records?  The reason I prefer road record to home record is because unless you have home ice and win all your home games, you are going to have to win a road game or two at some point.  That means winning with less than optimal matchups, as the home side gets to put their line on the ice last prior to faceoffs.  It means being on the road and having to deal with all of the effects of that from a human standpoint.  It means having to be able to overcome the eardrum rattling cheers of your opponent scoring on you.  While it is always cited that regular season hockey is nothing like playoff hockey, I can’t think of many better indicators of playoff road success than the very same stat over the prior six months.

Here are some things that stick out to me regarding road teams.  Phoenix and Chicago have good road records.  Nashville, Anaheim and Dallas are average, and LA is somewhere in between.  Not coincidentally, I think those are the two teams with the best chance of upsetting either of the top three teams in the west in a seven game series.  Most people tend to write Phoenix off because they have never won a playoff series and the future of the team is very much in question.  But on the ice this is a very physical team with rock solid goaltending and some sneaky fast forwards (if they ever get healthy).  Shane Doan is a coach in a captain’s sweater, and Ilya Bryzgalov has been a part of some playoff wins in the past with Anaheim.  Just last year the Coyotes went into Joe Louis Arena and beat Detroit by three goals in both Game 3 and Game 6, the latter of which to stay alive in the series.  Chicago, on the other hand, won the Stanley Cup last year.  Nothing more really needs to be said.  Over the last two seasons the Blackhawks have won big playoff road games against everyone they’ve played save Detroit.  They won the Stanley Cup in overtime on Patrick Kane’s sneaker in the Flyers’ building.  The other teams in the west’s middle of the pack have not proven much on the road either this year or in playoffs past, so it would be hard not to classify Phoenix and Chicago at least as 4 and 5 when trying to put the west into some sort of order.

Another item that is hard to quantify is the old playoff hockey legend of the “hot goaltender.”  We’ve seen it time and time again, where a supposedly high powered offense gets stymied over a series by a then-lesser-known goaltender, who is dubbed the sole reason the lower seeded team prevailed.  I think these situations are a lot more fluid than most people would have us believe, but I also think that some of these “out-of-nowhere hot goalie” upsets can be foreseen in some instances.  Or at least we can try.

Of the teams from 4th to 9th, I think the most obvious candidate for the next playoff “hot goalie” would probably be Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne of Nashville.  But I don’t think I’m predicting Rinne as the next hot goalie because I think he’s a cut above guys like Bryzgalov, Jonathan Quick or even Chicago’s rookie Corey Crawford, but instead because his team’s lack of an offense will force him to be the “hot goalie” if Nashville is to extend any series to a sixth game.  Also, Rinne has as good of a top line of defensemen in front of him as there is in the NHL.  Shea Weber and Ryan Suter have no discernible defensive weaknesses, which along with defensive forwards like Mike Fisher and the wingers that play under Barry Trotz’s system, give Rinne the needed support to post a 2.13 GAA this season.  In fact, Nashville has allowed fewer goals than any team in the western conference except Vancouver.  As long as Nashville doesn’t go against LA in the 4-5 matchup, there will at least be an intriguing clash of styles in both series involving those teams.  Let’s not forget that last year Nashville was poised to bring a 3-2 series lead home against Chicago before Kane tied it late and the Hawks stole Game 5.  So Nashville has worked its way into position to be able to pull one of these upsets, they just have not actually seen it through yet.

Another defensive team is the Los Angeles Kings.  I don’t know if it’s because they play in the Staples Center or because Anze Kopitar has provided some flashy moments, but it has seemed to me up until recently that people considered LA an offensive juggernaut.  The numbers simply weren’t there, but that’s a good thing defensively.  LA’s goals allowed total is only 3 more than Nashville, good for third in the west.  Their goal total of 214 is only five higher than Nashville though, as both teams bring it up the rear as far as western playoff teams go.  And now Kopitar has an injury that will keep him out at least another four or five weeks, which rules him out for the first round of the playoffs.  With this in mind, LA is still a good defensive team and has good blueliners in Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Jack Johnson and the rest.  They have one of the best tandem of goaltenders in the Jonathans, Quick and Bernier.  But without Kopitar and winger Justin Williams, I don’t see this team being able to score the necessary goals and keep from wearing down due to the grinding style it will have to play to be able to win four of seven games against any of the top three teams.  Frankly, the Kings must grab the 4 or 5 seed to have any real chance of a series victory.  And even if they do avoid the dreaded 6 through 8 spots, I wouldn’t peg them as favorites against any of the other teams that they could play.

The last team that I haven’t really talked about at any point on this blog is Anaheim.  I am a huge fan of Ray Emery dating back to his Senator days, but more so after reading his story last fall.  I was very glad to see a team sign him recently, and it has come as no surprise to me that Razor Ray has backstopped the Ducks into seventh place from what was in my opinion a certain ninth or lower finish.  When I watch the Ducks play, they seem to me like a very dangerous team.  They have two lines of premier NHL scoring, with the likes of American scorer Bobby Ryan, the center that does everything Ryan Getzlaf, league top goal scorer and MVP candidate Corey Perry, the Finnish Flash Teemu Selanne, who sits ninth in NHL point scoring, and former Montreal captain Saku Koivu, who still possesses the passing ability that can unlock a defense in a millisecond.  Visnovsky and Lydman offer support from the blue line, and with Emery now the Ducks look like a team to be reckoned with.  But the only team in the top three that would really be anywhere near a favorable matchup for the Ducks would be Detroit, because the Wings are the team up top that allows the most goals.  Any type of lockdown defense would be a bad matchup for Anaheim, because they don’t seem capable of playing lock down D themselves.  This isn’t really an indictment on the Ducks defensemen, it’s just that they are young and thin at the position.  I think rookies Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa have real promise, but I wouldn’t expect them to tip the scales of the 2011 playoffs in Anaheim’s favor.  Perhaps the Ducks could create some problems for San Jose on a historical basis alone, as no matter the seedings, Anaheim always seems to get the better of San Jose.  But to me, the matchup just isn’t there.  And with the Sharks having a goalie that doesn’t look like a playoff stinker for once, I would expect the Sharks to get that monkey off their backs if the Ducks come calling in round one.

As for predictions, I would say at this point it would be wise to take the top three seeds to move on, but I will update this after the matchups are determined on Sunday.  As far as the fourth team that will move into the second round, I think the preferred choice would be Chicago.  The problem with this, however, is that Chicago will probably end up playing one of the top three, and therefore someone else would be the pick.  With that in mind, I’m taking the Phoenix Coyotes as the team that I expect to join the top three seeds in the western semifinals, regardless of whether the Coyotes grab the 4 seed or have to open on the road.

It should be a great final week, with six of the eight teams playing home and homes with each other to close out the season.  San Jose – Phoenix, Detroit – Chicago, and Los Angeles – Anaheim.  This is where the seedings will truly be determined, so stay tuned.

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