While I think Vancouver/Chicago is the most compelling western series, and Detroit/Phoenix may be the toughest to call, I think this Nashville/Anaheim series has the potential to be the most rewarding first round hockey series to watch.
First off, I don’t think I’ve seen anybody confidently predict the winner. Second, we see contrasting styles of sorts, with Anaheim boasting 5 of the league’s top 27 scorers, who will go against likely Vezina runner-up Pekka Rinne of Nashville. Nashville’s three biggest stars play the back end, with olympic medalists Shea Weber and Ryan Suter cleaning up in front of their exceptional goaltender Rinne, while also pressing forward enough to stand 3rd and 6th on the team in scoring, respectively. And that’s not considering the fact that Suter missed 12 games this year to injury.
But Suter and Weber will have their hands full with Anaheim’s top two lines, the first of which being the line in the NHL most in need of a legendary nickname. The combination of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan has been intact largely since the Stanley Cup winning season of 2007, although they were only youngsters then. One of the veteran scorers on that team was the Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne, who has shocked the hockey world this season by turning in an 80 point year at the age of 40, good for 8th in the league. The Ducks have added another Finland icon in second line center Saku Koivu, who has offered solid two-way play along with being the only Duck center to win a majority of his draws (52.8%). Koivu contributed 45 points on the offensive end, and was key in the Ducks’ weekend sweep of Los Angeles, which earned them home ice in the first round to begin with.
The Nashville Predators became the trendy team to pick over the last month as the qualified “team that nobody wants to play,” but I think that when one considers the alternatives, this team was actually probably the team that everyone would have preferred to play if the Los Angeles Kings weren’t an option. The other two road seeds are Phoenix and Chicago. While most people seem to think I’m off my rocker to peg Phoenix ahead of Nashville, I think things will play themselves out and folks will change their tune within a couple weeks. And as far as Chicago goes, absolutely nobody would seriously want to play the defending champion Hawks instead of the never-won-a-playoff-series Preds if the goal was to advance to the second round. So really, the Predators are not the team that nobody wanted to play. They’re the team that is viewed as the third scariest team in the Central division. And as far as that never won a playoff series thing goes, I know that records are meant to be broken, and there’s a first time for everything, and insert cliché here, but when push comes to shove I’m going to take the team that has shown playoff prowess in the past over the one that always seems to be one year away, or one piece short of taking that next step.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Barry Trotz has done a fantastic job this season and deserves to be a finalist for the Jack Adams award (which will certainly go to Penguins head coach and fellow BGSU alum Dan Bylsma), but I can’t bring myself to pick a team that is offensively challenged and has never won a playoff series to upset a squad that caught fire to earn home ice, boasts the possible league MVP in Perry, can roll out two game changing goalies (see Emery in ’07 playoffs; see Hiller vs. Team USA in ’10 Olympics; apologies to Dan Ellis), and has a pair of defensemen in Lydman and Visnovsky that are plus-50 with 93 points between them (and play nearly half the game) simply because I love the job that the road team’s coach has done. Ultimately, Nashville just doesn’t have enough Mike Fishers up front or any Perrys, Getzlafs, etc. in order to take this series that I truly do think is there for the taking. Since I do believe in Nashville’s fighting spirit and their ability to get to the brink of the next level, I’ll give them 3 wins in this series, but I have to go with the Anaheim Ducks in seven games due to experience and offensive firepower.
To close out my look at the first round of the western conference playoffs, I’ll quickly pick the San Jose Sharks to defeat their Pacific division rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, in five games. As with all NHL playoff series, I think the outcome of this one is still in doubt, but the bottom line is that LA just doesn’t score enough goals to win this series. They are without leading scorer Anze Kopitar and also winger Justin Williams. Although I love the goaltending tandem of Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, those guys aren’t enough to get LA over this very difficult hump. Also, the Kings will be without another key player during their regular season: the shootout. The Kings led the league with 10 wins coming by way of shootout this season, none of which would have been wins in the playoffs. In fact, had ties been ties like they used to be, the Kings would not have even made the playoffs over the Dallas Stars, who would have boasted 90 points to Los Angeles’ 88. The shootout got them here, but it won’t get them any further.
Additionally, I really like the way San Jose has played with a chip on its shoulder over the second half of the season. Everybody knows their reputation for playoff “chokes” (I hate that word as used to describe any loss in sports, but with SJ it sort of has been appropriate at times), but more than just the previous playoff losses, this team had to endure a rough start that saw them outside the top 8 somewhat deep into the season. That brought out the detractors, calling the team’s $2 million signing of 2010 Cup winning goalie Antti Niemi irresponsible and a waste of money. All Niemi did was shut down the NHL over the second half of the season and earn himself a 4 year extension that nearly doubled his yearly salary, while also giving the Sharks a bona fide backstop that they know can win a Stanley Cup, rather than Evgeni Nabokov, who they thought could probably, maybe, possibly win the western conference. That never did happen, despite five division titles in eight seasons between Nabokov and the failed Vesa Toskala experiment. These Sharks appear to have their heads right for a long playoff run, and have drawn what is probably the easiest first round opponent. Will that get the ball rolling for round two and beyond, or only cover up the fact that the Sharks are still the Sharks? Only time will tell, but I definitely fancy San Jose to get past the Kings and an additional round afterward, whether it is against Detroit or the Anaheim / Nashville winner. Hmm, San Jose / Anaheim with the Sharks as the higher seed… feels like this has happened before…
The puck drops on the playoffs in 25 hours, cheers.