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Phoenix Coyotes

It’s playoff time, and rather than lead off with some clever transition from nothing, I’ll mention that I don’t need to do that and that you don’t need another vanilla, clichéd-up version of some dude picking all the favorites to win in 6 or 7 games and act like any value was added to your Stanley Cup playoff investment.

What we are going to do today is look at the “experts’ picks” from three of the most visible hockey media companies, compare their hunches to the series prices currently offered by the sportsbooks, and see if we can’t take a stab at predicting some things that won’t happen in the first round of the playoffs.

The three sources that I tallied to compile the 35 “experts’ picks” figures were NHL.com, espn.com (I know, I know), and Sportsnet.ca. The series price betting lines were taken from sportsbook.com.

Western Conference
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings
The Canucks are the Presidents’ Trophy winners for a second consecutive season, and return to the playoffs after last season’s highly scrutinized loss in the 107th game. They were always going to be favorites as a #1 seed, but the L.A. Kings really don’t match up all that well with Vancouver.
L.A. game is based on defensive prowess and superb goaltending from Jonathan Quick, who will certainly be in Vegas as a finalist for the Vezina this summer. But, contrary to popular belief, the Canucks are an excellent defensive team as well. And they have speed!
While the Kings’ D is properly lauded for being the second stingiest in the league, the Canucks only allowed 19 more goals this season than L.A., which placed Vancouver fourth in the league in total defense.
And contrary to the widespread mob mentality, Roberto Luongo is just fine. I wrote all about that before the trade deadline, so I won’t go over the same numbers. But people need to get over that brain cramp in 2007. Seriously. Or, at least hold Luongo to the same standards to which every other goalie is held.

Both Daniel Sedin and Jeff Carter are expected to be ready for their respective teams, so the injury excuse isn’t one that we can use for either team yet.
Everyone will be and is talking about how it is just a matter of time before Cory Schneider rips the starting spot from Luongo. I disagree. I don’t think Schneider will see more than one game of the five that will be played, and I think that one is going to be simply to keep him fresh and because the Canucks will be taking care of business.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 28-7 VAN; Series price: VAN (-225) LAK (+185); What Won’t Happen: L.A. winning this series, Roberto Luongo losing his starting job.
#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks
I really thought more people would be calling for the Sharks to win this one. After all, they have more playoff experience and perhaps the freedom of starting as a lower seed this time around. I thought the betting line would be close to even, allowing for wise guys to make a killing on the Blues as the disrespected-yet-clearly-better team.
That didn’t happen, as the Blues are getting more respect than I figured a hockey team from St. Louis could in what might as well be their first go-round.
The experts had the Blues over the Sharks at a 25-10 clip, and the betting line was an unforgiving -165 for St. Louis.
Photo found here
Halak & Backes: Two of my fantasy studs. They’re also on my fantasy hockey team.

Here’s why I love the Blues.
First, there seems to be this common perception that all of a sudden the playoffs will expose the Blues’ limitations and lack of experience, and that the veteran Sharks took the regular season off but will be fully focused now that it counts. The problem with this logic is that St. Louis plays a playoff style of hockey in the regular season. Why in the world would they be unfit to continue to succeed with this playoff style in the playoffs?
The Blues led the league in defense by a wide margin. Isn’t that old, mindless cliché about the hot goalie supposed to be regurgitated a thousand times by now? Well if so, here we have the best defensive team in the NHL backstopped by the guy who grabbed his crappy 8 seed by the scruff of the neck and dragged them past at-the-time still hot young thing Washington and defending champion Pittsburgh. The lazy saying was made for matchups like this. Throw in a possibly healthy peripheral league leader in Brian Elliott, and the Blues should be able to continue to lock everyone down just like they have for the last six months.
Speaking of goalies, isn’t everybody talking about how Antti Niemi is iffy and the worst goalie to ever win a Cup and blah blah blah? If all that is true, and you’re needing to match up with the best defensive team in hockey, wouldn’t it follow that San Jose is not good enough to out defend St. Louis?
The Sharks’ were tied for 6th best in goals allowed in the Western Conference, which allowed them to be +18 in goal differential, as compared to the Blues’ +45. And remember, that’s +45 and the best goals allowed total whilst playing in a division that far outscores the one that San Jose plays in.
The bottom line is, as much as I respect the possibility that the Sharks learn and put it all together, I just prefer the roster and playing style of the Blues, especially if the team I like more has home ice advantage.
It should be noted that of the underdogs, San Jose has the third-lowest payout on the moneyline, making this series the third most likely to yield an upset according to the sportsbooks.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 25-10 STL; Series price: STL (-165) SJ (+145); What Won’t Happen: St. Louis is unable to exact their playing style now that it’s the playoffs, Anyone in 4, Anyone in 7.
#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks
I’m impressed with both the “experts” and the lines makers for recognizing just how good this series is set up to be.
This is another instance of the home seed having a lower point total but benefitting from geography, but readers know I have overvalued the Coyotes players for a while. I may have picked them to beat Detroit last year. I’m too lazy to check, but if I didn’t take Phoenix, I at least took them to lose in 7. That looked laughable last year, as Phoenix was the only team to get swept in the opening round.
But here we are again, and I still love Phoenix’s makeup. The roster gets made fun of, and everyone uses words like “toughness” in the same go-to way that NFL draft experts talk about college players that have a “motor,” or NBA draft talking heads refer to every white guy’s athleticism as “sneaky.”
These are the freaking playoffs. The NHL playoffs. This is hockey, and at the highest level. Every single team is going to have multiple instances and examples of “toughness.”
What everyone is really saying is, “We don’t think Phoenix is very talented.” Well, that’s cool. Let me ask you this: what would be the narrative about 35-goal scorer Radim Vrbata if he played on the east coast and/or had a North American-sounding name? I’ll tell you what word wouldn’t be used to describe his offensive output: “sneaky.” Alas, he plays his home games in Phoenix, and therefore is an overachiever, just like the rest of them.
The dichotomy in net couldn’t be more distinct. Mike Smith placed in the top eight in every relevant goaltending category this season. Corey Crawford was in the thirties in peripherals amongst qualifying netminders, and led the line for a team that completed exactly zero shutouts this season. 0-for-82. That might prove to be irrelevant, as either Chicago could pick the best time to start shutting people out, or they may just win the series without needing any bagels. But as of right now, the individual seasons for the young goalies Smith and Crawford went in very different directions.
And as much as I love Chicago’s offensive prowess from the blue line, Keith Yandle led all defensemen in this series in points, while second-year stud Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s 13 goals were tops. Those guys play for Phoenix, and I think you’ll find their games to be anything but “sneaky.”
I love this matchup for a lot of reasons. The less respected, more defensively reliant team has home ice. The offensively explosive, recent Cup champions find themselves about to embark on a battle that will be every bit as physically demanding as the one they found themselves in with Vancouver last year. Of the eight western playoff teams, Phoenix (+12) and Chicago (+10) have the lowest goal differentials (but for very different reasons). This is a contrast of styles and accomplishments that is about as interesting as a first-round series can yield. The picks and lines on this one reflect that.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 20-15 CHI; Series price: PHX (+115) CHI (-135); What Won’t Happen: Chicago walks through this one, you don’t remember Phoenix center Martin Hanzal’s name when it’s all over.
#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings
Alright, so what’s up with this one. Not surprisingly, the books have this as a pick ‘em at the moment. I can see why. One one hand, we have a somewhat recent champion with most of the same players in key positions. On the other hand, we have a team that is all-in for the title right now and has home ice. The consensus seems to be that this series is a candidate for going the distance.
What’s stunning is the consensus that once this one gets to a seventh game that the Predators will win. Nashville won in the experts’ books by a whopping 29-6 count. So, almost everybody likes the Preds to win the series. Yet, nearly everyone likes them to do so in exactly seven games. I’ve never seen a bigger example of playing it safe. Pick the home team, but take it in seven.
Amongst the twelve ESPN “experts,” only one has Detroit to win the series (Linda Cohn, in 6 games). So, how many of the remaining eleven, all of whom picked the Predators, took Smashville to win it in exactly seven games? How about ELEVEN. That’s right — eleven out of eleven.
This says a few things. First, it’s a close call. Second, nobody wants to take Detroit over Nashville, despite the books and the length-of-series projections admitting that the series is essentially a pick ‘em. And third, nobody likes Nashville to close out the series at Joe Louis Arena. Smart call, I would say.
The whole “what won’t happen” idea for these analyses basically came from my belief that while my Red Wings may win and they may lose, they sure as hell aren’t getting eliminated at home. It would seem that ESPN agrees with me. Not sure what that says about me… Come to think of it… shit.
Quick Reference: Experts’ picks: 29-6 NSH; Series price: NSH (-110) DET (-110); What Won’t Happen: Predators in 4 or 6.
Thanks for reading; we’ll be back to do this again for the conference semifinals.

Five months ago I wrote about why Phoenix and Florida, two franchises pegged for relocation by many over the past few seasons, were sitting atop their respective divisions early, and why expectations for both franchises should be raised from the bottom-dwelling perceptions that most hockey fans had.
Well, here we are on this Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection of two hockey franchises thought to be dead men skating as recently as… well, right now, if we’re talking about the Coyotes.
Back in November, I wrote about how the increase in scope and prevalence of information and coverage has led us all to become more aware of financials all around us — never mind that we don’t actually get to see any team’s balance sheet. The Pacific and Southeast division titles clinched on Super Saturday only cement my opinion that we all give too much weight to team finances and salary cap figures when trying to project a point total in the standings.
Photo via (Timothy T. Ludwig, US Presswire)
Pound that water, Mike Smith. You’ve earned it.

Aside from the “hockey is played on a sheet of ice, not a balance sheet” argument, we looked at how all too often sports predictions are based heavily on the previous season. Upon looking at the six division champions, I would need proof of anybody seriously calling for any of the division winners we saw this year outside of the two defending conference champions — Vancouver and Boston.

I loved the N.Y. Rangers growing roster, and I still couldn’t pull the trigger on picking them ahead of Pittsburgh (and I was wishy-washy on taking them second over Philadelphia). I liked the St. Louis Blues, and still deferred to last season in picking them to squeak into the playoffs as the Central Division’s fourth-best team. Granted, none of us saw the Ken Hitchcock lockdown D coming, but the roster didn’t change from opening night. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott just decided to tag team the Jennings Trophy. And then there are Florida and Phoenix. Show me the timestamp on someone’s projection of either one of them as division title winners, and I’ll show you someone who forges timestamps.
The unfortunate part for both the Panthers and Coyotes is that they’ll have to face two teams that are very deep in playoff experience at different positions. Florida will host New Jersey, whose word association answer is always going to be “Brodeur.” Aside from the winningest netminder in league history, the Devils still have Patrik Elias and Zach Parise to lead the line, as well as 83-point scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, surprise 30-goal man David Clarkson, and a pair of elderly chaps in Petr Sykora and Dainus Zubrus who each turned in 44 points in 82 games.
I have not come across series prices yet this morning, but I do see Florida getting twice the money to win the eastern conference that New Jersey gets, making the Panthers unsurprising underdogs in that respect.
Phoenix, meanwhile, will have to deal with the tough task of knocking out recent champs Chicago, who I mistakenly pegged for a huge regular season, but seem to be coming together at the right time and may get captain Jonathan Toews back from a concussion as early as Game 1. Then again, he may never play again. You guys know the drill.

Photo credit to cbc.ca (Nuccio DiNuzzo/AP)
The Blackhawks can’t be having this if they want to compete for another Stanley Cup.

The Coyotes are getting more than double the odds to win the west as compared to the Blackhawks, making Phoenix another unsurprisingly underdogged three seed. The one advantage for Phoenix that most people would agree upon has to be in goal, where Mike Smith finished in the top eight leaguewide in GAA (8th), save % (3rd), games played (8th), wins (4th), and shutouts (3rd). Blackhawks’ starter Corey Crawford, by contrast, placed 34th, 37th, 18th, 16th and tied for last in those same categories (Chicago rocked zero shutouts this season). Phoenix’s physical style should trouble Chicago a bit as well, especially considering the importance Toews has on the Hawks winning playoff games.

Smith’s success dispelled the final argument I made in November, which was that it was very early and there was still time for Smith or Florida’s trio to go sideways. That obviously didn’t happen with Smith, but neither did it happen with Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen after much-hyped rookie Jacob Markstrom went down with an injury following a promising start. As far as upside goes, most people would take the Coyotes’ goaltending over that of the Panthers, but that is not to say that Florida’s pair doesn’t inspire an average amount of confidence that the goalie will probably not blow the series. Neither Theodore nor Clemmensen played nearly as bad as Brodeur’s worst this season, which, to be fair, does seem to have been pushed back by Marty’s recent success.
A full playoff preview with predictions that will probably hit at just over 50% is on its way, but until then I’ll just point out that neither Florida nor Phoenix lost the season series to its first-round opponent. Phoenix went 3-1 against Chicago this year, with one of those wins coming by the playoff-insignificant way of shootout. Florida went 2-1-1 against New Jersey this season, with that hanger on the end being a shootout loss, not an overtime one. So, both the Coyotes and Panthers went 2-1-1 against the Blackhawks and Devils in games that are decided by a 60-to-65-minute hockey contest. And they both have home ice. That’s the positive contemporary history part of this thing.

Photo via (Joe Rimkus Jr., Miami Herald)
Super Saturday sure was for the Panthers, who celebrated the first division title in franchise history.

The negative historical trend? Neither Phoenix nor Florida has won a playoff series since 1996 — the year Florida made their stunning run to the Cup Finals and Phoenix scored the relocation of the Winnipeg Jets. The Panthers are 0-2 in playoff series since the ’96 run, and that includes a 1-8 game record and zero playoff appearances since 2000. The Coyotes are 0-7 in the first round, but three times have forced a deciding Game 7.

Debating which NHL team should be the next to relocate has become one of the cool things to do in hockey, and the Thrashers / Jets move from Atlanta to Winnipeg over the summer has only served to ramp up the debate about which franchise will be setting up shop in Quebec City in the near future.
The two teams that are almost exclusively offered as the prime candidates to wear a hockey playing igloo on their chests soon are the Phoenix Coyotes and the Florida Panthers. While I think that it is likely that one of them ends up in Eric Lindros’ favorite province soon, I would rather talk about the fact that Phoenix and Florida are sitting in 7th and 11th overall in points percentage, or points gathered per contest.
The reason I want to cite this stat is that it’s impossible to talk about the standings in just a total points construction because there will never be a point in the season in which every team has played the same amount of games. So to be fair to every team, we’ll use points percentage.
I thought about why Phoenix and Florida are so high in the league’s overall standings, and on the same line of thinking, why seemingly none of us saw any success coming for these two. It’s not like everyone was saying that each team should be contending for the eighth playoff spot in its respective conference. Rather, the general idea was that both teams would contend for a top-five overall draft pick.


We could cite the individual players, but that would be missing the point. Sure, Phoenix is led by Shane Doan, a man that has earned the nickname “Captain Canada,” but we already knew that coming in. So why the widespread prediction that a team that has made the playoffs the past two seasons would go into the tank? Some of the disfavor was surely linked with the departure of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia over the summer, but I don’t think that explains all of it.
And for Florida, we all knew of and followed the early-July spending spree that they went on just to try to reach the salary cap floor, but the prevailing comment on the situation was that the Panthers overpaid for players that nobody else would have offered anywhere near that much money to. In other words, they got a lot of players, but they didn’t get much value. And when you have a squad near the bottom in player payroll, and everyone thinks those players have essentially no trade value, then it stands to reason that things should go negatively for that franchise. Maybe we all overlooked how good Brian Campbell really is (and I think we largely have), but again, he’s one player. Stephen Weiss makes two. We all saw the rosters coming in, so why are the Panthers outdoing expectations by so much?
I came up with three reasons that despite very low expectations, the Coyotes and Panthers are sitting pretty through 13% of the season.
1. Predictions are based too much on last season
Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner recently hosted an episode of the podcast of the same name entitled “The Folly of Prediction.” In one of the interviews, he talks to researcher Hayes Davenport, who has looked at NFL predictions made by “experts.” Davenport cites the fact that any untrained animal could look at any of the NFL’s four-team divisions, throw out the worst team, and predict the division champs at a 33% success rate. He then reveals that the league’s pundits have been predicting NFL division winners at just a 36% success rate.
One main reason that he offers for the 64% failure rate is, “They tend to rely much too heavily on the previous year’s standings in making their picks for the following year. They play it very conservatively, but there’s a very high level of parity in the NFL right now, so that’s not exactly how it works.”
I would suggest that today’s NHL sees more parity than at any time in the league’s past. This is probably largely due to the existence of a salary cap (and salary floor), which mandates that all teams spend within $16 million of each other on yearly player salaries.
If we look at most hockey predictions, we see very little in the way of sweeping changes in the makeup of either conference. This is probably because when we go to make predictions, one of the tabs that we have open in our web browser is last year’s standings. I know it played a role in my projecting the Panthers for last in the east. Now, part of it was also the departure of Tomas Vokoun coupled with my expectation that Jacob Markstrom, an undoubted future all-star goaltender, would not be given the chance to play early and often for the big club this year. But, a lot of it also had to do with last year’s standings. And I know I’m not the only one guilty of that blunder.
2. Hockey is played on a sheet of ice, not a balance sheet
It’s easy to see how relying too much on last year’s standings could have led a person to shortchange the Panthers, but what about the Coyotes? They’ve been a playoff team the past two seasons, and play a rough and tough style that would be coveted by any northeastern city. So, the “last year made me do it” excuse couldn’t possibly explain the en masse assumption that Phoenix would suck this year.
Instead, I think many of us have read way too much into the Coyotes’ off-ice financial issues. It was widely assumed that they would be the team to move to Winnipeg (or in the Coyotes’ case, move back to Winnipeg). But, another $25 million set aside by the city of Glendale kept the team in Phoenix for another season, while Winnipeg’s thirst has been quenched.
As the business of sports has become much more covered in all facets of the media, fans have become de facto GMs. Or, at least they think they have. I mean, capgeek.com exists almost solely so that people like me can get on the internet and critique a player’s “value” based on his salary cap hit to his team. It’s fun and intelligent, and I’m not going to stop, but sometimes I think we all overrate how the financial struggles of a franchise’s ownership group will affect the team’s actual on-ice play.
Jokes about the L.A. Dodgers paying their players in ramen noodles have been rampant in the past year, but hockey doesn’t get that kind of coverage on ESPN. If it did, how could everyone not be making fun of the fact that the Phoenix Coyotes have been owned and operated by the NHL for a few years now, and operating at reportedly huge losses?
Well, hockey people are aware of it, and hockey people make predictions. I think there is a huge tendency to assume that bankruptcies and rumors over relocation or contraction will cast a cloud over the franchise, and that the players won’t be able to shine through the fog. But let’s get real: these guys are getting paid a lot of money to play the game they love. They’re going to play it hard and to the best of their abilities. Why would all of this balance sheet stuff enter their minds before laying down to block a shot or going hard into the corner to dig out a puck late in the second period of a game in November? It wouldn’t, and I think that for the most part it doesn’t.
3. It’s still very early
Pointing out the early successes of two franchises that everyone verbally craps on is nice, but it would be ill-advised not to point out that those successes are still just that — early.
We are 11 games into the season, and a lot can still go wrong over the next 71 for either team. The positives are that their styles of play and cohesion seem to be working. Each has a pair of goaltenders that can be relied on to be solid at times, although I’m not sure anyone would vouch for the absolute impossibility that Mike Smith, Jason LaBarbera, Jose Theodore or Jacob Markstrom go sideways at some point this year.
Also, are these teams deep enough if and when the injury bug comes around? Surely the Panthers cannot afford a long-term injury to Campbell or Weiss, but what about the third through seventh-best players? Can Phoenix play the style it wants effectively if Martin Hanzal or Captain Canada go down? Will they create enough goal scoring chances in the absence of Keith Yandle? The answer to all of these questions is probably “no,” and so we must remember that these two teams are only 13% complete in their seasons. Surely their goals should be to make the playoffs and cram all of our predictions down our throats, and they’ve each got 71 more games to try to make that happen.

This may come as a surprise to some, but the Pacific Division was by far hockey’s best from top to bottom last season. Dallas brought it up the rear, but still came in ninth in the west, and that was only after losing on the final evening to miss out on the final playoff spot (which went to Chicago out of the Central).
But the Pacific failed to perform in the playoffs, as the division went 1-3 collectively in series against teams from other divisions (San Jose beating Detroit in seven games was the lone series victory). This season, I expect the Pacific to have two teams in contention for the conference crown, while there are two other teams that I think are set up to take a step backward. Let’s get to the meat.


1st: San Jose Sharks 2010-11: 105 points, 1st in division
This was tough. I typed out two paragraphs about why the LA Kings will win the Pacific in 2011-12 before I came to the conclusion that I don’t believe they will. On paper, I think the Kings might be the better team, but there’s something to be said for a group of players that have won four division titles in a row and knocked their new challengers out of the playoffs last year.
Of course, these Sharks won’t be the same team, as they shipped Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota in separate deals that landed them winger Martin Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns. But the Sharks are good enough in their top six, four, and one that I think it’s slightly more likely that they win the division than it is that LA does.
That top six is indisputably led by center Joe Thornton, who has been maligned by some for failing to yet win a Stanley Cup. But putting blame aside, Thornton should be evaluated as a supremely gifted hockey player. He is a 6’4” center with hands like few who’ve ever played the game, and he’s listed at 230 pounds. Because he’s fast for his size and can protect the puck with his frame and strength, Thornton can play pretty much any type of game he wants. And it’s not like everyone didn’t already know he was a freak — he was the #1 overall pick in the 1997 entry draft. At 23 years old he was the captain of the Boston Bruins. The Bruins traded Thornton to San Jose in 2006, and Thornton was named league MVP after splitting 81 games between the two teams. Thornton had 125 points that year.
Perhaps the best reason why Thornton is not thought of as a prodigy the way seemingly every #1 overall pick is these days is because of the timeline of the internet. We all remember the outpouring of joy the Pittsburgh Penguins showed when they were awarded the #1 pick to draft Sidney Crosby with in 2005. He wasn’t even legal yet, but he had a nickname (“The Next One”), and we all knew it largely thanks to the internet. As the internet has evolved, everyone’s access to amateur player rankings has increased, and it has gotten to the point where we have to assume who the top pick will be, and why all of the bad teams need him. We had the attempt to dub the Edmonton Oilers’ abysmal 2009-10 season “the fall for Taylor Hall” that rightfully never really caught on. But as solid as most of these #1 picks always are, I don’t think there should have been more hype surrounding guys like Taylor Hall and John Tavares than there was around Joe Thornton. At 32 years old, Thornton only has a few more years left before his game could drop off a little bit, so the time for him to finally make good on this incredible hockey gift he’s been given has just about come.
Surrounding the elite centerman in the Wild’s top six will be Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture. All of these players offer different strengths (and in some cases, weaknesses), and that’s what could make San Jose’s top two lines a couple of the more intriguing in the NHL this season. It will be interesting to see how the Sharks fare without Heatley. He is regarded as a top-notch scorer in the league, but he only scored 26 goals last season, and hasn’t reached 40 in a season since 2007-08. The Sharks sent him to Minnesota in exchange for Havlat, who offers a salary that is $2.5 million less than Heatley’s. If Havlat can keep from kicking players or being immortalized in one of the greater parodies / diss songs of all-time, there’s no reason he can’t pour in at least 20 goals and give the Sharks a more physical presence than Heatley did. But of course, Havlat must stay interested, which he says he will now that he’s on a team that should be participating in playoff hockey. Of course the last time Havlat played some playoff hockey, he got Kronwalled.
San Jose landed smooth-skating defensemen Burns, also from Minnesota, in a separate trade with the Wild. Burns fits San Jose’s playing style perfectly, as he has no qualms using his superior skating to get involved offensively, a la Sharks D man Dan Boyle. Burns should skate with Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the second line, behind Boyle and hard-hitting Douglas Murray. I think Vlasic is the man who could be upgraded, but he’s good enough not to lose games. The Sharks aren’t great on their third defensive pairing, but then, who really is? They will probably skate out Jason Demers and newly-signed Jim Vandermeer.
In goal, Antti Niemi consolidated his 2010 Stanley Cup victory with a steadily improving second season last year. Niemi started out so bad that many were calling for Antero Niittymaki to take the starting job. But Niemi corrected, avoided the crash-and-burn, and actually ascended higher than ever before his season ended at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks on one of the weirdest goals in NHL playoff history. Niemi can be expected to be in the top ten in peripherals this season, as he was 11th and 12th last year with his 2.38 GAA and .920 save percentage. Those stats were clearly hindered by his awful start, and it should be safe to assume that Niemi should come out of the gates better than last year.
2nd: Los Angeles Kings 2010-11: 98 points, 4th in division
Those two paragraphs I had written about why the Kings should win the Pacific started with the fact that they should be improved from last season thanks to some key acquisitions and returns to health, and included the idea that it is possible that San Jose did not upgrade their roster through their own moves. We’ve evaluated the Sharks, but there shouldn’t be nearly as much of a question surrounding whether the Kings improved from last season to this one.
LA started by trading center Brayden Schenn, hockey’s ultimate prospect, along with Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second round draft pick to Philadelphia for center Mike Richards, who not only captained the Flyers, but also played a key role in helping Canada win the 2010 Olympic gold medal. Outside of acquiring Schenn and freeing up some cap space, it’s unclear why the Flyers would trade Richards. Many have assumed that he must have been a problem in the locker room, but we really don’t have any publicly known facts to base that off of. Regardless of the validity of people’s suspicions, I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that Richards will blow up the Kings’ chemistry, which needs to grow anyway.
Richards joins a team that already has a star center in Anze Kopitar. The first Slovenian to play in the NHL will turn 24 later in August, just like Sidney Crosby. People have been calling for Kopitar’s breakout season for a couple years now, but he was sidelined at the end of last year with a broken ankle. The Kings were ousted by San Jose in six games without the services of Kopitar (or, of course, Richards). Some article that I didn’t read on ESPN insider called for Kopitar to win the MVP this year, which I think is probably a bit much considering he has never averaged a point per game in any season, although he’s been very close in three of the five he’s played in the NHL so far. There are some similarities between Kopitar and big Joe Thornton, starting with size, but Kopitar’s game is a little more forward-skating and a little less creative, although neither player gives up a whole lot to the other. I’d suspect Anze can finally break the point-per-game barrier this year, but I wouldn’t expect more than 90 from the big man.
Part of the reason I’m curbing my expectations for this so-called MVP candidate is the LA wingers need to step their games up a bit. The one true exception is Dustin Brown, who I think is one of the premier right wings in the league. Aside from being third in the league with 300 hits, Brown led the Kings with 28 goals and added 29 assists, good for fourth on the team. The stud from Ithaca, NY has been the captain of the Kings for three years, and does a fine job in that role. Brown will turn 27 in November.
The other right wing is Justin Williams, who matched Brown’s 57 point output despite missing 9 games to injury. Williams was solid, but the Kings need even more if they’re going to win the division and/or enjoy playoff success this year. Williams needs to stay on the ice (maybe even play more than 17:15 a night) and continue to improve his offensive game because the Kings need the goals.
Opposite Brown and Williams on the left side will be Dustin Penner and Simon Gagne, neither of whom were Kings when the calendar flipped to 2011. Gagne has tallied only 40 points in each of the last two seasons, but both were shortened by injury. Perhaps more importantly, Gagne has played in 34 playoff games in those seasons, which means his teams enjoy some playoff success. He didn’t just phone it in either; Gagne was able to score 14 goals in the last two playoff years with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, respectively. That pace would translate to 33 goals over an 82 game season, but Gagne hasn’t kept that pace during the regular season nor kept his health since 2008-09. If he can give the Kings a full season, the offensive numbers should be better than last year, when LA only outscored Columbus, Minnesota and Edmonton in the west.

Penner, on the other hand, appears to be stalling somewhat. After being traded to LA on deadline day this past season, Penner had two goals and four assists in 19 games. He added a goal and an assist in the first round loss to San Jose. People say he underachieved, but I’m not sure everybody realizes exactly what kind of a player Dustin Penner is. Because of his size and 32-goal season in 2009-10 for the Oilers, everyone assumes he has to be a top-six forward in the NHL. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better for him to play third-line minutes and get into that grinding mentality. Unfortunately, the Kings don’t have the luxury of trying that out right now, as Penner and Gagne are, until further developments, the best two left wingers on the team.
Defensively, the Kings should be alright on the top four, but any injuries could expose their lack of depth. One way or another, Drew Doughty is going to play hockey for the LA Kings this year, unless they choose to trade him at some point. He’s waiting on a big contract, and talks could progress now that Shea Weber’s situation has been sorted out and there’s a dollar figure attached. Whether the Kings should shell out crazy terms for Doughty long-term is another matter, but in terms of 2011-12, Doughty is a much-needed piece of the Kings’ puzzle. Along with Doughty are Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, who play some pretty good defense. Rounding out the top four is Jack Johnson, who plays defense like he’s chilling on a beach with an acoustic guitar, singing about rabbits. He’s not that Jack Johnson, but he is no more of a defensive success than the musician. Johnson hits a good amount of guys and skates some high minute totals, but he’s never seen a minus-1 that he didn’t like. But, he poured in 37 assists last year, so he’s great. On the last line of defense, the Kings have basher Matt Greene and then a slew of options at sixth defender. Many assume that spot will go to Alec Martinez.
The Kings’ goaltending situation doesn’t need a lot of previewing. Jonathan Quick has now gone 3-for-3 in having good seasons, and turned in his best one yet in 2010-11. Quick’s .918 save percentage tied Marc-Andre Fleury for 13th in the league, while his 2.24 GAA was good for fifth. Behind Quick is fellow youngster Jonathan Bernier, who had a Niemi-like season, except that he made his turnaround over only 25 appearances. Both goalies are entering the penultimate years of their contracts, with both (especially Quick) looking for a payday come summer 2013.
Los Angeles has the goaltending, centermen and team defense to win this division in 2011-12, but I’m leaning slightly in the direction of the San Jose Sharks.
3rd: Anaheim Ducks 2010-11: 99 points, 2nd in division
This prediction has two conditions: 1) Jonas Hiller must be ready to play hockey, and 2) Teemu Selanne must want to continue to play hockey. If either of these conditions are not met, especially condition #1, I’m picking Anaheim fourth. Let’s examine why.
Everybody knows and loves the Ducks’ top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. And why not? It’s a great line. They do it all, and more impressively, all of them do it all. But after them, Teemu Selanne is absolutely needed on the roster in order for the Ducks to score the goals to overcome those that they statistically should give up. Selanne is considering retirement after kind of shocking the hockey world with an 80-point season in 73 games last year. The Finnish Flash is 41 now, but he’s still needed for this Anaheim offense.
The reason why Selanne is needed might lie with Hiller’s condition. The Twitterverse is abuzz with photos of Hiller skating recently, so it looks like the left-handed goalie should be ready to return from his season-long bout with vertigo. If he is fully recovered, the Ducks are solid at starting goaltender. If he’s not, this could be a grease fire. Anaheim was 10th in the west last year in goals allowed, and surprisingly were only 7th in goals scored. That’s an average of 8.5, which makes the Ducks a borderline playoff team, which is what I believe they will be this year. Hiller’s backup appears to be Dan Ellis, which begs the question, “Why the hell didn’t Anaheim give Ray Emery a new contract?” Whatever the reason, they didn’t, and now if Hiller suffers a relapse of vertigo or comes down with any injury at all, the Ducks will be left with Dan Ellis to hold down the fort. Forgive me for not loving a repeat of Anaheim’s second-place finish in the Pacific.
The Ducks have a well-defined top four on defense consisting of Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler. Visnovsky led all NHL defensemen with 50 assists last season, and was second amongst blue liners with 18 goals (losing out only to Dustin Byfuglien, who is a converted winger). The guy was a power play leader, tallying 31 special teams points, as well as skating over 24 minutes a night. Visnovsky was plus-18, which was only bested on the Anaheim roster by Lydman, who was an appalling plus-32 (the league lead was plus-33 (Zdeno Chara)). Lydman did the rest too, as he had 141 hits and 178 blocks. That block total was bested only by Beauchemin for the Ducks, who also had 122 hits of his own. The biggest question mark in Anaheim’s top four will be Fowler and the commencement of his second season. Last year, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft lit it up offensively, scoring 10 goals and 30 assists. But the rookie turned in a minus-25 for the year, which screams of some liability. Granted, plus/minus is not the best stat to use to grade a player’s helpfulness to the team, but Fowler needs to cut that minus in half if his second season can be seen as a rightful improvement to a young career that seems to have no limitations.
After those four, the Ducks can probably feel comfortable rolling Luca Sbisa and Kurtis Foster as the third defensive pairing, but we’ll see if those two hold their spots.
Anaheim’s offense beyond the top line is worrisome if Selanne hangs them up. Centering that line is Saku Koivu, who while aging can still hold his own and at times show flashes of his previous self. But the fact that anyone is debating whether he or Andrew Cogliano will be the second line center kind of says a lot. And let me just say, it has to be Koivu.

Also in the top six is Jason Blake, who has never really lived up to the humongous contract he signed in 2007. Blake will count for $4 million against the cap for Anaheim this year before the Ducks will be out from under that one. He contributed 16 goals and 16 assists in 76 games last year. If Selanne does not round out the top-six, the Ducks may be inclined to increase the role of former Bowling Green Falcon Dan Sexton, whose scoring totals would need to increase drastically in order to soften the blow of a Selanne retirement from scorched earth to mere meteorite collision.
While I really like Anaheim’s defensemen at the top, I don’t think the Ducks have enough depth in any aspect of the game to get back to the top (or second) of the Pacific Division. And if Jonas Hiller is unable to resume regular starting duties, watch out.
4th: Dallas Stars 2010-11: 95 points, 5th in division
I discovered something while doing the research for this write-up: I actually like the Dallas Stars. I blasted them about a month ago for not trading Brad Richards, and while that has left them in shambles at the center position, they are actually above average at wing and on defense. Who knows what goalie Kari Lehtonen will bring to the table this year, but the former #2 overall pick certainly has the talent to also be above average, which I would call the top 15 goalies in the NHL (30 teams, but account for the fact that some use two goalies frequently).
Let’s start with the things I love about the 2011-12 Stars. If Sheldon Souray can give Dallas anything, literally anything, then he makes the Stars’ defensive corps good. Not above average, but good. How that translates to the goals allowed stat remains to be seen, but Dallas has every reason to trust its defensemen.
Stephane Robidas is one of my favorite players in the NHL. The guy had 216 hits and 135 blocks last year, as well as 30 points (17 on special teams) while skating 24:31 per game. He’s a fantasy gem for leagues that calculate stats like those — you know, stats that translate to on-ice team success. And now he’ll have a true #1 running mate in Alex Goligoski, who I touched upon in the preview of the Atlantic Division under the section on the Penguins, who traded the D man last season for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. More on Neal’s departure later. But Goligoski could be a game changer for Dallas.
The University of Minnesota product put up 46 points last season with both teams, skated 22:14, blocked 106 shots and played a quarterback-type role on the power play. Pittsburgh could afford to lose that latter aspect of Goligoski’s game thanks to already having Kris Letang, but the PPQB is something that Dallas needed desperately. Robidas can handle those duties, but he’s better off being the second most offensively talented defenseman on the ice.
Also on the blue line are Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Adam Pardy. One of the above will be the odd man out, unless it’s Souray. Daley and Grossman could start out the year as the second pairing. Daley had 27 points and 124 blocks last year while skating over 22 minutes; Grossman hit 161 guys. Both finished last season a plus-7. I’ll admit my ignorance on Pardy’s game. He looks to me like the strongest candidate for healthy scratch-dom, but he’s got to have this $2 million cap hit for a reason, right? Either way, we’re debating third-line defensive pairings at this point, and I already like what Dallas has going on in front of that, so let’s move on.
The Stars are worthy of envy at the wings. Left winger Brendan Morrow is heading into his sixth season as the captain of the Stars, and his game is worthy of wearing the “C.” Watching him play usually makes me think of Clint Eastwood’s characters, which can only be taken as a great compliment. The guy does everything, complains about nothing, and has gold medals for Team Canada from the 2010 Olympics and 2004 World Championships. He has only the Stanley Cup left to join the Triple Gold Club, although I don’t think there’s any way that happens in Dallas in 2012. But, the Stars may be on the right track if they can add some centers.
Aside from Morrow, the Stars have a couple wingers with great hands who actually make that translate into scoring goals. Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn are supremely talented offensively. Having these wingers, specifically Benn, is the biggest reason the Stars could afford to trade away James Neal in order to get that much needed defensive piece in Goligoski.
The biggest question will be whether Benn and Eriksson will have a center who can set them up, or if they’ll be added to the class of Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and all of the other sharp-shooting wingers who had to do it alone. It should be noted that neither Nash nor Gaborik will have that continued excuse anymore. Perhaps Benn and Eriksson will become the new poster boys for that club.
A guy who looks like he should be able to score with Benn and Eriksson is the freshly crowned champ, Michael Ryder. The enigmatic right wing seems to have all the tools but none of the consistency, as he has yet to reach the 60-point mark since his rookie season in 2003-04. It could be that we overrated his talent, or it could be that scoring in the 50s is a perfectly acceptable output for a second-line forward. But Ryder failed to approach even that number in his last two seasons in Boston, amassing only 74 points while playing all but three games since puck drop ’09. That’s an average of 37 points, and Dallas will want (need?) at least 10 more than that this year if they want to finish third in the division and have a shot at a return to the playoffs.
Below these four, Dallas has a couple wingers who can play center in Steve Ott and Vernon Fiddler. Both are good on faceoffs and physical in open play. The Stars may need one of them to center the second line, as they really have nobody after top center Mike Ribeiro thanks to the free departure of Richards on July 2 to New York. Dallas also has tough guy Adam Burish, who won the Cup in 2010 with Chicago and can be counted on to keep opponents from taking too many liberties on the rest of the talented Stars. Their lower lines are pretty much your stock NHL lower lines, although I really like Fiddler joining this team. He may play on the fourth line, but he tends to get things accomplished in his brief playing time. Watch him play and you’ll see how an average talent can make a career out of working hard and playing smart.
In goal, the Stars need Kari Lehtonen to just take ownership and get it done. He didn’t have the best team in front of him last year, but he certainly didn’t have the worst either. Lehtonen went 2.55 / .914 last year, good for 17th / 23rd in the league. There’s nothing wrong with having average peripherals while shouldering the bulk of the load for a team, but Lehtonen can do so much better. His career is starting to take a Van Wilder arc, as the guy with all the gifts who can’t seem to put it all together and ascend to world-class status. In his defense, last year was his first injury-free season since 2006-07, and there is still time for the 27 year-old to get the steady flow of games under his belt and show his improvement. But the time may be now, as he only has two years left on his contract at $3.55 million per, and in order to get another big one he’s going to need to play well.
Another reason he’ll need to play well is the lack of a competitive backup. Andrew Raycroft returns as the second stringer in Dallas, and while he’s fine, he’s not going to push for a sizable chunk of starts. I expect Lehtonen to start around 68 games, and I expect top 15 peripheral numbers at the least. Anything short of that, and the Van Wilder arc continues. Anything within that realm, and Dallas has an excellent shot at supplanting Anaheim and Phoenix as a playoff team out of the Pacific. Although, it would be nice if they could find the money (they’re around the cap floor) to go get a legitimate center.
5th: Phoenix Coyotes 2010-11: 99 points, 3rd in division
I spent the spring bowing down to the Phoenix Coyotes and lamenting fans and observers for failing to see the beauty with which the ‘Yotes played. So, I’m an idiot. The Coyotes sputtered, gave up the fourth seed to Anaheim (and fifth to Nashville), and were the only team to get swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Subtract the starting goalie, a top-line defenseman and my beloved Vern Fiddler, and I can’t see the Coyotes getting back to the playoffs for a third straight season.
The biggest bright spot on the team might be defenseman Keith Yandle, who skates smoothly and distributes the puck with precision. He had a cool 48 assists last year along with 11 goals, putting him at the A-table as far as offensive defensemen go in the NHL today. Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin are serviceable top-four defensemen who can get their hits in. Aucoin can still contribute some points despite having just turned 38. Morris added 136 blocked shots last year.
It appears as if the fourth piece is going to again be Michal Rozsival, who was alright splitting time last year between the Rangers and Coyotes. What’s staggering is his $5 million cap hit this year. Either pick up your defense, pick up your scoring, or skate the hell out of some minutes. Rozsival was in the low 100s in hits and blocks last year (100 and 108), scored 21 points and only skated 21 minutes. Those are fine numbers for an NHL defenseman. That’s actually chipping in. But at $5 million, the Coyotes need a lot more from the man who has seen a decline in his play since signing that big four-year contract that is finally set to expire next summer. The Coyotes are rolling out this top four after losing Ed Jovanovski to Florida last month. Jovo was a big reason why the Coyotes qualified for the playoffs two years in a row.
Shane Doan led the Coyotes last year with 20 goals. Somehow, a team that had only one 20-goal scorer managed to place 8th in the west in total offense. This offense-by-committee squad of forwards is mostly returning, with the exceptions of Eric Belanger and Fiddler. Phoenix added lower-line forwards Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon. Center Martin Hanzal is a Doan-like player, and should be fun to watch in his fifth NHL season. But in total, the Coyotes would need another season of contributions from everyone in order to stay afloat, and with the loss of Jovanovski I don’t think the team is more apt to create scoring chances. Then again, maybe it’s time for BizNasty2point0 to take his rightful spot on an NHL team’s second line…
…And we’re back. On top of needing at least the same offensive output, the Coyotes might need substantially more offense to win games given the loss of starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. They brought in Mike Smith from Tampa Bay, who had a really great end to his season, but I’m not positive that being able to string together some heady starts as the bona fide backup translates into certainty that Smith has figured out the mental side of being an everyday starter in the league. He had countless opportunities to be just that in Tampa Bay before Steve Yzerman decided that they needed to trade for Dwayne Roloson in the middle of last season, but Smith never consolidated any of his breaks. I will say he looked like a calm man this past spring, and I hope he has finally figured out what he needs to do to be consistent in the league, but I don’t think anyone can be certain that he has. Even if he has, how is a consistent Mike Smith automatically an equal to what Bryzgalov has given the Coyotes over the past few years? It’s not automatic, probably not even likely, and so I guess I have to continue to be a skeptic.
All things considered, Phoenix looks to me like the best candidates for last place in the Pacific this season.

In a week’s time we will come upon the fifteen year anniversary of the Detroit Red Wings sending the Jets from Winnipeg to Phoenix.  Last night, Detroit may have returned the favor for the people of Winnipeg.

It has been widely reported that a move is in the works to bring the Coyotes back to Winnipeg this summer, and the franchise became the first playoff team to have its summer begin.  Last night’s 6-3 loss to the Wings in Game 4 solidified the series sweep for Detroit, and in many ways summed up a disturbing effort from the Phoenix team in general.  Last season, the Coyotes were the team every outsider joked about, as despite their third best record in the western conference, many were taking them the way the Seattle Seahawks were taken going into this past NFC playoff.  As posers, frauds, impostors.  Pundits assumed that the seasoned Red Wings, despite being the 5 seed and on the road for the series, would mow through Phoenix as any world-class former champion would brush aside an unknown amateur.  But the Coyotes showed their mettle in winning two of their three road games en route to a disappointing loss at home in Game 7.  Overall, the result was supposed to be encouraging.
Fast forward to this season and the Coyotes had no reason to think they were substantially worse than last year.  They found themselves competing out of the 6 seed, but they were involved in the jumbled mess that was the NHL’s western conference, and in fact finished tied for fourth in the west, but lost out to Anaheim and Nashville based on tiebreakers.  So this is a team that was one point from repeating as the 4 seed in the west and getting another crack at a home ice series, which would have been against their division rivals, the Ducks.  But instead, the Coyotes drew another matchup with the Red Wings, which based on last year could have been expected to go six or seven games and at least be competitive. But that wasn’t the case.  Not at all.  Only one of the four games did Phoenix lose by one goal, and that was only after spotting the Wings a 4-0 lead in Game 2 before coming back to make it closer.  Then, when they were on the verge of taking the first step last night in a 3-3 game with under 7 minutes to go, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov allowed an unforgivable goal to Dan Cleary which was shot from the corner of the rink and banked in off the Russian’s skate blade and into the net.  A goal like that screams of a lack of attention to detail, and who could argue that wasn’t the case after Bryzgalov closed the playoffs by allowing 17 goals in a four-game series to Detroit?  I understand that many people think the Red Wings are an elite team, but no goalie should carry an .878 save percentage through an entire series, especially a goalie looking to get paid this offseason.  
But Bryzgalov can’t be the only one to blame for this 4.50 GAA that the Coyotes lugged around with in this series.  There are so many clichés I don’t know where to start.  What about the goalie only being as good as the team in front of him?  What about the best defense being a good offense?  Let’s examine that one closer.  Over the course of the season, Detroit allowed 3.18 goals per game.  That number includes all of the games against bad teams too!  Phoenix brought a mid-level offensive year into the playoffs, one that saw them finish 8th in goals scored out of 15 western conference teams.  By this logic, Phoenix should have pretty much scored the average amount of goals on Detroit in this series.  But Phoenix fell short of this achievement by only getting 2.5 per game on Jimmy Howard.  If you want to adjust for the prevent defense aspect, or try to find out how many “meaningful” goals were scored, you’ll find that over the first three games of the series Phoenix only scored two goals that either a) gave them the lead, b) tied the game, or c) brought them to within one.  The other five goals that Phoenix scored in those first three games only brought them to within two or three goals.  I know all goals count the same, but we also know that situations are different, and the scoreboard often times determines how a team will play.  All in all, not a good showing by the franchise, and it almost looked as if they knew they were getting out of town soon.  I still like Doan and the core of young players like Hanzal, Yandle and co., but this effort was not good enough.
On the flipside, this result couldn’t be better for the Red Wings.  Of all the teams that could perennially use some playoff rest, Detroit could almost always use it the most given their reputation as the AARP champions.  While I have always thought the age thing was a little overblown concerning the Red Wings, I do think that in today’s NHL, rest is paramount.  There was a time when it was debated as to whether it was better to go into a series rested or fresh off a highly competitive victory.  But given the fact that the face of the league hasn’t played a hockey game in nearly four months, I don’t think there’s ever a reason to want to have to play more hockey than you have to in order to win.  And it’s not just Sidney Crosby.  Concussions have become the new black in American sports.  Throw on top that the Red Wings are awaiting the return of triple gold club member Henrik Zetterberg, and it makes no sense to argue that the team would be better off risking an injury to another player just to gain some faux sharpness.
I know that Detroit fans are predisposed to hating long waits in between series given the disaster that was the 2006 World Series, which followed what seemed like a month of the NLCS, but knowing what we know about the physical toll of playoff hockey tells us that Detroit could not have put themselves in a better position to prevail in round two than by doing what they did against Phoenix in round one.  There is no question that the Red Wings have been preparing for a second round battle with San Jose ever since it became apparent that they would finish 2nd and 3rd in the west, respectively.  Detroit went into last year’s second round matchup with the Sharks coming off that hard fought seventh game against Phoenix, and that was only after having to battle late in the year to even make the jump from 9th place late.  What resulted was a tired showing by the Red Wings, as they dropped the first three games by one goal apiece, and were eventually downed in five games.  Detroit knew it would have to go through San Jose to get where it wants to be, and they also knew that going into the series beat up and “tested” got them nowhere last year.  In fact, the Wings may even be lucky enough to see the Sharks be the ones who get beat up a little in a long series with the LA Kings, but that hope may have gone out the window when LA blew a 4-0 lead in Game 3.  Not sure if they can mentally come back from that disappointment, and tonight’s game will probably determine whether this is a breeze of a five game series for San Jose, or if this series will become a strong candidate to go the distance.  The Red Wings are hoping for the latter.

I’ve tried to put it off, but now it’s time to take a stand on the series that is nearest and dearest to my heart.  The Red Wings won 4-3 Sunday afternoon at the United Center, and in doing so, set up a first round rematch with the Phoenix Coyotes.  Hockey fans remember last year’s classic seven game series that lacked very many classic games.  In fact, only Game 1 was decided by one goal, and only Game 3 was decided by 2 goals.  There were four games that saw a winning margin of three goals, and of course Game 7 that saw the Red Wings win 6-1 in the desert and move onto the western semis.  So while we have a tendency to romanticize a series that goes the distance, last year’s really wasn’t that riveting in terms of third period tension and consequence.  Neither team got to test themselves in more than one nail-biter, and perhaps it showed in the following round when Detroit dropped all four of its losses to San Jose by one goal apiece.  So what can we expect to see this time around from these two teams.

For one, we might be able to expect a lot of goals again.  Phoenix came in at only 6th among these western playoff teams in goals scored, but that might be offset by Detroit’s conference worst 241 goals allowed (worst among playoff teams — no sense in evaluating teams already eliminated).  Additionally, Phoenix has gotten some of its key offensive players back from injury; players like Martin Hanzal, Lauri Korpikoski, and Vernon Fiddler — all of them centers.  Another player the Coyotes will be “getting back” is team captain Shane Doan.  No, Doan isn’t coming off injury, but remember that Doan was injured early in that Detroit series last year, and was unable to return.  Many pundits pointed out that had Doan not suffered the injury, Phoenix likely would have been the team moving on last year.  At the other end, Detroit was one goal shy of the NHL lead, while Phoenix’s defense was just like its offense, 6th of 8.

The Detroit yin to this healthy yang for Phoenix has to be the recent injury to Wings center / left wing / Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg.  Hank has been officially ruled out of Game 1 Wednesday night, but I have to think this leg injury could keep him out longer than just one game in this series.  Obviously not having Zetterberg in the lineup hurts Detroit on both sides of the rink, but what’s worse is not having Zetterberg for these home games that the Wings are “supposed” to win.  Detroit has always shown an ability to win road games and certainly coach Mike Babcock sets the tone for taking things one game at a time, but one has to wonder if these aging and defensively poor Red Wings can rely on coming back in a series against a team as physical and playoff-starved as the Coyotes.

Most people’s default solution to the Zetterberg injury is that Pavel Datsyuk must step his game up to compensate for Hank’s absence, in a role reversal of sorts from the two injury stints for Datsyuk during this regular season.  But I don’t think that’s really the key.  Datsyuk is brilliant nearly all the time, so there’s really not a whole lot of room for improvement to his game.  What’s more important is that the other forwards on the team must play more disciplined and not turn the puck over.  Additionally, defensemen like Jonathan Ericsson have to take the training wheels off and start playing up to potential.  Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski cannot play 40 minutes a game, so it’s the lesser lines that need to stand up and be accountable for their results.  Outside of Brad Stuart and the aforementioned Lidstrom and Rafalski, I’m not sure the Red Wings have any healthy defensemen that would incite confidence in anyone other than their opponents.  This is something that has to change, not only in Zetterberg’s absence, but also after his return if this team is to go any deeper than five games into the second round against San Jose.  But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

I think this series will hinge upon the results of Games 3 and 4.  I want to foresee the Red Wings holding serve at home to open the series, but I simply don’t.  I think there is some danger that the Coyotes may snatch both games at The Joe, a la Vancouver in 2002.  But like any sane person sitting on the fence, I’ll assume a 1-1 series by default.  Therefore it will be on Detroit to impose its will and clean up its game when the series shifts to the desert and the Jobing.com Arena is in full white out mode.  If Detroit is able to win one of those two games, I think we are looking at a seven game series, and one in which I will take the Red Wings to pull it out again.  But if Phoenix is able to make its return trip to the Motor City with a series lead, I don’t think this Red Wings team is good enough defensively to come back and win three games in a row.  On the same hand, I love the physicality of this Phoenix team, as well as its rock solid starter in net, Russian olympian and playoff stud Ilya Bryzgalov.

So to review, if it’s 3-1 then I’ll take Phoenix in six.  If it’s 2-2 I’ll take Detroit in seven.  As I am a Red Wings fan, you can adjust for bias as you will.  Puck drops in 26 hours, cheers.

We have made it to the final day of the NHL’s regular season, and there’s only one game on the menu that means anything.  Unless it turns out a certain way, and then we’ll have one more game that means everything, but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

I’ll quickly recap Saturday’s action by saying that the eastern conference playoffs are all set up, with the following first round matchups:

#1 Washington vs. #8 N.Y. Rangers
#2 Philadelphia vs. #7 Buffalo
#3 Boston vs. #6 Montreal
#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Tampa Bay

Saturday also solidified much of the order in the western conference, but the bottom half of the seedings are still dependent upon today’s outcome of the Detroit @ Chicago game.  That game starts at 12:30 and is on NBC.

I want to talk about that game, and why we could possibly expect a less than hard fought win for the home team.  There are a few things that shout at me as to why Dallas’ dreams will be crushed before they take the ice tonight in Minnesota, which of course is to say that I think Chicago seems to be a good bet today.

First, the Blackhawks need to win.  Yes, it is true that needing to win does not always guarantee it (see Carolina last night), but in many cases late in any sports season, the team teetering on elimination usually plays with its hair on fire and rises to the level of the situation.  Just as Carolina did not last night, the Rangers actually did in the first place.  And just as Chicago has or has not, Dallas has completed 75% of its “win out over the final four games” scenario laid upon it just a week ago.  On top of that, Detroit became locked into the 3 seed late last night when San Jose took two points in their final game against Phoenix, and put themselves three points clear of the Red Wings.  Throw on top of that the recent injury to center/winger/probably-emergency-goalie Henrik Zetterberg, and most logical observers would agree that the level of intensity and desperation should be higher on the Hawks’ bench than the Wings’.

But of course, necessity isn’t everything, and sometimes a team is presented with a “win and you’re in” scenario and they just… gasp… lose!  So why won’t the Red Wings win today’s game?  Well, I believe there is another, probably bigger reason that nobody ever truly wants to talk about.  The reason is this: by winning today’s game, Detroit would be forcing itself into a matchup with a team that it would rather not play.  Simply put, if Detroit loses this game, it allows Chicago to jump to the #5 seed and thus push Nashville down to #6 and into a matchup with the Wings.  If Detroit beats Chicago today though, be it in regulation, overtime or shootout, the result would be the top 6 spots remaining as they are right now, and the dreaded matchup with the ultra-physical Phoenix Coyotes.  Now at this point you may be laughing, and saying that I’m an idiot for insinuating that the Detroit Red Wings franchise would ever be afraid to play the Phoenix Coyotes.  But I’m not interested in bravado, I’m interested in facts.  Fact: the last three times these franchises have played in the playoffs, it’s been in the first round and gone at least six games. Fact: of the four games this year between the two teams, the only one decided in 60 minutes was the Coyotes’ early season 4-2 win at Joe Louis Arena.  Fact: last year the Red Wings barely escaped with their skins, needing a Game 7 win on the road over this talented team that was a whole year younger back then.  Suffice it to say that I don’t think the best matchup for an aging team with suspect defending statistics is a team with offensive skill and speed at every position and a lockdown goaltender that is playing for an extra million dollars or two (per season) come July 1.

Now, there are obvious counterpoints to my argument that Detroit is much better off playing Nashville than Phoenix.  First, Detroit went only 2-4 against Nashville this year, with the latest victory coming in overtime.  Yes, but that latest victory was the one where Mike Babcock called a timeout trailing 3-0, and the Red Wings went on to steal that game 4-3 to clinch their playoff spot a week ago.  So, maybe that’s worth a game and a half?  Mental edge…?  The second obvious counterpoint is that one shouldn’t openly fear Ilya Bryzgalov while dismissing a matchup with Vezina contender Pekka Rinne.  I admit Rinne is fantastic, and deserves to be in Vegas when Tim Thomas edges him out for the Vezina, but it’s more about what I don’t see from Nashville’s forwards that makes the decision to lose today easy.

Had Nashville not finally given in to the most obvious logistical trade of the season and acquired the talented / physical cross-bred center Mike Fisher from Ottawa, I don’t think there would be a single forward on the team that would strike fear in any defender’s heart.  They have guys that are good on their best nights, guys like Erat, Hornqvist and the like, but the consistency has not been there, and it shows on the scoresheet.  Nashville’s 219 goals are tied with the anemic Kings for lowest in the western conference among playoff teams.  And as far as Detroit’s poor defense this season (most goals allowed of any western playoff team), what’s the best way to hide this deficiency?  Well, to go against a team that cannot exploit it, of course.  And of the two options that Detroit has in the first round, Nashville is less likely to be able to exploit Detroit’s poor defense than Phoenix is on a seven game basis.  The Predators simply turn in too many off nights offensively, and this should lead to probably two wins for the Red Wings that they might not have had otherwise.  This is invaluable in an NHL playoff series, and don’t think for one second that Babcock and the rest of the Red Wings, from brass to fourth liners, aren’t aware of the implications today.

With all of that said, as a Red Wings fan I would love nothing more than to see them knock Chicago out of the playoffs with a win today.  If Detroit does win in regulation today, then Dallas will lace them up at Minnesota at 6 p.m. with the very same “win and you’re in” scenario that Carolina and Chicago will have let slip away.  I think that game will probably be very tricky for Dallas, since there’s no way they’ll be able to go the afternoon without keeping their eyes on the scoreboard (or blatantly on NBC).  They should know by about 3:00 if they are eliminated or not, and we’ll assume they won’t be for these purposes.  I mean I really don’t want to break down a scenario where both teams in a game are eliminated going into the game; it would just be a waste of time.  So assuming 3:00 rolls around and Dallas gets word that their game at the Xcel Center is for all the marbles, they would have to fight off that innate human urge to start checking each other through the walls of the locker room and search for the nearest liquor shop.  So many times when we are presented with this ultimate situation of one more game to realize our goals, we start envisioning the accomplishment, and not the actual way that it will be accomplished.  Jarome Iginla said that was his mistake entering Game 6 of the 2004 Finals that got away.  Just last week Matt Howard, the senior forward for Butler’s incredible basketball team, told his teammates in the hallway just seconds prior to taking the floor in the final game, “Don’t think about the national championship. This is the last time we will play together.”  While that statement was true because they were a college team, and there’s no reason to think the October 2011 sun won’t rise for the Dallas Stars, there is a sense of this maybe being the last time they get to play with their best player, center Brad Richards.  And what’s more important is that the Stars follow Howard’s sentiment to not think about the playoffs, but instead to think about dismantling the Wild.  I’ll go on record as saying that if Chicago does drop today’s game in regulation, I do believe that Dallas will be able to get their minds straight and complete their week-long mission and win their fifth in a row to close out the 8th seed.  But I’ll also go on record and say that I don’t think it will come to that, and I expect Chicago to take not just one, but two points from today’s game against the Red Wings.

Either way, it makes for an interesting final day of hockey, and sets up the most exciting time of the year for hockey fans worldwide.