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Western Conference Playoffs

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.

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.

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.

The time has come for the NHL to drop the puck for the 2011 playoffs.  Staged against the backdrop of springtime in North America, the playoffs have always conjured feelings of rebirth and instantaneous nostalgia that few other things on earth can.  Looking at these playoff matchups and storylines should provide us all with even more of those personal struggles between wanting to stay in the moment and appreciate what we are witnessing, and the real-time tragedy of realizing that each passing second is one that we can never live again for the first time.

Speaking of needing to be present and forget about tragedies past, let’s start in the west with the matchup between the current holders of the Presidents’ Trophy against the current holders of the Stanley Cup.  The Blackhawks made it in by the skin of their teeth and the relentless effort Sunday night by a scorned Minnesota team, whose radio announcers kept italicizing the fact that the new Minnesota team (the Wild) was smashing the dreams of the old Minnesota team that skipped town in the ’90s (the Dallas Stars).  While the backstory there is somewhat intriguing, the result of that game set up this first round series that couldn’t carry more intrigue heading into Game 1.

The Vancouver Canucks wrapped up the league’s best record some time ago, and have adopted that well-known attitude of Stanley Cup or bust that we have seen so many times over the years.  And for good reason — the Canucks have never lifted the Cup.  Outside of hitting the post behind Mike Richter with five minutes to go in Game 7 in 1994, they have never been close.  But this lack of reaching the brink can be excused by the fact that Vancouver has never really been on the short list to win any season’s title.  Sure, they’ve won some divisions and gotten some high seeds, but they’ve never had the complete team that they boast today.  Much of this newfound status as favorites can be attributed to the growth and development of the Sedin twins, who have now each led the league in points one of the last two years, and may in fact end up taking home MVPs for each season as well (Daniel’s main competition for this season’s MVP appears to be Anaheim’s Corey Perry).  Last season saw Daniel hurt for much of the time leading up to the playoffs, and despite Henrik leading the league in points, nobody really thought the 3rd-seeded Canucks should have defeated the #2 and Stanley Cup favorite Blackhawks.  In seasons prior, the Sedins had not quite reached the level that they are at now, and so those disappointments can be understood.  But not this year.  There is not a team in hockey that the Canucks could go against where people will say, “Gee, I really don’t think Vancouver can match up with this opponent over seven games.”  It’s not going to happen.  The excuses will not be there this time. Vancouver has to achieve this spring, or face the wrath of a fan base desperate to see the dividends of a decade of investment, and so far, disappointment.

There are a lot of pundits out there calling for another series victory for Chicago over Vancouver, and claiming that this is the worst possible first round matchup for the top seeded Canucks.  I completely disagree.  I think this is a golden opportunity for the Canucks to turn around this apprehensive undertone that the fan base seems to carry around, always worried about who the next failure is going to come against.  Some say the Blackhawks will be flying around, liberated by the relief of qualifying on the last day.  I think they’re an 8 seed with a rookie goaltender.  This is not to say Chicago is bad, but why shouldn’t Vancouver be the team flying around and playing with the focus of a team in the collective zone?  They are essentially the younger brother who has spent the last two years getting beat up by the older sibling, but now wakes up and finds themselves actually bigger and stronger than the older one.  They should feel like this is a golden opportunity to exact some payback on their scrawnier, vulnerable tormenter.  And I think they will.

Another reason I like this matchup long-term for Vancouver is because many times a great team sets the tone for a Stanley Cup run by fighting through a tough first round series.  Sure, sometimes there are teams that are just too good to be bothered by lower seeds, and end up running through their first one or two series en route to a Cup.  But many times we see early tests for eventual champions.  We saw it last year in the example that everyone is using this week, the one about the Predators blowing a Game 5 lead late in Chicago to Patrick Kane’s shorthanded tying goal.  But this now clichéd example is proof positive that a first round slugfest can invigorate a squad.  It can force them to get out of their own heads and leave them with no choice but to press onward.  Not only did we see it with Chicago last year, but also with the team they beat in the finals, the Philadelphia Flyers.  Sure, the Flyers mowed through New Jersey in the opening round, but their liberation came in the second round against the Boston Bruins, when they used two goalies and a lot of grit to wipe away that 0-3 hole they found themselves in with respect to both the series and Game 7 individually.  Once that happened, there was no doubt in the locker room that they would handle Montreal.  And although the Flyers did not win the Cup, they did dig themselves out of an 0-2 hole in the finals against the Blackhawks, although they ultimately dropped the next two games.

My point is, go big or go home.  That sentiment perfectly applies to these 2011 Vancouver Canucks.  Either they are going to beat the defending champs and their personal beaters early, or they will go home and fail in a huge way.  But at least they won’t cruise through one or two easy matchups only to find themselves in the conference finals untested and increasingly nervous and unsure of their true quality.  This draw allows the Canucks to forget about the talk, avenge the past, and just play hockey.  I think the Canucks do just that, and I peg them for a series victory in either five or six games, depending upon whether they hold serve in the first two or not.  If they do, I’ll give the Hawks the usual Game 3 coming home down 0-2 victory that many capable lower seeds win.  If it heads to that Game 3 tied at 1, I still think the Canucks will be able to show their true quality and fight through a victory (or two) in Chicago, bring the pain at home in Game 5, and close out in 6 if necessary.  Yes, the Hawks would host a Game 6, but let’s not pretend this Chicago team is world beaters at home this year.  In fact, Chicago has a one game better differential on the road than at home this year, and remember they almost let the playoffs slip away Sunday afternoon by losing in regulation to the Red Wings at home.

Coming soon will be my analysis of the upcoming rematch between those Red Wings and the Phoenix Coyotes, as well as a much shorter piece on the unpredictable 4-5 matchup between Anaheim and Nashville, and a couple sentences on San Jose’s exhibition series with the beat up and offensively anemic Los Angeles Kings.  Puck drops is 27 hours, cheers.