Playoffs in the Wild, Wild West

The participants and schedules have been set for the playoffs. In the West it’s anybody’s guess as to who will come out on top. At least six of the eight teams make fans and commentators alike say ‘they can give you a run for your money.’ It will be fun to see how it all plays out but here is a match up comparison of what each team does to win and what could prevent them from advancing on.

San Jose and Colorado:
The Sharks are sitting in the number one seed in the West, second overall to the Capitals. This series will start in San Jose on Wednesday.

San Jose:
To Win – The Sharks showed us why they are to be feared. Their top line of Marleau, Thornton, & Heatley have great chemistry; pressure obviously did not get to them as they performed consistently for Mike Babcock and Team Canada in the Olympics. Stepping up when Sidney Crosby couldn’t find the chemistry on his line with Iginla and Nash. Stepping up when Luongo was shakey and Brodeur was too slow. Even when they didn’t score their hustle was noticeable and the pressure they brought can wear down the defense and goaltender. Not to be outdone the defense of the Sharks steps up when need be. Former Kings and Avalanche player Rob Blake now captains this team. Blake known in Colorado for his quick one timers and ability to pinch up. While he only has seven goals this season his veteran leadership and big hits are nothing to discount. For the Sharks to win they need their offense to keep producing and their defense to help their goaltender out.

Biggest Concern – Nabokov needs to do well. In this match up he doesn’t have to stand on his head but he does need to be solid. The Avalanche have beaten this team before so it can be done. Naby will be facing fewer shots than usual so he needs to be sharp when he does face them.

To Win – Sacco will need to find a way to keep the energy up in this young squad. Most have never played this many games or in games that every one is do or die. Their advantages are that they gave Craig Anderson some rest, their young guns turn it up when least expected, and that many are discounting them.

Biggest Concerns – Duchene and Mueller are both currently injured. Duchene played against Edmonton and suffered an upper body injury. He may not be back in time for their Wednesday game. Mueller has been out since Sharks’ Captain and Defenseman Blake took him out without the puck. Mueller suffered a concussion and has yet to return to the ice. The defense has to keep a healthy balance of pinching up and playing smart. Too many neutral zone turnovers against the Ducks highlighted true weakness in defense, namely Adam Foote.

Summary: The Sharks shouldn’t underestimate this young team but they should be able to advance. If the Avalanche win it’s because they did everything right and something broke down on the Sharks side. Anything less than amazing won’t get the young team from Colorado far in the playoffs.

Chicago and Nashville:
All season long the Predators have gotten it done. Few paid attention at the beginning thinking that Nashville had little chance to get to the playoffs. The Preds refused to listen and have quietly been winning and playing worthy of their playoff spot.

To Win – The Hawks have been playing well all season. They need to keep doing what they have been doing well. Aggressive playing serves this team well. When they are playing their game they can punish the other team and their goalie. The firing power they have on this squad means defensemen and goalies need to be worried about the shot coming from any angle. In this case it may be best for the opposition’s goalie to not only play the puck but to know where the players are on the ice at all times as well.

Biggest Concerns – The Hawks are their own worst enemy. When they get a good lead they can sit on their skates. When other teams are breathing down their neck they can squeeze their sticks too tightly. As long as they play their game they can move forward.

To Win – In order for the Preds to eliminate the Hawks they need to do a few big things. First is to stay close in the games to create pressure on the Hawks. The second is to be aggressive: At All Times. Playing it safe could get the Hawks in trouble. Therefore the Preds need to be one step ahead and refuse to play it safe (still play smart just not timid). Give Niemi a run for his money by pressuring him as much as possible without getting frustrated when he does stop them. If they can get Niemi pulled it would signal a huge victory for the Preds. While both Chi goalies are great making Joel Q apprehensive about his goaltenders is a good sign.

Biggest Concerns – If the Preds can put the pressure on the Hawks they need to watch out for Toews. The patience he has on the ice is incredible. Another unsung hero of Team Canada the young forward was plus-10 for the tournament and never seemed to play irrationally or hurried. His calm on the ice can save his team if they ever falter.

Summary: Nashville could pull off the upset if they refuse to give up. Chicago has a history of blowing huge leads. They can get too comfortable with their lead and start to play more defensive hockey. If this happens the Preds need to play some gritty, hardworking, no frills hockey. Crash the crease, screen the goalie, take as many shots as possible, forecheck and be aggressive as possible.

Vancouver and Los Angeles:
While Vancouver sits in third place due to divisions the two teams are not separated by many points. The Kings have two solid goaltenders they can rely on. If Quick isn’t getting the job done Ersberg has stepped in cold and closed the door. The defense is not only good in their own zone but are quite effective at scoring as well. Whether it be during regulation, overtime or shootout the Kings D have stepped up big time.

To Win – The Canucks have Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin and his twin brother Daniel to put the points up on the board. Jack Johnson of the Kings is unlikely to forget the playing style of his Team USA teammate Ryan Kesler. The Canucks have great components they just need to be firing on all cylanders to pull this off.

Biggest Concerns – We’ve said it before but the biggest concern for the Canucks is goaltender Roberto Luongo. If he plays well they are fine. If he has a game where he let’s in eight goals like he did the last time against the Kings they are in trouble. His defense will definitely need to be playing well this series as well.

To Win – The Kings are a gritty team with all the necessary components to make a serious run for the Cup. They have two goaltenders they trust, defense that can score, and offense they can make pretty goals look as effortless as garbage goals. If the Kings can make Luongo unsteady they can take this series. If they can get past Luongo then Raycroft should not be a huge hurdle for this team.

Biggest Concerns – Against this team their biggest concern is to play their game. If they can play hard for 60 minutes every game they should have a good shot at advancing.

Summary: Luongo could win or lose it for this team. While the Canucks have a great overall team this isn’t the Olympics. He won’t have eight other captains to pick up his slack. He better prove he was worthy of that Gold Medal or Vancouver will be golfing in one week.

Phoenix and Detroit:
The Cinderella Story and the team everyone loves to hate. The David and Goliath of this conference. While Colorado might be the eighth seed the Coyotes have had the season no one expected. After six seasons of failing to make it to the post season playoff dance the Coyotes let the NHL know they didn’t want to go anywhere. Detroit had a mediocre season start by their standards. Many discounted them but some knew better than to think this team wouldn’t be making its 19th consecutive playoff appearance. Post Olympics both teams had hot streaks. The question remains: Will it be the team that had all the odds stacked against them or the storied team with 11 Cup victories?

To Win – Bryzgalov needs to keep doing what he does best i.e. Stand on his head to give his team a chance to score. Stempniak and Wolski need to continue their hot streak since being traded and their defense needs to stand guard. This team has to be patient and aggressive at the same time while playing smart. They have to make sure they do not give unnecessary opportunities away. They need to keep calm and keep their hands loose.

Biggest Concerns – The defense will have it’s hands full everyone from Bertuzzi to Franzen. The biggest mistake is to underestimate them. Their offense needs to play smart and fast. Allowing Detroit time to get in position kills their chance of scoring. This needs to be a high energy, fast paced game.

Red Wings:
To Win – The Wings have many advantages. Experience in playoffs and win or go home series for one, persistence, solid goaltending, great coaching, and very impressive players. Though ranked lower than the Coyotes the Wings are favored. If they play like they have all season they may be more than the Coyotes can handle.

Biggest Concerns – The Wings shouldn’t underestimate this team. While experience and talent do a lot there is much that heart and will can do. Never discount a desperate team, and make no mistake Phoenix is desperate.

Summary: Coyotes will have their hands full but it’s not impossible. This may be the first round match to watch. If Phoenix can win on home ice and keep it close at Joe Lewis they have a shot. If they can get past Detroit the next will seem anti-climatic.

My predictions?
Sharks, Hawks, Kings and Wings will move on. Kings will take out the Sharks and the Wings will fall short to the Hawks. If the Hawks go to the finals they’ll lose in 6 or 7 and the Hossa curse will continue.

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