April 09, 2008

W16, Western Style

This is the conference that the vast majority of pundits and predictors expect the Stanley Cup winner to come from, and I'm no different. Assuming there aren't, say, four or five upsets the team coming from the West is simply going to be better than the Eastern champion. The coaches strive for strong team play and cohesive systems, relying less on stars and more on style: getting through any of them is going to be a challenge.

But then, there's a reason they play the games...

Organized in order of what I think will be the worst-to-best match ups to watch:

Western Conference

Anaheim vs. Dallas

On the attack: The Ducks play a low-scoring, grind-it-out game, and are quite happy with 2-1 wins. The only player to reach the point-per-game mark was Getzlaf, though Selanne came close with 23 in 26 games, and the rest are far behind. They are delighted to goon it up, having eight players with more than 80 minutes in penalties, hoping to intimidate any team they play into coughing up the puck when they apply a hard forecheck. Their most important line is arguably Moen-(Rob) Neidermeyer-Pahlsson, perhaps the best shut-down squad in the league. Dallas, on the other hand, got 40 more goals than Anaheim during the season, and employ 10 players with 10 or more goals this season, led by Captain Morrow's 32. Advantage Dallas.
On the defense: What could be the best one-through-four in the league anchors the Ducks' blue line, with two Norris winners, a frequent runner-up, and a young stud. They contribute much of the scoring, such as it is, but the easily-distracted Pronger can get his team in penalty trouble early and often. Dallas has a perpetual runner-up for the trophy themselves in Zubov, but after that there's a lot of defenders of the "quietly effective" variety. The nod goes to Anaheim here.
Last line: The Ducks have complete faith in Giguere, often leaving themselves open to odd-man rushes when the defenders go for a low pinch or big hit. Their faith is justified, as Giguere's .922 save percentage shows. Turco showed his playoff mettle last season, losing in the first round despite getting three shutouts, Dallas' only wins. No advantage.
Specials: Anaheim is surprisingly mediocre on special teams, with the 12th best penalty kill and 20th best power play. The Stars come to the series with the second best kill and 13th best power play, but will have to be careful of the Ducks' eight short handed goals... Advantage Dallas.
Need to know: Anaheim can get into tremendous amounts of penalty trouble... so long as opposing teams don't start diving. They're happy to take the punishment if it means reducing their enemies to trembling wrecks who hear footsteps whenever they have the puck.
Prediction: It's going to come down to Richards, and the reason he was acquired from Tampa Bay: his Conn Smythe trophy. He needs to come through, and big, but this is the wrong team to try that against. I'm expecting Anaheim to get through.

Detroit vs. Nashville

On the attack: Detroit seems to be built on impressive pairings, and the first of them is Zetterberg and Datsuyk. They both hit personal bests in goals and points this season, and have a lot of offensive support behind them. Nashville has some scoring too, with young players maturing into starring roles. Bonk apparently decided to go from carving a career out as a "defensive specialist" to being a "mediocre scorer", getting 14 goals but also a stunning -31. Advantage Wings.
On the defense: Lidstrom (70 points, +40) and Rafalski (55 points, +27) are the next pairing the Red Wings rely on. There's the eternal Chelios, of course, and Kronwall available to pick up any offensive slack. On the Predators side are four remarkably similar D-men (some points, slightly undersized) and Weber. They are young and improving, and with luck will make a good show of themselves this playoffs. Detroit gets the nod here.
Last line: Third pairing Osgood and Hasek - though it's a little tough to determine which is actually better, both picking up 27 wins while allowing 84 goals. Ellis has taken the starting role from the incumbent Mason, and is going to get the lion's share of facing Detroit. He says he's happy to start... Ask again nest year, but this time it's Detroit.
Specials: Detroit was 3rd on the power play, and 8th on the kill. Nashville was 27th with the extra man, and 3rd one down. Nod to Detroit.
Need to know: Nashville's a scrappy team - if they can irritate Detroit into retaliatory penalties, they just might squeak this one out. The consideration here is Detroit's experience: they know what's at stake, and aren't likely to make mistakes at this time of year. Advantage Detroit.
Prediction: Red Wings.

Minnesota vs. Colorado

On the attack: And here's where the idea that there are few exciting players in the West falls down: Minnesota's Gaborik is worth the price of admission on his own. On the down side, Rolston is the only other player to have more than 16 goals. For the Avalanche, it's worth noting that they have at least four players whose points-per-game increase come the playoffs, and that doesn't include leading scorer Stastny, who has yet to make the playoffs. Even so, this is a surprisingly equal match offensively... until you consider that four of Colorado's top offensive players had considerably shortened seasons, and they're all healthy now. Advantage to the Avalanche.
On the defense: You could say that every player on the Wild is a defenseman, but to be specific Burns has taken a leading role, contributing 19 of his 43 points to the power play. He'll have to keep that pace up, as two of the top four defense are out for the first round at least. Colorado has added Salei to shore up their blue line attack, where only Liles managed to get over 30 points. They also brought Foote back, making Theodore that much happier. Injuries give the nod to Colorado.
Last line: Speaking of Theodore, he's playing far better than he has for the past two seasons. He's confident, battle tested, and looking to prove himself this year. Backstrom, despite a slightly shaky mid-season, is well in form for the playoffs, and wants to last more than one round. Advantage (narrowly) to the Wild.
Specials: Colorado had a lousy power play, finishing 28th, and a bad penalty kill (21st). Minnesota ended 7th on the power play and 4th on the kill, as befits a Lamaire-coached team. Advantage Wild.
Need to know: Neither team is particularly physical, but neither one shies away from the tough places on the ice. This should be a fast, fun series, but if there are panalties taken, Colorado is going to be dead in the water.
Prediction: Minnesota. I think.

San Jose vs. Calgary

On the attack: Where Thornton leads, the rest will... Well... Hobble along best they can, it seems. Thornton produced almost as many points as the next two Shark players combined, and that's not a good thing. Their real strength may be from their Rissmiller-Grier-Brown combination shutting down opposing forwards while chipping in enough goals to be the difference. The Flames will counter with the second best forward in the league, but after Iginla's 50 goals, there's Langkow's 30 and Huselius' 25, numbers the Sharks can't match. Advantage Calgary.
On the defense: Rivet has been the year-long anchor for the Sharks, but the newly-acquired Campbell has been driving the power play, getting 12 points there in the 20 games he's been with the team. San Jose's biggest concern is getting the puck away from Nabokov and up to the forwards. Calgary's Phaneuf leads mostly a shut-down crew with a power play specialist in Aucoin, and they'll play any game you like. Advantage Flames.
Last line: Kiprusoff has been joined by a much more humble Joseph, both as a reliable back up and as a reminder that he can be replaced at any time (Keenan is not a subtle man). He's over his usual bad start to bring a .920 save percentage from the past month into the playoffs. The Sharks will be leaning on Nabokov (and his 6 shutouts) again, but more importantly on their tighter defensive style to get out of the first round. Close call, but advantage Calgary.
Specials: San Jose had the best penalty kill in the league, and the 8th best power play - thanks in large part to Campbell's arrival. Calgary had the 19th best power play, and the 20th best kill. Big advantage Sharks.
Need to know: The Sharks are a snake-bit team when it comes to the playoffs. In theory, they're the favorite; but if they lose early, they could collapse like a balloon at ten fathoms from the pressures of fan expectations.
Prediction: Flames, but it will take a while.

Hokay, there they are! I fully expect to be right on, say, half my total predictions. I ind of hope not, though: the surprise keeps things interesting.

Next time out, I'll try to figure out why the teams that didn't make it failed. In some cases spectacularly. Should be fun!


posted by Thursday at 7:56 pm


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