2012 NHL Western Conference Playoff Predictions
It has finally come! The 2012 NHL playoffs! The most exciting (yes I’m probably quite bias) games in major league sports. The season was full of surprises, let downs, and everything in between. We had teams make it to the playoffs that “shouldn’t have”, and teams that “should have” missed the mark entirely.
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings
It’s funny, even after locking up the president’s trophy, winning the division, having an all-star roster, and losing their top goal scorer, the Vancouver Canucks are still one of the least talked-about teams in the west. Luongo has been on a short leash to young phenom Cory Schnieder, which will be huge in considering the first two games in Rogers arena. Offensively, the Canucks are an interesting team. Though they boast some of the best numbers in terms of total goals, they still have some undefined line combinations, speaking to Alain Vigneault’s exceptional talent of organizing lines. The Canucks have Henrik Sedin, Alex Burrows, David Booth, Ryan Kesler, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Mason Raymond, and perhaps Daniel Sedin depending on his health. Combine that with the sharp goaltending of Roberto Luongo and Alex Edler’s dominance of the Canucks blue line and this is still a very potent team that could make a run to the cup.
The Los Angeles Kings started the season off pretty well but slid all the way through the all-star break. Jonathan Quick essentially carried this team to the playoffs, something that was necessary with the Kings stagnant offense which only mustered 194 goals the entire season, the second fewest in the league. Though they were poised to solve that problem with the addition of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne in the offseason, it seems Los Angeles is still where talented forwards go to die (Kopitar being the exception). Los Angeles, though throughout the season had a virtually nonexistent offense, still has plenty of weapons. The deadline addition of Jeff Carter gives the Kings what should be one of the more dangerous offenses in the league with Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, and citywide disappointment Dustin Penner. If these guys can actually produce, the Kings can make a series out of this. The strongest point in L.A? Jonathan Quick. End of story. He’s been their best player far and away and will need to absolutely rob the Canucks blind to even have a shot of winning this series.
Game Changer: Mike Richards will have to be the dynamic, catalytic player he was signed to be if the Kings are going to have a shot of winning. It doesn’t matter how good Quick plays if the Kings don’t ever score, and Richards has the ability to make players around him better. He captained a team to the Cup final with Philadelphia and will be counted on to make the Kings the cup contender they are designed to be.
Prediction : Vancouver in 5-6, probably 6. I think Quick is just good enough to make this series interesting but Vancouver is just too good for him to steal four games.
#2 St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks
St. Louis boasts an incredible tandem of goaltenders in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Both players are the top 5 in GAA and shutouts, with Elliott being second in the league with 9 shutouts in only 38 games. Elliott also leads the league in GAA and save % with a 1.56 and .940 respectively. Their combined 15 shutouts was the most since Tony Esposito did it in the 1969-70 season. St. Louis however, goes far beyond their goaltending. They have a very balanced scoring approach, with David Backes leading the team with only 54 points. They have nine players with double-digits in goals, not to mention their very capable offensive defense corps including Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Carlo Colaiacovo.
The San Jose Sharks were a team that no one really expected to struggle. True they let go of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, but they got back a good puck-moving defenseman in Brent Burns and a good defensive forward with some offensive punch with Martin Havlat. Joe Thornton (77 points), Patrick Marleau (64 points), Ryan Clowe (45 points), and Brent Burns (37 points) all had average seasons by their lofty standards. Antti Niemi is as he has always been in San Jose, good but certainly not looking like the Stanley Cup winning goalie everyone got used to seeing in Chicago. Overall this is sort of an undefined team that faced a ton of adversity throughout the season and still is struggling to find an identity.
Game Changer: Joe Thornton of San Jose will be counted on as captain to help lead his team. All of the Sharks have good playoff experience though all of them have at times struggled in the playoffs. They know they’ll be facing two very tough goalies to score on so Super Joe will have to be counted on to be the catalyst for this potentially deadly offensive squad.
Prediction : St. Louis Blues in 5 games. St. Louis owned the Sharks in the regular season, which certainly doesn’t say everything but can be a positive indicator. If Halak and Elliott play anything close to the way they played all season long, they will be the team to come out of the west.
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#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The big question in Phoenix at the beginning of the season was whether or not Mike Smith could be as good as Ilya Bryzgalov. Truth is, he wasn’t. He was better. If Philadelphia is where goalies go to die, Phoenix is where they go to rise up. Smith carried this team, especially the last couple weeks of the season, into the playoffs, not unlike Bryz the past couple of years. Smith has 8 shutouts and a gorgeous .930 save percentage which helped earn his team their first division title ever. Ray Whitney had a great season too with 77 points, Radim Vrbata broke out as a premier goal scorer with 35 goals, Shane Doan was as reliable as he’s ever been with a respectable 22 goals and 50 points, and Keith Yandle, though struggling at times, still put up 43 points. The rest of the Coyotes were good defensively for the most part and still helped maintain a somewhat balanced scoring approach.
The Chicago Blackhawks were a team that sort of felt, in my mind, that they gave away a little too much last year and tried to make up for it. They signed some grit in Danny Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, and Sean O’Donnell, and added some offense with Andrew Brunette and rookies Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger. The Hawks’ biggest problem this season was their goaltending. All year long there has been a debate between Corey Crawford and Ray Emery over who should be the starter. Both men have made good cases at some points in the year but neither one really played that well. It looks like it will be Crawford once the playoffs start, but honestly I don’t really think he’s that good. If the Hawks can get Jonathan Toews back, and I think they will, they might make a series out of this.
Game Changer: Jonathan Toews will have to first come back from a concussion, then lead his offense against a stingy defensive team with a hot goalie. He has been heralded as one of the best leaders in the game today so he’s going to need all of his skill, determination, and leadership to have any hope of scoring goals against the Coyotes.
Prediction: Coyotes in 6. This is just a classic case of a good offensive team vs. a good defensive team and defense most of the time wins. Chicago has enough skill to bring this to 6, but no more, and it will be an easy 6, the series will not really be in danger for Phoenix. ‘Course I could be completely wrong.
#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings
The Nashville Predators are the deepest team in the league offensively. People talk about the defensive skill of the Predators, and with good reason, but we too often forget that this is a team that scored the ninth most goals in the league (237). They have ten players with double-digits in goals, and that’s not even counting post-trade-deadline “pickup” Alexander Radulov. With the excellent goaltending of Pekka Rinne, who has the most wins in the league, this is a team that could win the Stanley Cup, that is, if they get out of the first round.
Detroit was uncharacteristically streaky this year. They put up a new NHL record 23 straight home wins in a row, but also suffered two six game winless streaks. Both Zetterberg and Datsyuk started slow, but have bounced back and appear quite ready for the playoffs. Jiri Hudler, Johan Franzen, and Valterri Filpulla all picked up some of the lacking offense especially in the middle of the season. Nick Lidstrom was as reliable as ever, though not quite Norris-winning quality. Jimmy Howard really carried this team through the beginning of the season and seemed poised to beat Martin Brodeur’s single season wins record before succumbing to injury. All in all, this is a Detroit team that is not quite as talented as they have been in years past, but still play a Detroit style of hockey. Mike Babcock breeds a winning team, no matter what.
Game Changer: Shea Weber has been the unquestioned leader in Nashville for several years now. He will be counted on as captain to lead his team perhaps as more of a favorite rather than an underdog. Count on Weber to play close to 30 minutes every game between shutting down Detroit’s top players and stepping up with Nashville’s offense.
Prediction: Nashville is just so deep this year, it’s tough to see them losing to anybody. Its been said that you should never bet against Detroit in the playoffs, and usually I wouldn’t, but the Preds are so darn good I’ve got them winning in 7 games.
By: Jonathan Bloom
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer