By Sean Hartnett
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Yesterday, I brought you my Eastern Conference NHL opening round playoff predictions. My surprise pick was the Capitals knocking out the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in seven games. I’ve got a few more surprises up my sleeve as I examine the other side of the bracket.
We’re a day away from start of the playoffs and I’m ready to share my Western Conference first round picks and ultimate Stanley Cup champion. Let the debate begin…
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
The Canucks edged out the Rangers and Blues for the Presidents’ Trophy, finishing with a league-best 111 points. They’re a very well-balanced team who can win in a number of ways. Vancouver is equally skillful as they are physical and ranked among the top six in powerplay and penalty kill percentage among NHL clubs.
If there’s one thing that worries me about the Canucks, it’s their over-reliance upon the Sedin twins. Their second line went cold down the stretch and Ryan Kesler must find his game and inspire his line-mates. Otherwise, Vancouver is staring at a first round exit.
On the other hand, Los Angeles struggled to find offense for the majority of the regular season but began to rediscover their scoring touch toward the final weeks of the season. Captain Dustin Brown caught fire down the stretch and on paper, there isn’t any reason why the Kings can’t match offensive firepower with the Canucks.
I don’t see the Kings as a team blessed with the top-to-bottom depth of the Canucks but what they do have is more ‘game breakers’ such as Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Justin Williams and Jeff Carter who was acquired days before the trade deadline.
Kings’ net-minder Jonathan Quick led all NHL goaltenders with 10 shutouts and has been touted as a favorite to capture the Vezina Trophy. While Quick has undoubtedly enjoyed a fantastic season, I don’t think the blue-liners in front of him are given enough credit.
Together, Quick and his defenseman will make it difficult for the Canucks to score. I see Quick outplaying Roberto Luongo and Los Angeles doing enough offensively to pull-off a major first round upset.
PREDICTION: Kings upset Canucks in 6 games, 4-2.
(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks
The Blues were everyone’s favorite ‘surprise team’ during the regular season but their success is a marriage of young players coming into their own and a strong veteran core.
Obviously, the goaltending of Brian Elliott was a big reason why the Blues chased the Presidents’ Trophy down the stretch but Alex Pietrangelo established himself as one of the best two-way defensemen in the league. Along with Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis possesses the two best young defensemen around the league.
The Blues can shut down a team like no other as evidenced by their NHL-best 165 goals against. I’ve always viewed the Sharks as the most overrated, one-dimensional team year after year.
Sure, San Jose’s powerplay was 2nd-best in NHL but the Blues handled them all season. In addition, the Sharks’ penalty kill percentage was an ugly 76.9%. They ranked 29th overall, narrowly better than last-place Columbus.
When matched-up against San Jose, the Blues swept the Sharks 4-0 in the season series. The Blues only surrendered 3 total goals against the Sharks in their four meetings and I expect this playoff series to be much of the same.
PREDICTION: Blues defeat Sharks in 5 games, 4-1.
(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks
This series is all about the goaltending. Mike Smith had a breakthrough season for the Coyotes and demolished his career-bests with 38 wins and 8 shutouts. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford regressed as his save percentage took a significant dip compared to last season.
Neither team excelled on the powerplay during the regular season. The Blackhawks ranked 26th overall and the Coyotes were a horrendous 13.6%. Phoenix only finished a single percentage point above last-place Dallas.
As a whole, the Blackhawks were poor on special teams in 2011-12. They ranked 27th out of 30 teams in penalty kill percentage. On the other hand, the Coyotes were 8th-best in the NHL on the penalty kill.
The key for Phoenix is to suffocate Chicago’s scorers. They don’t have enough offensive talent to beat the Blackhawks in a ‘track meet.’ Outside of Radim Vrbata and the ageless duo of Ray Whitney and Shane Doan, their aren’t many natural scorers on their roster.
Chicago isn’t as deep offensively as they were in years past but Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp all are capable of taking over any series. The Blackhawks will also be boosted by the return of inspirational captain Jonathan Toews. Still, I see Smith and the Coyotes being able to stifle the Blackhawks enough to squeak past them in a tight series.
PREDICTION: Coyotes edge Blackhawks in a 7-game thriller, 4-3.
(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
The Predators do not possess a 60-point scorer on their roster but their offense is deceptively-good and shouldn’t be overlooked. Nashville’s powerplay was best overall in the NHL at a percentage of 21.6% and Shea Weber is an unstoppable force with 10 powerplay goals.
Weber is a Norris Trophy favorite. Along with fellow blue-liner Ryan Suter, they can shut down any down any top line. They’ll have their hands full with Detroit boasting two quality scoring lines but goaltender Pekka Rinne can win games on his own. Rinne led all NHL net-minders with 43 wins and is capable of raising his game when the pressure is at its highest.
The Red Wings aren’t the dominant group they used to be and are battered by injuries. Many of their stars are playing through injuries. Legendary captain Nicklas Lidstrom is hampered by a bone bruise in his ankle, Jimmy Howard has struggled with groin troubles and Darren Helm is expected to miss half of the series.
That being said, Detroit is still very tough to beat at Joe Louis Arena. They went 31-7-3 at home but were a two-faced team on the road with a 17-21-3 away record. Rinne will be outstanding and push the Predators past the Red Wings and take Nashville deep into the playoffs. Mark my words.
UPDATE: Red Wings confirmed that Helm will play in Game 1.
PREDICTION: Predators defeat Red Wings in 6 games, 4-2.
I couldn’t do my East and West predictions without sharing my eventual Stanley Cup winner and Conn Smythe playoff MVP. Are you ready?
Eastern Conference Finals: (1) Rangers defeat (4) Penguins in 6 games, 4-2.
Western Conference Finals: (4) Predators defeat (2) Blues in 7 games, 4-3.
Stanley Cup Finals: Predators edge Rangers in 7-game classic, 4-3.
Conn Smythe Winner: Pekka Rinne of Nashville Predators
Who’s your Stanley Cup favorite? Feel free to share your own predictions below and debate my picks. Send your tweets and feedback to @HartnettWFAN.